For a while I have been wrestling with trying to figure out what salvation is.
That seems like such a basic question theologically that I almost don’t know that I should admit that I have been struggling with it.
But I wrestle with what I feel like are two extremes answers that float around in the Christian communities I am part of.
The first extreme is what I heard most frequently growing up: that salvation is solely spiritual and that it involves a particular answer to the question “what happens when I die?”: that “I go to heaven because I had faith in Jesus.”
The second extreme is often manifested in the health and prosperity gospel or the total sanctification gospel that is often associated with Wesleyan theology. This extreme makes everything immediate: salvation becomes about radically changing my life now, about heaven becoming my earthly life beginning right this very instant.
I think a large part of the problem that I see with both of these views is that neither takes into account the already-not yet schema of the New Testament. Already, salvation is beginning its work in us. But it is not yet completed, and it will not be completed until all things come to their completion.
The already is a lot of what we celebrate this week, Holy Week. This is the week we remember most vividly the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Yet even the way we often talk about his death, I think, moves towards one of these extremes or the other.
Protestants, as part of a reaction against the perception that the theology of the Catholic Mass implies that Jesus is continually being sacrificed for sins in the rite of the Eucharist, are quick to emphasize the completion of Christ’s work on the cross, especially in light of its substitutionary status. Christ died to forgive our sins and that was done “once and for all.” Thus, Zwingli can argue consistently that the Lord’s supper is just an act of remembrance, not a sacrament.
The problem is that I’m not certain either the Catholic theology of the mass or the Protestant theology of “once-for-all” substitutionary atonement really captures the essence of what is going on at the Crucifixion.
What has been very interesting for me to realize is that Jesus death on the cross is intentionally connected in all four gospels not with a sin offering or the Day of Atonement offering but with the Passover offering!
Passover is not really about the forgiveness of sins, its about the redemption of former slaves to be a people set free.
Passover is the celebration of God’s final act of deliverance to redeem the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to set them free and make them his people, a nation of his own possession.
Those same themes are echoed all throughout the New Testament.
God, through Christ, establishes a new people for his own possession, and the great act of redemption that brings these people out of their bondage to sin and death is Christ on the Cross.
Christ’s death is substitutionary, but not in the sense that we typically think of, a sense that is tailored by a desire to portray Christ as replacing the sin offerings of the Old Testament.
Christ’s death is substitutionary in the sense that the Passover lamb was substitutionary for the firstborn of Israel who were spared in the plague. They should have been killed with the firstborn of Egypt, but they were redeemed and bought back by the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
So likewise we who are in bondage to sin and death should perish. Instead, we are redeemed by the blood of Christ and now we are the free people of God, a people for God’s own possession.
Christ becomes the new Passover, and by conquering sin he makes the sin offerings obsolete.
Now let’s return to the already-not yet schema of the New Testament:
Already, Christ has died on the cross, acting as a substitutionary, passover sacrifice and redeeming us as his people.
Already, we are free. Already, God’s kingdom is coming to earth.
Not yet is this work completed. The death blow has been dealt to sin, but the dragon is still writhing around wreaking havoc.
We have been set free, but it is difficult to stand up to one who has been master of our lives for so long.
That is the tension that we live in and the reality that we wrestle with.
And that brings us back to the Eucharist and to the very concept of salvation itself.
The Eucharist is not merely a remembrance of our sins forgiven.
It is a celebration of our freedom.
It is a celebration of the foundation of our faith, the founding of the Church as the People of God.
In the same sense that the Passover was a somber but joyous celebration by the Jewish people of their nationhood and their covenant with God, so is the Eucharist for us.
Even the name reflects this meaning- Eucharist means thanksgiving.
We are giving thanks for what Christ has done for us by participating in a ceremony marking the founding of our faith and the commitment of the ongoing community of Christ-followers.
And in this same ceremony we embody the already-not yet. Already, we are free. Already, Christ is Risen. Not yet has he returned. So we continue and we wait.
- Passover and communion (wordsofgrace.wordpress.com)