October 5, 2014
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.
Do you ever find yourself among people who make religious statements that you really want to respond to, but know you can’t? You know you can’t because
the person is so convinced that he or she is right that anything you say will make no sense. Still, you really want to say something because what the person is saying is offers a perspective that you know just isn’t quite right.
I feel this way every time I hear someone say: “I was saved back in 2001 when…” or “ever since I was saved,…” Why would that bother me? I’m a Christian, right? Shouldn’t I celebrate those times when they were saved? It bothers me because what they are saying is not quite the biblical belief, nor is it a Presbyterian belief. We Presbyterians have a different understanding of when and how we were saved, and it’s an understanding that is rooted in our scripture for today: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
That sentence is a bit dense, but what Paul is saying to the Roman Christians is that God has chosen the gentiles (the non Jews) among them for salvation, just as God chose the Jews for salvation. Paul uses the word “election,” but it’s the same as “choice.” Paul is saying that salvation is based on God’s choice, not human deeds. Just because the gentiles haven’t lived by the law doesn’t mean that they haven’t been chosen by God. Salvation isn’t based on how well we adhere to the law. It’s based on how much God loves us. As a result, we were saved when God chose us, not when we experienced the effect of that choosing—when we had a “salvation” experienc. So for a Presbyterian, we would say we were saved when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, or when God chose us for salvation when God created us. But we would not say that we were saved in 2001 when we had an experience of God.
Still, many Christians persist in believing that they can put a date on their salvation. I experienced this a number of years ago when I did a wedding. At the reception I was put at a table with a bunch of other pastors and members of a Pentecostal church. Great people. Nice people. But their perspectives were not quite rooted in this passage. A conversation started about when everyone was saved. So everyone at the table started sharing stories of when they were saved. One pastor said that it was when he was a teen. Another, the music director of their church, said it was on New Year’s Eve in 1994 when he had an experience of God as a bass player in a band playing “Auld Lang Syne” at a banquet hall as everyone else popped corks and kissed each other. In that moment he sensed that God was telling him that he was shallow like all of the people drinking and kissing, but he did have the option of living a different life. I think his experience was real, but that was not the moment he was saved. It was just the moment God broke in and let him know what he was loved, saved, and invited to live a better life.
Everyone around the table kept sharing when they were saved, and I desperately wanted to tell them that they weren’t saved when they experienced their salvation. They were saved when God “elected” them—chose them. Fortunately, just as the person next to me finished sharing her experience, the best man got up to make a toast. I was saved!
Now let me be clear. I’m not against the idea that these people were saved, but I always want to jump in and say, “you weren’t saved THEN… you just became AWARE of your salvation then.” I then want to say, “you were saved when God chose you, and God chose you before God created you.”
The issue of salvation is actually part of a bigger issue that people have in terms of trying to figure out what they need to do to get into heaven. A lot of Christians and non-Christians worry about whether or not they are doing the right things to get into heaven. OR people can become very confident that they are doing the right things to get into heaven. The problem is that, according to Paul, we don’t have to do anything to get into heaven. Getting into heaven isn’t up to us. It’s up to God. God choses who gets in and who doesn’t, and God’s criterion isn’t our good deeds. God’s criterion is God’s love.
Presbyterians don’t worry about whether or not they are getting into heaven. We put the matter into God’s hands and trust God to make the right decision. We also recognize that all the best deeds we can to don’t get us into heaven because God doesn’t chose us based on our deeds. The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches this. The son, who took his inheritance and rejected his father, now comes back after squandering his money and having lived a life of desecration as a pig farmer. His father doesn’t reject his son. He embraces his son and restores him to his inheritance. The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of our understanding of God and heaven. God loves us despite our bad deeds.
John Calvin understood this idea. He said, “Scripture clearly proves that God, by his eternal and unchanging will, determined once and for all those whom he would one day admit to salvation and those whom he would consign to destruction. His decision about the elect is based on his free mercy with no reference to human deserving…”
Basically, Calvin is saying something similar to what Paul says in our passage: we don’t get into heaven based on good deeds. We get into heaven based on God’s loving choice to let us in. Presbyterians today also have a bit of a different understanding than Calvin in this way. He s was convinced that God chose some for damnation, not salvation, based on God’s whims. In other words, God sent some to Hell simply because God had chosen to do so. Calvin believed this because he was convinced that many Roman Catholics were going to Hell. Today we don’t quite share Calvin’s beliefs. We believe that God offers an invitation to all because God is love and God loves all of us. That doesn’t mean everyone accepts the invitation, though. God does give us the freedom to reject God. But even that rejection won’t keep God from loving and choosing us. We have faith that we’ve already been chosen, not because we’re Presbyterian, but because we know that God loves us.
Does this mean that Presbyterians don’t need to do good deeds because we know we’re saved? No. It means we try to do good things because we want to share God’s love.
I was struggling a bit this past week with how to give a good metaphor for this whole idea of what it means to live trusting that we’ve been chosen for salvation versus living so that we can get God to save us. I called up our associate pastor, Connie Frierson, to get her ideas, and she gave me a great metaphor.
She said that people who live their lives in pursuit of salvation are like people trying to shake God’s hand after a negotiation. They see the process of salvation as being like a negotiation with God where we say to God, “If you save me, I will do this, this, and this,” referring to all the good things we will do to merit salvation. And then we shake hands on the agreement, hoping that we don’t breach the contract.
Meanwhile, we Presbyterians have a whole different understanding of the handshake with God. We think of salvation as being like the handshake you give someone when you welcome her or him into your home. We greet God with a welcome, and invite God to come in and share God’s love with us. We are inviting in a cherished guest who already loves us and wants to be with us. So our handshake is a welcome, not a negotiation.
Here’s the thing, in the end we Presbyterians know that we have been loved and chosen since before we were created. As a result, we don’t spend our lives trying to get God to love us so we can get into heaven when we die. We spend our lives trying to let God’s love work through us so we can share heaven in the world because we’re now alive.