I gave this message in 2016. Article 8 of the confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective.
Having grown up going to church and attending a Mennonite High School I thought I understood what it meant to be a Christian fairly well by the time I was 18. Yet, if I was asked to explain salvation, I don’t think I would’ve done a good job.
When I was in my 20’s and attended my church’s pre-baptism classes, I was relieved when I heard the pastor teach that certain parts of salvation don’t have an easy explanation.
Salvation is not an easy concept to explain. For every simple answer you could give to explain salvation, I could come up with 2 questions. Each answer only raises more questions and eventually you get to the point where you need a theologian.
Not everyone can be a theologian, but there are teachers that have helped to produce materials to help evangelists in their work. And while such plans have a scriptural foundation, they are also very simplistic and miss some important exceptions and complexities. For example: Does someone need to be baptized to go to heaven? To answer that question, I refer you to Luke 23:43 Where Jesus tells the criminal on the cross next to him that he will be with him in paradise.
There are things that we know about salvation which we can state with confidence and then there are things that we just don’t really understand that well. We know that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through the Son, Jesus Christ. At the same time, we are not entirely clear on how salvation “happens”. I have seen some strategies that imply that salvation happens in a specific order, but Mennonites don’t believe this necessarily. While we know certain things happen in the process of salvation, we don’t say that they have to happen in a specific order.
Article 8 of our Confession of Faith is titled “Salvation” and it explains our understanding of the doctrine of salvation. Through history, theologians have been asked to explain salvation. There are a number of different views of salvation and it is likely, even if you don’t realize it, you will favor one of the major views of salvation. For example: Incarnation (Christus Victor, Incarnational), Life & Teaching (Moral Exemplar, Healing Servant, Solidarity), Crucifixion (Penalty, Satisfaction/Substitution, Last Scapegoat), Resurrection (Ransom Captive).
Mennonites don’t specifically subscribe to any particular view of salvation. The view that one usually favors normally lines up with your personal experience of salvation. All the different views have their basis in scripture and so Mennonites believe that all views contribute to our understanding of salvation.
Salvation, as described in scripture, is not a formula or 10 step program, it is the story of God’s people and then the church. While we can say with certainty that some elements always exist in salvation, there is a lot we are not certain about.
Here are some questions that you might or might not have:
a) What happens to people who do not hear the gospel message their entire life? Can they go to heaven?
b) Once someone is saved, can they become unsaved?
c) What about people who are baptized but don’t go to church on Sunday?
d) Is a sinner’s prayer required?
e) What if I doubt my salvation?
f) What is the unforgivable sin?
g) Does baptism only count if you are fully immersed?
h) At what age can a person be saved? Do children need salvation?
i) Why is blood required for salvation?
While there are many questions that can be debated when it comes to salvation, we are at least united on the things that we are certain about and that is enough to come together as a community of believers and work effectively for God’s Kingdom.
Jesus is Lord
From paragraph 1 of our confession of faith: We believe that, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation from sin and a new way of life to all people. We receive God’s salvation when we repent of sin and accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In Christ, we are reconciled with God and brought into the reconciling community of God’s people. We place our faith in God that, by the same power that raised Christ from the dead, we may be saved from sin to follow Christ in this life and to know the fullness of salvation in the age to come.
Jesus is at the center. Not just his death, but his life and resurrection also.
Salvation happens WHEN WE RESPOND. Like in Luke 19, when Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ invitation. Salvation happens when we respond by (1) repenting and (2) accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Having grown up in Western Society, the concept of Lord is one that is somewhat lost. Society often teaches us to question authority, to challenge our leaders, to follow only as long as it suits our personal preference, but a Lord is not challenged or obeyed only partially. We do have equivalents in our society, but they are not good examples.
One of the challenges we face as Christians in living out our salvation, is understanding what it means to call Jesus our Lord. How do you explain to someone if they ask about salvation? Jesus isn’t a democratic leader, we don’t vote. He’s also not a tyrant like other leaders of our time. He’s the Lord that rescued us and we willingly bend our knee in acknowledging his greatness and give him our lives in response to his gift.
Covenant and blood
Yom Kippur which translates to Day of Atonement is among the most holy days in the Jewish calendar. It’s on this day when the priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Also, the priest would lay his hands on a goat, transferring the sin of the community to the goat and the goat would be released into the wilderness, bearing the sins away. This is where the term scapegoat comes from.
From paragraph 2 of our confession of faith: From the beginning, God has acted with grace and mercy to bring about salvation–through signs and wonders, by delivering God’s people, and by making a covenant with Israel. God so loved the world that, in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, whose faithfulness unto death on the cross has provided the way of salvation for all people. By his blood shed for us, Christ inaugurated the new covenant. He heals us, forgives our sins, and delivers us from the bondage of evil and from those who do evil against us. By his death and resurrection, he breaks the powers of sin and death, cancels our debt of sin, and opens the way to new life. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our own merits.
It is important to recognize how God is doing the work of salvation. The story of salvation begins in Genesis Chapter 3
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” […]The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.Genesis 3:6-11, 21
We often think of Genesis chapter 3 as the fall, but salvation begins here. Adam and Eve were always naked, yet it wasn’t wrong to be naked until after their disobedience when they became ashamed of their nakedness. Adam and Eve tried to cover over their own sinfulness by making coverings from fig leaves. The coverings were not adequate, so God made coverings for Adam and Eve out of skins. To make the clothes, God would have had to kill one or more animals. It is here that we start to see the cost to cover over sin and it is also the first time any of God’s creatures is killed or sacrificed. The Hebrew word that we translate to atonement means to cover over. To cover over Adam and Eve’s sin, animals needed to die. The sin cannot be undone, but it is covered over, or atoned for. This pattern is repeated.
In scripture, blood is considered sacred because it contains the life of a person or animal. When Abraham is called by God, God makes a covenant with Abraham again sacrificing animals to confirm the promise. When God saves Israel from slavery, we again see sacrifice and blood used to protect the people of Israel. In the Law of Moses, we again see how important sacrifice and blood are for covenant relationship. Finally, as Jesus celebrates the last supper with his disciples, he uses the wine to symbolize his blood as the blood of the new covenant. His blood which was given when he died later on the cross.
How are we supposed to understand the seriousness of a covenant that is made at the cost of life, that has been made with blood? While covenants, testaments, promises, contracts and vows are still common today, the idea of life binding contract is not common, where breaking it will cost you your life. These are not covenants that you enter into lightly.
Responding to the Holy Spirit
When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit led him into the desert where he fasted for 40 days. Now, when you’re baptized, you get a certificate (ez!).
From paragraph 3 of our confession of faith: When we hear the good news of the love of God, the Holy Spirit moves us to accept the gift of salvation. God brings us into right relationship without coercion. Our response includes yielding to God’s grace, placing full trust in God alone, repenting of sin, turning from evil, joining the fellowship of the redeemed, and showing forth the obedience of faith in word and deed. When we who once were God’s enemies are reconciled with God through Christ, we also experience reconciliation with others, especially within the church. In baptism we publicly testify to our salvation and pledge allegiance to the one true God and to the people of God, the church. As we experience grace and the new birth, we are adopted into the family of God and become more and more transformed into the image of Christ. We thus respond in faith to Christ and seek to walk faithfully in the way of Christ.
This paragraph highlights one of the more distinctive Anabaptist beliefs and also one of the bigger stumbling blocks in our faith: You cannot force or coerce anyone into salvation, because even God doesn’t do that. We believe it is when a person responds to the Holy Spirit that salvation comes. Just like a gardener can work to fertilize the soil for growth and they can plant seeds, it is only God that makes the seed grow. As Christians, we can work to create opportunities where people can witness the Holy Spirit at work, but we cannot make people respond to the Holy Spirit.
The biggest challenge with this in the Mennonite Church is parents with their children. In the past, there was such a strong social pressure to be baptized, it is questionable if young people were even given the chance to respond to the Holy Spirit before making a commitment to follow Jesus as their Lord.
If you are a parent, how will you raise your children in light of this? What happens when you push your children to make a commitment before the Holy Spirit has had a chance to work in their life?
Salvation now and in the future
Paragraph 4: We believe that the salvation we already experience is but a foretaste of the salvation yet to come, when Christ will vanquish sin and death, and the redeemed will live in eternal communion with God.
We recognize that salvation has two distinct parts. If we think of salvation as only something that happens after life, we are only telling half the story. If we think of salvation only as something within our lifetime, again, that’s only half the story.
After life, there are two realities: Eternity in heaven or eternity in hell. With only this perspective, an evangelist might take the “fire insurance” approach to evangelism with no consideration to the cost of being a disciple. Coercing a person into Christianity can make them think faith is only about manipulation and in the end, the result is worse than before.
Life as a Christian isn’t easy and it does cost you, this is something that Jesus told us. There are things you give up when you call Jesus your Lord. Life as a Christian is the good life, but not in the way the world considers good. There is a peace that you receive as a Christian and there are blessings. The cost of being a disciple is something that everyone can afford to pay, and that is good news, because we do not want to pay our true debt.
So, if someone you know comes up to you one day and asks you to explain salvation, what would you say?