Thinking About Salvation I

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been wanting to write out some of my disordered thoughts regarding salvation as I’ve interacted with the books by Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Now that final papers are out of the way, and I’ve had a couple nights’ rest, I thought I would attempt a beginning.

My understandings of salvation have been primarily juridical, along Anselmian lines. That is to say, I’ve had a great debt of sin, which I have no ability to repay. Jesus, in his vicarious substitutionary death upon the cross, and his bodily resurrection from the dead authenticating the effects of the cross, paid that debt for me. To appropriate the cancellation of that debt, I respond by grace in faith in repentance and baptism. (I’ll leave aside any discussions of perserverance, as I’ll be focusing on this transactional aspect.) Insofar as the Church figured, it was the place you went after being saved. It was important to be a member of a local congregation because that was part of what it meant for you to be a Christian. There is where you received assistance in living out your Christian life, where you served others, and supported “the work of the Kingdom.” That has been my understanding, growing up in the Stone-Campbell churches.

Reading Nellas’ and Zizioulas’ works, however, has capped off a several-month period of thinking about the Church. Yes, in a blog on salvation, I mention the Church. This is what has been so revolutionary for me. Now, let me offer this disclaimer. The following are my own barely-formed thoughts on these things. They should not be construed as those of Nellas or Zizioulas, or of the Church. It is not unlikely that I have misunderstandings through which I still need to work. But here it is at this point.

Salvation, rather than being mostly an individual juridical transaction–you’re now declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s work–is more an incorporation into Christ himself. That is to say, I’m “saved” by virtue of the fact that I, by grace, have been made to participate in the resurrected Christ. Since Jesus assumed human nature, as a human being, though without sin, he is able to incorporate us into himself. This incorporation, by the hypostasis of the divine and human natures in Jesus, enables us, as 2 Peter 1:4 indicates, to participate in the divine nature. We do not become what God is by essence, or by hypostasis (person), but rather share in the uncreated energies of God. In the terms with which I have been familiar, this is the process of justification-sanctification.

Now this is all well and good, but still very Protestant, that is to say, individualistic. I’m still in danger of succumbing to the “me and Jesus” syndrome. And here is where Nellas and Zizioulas, in their different works, coincided in my thinking. The locus of my incorporation into Christ cannot take place apart from his Body, the Church. Or, only through and in the Body of Christ, the Church, may I be saved, and continue to be saved. The Church, by virtue of its being Christ’s Body, in and by the power of the Spirit, is a divine insitution. It is not the amalgamation of tens of thousands of groups. It is one, because it is Christ’s Body, which cannot be divided since it shares the undivided nature of Christ.

Or, to state it as simply as I can understand it at this point, if I want to be saved and continue to be saved, I can only do that by incorporation in Christ, which means incorporation in his Body, the Church.

More thoughts to come.