Calvary as Theophany: Post-Script, A Theology of Drowning

Having finished what I planned for this short series I pondered how the last post might be received, the confusions and questions it might have kicked up. So, one more post to reflect a bit more on the contrast between God's love and salvation. 

Basically, I offer you here a theology of drowning.

The point of the last post was that there is a distinction between God's love and our salvation. The two are different. That claim can seem both obvious and strange.

On the one hand, the claim would seem obvious to many Christians. Of course God loves everyone, but not everyone is saved because they haven't accepted God's offer of grace.

And yet, on the other hand, the argument I made in Parts 1 and 2 of this series is that, since Jesus is the Lamb Slain from the Foundation of the World, you are already under grace, already forgiven. You don't need to "change" how God feels about you. God doesn't change, and He's always loved and forgiven you.

That's a strange claim to some because, if this is indeed the case, then all of humanity, it would seem, is already saved. Right? If we've been already forgiven, if we're already under grace, then we're already saved.

This is confusing. How can we be saying that everyone is already saved but that we still need saving?

Here's where the confusion comes from. Because penal substitutionary atonement has been the dominant model of atonement most Christians assume that our primary predicament is guilt and the judgement of God. So what saves us is grace. Salvation is reduced to forgiveness

And now we can see the problem more clearly. Specifically, penal substitutionary atonement trains you to think that God is your problem, how God feels about you. Salvation is solving your God problem. Solve that, get on God's good side, and you're good to go.

But what I've claimed in Parts 1 and 2 is that you don't have a God problem, that you've never had a God problem. That's how Calvary is a theophany. What the cross reveals to us isn't the "solution" to our God problem, but the revelation of how God has always felt about you. God doesn't need to submit to some sort of atonement rigamarole to forgive you. God is love, intrinsically, eternally, and unchangingly. 

But if this is the case, if we don't have a God problem, then isn't everyone already saved? Since God unconditionally loves everyone already we're all good to go, right? 

And it's here, right here, dear reader, where I think both the evangelicals and progressives start to lose their way.

Evangelicals lose their way because they see in Scripture the language of God's wrath and judgment. Clearly, then, the world still has a God problem on their hands. Consequently, evangelicals will question Parts 1 and 2 of this series, my claim that you don't, and never had, a God problem. In short, because they reduce salvation to forgiveness evangelicals are chronically tempted to frame salvation as a God problem, and push back on any notion that you don't. 

Progressive Christians have a different problem. Progressives, by and large, agree with Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Progressives proclaim that no one has a God problem, because God loves everyone and always has. The trouble progressive Christians will have with me is Part 3, my suggestion that, yes, God loves you, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're saved. Basically, for progressive Christians, if we have no God problem we have no problem at all. 

By and large this assumption has left progressive Christians confused about things like evangelism and the role of the church. Why can't progressive Christians grow churches? Well, because the gospel they take into an unbelieving world is basically this, "We are here to proclaim to you that you have no God problem. God already loves and forgives you!" And the unbelieving world looks up and says, "Um, thank you, I guess? I wasn't really worried about God in the first place, but I thanks for letting me know I have nothing to worry about from your imaginary friend." And then everyone goes about their business. 

That's the problem with progressive Christianity in a nutshell. The gospel of progressive Christianity is that no one has a God problem and, therefore, no one need mind God at all. Nothing to see here! As far as God is concerned, I'm okay and you're okay, so carry on everyone. This is how progressive Christianity becomes functionally atheistic, by making God irrelevant. 

So, problems to both sides. Evangelicals keep insisting you have a God problem when you don't. And progressive Christians, while correct that you don't have God problem, can't figure out what God is for if he's not your problem.

The issue with both positions, evangelical and progressive, is that we've reduced the drama of salvation to our relationship with God. Again, mainly due to the primacy of penal visions of atonement, salvation just is forgiveness. And when salvation is reduced to your relationship with God you swing between the evangelical and progressive errors. Evangelicals keep insisting a problem exists with that relationship, while progressives proclaim the relationship to be fine but can't think of why that relationship matters in the first place. 

So, what's the answer here? 

The answer is that we need to widen and deepen our view about what the New Testament means by salvation. Salvation is more than our relationship with God. Consider 1 Timothy 2.4, which proclaims that God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Clearly, you don't have a God problem. God loves everyone and desires to save everyone. 

So then why isn't everyone, automatically, saved? If God desires our salvation, isn't that enough? Well, yeah, if the only issue was God's love then, yes, that would be enough. Because God does love you. But the problem here is that salvation isn't just about God's love. Salvation is also about God's rescue.

Let me come at this from another angle. The gospel isn't just a love letter from God. To be clear, it is that. Calvary is a theophany, God's Love Letter to us come into view. That's my point in Parts 1 and 2. But the gospel is also described as power. That's the point of Part 3. Here's Paul in Romans 1.6: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."

Why power? If the gospel is just the message that God loves you, why the need for power? More specifically, why is the gospel the power for salvation? Why is salvation more than God writing "I LOVE YOU!" in big rainbow letters in the sky? 

Well, we need power because we're drowning. It's damned little consolation to be drowning and hear someone standing at the shore shouting, "I love you!" We'd yell back, "Thank you, very much! But assurances of your affection isn't what I'm needing right now. I need saving!" 

See the difference? 

But the question remains: How, and why exactly, are we drowning?

Again, both the evangelicals and progressives get confused on this point because both can't escape the notion that drowning is a God problem. This creates the muddled, mixed message of evangelicalism, where God is both drowning you and rescuing you; God is a lifeguard with dissociative identity disorder. Progressives, for their part, shout to drowning people "God loves you!" while people go under the waves. To be clear, progressives aren't that heartless. In their own minds, progressives don't think anyone is drowning and so spend their days shouting "You're not drowning!" to people standing on dry land. 

Both groups miss the point, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, that there is a "third power" at work in the drama of salvation. The reason we are drowning is due to the power of Sin, Death and the Devil. This is why the gospel message is more than a proclamation of God's affection for us but the invasion of God's power into our lives. Salvation is more than forgiveness, the solution to your God problem. Salvation is rescue, emancipation, freedom and liberation from dark cosmic powers. God loves you, yes, and He's trying to save you.

Hopefully you can see here how a fuller vision of salvation would help both evangelicals and progressives. A better theology of drowning would help evangelicals to stop blaming God for drowning us. And a better theology of drowning would help progressives start throwing some life preservers. 

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