Call it Protestantism. Call it Reformed Theology. Call it American Evangelicalism. Call it Calvinism. Call it Western Christianity. Call it whatever you want.
But this is the version of the Gospel I grew up with- I sinned, my sin needs punishment, God took the punishment on my behalf so that I can be saved.
Now, we can spin this version of the Biblical story in both directions in order to say that the ultimate point of being saved is_____ (fill in the blank), but that doesn’t change the fact that the point of the story is shaped around me and my salvation. From this flows anxieties about assurance, theological systems intended to speak to these anxieties by way of implementing a grace-works divide, and necessary depictions of Gods character and action needed to fit the punitive and penal form of such a Gospel.
But what if scripture is asking a very different question? What if in scripture the question surrounds the faithfulness of God rather than the individual? What if the central question we encounter is, how can we know God is faithful to who God has revealed Himself to be in name and action? In other words, how can we know that Jesus accomplished what He said He did “in the world”, which is liberating a world enslaved to the Powers of Sin and Death, a metaphor and an agency that allows us to give what is evil a face rather than making humanity the face of evil.
This is, I believe, what shapes the anxieties that we find in the lives of the Biblical authors, their audiences, and the characters contained within. What would happen if the Western Church decided to abandon its hyper focus on individual salvation and started to think bigger in terms of Gods saving work “in the world”. Would it heal divisions? Shape our hope differently? Shift the emphasis from us to them?
I genuinely believe this is the most crucial question concerning the familiar debates in the Western Church regarding “individual salvation”, something scripture never makes to be the main part of the storyline. A renewed creation is in fact just that- a renewed creation. Does this include individuals? Of course. But the questions and anxieties change when we set this in proper perspective, within the larger narrative of the Biblical story. It shifts our view from us as the central point to what God is doing in the world. It shifts our view from the future to the present. It shifts our view from faith as a necessary and defining doctrinal statement to faith as participation in what God is doing.
The ancients would never have questioned whether grace was a gift or whether faithfulness was necessary. Both were assumed by those formed by Law (Torah). The question for them was, rather, if this is who God said His name was by way of his acting in the world, how can we know this is true when the world appears to look the same as it was. If this is what Gods covenant promise said God would do, how can we trust this when reality looks different. This is a fundamentally different concern than “am I saved” in the modern sense of the question. Those asking this question in scripture were asking it because of what they had seen and heard regarding Gods name and work in the world. And in scripture they are asking it from two different directions- as those faithful to the Torah and as those standing outside of those boundary markers. What must I do to be saved is fundamentally attached to the question that would have been clear to anyone in the ancient world- the defining marks of loyalty to a patron god or ruler. This is what makes the revealed nature of Israel’s God in name and action so powerful- this is a God who came down the mountain to dwell with the creation, the God with us incarnated in flesh and blood, the God who breaks down boundary markers in order to demonstrate a name and action that is “for the world”. This is what gets missed when we make the Gospel all about individual salvation. The free invitation to individuals and communities and nations and collective parties to participate in the saving work of God is actually what flows from the salvation story.