How Does Jesus Save?

This post is a paper I wrote on Christology and soteriology for my systematic theology course this semester. As I was writing this paper, I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to say all there is to say, or even all that should be said, about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. So, this paper is just my best effort at saying something about the saving person and work of Jesus Christ.

At the age of seven, I walked down the aisle of my Southern Baptist church and gave my life to Jesus. I prayed the sinner’s prayer: admitting my sin and my need to repent and be forgiven, believing that Jesus was God’s Son who had come to save sinners, and confessing that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. As I grew older, I learned how Jesus revealed God’s love for me when he took my place on the cross and bore the punishment I deserved. God could forgive me because my sin-debt had been paid in full; I had been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. As a result, my soul was now secure for all eternity because death was conquered through Jesus’ resurrection.

This soteriology – the “study of how [Jesus] acts as soter, or Savior”[1] – holds a view of God’s justice which “requires either punishment for sin or a satisfaction for the offended honor” of God.[2] Jesus, as the perfect man, bears the required punishment because he is the only one capable, as he is also God.[3] Jesus’ crucifixion therefore becomes the means of atonement; making a way for God to be reconciled with sinful humanity.

Several features of this soteriology are highly problematic: its required use of violence to satisfy God’s justice,[4] its individualistic view of humans and sin,[5] and its nearly exclusive emphasis on Jesus’ death at the expense of his birth, ministry, and resurrection.[6] In addition, this “atonement theory” is deeply flawed because, as Robert Jenson notes, it is based on a dualistic Christology – the study of the saving person of Jesus in relation to God and humanity[7] – deriving from Pope Leo’s Tome which “posits two active ‘natures’ [in Christ] doing things to each other” in order to accomplish salvation.[8] As Jenson suggests, all “atonement theories” should be reconsidered in light of a soteriology based on an integrated Christology in which the one, whole person of Jesus “just is our reconciliation [because] what [he] is and what [he] does are the same.”[9]

This kind of integral Christology was proposed by Cyril of Alexandria and it played a major role in the deliberations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. While he accepted the language of rival bishops in Antioch which spoke of Christ having “two natures,” Cyril insisted that Jesus Christ was “one hypostasis, or “one subject,”[10] in which “human and divine were so united” that the properties of one nature could be wholly and truly applied to the other.[11] At Chalcedon, the council appropriated Cyril’s thought to affirm Christ as “the one divine Son, who possesses at once complete deity and complete humanity.”[12] The “Definition” put forward at Chalcedon has since served as the orthodox framework for Christology by requiring one to talk simultaneously of Jesus as “God acting in our midst” and “as a human being in the ordinary sense of that term.”[13]

Jenson further develops Cyril’s Christology by describing Jesus’ two natures as “labels for communities” so that his “human nature” is his being as a participant in the historical community of creation, while his “divine nature” is his being as “one of the three whose mutuality is… God.”[14] As the only co-participant in the divine community of Trinity and the historical community of creation, Jesus Christ is the author of salvation as a “relation of communion” between the Triune God and all creation.[15] As God-who-is-communion made flesh, Jesus reveals “not just [God’s] true self but the true identity of [humanity],” so that God’s existence as Trinitarian community is revealed as the life towards which the creation community is being saved.[16] Through the incarnation, Jesus saves the “entire network of creation” from the sin of alienation and so that relations of mutual indwelling between human beings and God, others, and the natural world can come to life.[17] This saving communion “transforms all aspects of humanity so that the abundant life can be lived by all to its fullest.”[18] In this soteriology, all aspects of the incarnation event – Jesus’ birth, teachings, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension – take on a salvific purpose. Who Jesus is as the member of divine community incarnated in human community is the same as what he does in leading all creatures into holistic communion with God and each other.

Since the incarnation is a historical reality, salvation as communion is also a historical reality. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, since “God is manifested visibly in the humanity of Christ,” God is “irreversibly committed to human history.”[19] Salvation, then, is “God’s gift of definitive life to God’s children, given in a history in which [humanity] must build fellowship.”[20] This gift of life “embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ.”[21] Salvation is neither individualistic nor otherworldly; it is participation in the “fullness of love… which unites the three Persons of the Trinity; it is to love as God loves” through concrete, historical acts towards the construction of just community among all people and created things.[22]

In Jesus, God became a particular Jewish man at a particular moment in history. As a result, Jesus has “definitively, once for all, made [God] contextual.”[23] If God is contextual, and if salvation is communion with God and all creation, then salvation must also be contextual – “one size does not fit all.”[24] Creation is a vastly diverse community and God has called it good, but this diverse community is attacked by alienating sin in an equally diverse ways. A contextual salvation of communion means that the work of salvation towards the restoration of just community will be different in each particular context in order to be “saving” for that context.

As a Euro-American male living a middle-class lifestyle in the United States, God is saving me from an anxiety and guilt driven compulsion to save the world on my own terms and saving me for a life of solidarity and friendship with those who have been oppressed by the social structures of sin which support my comfortable lifestyle. As I come to terms with the enormity of injustice in the world, my first reaction is to do all I can, or give all I can, towards a “cause” for justice. However, as Miguel De La Torre notes, this kind of justice is a perversion which only preserves my privilege and its accompanying structures of injustice because it does not involve love relationships with others.[25] Salvation for me begins by following “the way of poverty, the way that Jesus himself shows us as he moves toward the cross;” the way which, as Henri Nouwen notes, refuses “success, power, influence, and celebrity” and chooses “weakness, powerlessness, compassion, and obscurity.”[26] This “way of the cross” is not a self-crucifixion, but is rather, as Costas describes, a process of kenosis: “an emptying of oneself, of [one’s] power and privileges; making oneself available to others by becoming their servant.”[27] As I am emptied of the power and privilege I have inherited from the structural sins of racism, sexism, and classism, I am saved for an active commitment to help “the poor and exploited to become aware of their situation and seek liberation from it.”[28] This active service should not only empower the liberation of others, but should be “oriented toward the formation of liberated congregations that will stand in solidarity with the poor and be thoroughly committed to God’s struggle against the scandal of poverty.”[29] I am being saved insofar as who I am and what I do contributes toward the building of just friendships among all people. As I walk this way of salvation in God’s grace, I am reminded that “the world is not mine to save.”[30] My participation in salvation as communion through kenotic service towards liberated community affirms that I am not God and the world will not be saved on my terms or by my power.

Banquet on the Bridge

Banquet on the Bridge
Phenix City, AL – Columbus, GA

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 188.

[2] Leanne Van Dyk, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 213.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 204.

[4] Van Dyk, 212.

[5] Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 42.

[6] Van Dyk, 214.

[7] Richard A. Norris, ed., The Christological Controversy, Sources of Early Christian Thought Series, ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 2.

[8] Jenson, 205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Norris, 28.

[11] Placher, 185.

[12] Norris, 30.

[13] Ibid, 31.

[14] Jenson, 202-203.

[15] S. Mark Heim, “Salvation as Communion: Partakers of the Divine Nature,” Theology Today 61, no. 3 (October 2004): 323.

[16] Orlando E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982), 26.

[17] Heim, 325, 329.

[18] Miguel De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 43.

[19] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 109.

[20] Ibid., xxxix.

[21] Gutiérrez., 84.

[22] Ibid., 113.

[23] Costas, 25.

[24] De La Torre, 39.

[25] Ibid, 12.

[26] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living A Prayeful Life, ed. Wendy Wilson Greer (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), 64.

[27] Orlando E. Costas, “Mission Out of Affluence,” Missiology 1, no. 4 (October 1, 1973): 413-414.

[28] Ibid., 418.

[29] Ibid., 420.

[30] Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “A Merciful White Flash: While Despairing of Nuclear Annihilation, I Received An Irresistible Consolation,” Christianity Today 52, no. 4 (April 1, 2008): 59.

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