Salvation, according to at least one major stream of Christianity, requires one to stay in the good graces of a spiritual hierarchy, and to perform certain rituals.
According to another major stream, salvation requires us to believe certain things, then to confess them… to be saved by holding to our beliefs. The emblematic scripture for this model is a passage from Romans:
And note that this model specifies a belief about Jesus, that he is Lord.
In contrast to these models, Jesus wasn’t interested in us bowing down or conforming. And as we noted earlier, he tossed out hierarchy altogether.
What Jesus wanted was for us to become better in actual substance, growing like the seeds, plants and fruits he refers to so often.
What matters to Jesus are the real and essential. All hinges on actual substance. The only thing that matters is what you are and what you become.
Now, before I get into what Jesus taught on salvation, I again want to apologize for throwing hard material at you. I’m trying to find less challenging ways to say these things, but when the actual substance is drastically different than reigning beliefs, there aren’t many easy ways.
So, I’ll just get right to it, and give you the passages where Jesus talks about people coming to him and his Father:
Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.
No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.
All that the Father gives me will come to me.
In all of these cases, enlightenment from the Father is the one and only path to salvation.
People have sometimes interpreted these passages as teaching “predestination” – that God chooses before we are born who will or will not be saved – but Jesus says nothing like that. He says that everyone who isn’t drawn by the Father will be “rooted up,” not that they were doomed in the first place.
To Jesus, then, what we term “salvation” necessarily begins with a personal, internal enlightenment.
It is of some interest that this model continued in the Jewish version of Christianity, but not in Paul’s version. I say this because in one of the few extended passages we have from the Jewish group we see a direct restatement of this model.
In about 130 AD, a young Roman student of philosophy named Justin (known later as Justin Martyr) was walking along the Mediterranean in the region of Syria and ran into an old believer, departing Judea. This man was old enough to have known some of the earliest members of the original “Way,” and Justin recounted the man’s discourse afterward. (It was the fundamental pivot of Justin’s life.) Please pay close attention to this passage:
But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His messiah have imparted wisdom.
This is the same salvation belief as that of Jesus. It is a belief that centers on what I call “the spiritual instinct,” or “the transcendence instinct.” Being enlightened and /or changed on the inside… by the opening of the gates of light… from the Father. This, to Jesus and to the Jewish Way, was the root of salvation; the only possible root of salvation.
And the old man saying, “pray above all that the gates of light may be opened to you” was likely related to Jesus saying “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.”
Salvation to this group, then, was not doctrinal, it was actual. It was not something Jesus or the Father would recognize and reward. Rather, it was something that he had planted in them; it was present and growing upward.
I know this is hard to take, but I am also convinced that a great number of Christians have in fact been “drawn by the Father;” have been internally enlightened prior to, or in the process of learning about Jesus. I am not saying that billions of Christians are in an unsaved position.
Rather, I’m saying that Jesus didn’t focus on “salvation” – a concept he seldom used – but rather on enlightenment and growth. I’m sorry if that sounds foreign (he didn’t really say “enlightenment” either), but if we look at what he actually said, and don’t overrun it with what other people said, this is what we find.
Parsing The Text
Salvation is a very difficult concept, so I think it’s worthwhile to go through some of the specifics briefly.
First, the meaning of the word used for “salvation” is “to make safe” in a very broad sense. So, to be saved can mean a number of things, such as the many times Jesus told a person who had just been healed that their faith had “saved” them.
We should also remember that even in a strictly modern light, the meaning would have been something like “attain to the resurrection.”
Now, while parsing the text, I should be clear on another point: I do not hold the Bible to be perfect and literally true, but neither do I hold it to be useless. I think the all-or-nothing imperative of much modern Christianity is a failing, both intellectually and psychologically.
That, however, is a separate discussion and you can find it in the by now much-aforementioned Discourses on Judaism, Jesus And Christianity. It’s available at low cost.
Suffice it to say that the idea of a pristine transmission of Jesus’ words is simply false. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t.
In the recordings of Jesus’ words, the passages that are most authentic are his town to town teachings. Not only do these hold up well under analysis, but they are teachings that Jesus’ students heard over and over… repetition assuring that they were better retained.
These “town to town” teachings were really the essentials, and Jesus certainly thought so himself. His core message was the one that would improve the people of Galilee and Judea, so that they could, in turn, improve the world. The rest was addressed to certain people and situations, as adjuncts to his mission at best.
I do have a set of Jesus’ sayings that I think are extremely solid, and I will include them as an appendix to this text. I think you’ll find it uplifting to have a collection of Jesus’ sayings, separate from all other commentary. And, as I think it’s worth pointing out, the first Christians used precisely such collections of sayings. It was many generations before they had New Testaments.
It’s presently beyond our ability to define how a belief will affect any specific individual. Still, we can do fairly well at seeing how things tend to affect people. We may all be different, but we’re not that different. And so I’d like to look at how these three major models of salvation affect us. That is, what they teach us about ourselves.
The hierarchy and sacrament models teach us, first of all, that we are second-level spiritual beings. That is, we get our spiritual materials second-hand. This is not necessarily an insult – it is expressed as a difference in vocations and not as a difference in proximity to God – but it nonetheless leaves most of us dependent upon other humans.
To some significant extent, then, this model trains us to be creatures of hierarchy, surrendering the operations of our minds and wills to a system. We learn to obey the system more and trust ourselves less.
This self-mistrust, I maintain, keeps us from growth and advancement. It also helps to create huge hierarchies that end up not only rising and falling, but spawning horrors from time to time. Sadly, people trained to believe hierarchy is God’s way are frequent participants in those horrors. History makes that much clear.
The believe-and-confess model likewise teaches us to devalue ourselves, but in a different way. It not only presumes, but aggressively teaches, that we’re all damned to torments on our own. We are, according to God, hopeless beings, reliant only upon his mercy. That’s not a good self-image.
More than that, it trains us to wait for a magical future event, not driven by us, that will finally make us better. And that teaches us not only to bypass personal development, but to mistrust our ability to improve and grow.
True, there are a few teachers who will talk about being glorious creatures “in Christ,” but they are first of all a minority, and secondly don’t seem to hold to those teachings very well. The inertia of the great mass of Christianity tends to pull them back to more mainstream doctrines.
And this also is a primary issue: Doctrines. The “believe and confess” model presumes that you’re believing the right things to start with. This, sad to say, has misdirected and injured Christians since the first century.
Doctrine is brutally divisive, and overcomes love both quickly and easily. Almost anyone who has seen a doctrinal fight has seen that much. Further, this turns doctrines into harsh prisons: To leave your church or group – with their particular doctrines – means that your eternal security is in deep danger. And yes, many groups and leaders have relied upon this. Fear is a potent weapon, and there is no greater terror than eternal punishment.
The Jesus model of salvation, on the other hand, treats us as fit participants in the kingdom of God. As I’ve noted before, it is a belief in actual salvation, presently underway, inside of us. That teaches us to value ourselves.
This model of salvation, featuring internal enlightenment, also harmonizes with the other aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Like Jesus’ new model of morality, this salvation is based wholly upon the functioning of internals, not externals. It’s about us being upgraded, not waiting for a magic fix. It’s about actual salvation, not the hope of a future salvation that will be accomplished by forces outside ourselves.
In this you can see why having a religion about Jesus seems easier that Jesus’ model: You can be sure of salvation based upon your standing with a human organization, by your participation in ceremonies, or by saying some “correct” words.
In truth, however, it isn’t easier in the long run. In particular, it sidetracks actual growth. Growth takes time, effort, self-honesty and self-searching. Such growth is, to some significant degree, muted by the belief that “we’re already saved” because we’re in the good graces of the Church, or because we’ve believed and confessed properly.
What matters – not just according to Jesus, but according to ourselves, as we know somewhere deep inside – is what we are. By minimizing that we’ve left a lot of development undone.
And think of how much anguish Christians would avoid by going Jesus’ way. As most of us know, many millions struggle with feelings of uncertainty over their salvation.
I am convinced that a salvation conceived of as the Father planting and drawing, as gates of light being opened, as seeds growing, maturing and bearing abundant fruit… I think this model would bring us much farther and in less time.
And I believe this is the model that Jesus taught.