Increasingly, in an attempt to make the Gospel more amenable to a world that has forgotten (or more often deliberately discarded) the concept of sin, we hear of salvation in terms of healing, reconciliation, or ‘human flourishing’. Whilst these are all true and important aspects of what Christ effects in our lives, they are very often presented as the sole content of our salvation, and more specifically, as a replacement for supposedly ‘outdated’ concepts such as sacrifice, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from the slavery of the wrongful habits we have fallen into.
A well-rounded picture of salvation will of course include all the above, and it is also important to recognise that the work of salvation is an ongoing process, wherein the merits of Christ’s sacrifice are continuously being applied to us, His grace slowly transforming us and helping us to become holier – a process which is indeed one of reconciliation (both with God and neighbour) and of healing from the wounds that sin has left in our natures. The problem today is that there is a distinct over-emphasis on healing, flourishing, etc, often without any mention of sin at all; this inevitably begs the question that, if sin is no longer to be seen as a problem (or even to exist), then what is it that we are being saved from?
The modern, liberal tendency seems to be to focus on those aspects of salvation which describe the great joy which comes from living ‘in’ Christ – i.e.; ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10) – and it has become particularly fashionable in some circles to draw on the concept of theosis that is so central (though certainly not limited to) the Eastern Orthodox tradition – i.e.; that our salvation involves becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). Again, both of these are essential aspects of our salvation, which I would not want to deny for a minute. But very often it is forgotten that for human nature to be deified, first it must be redeemed from its current state, and that an abundant life is not compatible with sin.
Indeed, perhaps part of the problem is that this truncated vision of salvation imagines that we can have the peace and joy promised us in the Gospel without changing our ways, which presupposes a vision of human happiness that is purely about self-fulfilment, and which lacks a clear picture of what we were made for, what our goals are. Austin Farrer, in a sermon preached on ‘Religion, Natural and Revealed’ in 1959, drew attention to this very point:
‘Perhaps the liveliest part of natural religion is a sensitivity to the will of God, as it comes home to us in the needs or the aspirations of our fellow-men. Yet we cannot see what their needs are, unless we know what they need to be; nor how to support their aspirations, without a vision of their goal, a goal so widely misconceived. Or again, how shall we relate the pure will of God to the perverse strivings of men, without an understanding of the atonement which forgives them, or the grace which reclaims and rectifies them?’
from A Celebration of Faith (1972), p.24, Hodder and Stoughton.
To tell people that the Gospel offers them abundant life, joy, happiness, etc, without addressing the means by which this is achieved (i.e.; by the forgiveness of our sins, and the freeing us from a pattern of self-destructive behaviour) is not a loving thing to do. As Farrer pointed out all those years back, our culture has lost a sense of purpose, and the sense that guilt is our conscience’s way of telling us that we are going in the wrong direction. It needs introducing to a vision of what it means to be truly human again, and to preach cheap grace will not help in the long run.
Deep down people know they need forgiving, and know that Love is the answer – they are just looking for it in all the wrong places. To offer up platitudes about human flourishing without telling people why they are currently not flourishing, and the right way to correct that situation, is, for Christian clergymen (or indeed members of the laity – this problem is not limited to those in the pulpit) of whatever stripe, a grave dereliction of duty.
Everybody wants happiness, and Christ can indeed offer that – a lasting happiness that all the travails the world can offer cannot touch. But with our idea of the human person being conceived in predominantly materialistic, utilitarian terms, we need reminding that the deep thirst we have for happiness can only be satisfied by one thing – God. He made us to seek happiness in Him, and all Christians should be relating to the world the truth of what the Catechism says here:
‘God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise. Beatitude makes us “partakers of the divine nature” and of eternal life. With beatitude, man enters into the glory of Christ and into the joy of the Trinitarian life…
…The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else.’
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1721 & 1723.
These two statements connect perfectly the two aspects of salvation already discussed – theosis and blessing on one hand, and purification of our will on the other. The bottom line is that if we want to enter into the eternal life that starts here and now, we must indeed ‘purify our hearts of bad instincts’ – we cannot carry on sinning and expect to enjoy the lasting happiness of new life in Christ. Moreover, the choices we make regarding our attitude to sin and how much we seek to trust in God in this life will shape our life after death.
Heaven isn’t just a place that we get whisked off to by God; it is a place we have to be able to live in – the very air we will breathe in Heaven is self-giving Love, and if we have not learnt that ‘more excellent way’ in this life, we will not be able to partake in it, let alone enjoy it. If we are left where we are in life and told that we do not need to change our ways, our souls will remain fundamentally self-oriented (this being the essential nature of sin), and we will not be able to give of ourselves in the way that Love does. Therefore, to present a Gospel which sidelines sin will only lead to more people staying enslaved to it, unable to properly give or receive love – this is not compassionate but indulgent, negligent, and ultimately deeply unloving.
Contrarily, if we take the Gospel seriously, and try to see things (albeit in a glass darkly) in the light of God’s will, we will understand that He who is Love cannot bear to see even one of his creatures mired in the sinful ways which are restricting them from loving as He does. God wants to save us from sin, so that we may be free to love in the way He loves – it is only then that we will be able to fully flourish as humans, only then that we will be truly happy. Sin is a real obstacle from our being able to love, as it has its roots in self-will. If we are allowed to continue in this state, we are not really saved at all, as we are not able to love as we should.
Thankfully though, God does not leave us in this state – for Christ ‘entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12), so that ‘as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4). As I said earlier, salvation, though achieved once and for all on the Cross, works on us in an ongoing process, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who seeks always to draw us away from sin, and into the pattern of self-giving love which is the very life of the Holy Trinity – this is the ‘newness of life’ that Saint Paul is talking about. How this process may continue as our souls move from this life into the next, I shall consider in my next post.