Salvation as commodity
John Wallis made some comments on the commodification of salvation. He raises some important issues. I’ve quoted his remarks here and added some reflections.
1. I’m not sure we have to blame Americans for the commodification of salvation. Maybe it’s a bit more extreme there, but you haven’t got a monopoly on it! Maybe the problem is that we have been so anxious to mass-market salvation that it has been dumbed down to the point of idiocy.
2. I agree that it is a mistake to remove the element of searching and struggle from the process of salvation. But does that mean that there is no turning point, no moment of conversion or decisive commitment? Otherwise what does baptism signify? What is the difference between having and not having the Spirit? To some extent it must be the seriousness of this commitment, with its abandonment of the past, its refusal to turn back, that counters the idiocy and superficiality of modern views of salvation.
3. If all things have been reconciled to God already, where’s the evidence? It can only be in some abstract future sense. But isn’t that precisely what you were complaining about - that we make salvation an insurance policy for the future? As far as the mission of the church is concerned (if we can speak in those terms), it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether everyone gets to heaven in the end anyway or not. Surely we are called to follow Christ for two reasons: to know God now and to serve the world - or something like that. And if God is worth knowing, then presumably a big part of what it means to serve the world will be to help others know him too. Is that getting too simplistic again?
4. We talk a lot about the struggle to know God, which is right. But what about the struggle to be ‘righteous’? It’s a rather old-fashioned biblical term. What does it mean for us today? It’s interesting that Paul’s encouragement to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ immediately follows the account of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation in Phil.2:5-11. It connects with his argument that they should ‘look to the interests of others’ just as Christ made himself of no account and took the form of a servant - to the point of death. This is not a struggle to know God but to live righteously - with the hope that if living righteously means death, we will be raised with Christ. OK, so it’s kind of morbid, but that’s the context in which these teachings were developed.
5. I think it helps to think quite concretely about what salvation is. What do we suppose people are saved from? Salvation for first century Israel meant salvation from divine judgment on the nation - concretely, from the disaster of Roman invasion, the destruction of the temple, the death of around a million Jews. Salvation for the early church was in part at least salvation from persecution, salvation from the corresponding judgment on Rome. It was also, of course, salvation from death, but even that was a much more immediate fear than it is for us. We hope to be saved from death, but isn’t that a somewhat remote concern? If so, then perhaps we need to shift the focus from being saved to following. Salvation then becomes important when following Jesus becomes dangerous.
6. I’m not sure I’m quite as optimistic about redemption. It still seems to me that the bottom line is death - dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Life after death must be utterly exceptional. We usually struggle with the thought that not everyone will get to heaven. Perhaps we should struggle with the thought that anyone should get to heaven at all. At least, I think it is important to keep in mind that the hope of eternal life arose under circumstances when the people of God were faced with severe persecution - the pressure to deny God, renounce the Law, etc. (I’m thinking particularly of Daniel 7 and 12). Resurrection is the reward for the ultimate loyalty of the righteous to God. Just a thought!