Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Saved by Faith

My congregation, Saint Peter’s (, an ELCA affiliate in Manhattan, New York, is sending daily Advent devotionals to its email list this year. Today’s devotional starts out: “When we have something major coming up, we take inventory of where we are and what we need to do to get there. The coming of Christ invites us to the same kind of reflection. Of course, we don't need to worry about saving ourselves - we're saved by virtue of our faith.” This last idea, it seems to me, encourages us, as so many other devotionals do, to “just believe.” That is, we should exert an act of will to somehow accept a series of propositions necessary for our salvation. This, of course, places us in the center of the action; we are dependant on ourselves for our salvation. God demands that we believe, and we struggle to comply.
I think what this devotional should have said is: We are baptized. We don’t need to worry about saving ourselves because we’ve been baptized. Baptism is done for us; we don’t do it ourselves. It’s a gift.
But what is salvation? I bet most people immediately have the mental picture of getting into heaven after we die. That’s not wrong, but it’s hardly right either, because it’s about saving me, and, by implication, what I have to do to save myself to get into heaven. I have to be good. Not bloody likely. I know what I’m like.
Baptism’s gift, the salvation given, is freedom from fear. We have nothing to fear, because God loves us and is with us always. Freedom from fear can give us strength to do what is right. The fact that we so often do wrong is a sign of how fearful we remain, even while God remains with us and loves us. God always calls us to accept the gift of baptism: to live without fear. As we accept and live fearlessly, we are saved. Living fearlessly requires that we become conscious of our fear and let go of it. Our consciousness is our great ally. Pray to be granted the gift of consciousness.
But what about the unbaptized? Are they saved? Lots of ink (and blood) has been shed over this question, and the answer is of course. Of course, they are saved if, like the baptized, they live without fear. They just haven’t received the sign of baptism as Christians have, but the opportunity to live without fear is available to all.


Hershey Julian said...

Hershey Julien comments:
Pete, you invited comments, so I respond as follows:
1) To be saved is to live life as a kind, loving, gentle, forgiving, compassionate, peace-making person. It does not involved going to heaven after death, because there is nothing left of one to go to heaven after death. The idea of an immortal soul comes from Plato. It is not taught in Hebrew or Christian Scriptures, in which the only possibility of life after death is through resurrection of the body as a gift from God. Since there is no God to make that gift, one life is all we get, and we had better make the best of it.
` 2) "God loves us." There is no god to love us.
`3) What needs saving is planet earth and humanity living on it. If current environmental degradation is not reversed, human life on earth will vanish. The earth will continue and recover but without humans.
4) Go to to see what needs to be done.

Franklyn said...

I certainly concur with Mr. Julian and might add that living without fear comes about by living a life that is harmless and decent. For many of us the concept of God is unnecessary, but for many others it remains a way of organizing their thoughts and feelings. If it helps them I see no harm in it, as long as their God is a good God, doesn't demand exclusivity, conformity, or ignorance of the modern world. We all have our myths.

David Townsend said...

Pete, I think you've put your finger on one of the pressure points of classic Lutheran theology and preaching: that faith becomes a new work, unless it's understood relationally, as trust in a Thou, as opposed to propositional belief in an It.

If that trust is full, then the notion of "private" salvation hardly stands up: what's offered to me is offered to all, and if it doesn't depend on my response, then it doesn't depend on another's response, either. How can I believe that that trust is warranted for me, if it's not warranted for everyone else?

As for action in the world, then it's no longer about being "virtuous," in some hideously tight-assed, self-justifying way, but about living a life in sync with what I trust about my place in the world. Instead, being freed from fear, how could I not live a life of (always imperfectly) compassionate action in response?

The fetishization of propositional belief, along with the ongoing need for a Law that keeps even believers in line, is, within Lutheranism at least, an unfortunate consequence of the development of an orthodox Lutheranism in the later 16th and 17th centuries.

In response to previous comments by Hershey and Franklyn, as for the symbol we call "God", call it instead, if one wishes, one's Ultimate Concern, which one not only grasps but is grasped by, to be phenomenological about it. The point is that the courage to be, as Tillich named it, comes from beyond us.

Just as Buddism at its best doesn't get hung up about God or no God: Zen is the finger pointing at the moon, as the saying goes: don't look at the finger, look at the moon.

Pete M said...

Thank you very much for your excellent comment. I agree with what you say, but never underestimate the courage and fearlessness required to move even the most positive agenda ahead. In that regard, the effort against global warming is similar to that for health care reform: the right will fight it ferociously. It will take great strength of will to stand up to the onslaught.
I think that religion and “God” can strengthen many people’s resolve, particularly if they trust that “God is in them” and that “They are in God,” as in “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In “Jesus and Philosophy,” Cupitt touches on this when he points out that Jesus radicalizes Jeremiah and Ezekiel who proclaim that the law will be written on people’s hearts and God will take away people’s hearts of stone and give them instead hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus becomes anthropocentric and emotivist, changing ethics profoundly by secularizing ethics, historicizing it, and humanizing it. However, to question the Divine Law is to question God, especially God who is “outside” us. To the extent we act without fear and do what is right from within, rather than from outside pressure, we grow toward becoming the “Image of God,” what God would be like if there were God.

John H. said...

In Pope Benedict's first year, as I recall, he used the mantra in a number of his messages: Be not afraid. It resonates with me.
John H.

Pete M said...

Thanks for your comment. I don't often agree with Benedict, but you're right about his message. He does say don't be afraid. Good for him.

Kaji S. said...

Thank you for your post. Of course we're dependent on God for our salvation - that was the point, not that we have to do a
series of acts to save ourselves. That was never the message.
Kaji S.

Pete M said...

Thanks for your your comments. The brevity of the devotions works against a nuanced presentation of the thought. Maybe they should be expanded a bit to allow for more development.

Tom D. said...

Very insightful and also accurate I believe. Many would not agree with you. But I think that you touch upon an area which definitely needs more discussion and emphasis. Good work my friend!

Pete M said...

Thanks for your kind comment. The church has not used the resources implicit in the baptism very often. People could be shown that baptism provides a way of orienting their lives toward fearlessness. It's as simple as you are lovable and loved. Don't live small.

Pete M said...

Thank you for your very helpful comment. In today’s politicized religious climate propositional belief is what most people think of as religion. “It says right here in the Bible,” for example. Certainty is the ever elusive goal, but Bible worship seems to provide it for the religious right. No relationships there, just take it or leave it. Thanks.

Pete M said...

For those of us who are religious, developing a concept of a good God is an ongoing challenge. You indicate some of the characteristics of such a God. Thanks.

Alex said...

Hi there! The thing I have difficulty with in this discussion, I think, is the "clash of cultures" issue... salvation language, to me, brings a lot of theological baggage about heaven & hell, in groups and out, while this concept of salvation has none of that. What does being baptized, especially as an infant, have to do with living without fear?

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Pete M said...

Thanks for your comment. You write: “:What does being baptized, especially as an infant, have to do with living without fear?” The answer is, obviously very little if we mean only the act itself. Children are often “done” by their families because it’s expected by their culture. The occasion is soon forgotten, and baptism plays no role in the baptized person’s life after that. So, it cannot help the person live without fear.
What I was alluding to is an ongoing, daily remembrance of our baptism, as a sign that God is with us always, and that God loves us no matter what. Being loved unconditionally can give us the strength to overcome our fears and to do what is right. To remember our baptism is to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God we called on in baptism exists and loves us. Many times our lives work against trusting this possibility. A loving God seems absent from the world and, in particular, our world, so such trust may be difficult.
The helpful aspect of baptism and the daily remembrance of it is that it is an objective fact. It happened in this world, not in some otherworldly arena. And our remembrance happens in real time, also. So, baptism and remembrance are concrete facts in our lives. Although as we begin the practice of daily remembrance, it may require that we trust that God’s strength will come through it. However, giving ourselves in trust is what we do in every relationship, so building a relationship with God is similar. A relationship with a person can grow as we spend time with that person. A relationship with God can grow as we remember God’s promises in baptism. In trust, we act as if those promises are true and powerful. To the extent that we trust the promises, we overcome our fears.
I think the Advent Devotion from Saint Peter’s of December 9th puts this well:

Consider this: Have you lived by faith - real faith, as in the faith that God freely gives you - yesterday, today? Probably not. Just as God's free gift is true, so is it true that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. The work of God's new creation, while it has begun - and begun with a good and firm beginning in Baptism - is not complete. While not complete, the Baptized life is always before us. God gives us the ability to behold a vision of such glory in Jesus Christ. Look through the lens of faith, and you will see a vision of completeness. God gives such faith today and everyday. See it, experience it, feel it by remembering your Baptism, as Luther did: In the morning, as soon as you get out of bed, make the sign of the holy cross and say: "God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen." And then rely on it.