What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: A Review

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., (ed)., What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 203 pages. ISBN: 080102353X. Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic.

‘This book shouldn’t be necessary’. So begins the Preface to this collection papers from a 2001 conference hosted by Regent College. Unfortunately, as each of the essays suggests, a book such as this will remain necessary this side of the Lord’s parousia. How well this collection, and the church itself, addresses such a perceived void ought in itself be a subject of some discussion too.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, and editor of Evangelical Futures and No Other Gods before Me?, has again placed us in his debt by gathering together a group of fine papers by a distinguished group of scholars: Loren Wilkinson, Henri A. G. Blocher, Amy L. Sherman, Rikk E. Watts, Cherith Fee Nordling, Vincent Bacote, D. Bruce Hindmarsh. The inclusion of two critically responsive essays, by John Webster and Jonathan R. Wilson, are a most valuable inclusion to this volume, identifying common themes among the various contributors, suggesting areas of concern and possible trajectories for further conversation.

Each essayist, from a wide range of specialisations, representing diverse confessions, various (Western, though not from lack of trying to include participants from the Two-Thirds World) countries, and different stages of academic life, though all with a common commitment to an evangelical expression of Christian faith, seeks to respond to a narrow understanding of salvation that amounts to ‘a sort of spiritual individualism that is little better than Gnosticism’ (p. 9) and point us towards a more holistic vision of what God is up to in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The goal: ‘to prod evangelical theology out of its comfortable spiritual individualism and toward a vision of salvation as large as God’s mission to the world he loves and redeems’ (p. 10).

Stackhouse invites theology professors and pastors to move beyond the notion that salvation is not about ‘Christians going to heaven’. Instead, he suggests, ‘salvation is about God redeeming the whole earth. Salvation is about Christians – and perhaps others, also saved by the work of Christ but perhaps not knowing about him in this life – heading home to the God they love and the company of all the faithful. Salvation is about heading for the New Jerusalem, not heaven: a garden city on earth, not the very abode of God and certainly not a bunch of pink clouds in the sky. Salvation is not about the mental cartoons drawn by medieval illustrators and found in Far Side comic strips. It is about the splendid collage of images offered up in the wealth of biblical glimpses of what is to come. And salvation is not only about what is to come but also about what is ours to enjoy and foster here and now’. (p. 10)

In the opening essay, entitled, ‘The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God’, Rikk E. Watts fitly argues that a recovery of a biblically-informed and determined soteriology will transform our understanding of humanity as the imago dei. Specifically, our soteriology must maintain at or near its centre the notion of the new exodus/new creational restoration of our embodied humanity. Thus eschatology is fundamental to any soteriology worth its name. Watts traces this theme from creation as YHWH’s temple-palace though to the installation of YHWH’s image into that temple-palace, from the exodus as re-creation and image renewal to the final restoration of the imago dei in the Incarnation. This is a fascinating essay, and sets the ball rolling for multiple reflections throughout the book on the centrality of the imago dei for soteriology.

D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s essay, one of the most interesting in the collection, explores what being saved meant for the early evangelicals. He argues that the resources for a renewal and broadening of the grammar and praxis of soteriology that is called for by the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto are to be found within evangelicalism itself. He suggests that there is a congenital weakness in the evangelical tradition that pulls evangelicals in the direction of withdrawal from society and a privatised, individualistic piety. The Lausanne discussions, he notes, along with a host of political, cultural, and charitable initiatives begun by evangelicals in the second half of the twentieth century, witness to a significant effort to redress the effects of the great reversal and restore a more balanced evangelical integration of gospel proclamation and social concern. The focus of Hindmarsh’s contribution is principally John Wesley, and Hindmarsh offers a beautiful account of early Methodism’s concern for the body and soul, for society as well as for individuals, for the poor as well as for the rich. He notes that Wesley understood his mission as privileging the poor, whom he believed have a ‘privileged place in God’s program’ (p. 48). Moreover, Wesley maintained a sociology of mission that understood that the gospel went to work on a society normally from the bottom up, not the top down. The very last to enter the kingdom, Wesley argued, will be the academics: ‘Last of all the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children, and enter into the kingdom of God”’ (p. 49). Hindmarsh cites John Walsh: Wesley ‘tried to re-sacralize the poor in an age in which moralists and economists often saw them only as a problem; as reluctant producers of labour, as a social threat, or at least a nuisance. For Wesley, the indigent were “poor members of Christ”’ (p. 51). Hindmarsh proceeds to note that the early evangelicals had a vision for the transformation of society and the entire cosmos, the gospel itself transforming first individuals, then families, Christian nations and finally non-Christian nations.

Henri A. G. Blocher, in certainly the most cogent historical-dogmatic paper in the book, seeks to redress the distortion in Aulen’s over-stated Christus Victor motif by bringing together the ‘classic’ and ‘Latin’ views of the atonement. He writes: ‘The key position of the doctrine of vicarious punishment answers to the privilege of personal-relational-juridical categories, within the framework of covenant, to deal with the divine-human communication, over against that of ontological participation and moral assimilation in other strands of the Christian tradition. This “mind” is biblical. However, such a position does not make other languages and schemes superfluous, and it does not rule out ontological dimensions and moral influence. The polemic presentation, especially, is a welcome complement: When one understands that Christ’s victory was based on his sacrifice, one should unfold the fruit of his death as radical and universal victory! Understanding that Satan was defeated as the Accuser may help us to retain the particle of truth in the awkward suggestion that God’s attributes of mercy and justice had to be “reconciled” by the cross: Though God’s attributes are one (descriptions of the one essence), once evil entered the world (through God’s wholly mysterious, inscrutable permission), his justice became in a way the enemy’s weapon – until the divine wisdom (and love) provided the way for God to be both just and the one who justifies sinners through faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26)’ (p. 90).

Vincent Bacote questions the adequacy of much evangelical soteriology, charging it with individualism and an over-concern with maintaining the status-quo. He proceeds to offer us what he calls ‘concrete soteriology’ which he describes as public in nature, political in character, pneumatologically inspired, and emphasises the need for place. ‘Concrete soteriology’ he argues, ‘recognizes that we were created to be at home somewhere and does not gloss over that fact by trumpeting the slogan, ”I’m just passing through this world.” While here, this life is not to be merely survived, particularly in nations and communities in which other Christians flourish’ (p. 112).

Cherith Fee Nordling’s delightful essay is one of the collection’s most instructive. Like Watts’, her concentration too is on the imago dei which she expounds as the relationality of the Triune Family into whose koinonia we are drawn to participate by virtue of God’s saving action. This reality also informs and defines humanity’s horizontal sociality and liberates sinners for fellowship. She then turns to the question of sexuality as an essential feature of the imago and argues that to be a human being is to be sexually differentiated, and therefore to be saved means that we continue to be female and male human beings in the age to come as new creations in Christ.

In the paper, ‘Salvation as Life in the (New) City’, Amy L. Sherman reminds us that the ultimate destination for believers is a city. She proceeds to define this city as characterised fourfold: (i) a refuge for the weak; (ii) a place of permanent residency; (iii) a place where we are named; and (iv) a place where we see Jesus face to face.

In the final essay, Loren Wilkinson tries to make a case for why ‘Christians should be converted pagans’. He suggests that Neo-paganism is ‘an attempt to recover an aspect of being human that is central to the gospel but is often obscured – that is, we cannot be fully human until our restored relationship with the Creator results in a restored relationship not only with other men and women but also with the rest of creation, which is seen and accepted as a divine gift. Paganism (old and new) sees that divine gift as the only essential revelation, and harmony with creation and its resident gods or spirits as the only salvation. Thus, paganism is forever inadequate for the wholeness its believers seek. But inasmuch as paganism does have open eyes to the gift-nature of creation, it glimpses a truth to which Christians are sometimes blind’ (p. 154). Beneath the puerility and plain silliness of a good bit of neopagan ritual, he argues, lies a longing for wholeness that can be fulfilled only through reconciliation with the Creator, a reconciliation that cannot be achieved outside of what God has accomplished in Christ. The danger for Christians today, he suggests, is that we are so afraid of the possibility of paganism or pantheism that we radically distance Creator from creation and understand salvation in such a way that it has no implications for creation. Until our understanding and our living our of new life in Jesus Christ involve a changed relationship with the earth, which God is also making new, we encourage an unconverted paganism, for paganism, rightly understood, is not an alternative to belief but rather a preparation for it. Wilkinson thus considers neo-paganism as a point of contact. He goes so far as to state that ‘a Christian who is not at the same time a redeemed pagan is in danger of a kind of Gnostic or Manichean denial of what it means to be a physical, created being enmeshed in the cycles of created. Thus, Christians need to be converted pagans’ (p. 155). Wilkinson’s essay is essentially a renewed defence of natural theology and, as Webster perceptively notes, highlights the incredibly high price that theology has to pay for its engagement in apologetics. Commendably, each contribution in this volume, and perhaps especially Wilkinson’s, is undergirded by a conscious concern for the mission of the church as part of the missio dei.

While this assemblage of conference papers has less of a ‘hit and miss’ feel to it than do many published collections, the combined voice of the essayists, although traversing a lot of rich soil with a good torch, still left me quite unsatisfied and somewhat concerned about the current state of evangelical theology. Allow me to note just a few of my concerns:

On a minor point, it is unclear who the intended audience for this book is.

More substantially, there is very little explicit discussion on the issues of justification, and none at all on sanctification nor on the question of universalism. Whether these areas are simply assumed (can they ever afford to be?), or ignored as being in the ‘too hard basket’, the absence of any discussion on these themes across the papers is a disappointment. Also, the absence of any exposition on the notion of God’s wrath and final judgement seems to reflect evangelicalism’s increasing embarrassment and failure to speak about wrath in the context of a positive soteriology.

The largely unqualified acceptance of some undefined form or other of natural theology is troubling, especially if this collection represents the future direction of any theology which wishes to retain the name ‘evangelical’. While not all evangelicals will want to echo a ‘Nein’ as strong as Barth’s here, all ought to share Barth’s concern at what is at stake in the question, and proceed with caution as wisely as Calvin or Forsyth does regarding this question. Far too much is at stake to do otherwise.

Finally, a call: Salvation is not an idea. It is an act! In a collection of this type, more ought to be have been made of this. As Hartwell has reminded us, ‘Objectively (de jure) all [people] are already justified, sanctified, and called in Jesus Christ in and through what He has done in their stead and for their sake. In Him, objectively, the old [person] has already passed away; in Him, objectively, we are already the new [person], represented as such by Him before God. However, though the salvation of all [people] is already objectively accomplished by Jesus Christ – without them and, as His Cross teaches, against them – many of them have not yet perceived and accepted what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. In order that Jesus Christ’s objective reconciling work may subjectively (de facto) bear fruit in the lives of individual [persons] and through them, as His witnesses, in the lives of other [persons], there is still needed as an essential part of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ the subjective apprehension, acceptance, appropriation and application of that work’. More attention could (and should) have been given to this reality than is given in this volume.

These concerns aside, Stackhouse and Co are to be commended for putting together a helpful assembly of essays (and responses) that address such a central question What does it mean to be saved? – and to do so in a way that engages with contemporary issues. Each essay invites us to reflect again on how wide is the love of God in Christ, and to broaden our soteriological horizons so that the things of this world may not grow strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

One comment

  1. That’s for this awesome reformed/presbyterian review!
    It seems difficult to find reviews by such people since relativism is so pervasive and what ever anyone says (except us ‘dogmatic reformed folks’) is invited.


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