I’ve had these thoughts for awhile now, and I’ve struggled with how to put them into words. The reason for the struggle is because I don’t think I’m right. I think I’m close, but I don’t think I’m there yet. The reason why I’m going to go ahead and write this anyway is because of the conversations I’m in right now; and because I hope that in the process of writing them down, maybe I’ll be better able to think them through. I would also hope that anyone out there who reads this would maybe help me out too, give me some advice on which direction my thoughts should go.
It seems to me that the words “saved” and “Christian” are used synonymously; but I don’t think that they are. What first got me thinking in this direction was when I was struggling with whether or not knowledge of a person’s salvation should influence how we interact with them. I discussed that here. My conclusion was that it really doesn’t make that much of a difference, and really isn’t any of our business; instead we should put our efforts into being a sign post pointing toward God, without worrying ourselves about the place or direction of those who see us.
From there I started thinking about salvation in more general terms. It seems to me, as I read the Bible, that the bar for salvation is, at times, held very, very low; while at other times, it is held relatively high. In one instance Jesus says that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; in another, John says that anyone who sins does not know God and is not born of Him.
My attempt at reconciling these two seemingly contradictory ideas is to ask if there might be a difference between being saved and being a Christian.
In seminary, I was made aware of the idea that God saved all of humanity through the cross, at the cross; that in that moment, it could be truthfully said that we are all saved. To me, that means that all humans have been given salvation, almost by default, as it were, and must reject it if they don’t want it. Through life, God is present to us all in the Person of the Spirit, He is always and everywhere around us, and is making Himself known to us in big and in little ways. It is my currently held belief that this relationship with God enables us to recognize Him for who He is when we come to the final judgment. So, throughout life, we are walking through a process of, mostly subconsciously, becoming aware of who He is, and deciding where we stand with Him, whether we want to be with Him or not. For some, the presence of God becomes like a fragrant perfume, while for others it becomes the stench of death; largely because of who these individuals choose to be. We are all saved, but some of us, for reasons that I may superficially understand, but will probably never fathom, reject God and salvation of their own volition, knowing full well what they are doing. So, the bar for salvation is set very low: essentially, if you want it, and accept it, it’s yours.
The bar for being a Christian, however, is set much higher. Taking the name of Christ, in my opinion, should be a conscious decision to join Christ’s team, so to speak. We are laying down our goals and dreams and ambitions to take up the goals of the Kingdom of God. His goals are the freedom of the oppressed, sight for the blind, and good news for the poor. We are tasked with doing our best to make this world look more and more like God’s shalom, and less and less like Hell. Some have interpreted this as a call to enforce rules. I could not disagree more. The Kingdom of God is not, has never been, and will never be about rules. God’s Kingdom exists where His love is embodied; it is about loving one another, and about bringing peace into relationships. Now, the rules have been useful in giving us a guide as to what that Kingdom will ultimately look like, e.g. it is a place where people do not hurt one another, do not break trust, and sacrifice themselves for the love of their brother etc. But simply following the rules does not bring about shalom. It is a transformation of character through the grace and love of God that brings shalom, and we Christians are tasked with being the face, voice, hands and feet of that grace and of that love.
Of course, what this also means is that Christians deliberately and consciously commit to forego those behaviors that do not embody God’s grace and love. So, Christians do not murder, hate, lie, steal, commit adultery, profane what is sacred, etc. because you cannot claim to be a member of God’s team if you are consciously and willfully pursuing what is contrary to God’s will. This is where excommunication comes in. Surrounded by a culture that embraces harmful behavior and character; and seeing God’s purposes only dimly, it is easy for a Christian to indulge in actions that work against God’s shalom out of lust or ignorance. It becomes important, then, for Christians to help one another, and to hold one another accountable for our actions and our character. How can we claim to be the hands of God, if we are laced through and through with deceit, selfishness and hatred?
In a way, yes, it is unavoidable. We are fallible humans, used to living sinful lives; it’s not realistic to assume that we can just flip a switch and suddenly be shiningly sinless (at least not without the intervention of God). This, however, does not give us an excuse to just give up. The Catholic churches of Chile and Argentina learned this lesson the hard way when they allowed sin to penetrate into the highest ranks, allowing kidnapping, torture, and murder to go unchecked within its ranks. If this was the face of God to Argentinians, could anyone wonder if Argentinians were to decide that God was not love? What about priests, ministers, Sunday School teachers, and youth sponsers who have abused children? How are those children to look upon God after one who claimed to be the hands and feet of Christ abused them in such a manner? The word Christian means, literally, “little Christs,”if we are going to claim that name, then we cannot allow sin to go unchecked in ourselves or in other Christians. If you aren’t prepared to be held to that standard, then don’t call yourself a Christian. Say that you are a God-fearer, or a follower of Christ’s teachings, but don’t take His name unless you are prepared to walk the path He walked.
So, I think that there are some holes in this; and that not everything works together; and I’m not sure how this fits into my theology of the church, which I’ve talked about elsewhere. Even if everything did work together, though, I hesitate to say that there is a difference between being saved and being a Christian; and I hesitate to tell people not to call themselves Christians. I get this feeling in my gut that it is unfinished, and not quite accurate. What do you think? Where should we go with this?