Am I sure that I am saved?
This (provocative?) question was posed by marhorse in the thread ‘What is the “emerging church”?’ This is by no means a complete or even a very coherent response, but the question is important and helpful - partly for personal reasons but also because it brings sharply into focus a critical area of contention between evangelicalism and emerging theology. For a personal statement of faith you could also have a look at ‘My (tentative) beliefs’.
My sense of still being ‘evangelical’ probably has more to do with personal history than with theological conviction, to be honest. I am in many respects a product of modern evangelicalism and probably share more of its presuppositions and shortcomings than I care to admit. But I have to say that my relationship to modern evangelicalism as an intellectual and cultural movement has always been strained - I simply do not believe that it gives an adequate account, either in theory or in practice, of what it means to be in continunity with the biblical narrative.
Am I sure that I am saved? I do not think that the Bible defines ‘Christianity’ fundamentally or centrally as a religion of salvation, and certainly not of the highly individualized personal salvation that is characteristic of modern evangelicalism; so I do not think that the question ‘Are you sure you are saved?’ really gets at the heart of the matter. I believe that the God who called Abraham has called me to be part of his own people, and that my inclusion in that people is a matter of grace and is a consequence of Christ’s death and vindication. It could not have happened without the victory over Israel’s sin, its alienation from God, the prospect of judgment, and the opposition of the powers that ruled over Israel, that - to my mind - is best captured in the story about the suffering Son of man who receives ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’ from God. This is a narrative of salvation but it is worked out primarily at a corporate level and it is set within a larger narrative of the calling or election of a people to be a place of God’s dwelling in the world.
So for me, as someone who was ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel’, what I have received from God by faith, as an outworking of his grace, is incorporation into a people in the midst of which the living God dwells through his Spirit and whose ‘king’ or ‘lord’ is the messiah Jesus. That ‘incorporation’ is my ‘salvation’, I guess you could say - it is what has made me whole, it has brought me into a new humanity, it has reconciled me with the living God, it has set me free from all other kingdoms - Christ is my king.
Am I sure? Why shouldn’t I be sure? I have been baptized into a worshipping community. I am part of that community. What’s not to be sure about? It’s like asking a footballer if he’s sure he’s part of the team. He’s signed the contract, he trains with the team, he gets paid by the club, he’s wearing the club strip, and he’s on the pitch playing, well or badly, with other members of the team. Of course he’s part of the team. In other words, the question ‘Are you sure that you are saved?’ reflects the over-subjectivized, over individualized bias of modern evangelicalism.
There is another reason why I hesitate to speak of a personal relationship with Jesus at the moment. I think that much of the New Testament language that suggests this (eg. Phil. 3:10) refers specifically to the experience of communities of believers that had to share in sufferings of Jesus - the sufferings of eschatological transition, the birthpangs of the age which has now come. This is a major part of the argument of The Coming of the Son of Man. Otherwise, I am rather inclined to think that the doctrine of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is almost as much a modern invention as the Catholic doctrine of the assumption of Mary. It may have been a legitimate and necessary reaction against rationalism and formalism, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of reinforcing modernism’s obsession with the individual ego.
I’m sure this is all going to sound far too complex, if not downright evasive - but in a way that is precisely the point. I think that we need to recover the complexity of the biblical narrative, the larger theological and historical context that must frame any narrative of personal ‘salvation’, and that inevitably resists the modern myth of individualism. My suspicion, marhorse, is that when you talk about holding to the Word of God, you are silently running it through a tightly controlled and restrictive interpretive grid that ‘modern evangelicalism’ has built into you. You’re welcome to object to that - and also to point out that we all have our interpretive grids. But that does not exempt us from the struggle to understand ourselves, our world, and the Word of God better.