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Sin and Salvation, Wallowing and Wretchedness

Ask Greg!

Ask Greg!

by Greg Singleton


December 12, 2013


Q.  I know that Christianity has all to do with sin and salvation, but does there have to be so much wallowing in our wretched unworthiness?

The short answer:  No, there doesn’t have to be.  

Now for a slightly longer response: First, be assured that you are not alone in asking this question.  Most of us modern (and post-modern) folk have a particularly difficult time with some elements of traditional Western Christian soteriology.

Soteriology—it is a big word because it covers a large conceptual territory. Under this umbrella term we have wholeness, reconciliation, salvation, healing, well-being, sanity, and eternal life, just to name a few items.  Soteriology also necessarily deals with antecedent categories such as sin, fracture, separation, illness, insanity, death and damnation.  These words make many of us uncomfortable.  Be that as it may, those bothersome words are unavoidable.  Salvation, healing and wholeness are empty concepts without them.  But as necessary as those negative concepts are, they should not necessarily occupy a central place in Christian theology, and certainly not in a theology that is grace based and Gospel driven.

Because this topic is so big this brief piece will be longer than most entries you see in this place, but it is in fact all too brief.  I will assert a perspective, but you won’t find a compelling argument here.  For those who are interested in exploring these themes in greater depth, I will suggest further reading at the end of this brief piece.  This is, after all, a space to give you something to think about and not a place to find definitive answers.


In our own time one of the many ways in which Western Christians are divided is over the essence of soteriology.  Three broad modes of soteriology are currently dominant in our corner of Western Christianity, and they all manifest remarkable lack of nuance, depth, and sense of history: “Substitutionary / Vicarious Atonement”, “Therapeutic Theism”, and “God’s OK, You’re OK, We’re All OK.”

sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-godThe first of these (“Substitutionary / Vicarious Atonement”) places the soteriological emphasis on our sinful natures and the need for someone to be punished for what we have done.  This cluster of soteriologies have their origins in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Anselm and certainly can be inferred from some scriptural verses—for  example, 1 Peter 2:24 “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” Such passages are suggestive but do not mandate a punitive interpretation. Nevertheless, this view has been persistent over many centuries.  One thinks immediately of famous expressions in great literature and art: Dante’s poetic vision of those words “written, dim and darkly etched” above the gateway to hell,   “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (Abandon hope, you who enter here); Michelangelo’s fresco of the “Last Judgment”;   Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  The American Frontier Revival Movement provides us with less elegant, but no less powerful, examples of this soteriology in the popular homiletic style of “Hell Fire and Brimstone.”  Jesus, in this view, was/is our whipping boy.  He takes the punishment we deserve.

Inevitably “Substitutionary / Vicarious Atonement” produced a significant reaction.

In the eighteenth century some of our intellectual ancestors had a glimpse of the great light of reason capable of overcoming the burden of centuries of superstition and cosmologies that debased our species.  In the nineteenth century they developed a vision of the unique and noble individual human, than which nothing in the universe stood higher.  In the twentieth century they gave us permission to unfetter and even worship our egos.  

Thus we live in a religious world spawned equally from both a dualistic revival tradition and a monistic Enlightenment. It has been nurtured by nineteenth-century romantic individualism, and more recently validated in a contradictory culture of egocentric self-sufficiency ironically mixed with infantile dependence.  Thus a critical mass of our Christian sisters and brothers have hung on to the simple and not very biblical perspective of the sawdust trail, thus perpetuating a perspective against which one should rebel.  Another critical mass had jettisoned the need for a saving, healing and completing God yet wanting to hang on to the symbols, thus forcing us to question why we should bother with symbols shorn of content.  A third critical mass had come to believe that if you sin, so to speak, you’ll go to hell, as it were, thus trying to have it both ways.  There are two things wrong with this “both ways” formulation.  In addition to the equivocation (a nod to modern relativism), the concentration on sin and hell takes the emphasis away from God’s saving, healing and unifying power.  

I would suggest that Christian soteriology is at home in neither the hell-fire-brimstone tradition, nor in the Enlightenment-romantic / individualism-egocentric / self-worshiping matrix, nor in the ambivalent and equivocal spirituality of post-moderns with quasi-religious inclinations. The former actually focuses more on our nature than on the loving and saving character of God.  The latter two seek to redeem the human condition through human agency and obliterate the need for salvation by aggrandizing the human individual, often reducing God to the function of a cosmic restroom attendant. Both fail to realize that Christian soteriology is subordinate to and inseparable from the Gospel, and the Gospel makes no sense without an adequate soteriology.   In that sense the Christian faith is neither traditional, nor modern, nor post-modern.  The Gospel speaks to us from a culture of the Kingdom of God.  Christ calls us to baptism and compels us to enter fully into that culture.  A Christian soteriology is found in that matrix.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

So then, how do we keep salvation, healing and wholeness and jettison hellfire, brimstone and individual redemption?  And why do we want to drop individual redemption in any event?


Fortunately, we have a number of guides toward a Gospel-centered soteriology.  Some are ancient, some are medieval, and some are quite recent.  They are spread from the Levant to the Western Hemisphere.  As we will see, all of them have remarkably similar perspectives.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe help we get from Eastern Christianity is captured in one word, θέωσις (Theosis).  In contrast to a great deal (but not all) of Western Christian thought, the Eastern emphasis is not on our separation from God but on our reunion with God through Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The result of this reunion is the saving/renewing/healing of a broken world—indeed, a broken cosmos and bringing integrity—a wholeness—to the entire creation. This is not just about me, or you, or even the human species.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection the whole creation was made new.  This view is found throughout the teachings of Jesus in both the synoptic and Johannine Gospel literature as well as the Epistles.  A host of Eastern saints over the ages (e.g., Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Palamas) developed this basic concept into the powerful spiritual teaching that our destiny as Christians is to give ourselves over to the divinization that begins with baptism as we join ourselves to Christ.  We are called to be part of repairing that which is broken by losing ourselves in Christ—following John the Baptist in decreasing so that Christ may increase in us and in the whole world.  From this premise, soteriology branches rapidly in the Christology and Ecclesiology in such a way that the notion of individual redemption becomes irrelevant.  If we are joined to Christ, we are joined to each other.  I (we) will discover a greater wholeness if my (our) identity is not bound up in ego, but through our participation in Christ, the Communion of Saints, the Body of Christ.  It is in that union with Christ and communion through Christ with others and all of creation that our (and never my individual) salvation and wholeness is to be found.  This tradition of teaching strikes me as a compelling reason to abandon both the notion of individual redemption and the correlate “Substitution / Vicarious Atonement” cluster of soteriological doctrines.

Saint_Bonaventure_FransicianOf the many Western thinkers who have articulated a soteriology that placed more emphasis on divinization than atonement, the one I find most instructive is St. Bonaventure.  In most (but not all) of his writing on this topic, Bonaventure begins with a meditation on St. Francis.  Bonaventure’s emphasis is never on Francis’ becoming Christ or even becoming Christ like.  Rather it is in the Seraphic Father seeking union so strongly that he is willing to lose his individual ego it if becomes an impediment.  Bonaventure’s point is to underscore the totality of Francis’ commitment to the Gospel.   We need to go beyond words to proclaim the Good News.  Indeed, we must go beyond actions.  We should strive to be so centered in the union with Christ that our very presence—our very being—is a reflection of Christ.  This view of soteriology is embedded in the affirmation of the Gospel that Franciscan communities make at the end of each Eucharistic and other communal gatherings:

Guardian: Behold the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our life, our salvation, and our resurrection.

All: But as for me, God forbid that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.  It is therefore no longer I who live. Christ lives in me.  With Christ, I am nailed to the cross.  For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.We adore you, most holy Lord, Jesus Christ, and we praise you; here and in all your churches throughout the whole world, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Our last group of guides to this kind of soteriology began their work in the late twentieth century and it continues today.  After several decades of consultations between Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox theologians in Finland, the Lutheran theologians at the University of Helsinki began to study the similarity between discussions of theosis in early Eastern Patristic Literature and Luther’s development of the doctrine of Justification. This connection was not necessarily fortuitous.  Nicholas of Cusa, the great Germanic theologian of the fifteenth century whose work was known to Luther, was a leading Western advocate of theosis. A great many of Luther’s sermons echo the “union with Christ” theme found in so much of Bonaventure’s homiletic literature.  Indeed, Luther’s practical advice for Christians to become Christ to their neighbors resonates strongly with the entire tradition of theosis / divinization.  The Finns have opened up the implications of Luther’s contribution to this tradition for grace, Natural Law and metaphysics.

All of the above place the emphasis on our role as redeemed and reconciled members of the Body of Christ rather than the conditions that led to that redemption and reconciliation.  Therefore, rather than wallowing in our fallen state we rejoice while living our lives in union with Christ and one another.

I invite—actually urge—the reader to sample the literature cited in the brief listings at the end of this piece.  We can only skim the surface of the tip of the iceberg here. I would argue that the cluster of soteriologies that I have characterized as ““Substitutionary / Vicarious Atonement”” builds no bridges to Christology (our understanding of Gods’ expression through incarnation) and ecclesiology (our understanding of our corporate relationship with God in that thing we call “church”). I would further argue that the soteriologies embracing “Enlightenment” and “Individualism” diminish the importance of Christology and ecclesiology.  

So, what does all of this off-the-cuff theologizing about soteriology accomplish?  It takes us to a radical vision of what it means to be in Christ and have Him in us.  As the baptized we are now part of Christ and as such reside in a place variously called the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God and the New Creation.  In baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ.   We do so in order to live a new and eternal life in him.  It is not a pleasant little rite with the inconsequential result that we simply continue the life we had before baptism with a little Jesus sprinkled on for good measure.  

There is a simple way of making ourselves aware of the transformative outcome of this sort of soteriology—one that is ultimately rooted in our baptismal theology.   Upon waking each morning let us each make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our baptism; our death to the world and our resurrection in Christ to new life in Him.  

That seeker for union with Christ, Martin Luther, could have said that.  Come to think of it, he did.


On Substitutionary / Vicarious Atonement see Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, and John Piper, Pierced for Our Transgressions:  Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, 2007).  For a critique of this position, see Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005).  In the last few pages Finlan points to alternatives to these views of Atonement from within the tradition of orthodox Catholic thought, but the bulk of the book is given over to the critique.  For a detailed argument that “Substitutionary /Vicarious Atonement” is not consistent with biblical perspectives, see Charles A. Eberhart, The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

The classic statement of Therapeutic Theism first published in 1875, is Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health With Keys To The Scriptures (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors, 2000).   The most thorough analysis and critique of the general category is Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers: A Study Of The American Quest For Health, Wealth And Personal Power From Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965).  It has been twice revised:  The Positive Thinkers: Religion As Pop Psychology From Mary Baker Eddy To Oral Roberts (New York: Pantheon, 1980) and The Positive Thinkers: Popular Religious Psychology From Mary Baker Eddy To Norman Vincent Peale and Ronald Reagan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988).

For a representative example of “God’s OK, You’re OK, We’re All OK.”, see Joel Olsteen, It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, And Increase In God’s Favor (New York: Free Press, 2009).  For an interesting and insightful analysis of this broad category see Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of The Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).  Bloom suggests that this growing form of religion retains Christian rhetoric and symbols, but is basically a new expression of Gnosticism and his perspective is appreciative of this emergence.  For a more critical view, see Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of The American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2008).

On the strange mixture of revivalism, individualism and the Enlightenment, see Ellen Eslinger, Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1999); Henry F. May, The American Enlightenment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);  Lawrence Frederick Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991);   Richard O. Curry and Lawrence B. Goodheart, American Chameleon: Individualism in Trans-National Context (Kent, OH: Kent State University, 1991);  Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1978);  Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985)

For a sampling of similar thoughts on soteriology from a variety of Western Christian thinkers (as well as some examples of Eastern Theosis) over time see Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions, eds. Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2008).

For Eastern Orthodox soteriology see Timothy Kallistos Ware, How Are We Saved?  The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition (Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing, 1996)  and Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis  (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009).  Both of these are written for a modern audience, but will lead the reader to the ancient sources on Theosis.  Also see John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion:  Studies in Personhood and the Church  (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985) and Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2nd ed., 1997).  

For an example of a Medieval Western perspective that is akin to theosis, see The Disciple and the Master: St. Bonaventure’s Sermons on St. Francis of Assisi  Trans. Eric Doyle (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1983).  An excellent  introduction to Bonaventure’s life and thought is Ilia Delio, Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life Thought and Writings ( Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001) .  For an analysis of an Early Modern Western perspective see Nancy J. Hudson, Becoming God: The Doctrine of Theosis in Nicholas of Cusa. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007)

On the recent and continuing Finnish work on Luther and theosis, see R. Saarinen, Faith and Holiness: Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue, 1959-1994 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997);  Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson (eds), Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998);  Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005);  Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005),  and Tuomo Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).   While he studied with and became part of a Lutheran theological faculty, Kärkkäinen is Pentecostal and is now on the Faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary.  His book was published by a prestigious Roman Catholic Benedictine Press.  This movement has become truly ecumenical.

A note on Luther’s “union with Christ” explorations:   As would be expected, Luther echoed several Pauline Themes.  His sense of our each being Christ to one another underscores the broad understanding of intimacy with Christ that is found throughout the various Eastern theosis and Western divinization perspectives.  Ultimately, that is the goal for all Christians.  This stands in marked contrast to more limited possibilities of intimacy in a good deal of Medieval theological and political thought—limited to Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual (and through association with Lords Spiritual extended to all of the clergy as well); see, Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).


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