Saturday, January 22, 2011

Theology of Salvation - Not an Easy Subject

I have been reading, for the second time, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and am now in Part Three - Life in Christ. The reading reminded me of one of the most challenging courses I took during three years at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Theology of Salvation, taught by Professor David Yeago. That was in the fall of 2003. The focus was on Lutheran theology and absence from it, in recent decades, of emphasis on sanctification and spirituality.

My notes from Dr. Yeago's lecture state the problem this way: "What it means to be saved has been reduced to something very subjective - something in our mindsets, feelings, and attitudes. No emphasis on a "new being" so all Christian life has become explainable by reason. Christianity has been redefined as something inward, private, and subjective. It has become an issue of what Jesus means to me, rather than any objective statement about Jesus." My apologies to Dr. Yeago if I have miss-interpreted, but that is what I wrote down.

The agenda of the course was to read works of some early Lutheran theologians seeking an understanding of "newness of life" and "growth in holiness" and a concept of sanctification that would extend beyond "the subjective effect of hearing the word of forgiveness." My particular assignment was to read and summarize for the class an excerpt from an 1875 paper by Heinrich Schmid, who addressed what he saw as a weakness in the contemporary theology of his church, a general belief that Word and Sacrament comprised God’s part in salvation and that faith, good works, and penitence were the responsibility of individuals for their own salvation. God did His part; now we must do ours. In an attempt to correct that misunderstanding, Schmid undertook the task of more fully describing and renewing interest in the Lutheran reformation perspective of Biblical salvation theology.

Schmid surveyed and summarized what some 16th and 17th century Lutheran Theologians had written about faith, justification, vocation, illumination, regeneration, conversion, mystical union, renovation, and good works, all Biblical elements of salvation. Renovation is not a word we hear in the church today, but may include sanctification, redemption, and penitence, three key words missing from Schmid’s paper. The results of his study were published in The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Part III, Chapter III.

Here are Schmid’s descriptions of the terms he researched:
Faith: Means by which one partakes of salvation, accomplished only by the power of God
Justification: Act of God whereby He declares the believer “just”
Vocation: Act of Grace from the Holy Spirit by means of the Word
Illumination: An operation of the Holy Spirit addressed to the will and intellect
Regeneration: Act of Grace by which the Holy Spirit gives a sinner power to exercise faith
Conversion: Act by which the Holy Spirit turns the sinner from sin to God
Mystical Union: Act by which God makes his abode in the justified and regenerate person
Renovation: Ongoing process of leading, day by day, a more holy life before God

Beginning with the fundamental truth that Christ is the agent of salvation, faith is the means of salvation, and justification is the effect of salvation, Schmid defined and described faith and justification. Both are attributed to God. A person’s natural lack of faith can “be overcome only by God Himself. If, therefore, a man believes, this faith is to be regarded as a work of God in him…” Justification likewise has nothing to do with any action or decision on the part of the individual or with any moral change in the individual, but is “only a judgment pronounced upon man, by which his relation to God is reversed.” Faith and justification occur simultaneously and are both totally attributable to God.

Faith and justification, at a very high level, may be understood to fully describe the theology of Christian salvation. By faith, we are justified! However, they do not explain what happens in the life of an individual experiencing faith and justification or being saved. How does being saved look and feel to the person being saved, and what changes will such a person experience in his or her life? What does it mean for us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?” Schmid attempted to describe “the internal conditions and the moral change which occur in a person at the same time with and after justification.” In other words, how and when and in what order does the person being saved through faith and justification experience vocation, illumination, regeneration, conversion, mystical union, renovation, and good works?

Of course the difficulty of explaining the unexplainable would all disappear if we were to focus all our attention on God rather than on whether or not we have salvation and when and where we got it. Given our inherent selfishness, that is not easily achieved. As Schmid suggests, the key indicator for an individual may be “…the strength or weakness of the confidence with which he embraces the offered salvation.”

To illustrate Schmid’s points, and to spark classroom discussion, I constructed a diagram, in the shape of a cross, in an attempt to link the salvation-related words in some kind of process beginning with Vocation or Call, the beginning of Salvation, and ending with Good Works, which are the fruits of Salvation. My first version of the diagram didn't pass muster with Dr. Yeago because it ignored the simultaneity or at least overlapping of several of the elements. So the double ended yellow arrows in the diagram below were added in an attempt to express the uncertainty of the process linking those elements.

One impression I have after reviewing the Theology of Salvation course material while in the process of reading The Catechism is that those early Lutheran theologians might be more comfortable in the 21st century Catholic Church than in the 21st Century Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Sampling of Relevant Scripture Verses (NRSV):

Romans 6:4 - Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

2 Corinthians 5:17 - So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Ephesians 1:4 - ...just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Ephesians 2:8-10 - For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Romans 5:18 - Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

Ephesians 4:1 - I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling (vocation?) to which you have been called

1 Corinthians 2:12-13 - Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. (illumination)

John 3:5-6 - Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. (regeneration)

Matthew 4:17 - From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (conversion)

John 6:56 - Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (mystical union?)

1 Corinthians 6:17 - But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Romans 6:22 - But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. (Renovation)

James 2:26 - For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

Philippians 2:12-13 - Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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