Images of Salvation and Ethics

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

My previous post, Biblical Images of Salvation, opened up a considerable body of thought and writing that I have been preoccupied with for at least four decades. At first, I was enamored with image-oriented biblical studies in general, but in recent decades I have focused this kind of study more specifically on the study of salvation and ethics. What I found was that this approach to biblical study did not allow for the artificial separation of the experience of salvation and the commitment to follow Jesus as a disciple. As I see it, this rift in evangelical thought – which is most pronounced in its fundamentalist wings – has had a devastating effect on the integrity of the movement as a whole.

In his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World, Ron Sider summarizes the results of numerous national polls, including the Gallup Poll and one done by the Barna Group. He notes that, “In survey after survey it becomes clear that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general” (13).

In their book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Mark D. Baker and Joel Greene say that in our rush to acquire the “cash value” that came from Jesus’ suffering – as the penal, substitutionary atonement theory does – allowed us to disregard Jesus’ call to discipleship. “Jesus’ suffering is effective, not exemplary; it is ‘for us'”(27). Apart from allowing my name to be moved to the correct side of God’s legal ledger, the cross has little significance for faith and life, aligns neatly with American individualism, and does not really inform our understanding of church, ethics, and discipleship.

So the standard, theological approach to salvation and ethics in most evangelical circles finds convenient ways to sideline Jesus as being relevant for social ethics, or as we could say, discipleship. There is a marked preference for focusing on the writings of Paul over the Gospels. The value of the Gospel accounts basically rest in proving to us that Jesus was an appropriate, sinless sacrifice that God required to appease his wrath against sinners. In The Politics of Jesus, John H. Yoder describes this notion as follows: “How the death of Jesus works for our justification is a divine miracle and mystery; how he died, or the kind of life which led to the kind of death he died, is therefore ethically immaterial” (8).

In this view, Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God are not taken seriously and the Sermon on the Mount is easily relegated to a future millennial era. But in his book, Provocative Grace, Robert Morris asserts that “In contrast to other visionaries of his day, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God in almost entirely immediate and relational terms. The Kingdom of God is among you” (35). How, then, could it be so easily disregarded?

Tom Sine discusses this issue in, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy; “When we look into the future all we see is the world ‘going to hell in a handbasket.’ This singularly dismal specter leads many to conclude nothing can be done to alter the growing plight of the world’s poor, to change unjust economic structures, or to end human oppression. There is the feeling that, while such suffering is undeniably tragic, God intended it to happen and there is no point in our working to try to alleviate it” (70). Another way of articulating this perspective is to say that it is useless to rearrange the chairs on a sinking Titanic: focus instead on the lifeboats.

While much more could be said, this review is enough to illustrate how evangelicalism’s primary focus on an escapist concept of salvation, with discipleship in the way of the Kingdom as a secondary issue, has separated the concepts or salvation and ethics in an unnatural way.

But when we allow the images of salvation found in the Gospels to speak for themselves, we find that they naturally carry with them implications for discipleship.

One group of images of salvation most often found in Luke’s writings are related to the notions of repentance, turning and following – that is choosing to walk in new ways.

Another set of salvation images has to do with passing through a gate or doorway. These images emphasize the passage from one kind of life to another. Life is always different on the other side.

A third collection of salvation images rotates around the notions of being saved, bought, set free or rescued in order to allow us to live in ways for which we were created.

A final group of salvation images revolves around the concepts of light and darkness. To experience salvation is to walk in the light of God instead of groping around in the darkness of our own ignorance and fear.

Aside from these groupings of images there are many that stand on their own, each providing an added perspective or reflecting another facet of the diamond of salvation. To experience salvation is to be born again or born of God, losing one’s life to find it, drinking living water, eating living bread. It can also be finding peace with God, being washed clean, opening one’s eyes, becoming citizens of heaven or receiving a gift from God.

Our challenge is to keep looking through new windows or to rotate the diamond we hold in our hands to catch the fullness of its beauty. And always we will find ethical insinuations accompanying these images of salvation; an invitation to become “people of the Way.”

Our challenge is to find new ways of being Christian in the public square; to blend our notions of biblical salvation with biblical discipleship. Our prayer must always be, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven” and then help to make it happen.

A lot of preaching material here, I would say.