Sunday, September 13, 2015

Are You Saved? If You're Sure You Are, Then You May Not Be… Here's Why

Are you saved?! If you live in the south like I do, then at some point you have probably heard this phrase either directly or indirectly. In a more religious age, such a question might have more rhetorical punch. However, in a culture which is essentially post-Christian, the question might come off like a bizarre non sequitur. To put it another way, what does this phrase even mean in an age which is post (post) modern? "Why yes, of course I'm saved, after all, there's really nothing to be saved from..." or perhaps, "Of course I'm saved… I'm a good person!"

From the standpoint of an Evangelical, things were never meant to turn out this way. The question was intended to be self-evident, and/or to lead to a deeper question about Jesus and the how one was to find salvation. Now in the most ironic mockery of the idea of being "saved by faith", the average person really does feel at peace about their eternal salvation, but not because of their faith in Jesus, but because, well, they just feel it in their heart. Yet between us folk who still think Jesus is necessary for salvation, what should we say about the specific requirements surrounding our eternal fate?  

According to some interpretations of Scripture, salvation is a relatively clear process. By grace you are moved to accept Jesus in faith, and by doing so you become justified in the sight of God... Signed, sealed and delivered. However, the minor (or major, depending on how you look at it) dilemma on this front, as acknowledged by many Christians themselves, is the fact that some Christians may not be sincerely saved in the first place (even when they claim to be), because they lacked the necessary sincerity at the moment when they claimed to have accepted Christ into their heart.

For those who acknowledge this fact, one Scripture passage may be particularly instructive; "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my heavenly father" (Matthew 7:21). Consequently, it seems relatively clear, based on this passage, why it is not so easy to say who's in, and who's out.

Another reason for the lack of certitude in these situations has to do with the fact that everyone about whom we are speaking is still on earth, and is not as yet, in the strictest sense, saved. There is a reason why they call this life a valley of tears. And so, in truth, until "every tear is wiped away", we cannot really say that we are completely "saved". Thus, it may be more accurate to say, in all humility, "I was saved, am being saved… and God willing, I will let Him finish the job!"

However, rather than go down the circular rabbit hole of trying to figure out (on earth) who has completely filled the requirements for one who is saved, and who has not (including those who have done so in a phony or unsatisfactory way), let us go up to heaven, so to speak, and find out.

In Matthew 25 we get a description of the Last Judgment. Most people are aware that "sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell" (to quote the band Cake), but what is rarely mentioned is why the sheep are particularly heavenly, and why the goats are particularly infernal. The truth is the final judgment has very little to do with poor genetic breeding, or rather if it does, it has far more to do with our subsequent treatment of the ill bred.

Jesus states that our final judgment is directly proportional to our treatment of the most poor. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus identifies so completely with the "least of our brethren", that he practically calls them Jesus. There is no other group or person, apart from the Father, with which he identifies more.

Still, the fact that we appear to be judged based primarily on our acts of mercy (not simply based on our acceptance of Christ in our heart), isn't even the most interesting and ironic part of the passage. The "kicker" on Judgment Day, at least from the standpoint of Matthew 25, is the fact that the people who are saved/condemned are apparently confounded by the nature of God's decision. Not only is judgment day, not merely a re-affirmation of those who thought they were saved, but it is practically the opposite!

From the standpoint of grace, as well as virtue (as opposed to vice), this makes a lot of sense. Grace is fundamentally an unmerited gift. And in order for a gift to be truly a gift, it must have some element of surprise. The greatest enemy of surprise is presumption. Presumption is to gratitude, what parasites are to good wood. Hence, the devil is in hell (along with the rest of the goats), not simply because they deserve hell, but, more importantly, because they "deserve" heaven. Heaven is owed to him. He is confounded, like all the rest of the goats in hell, because this is not the way things ought to have played out. He is obsessed with being right, but funny, he is not so much interested in being good for goodness sake.

Consequently, the souls in hell are already saved! In fact, they are so "saved", that they never had any need of salvation at all. They are good people. Worthy people. God is the one who is unjust.

On the other hand, the sheep are both elated and confounded because they can't believe that God would count them worthy to share in such a sublime gift. They are like the ones for whom a surprise party has been thrown, or rather the one who has, in spite of all the odds, won the lottery. Like St. Matthew pointing to himself, they say, "Who, me?" How is it that the Lord might come to me this day!? One is surprised because holiness is never presumptuous, while the other is miserable, because "naturally," the wedding feast should have been celebrated in their honor. One believes themselves to be saved, and thus good to go, while the other is saved because "goodness" is the last word they would use to describe themselves. For them virtue is an act of justice, or rather it is the result of God's generosity towards them.

To put it in the form of a fable, saints are a little like the Tortoise. The Hare has, by his own estimation, already won the race, and thus he loses it. While the tortoise keeps his head down and "peddles" never assuming anything. Quite the opposite, because he assumes that he may in fact lose the race, "he runs so as to win" (to quote St. Paul), and thus prevents himself from being "disqualified."

However, in fairness to those who do claim victory before it is firmly in their grasp, perhaps their confidence is like a battle cry. Perhaps it motivates them to press onward, not because of their own prowess, but because of the love they have for the One waiting for them at the finish line. And so like a lover's boast, they too declare from the rooftops their "victory" even as they continue to woo her unceasingly. Nevertheless, this does not change the importance of having a humble disposition as it relates to the Lord, a disposition which is inclined to boast of the Lord's goodness, yet one that never takes for granted, or presumes, that salvation and victory are firmly in hand, until they actually are.    

"Oh Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas."
                                                                                       -St. Philip Neri

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