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; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure.
I am what some would call a “Cradle Methodist.” I was born into the United Methodist Church and raised there, and here I am twenty-five years later. My mother was always a part of the UMC; my father married into the denomination and eventually became a United Methodist local pastor. Growing up in the United Methodist Church in a smaller community, I experienced what many other Methodists experienced: a large Baptist church right across the street. Many of my friends were Baptist, and I even attended both United Methodist and Baptist youth groups in high school. Invariably the question would arise that no “Cradle Methodist” is trained to answer:
“When were you saved?”
Short of saying, “In the Beginning” or “Palestine in the early 30s in the 1st Century” I had no idea how to answer this question. Possibilities reeled through my mind:
1) When I was baptized as an infant
2) When I had my first realization that there was a God that created the universe and that this God knew and loved me
3) When I returned from confirmation camp at age twelve and affirmed the vows of my baptism, thus becoming a baptized professing member of the United Methodist Church
4) When I first decided that the life and teachings of Christ were things that I was willing to commit my vocational life to – with the help of God
What the inquisitive youths desired to know was my S.P.O.T. – “special place or time” – that Jesus saved me. Telling them I affirmed my baptism through confirmation did not seem to satisfy them. I have met many youth (and even some adults) in the United Methodist local church arena who share a similar experience. What does the Christian who did not have a radical conversion experience say to satisfy someone looking for a S.P.O.T.?
Consider now the story of Saul and Ananias in Acts 9:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision* a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
My move to embracing the Christian faith on my own did not match up with Saul’s story. I was not living and behaving one way, discovered the risen Christ, and began a dramatic new way of living. One might say that my relationship with God through Christ is not conversional in nature. Now, Ananias – there’s a part of the story I can get behind. When we meet Ananias, he is already a follower of the Way, and is shown in dialogue with God without fear or trembling, as though he was accustomed to the Divine being present in his life. This is what we might call a more conversational relationship with God through Christ.
Therefore, I began to answer the “saved” question by utilizing Acts 9 and then relating myself more to Ananias than to Saul. Yet, even this move – identifying with one who cannot remember when they were not a follower of the Way, one who is seen as already comfortable in his dialogue with the Divine – did not completely satisfy. After all, is the road to Damascus not a S.P.O.T.? Is Ananias’ home on Straight Street, with the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, not a S.P.O.T. both for Saul and Ananias? It must have taken more than a modicum of courage for Ananias to welcome this man, to lay hands on him and feed him, and to call him “brother.”
God assured Ananias. I like that word. Assurance. An assurance was given to Ananias by God that he would be doing God’s will by working with Saul. I could definitely see a S.P.O.T. ideology working well with an idea of assurance rather than an idea of salvation. Even Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, had a S.P.O.T. he remembered vividly when he received his assurance from God:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
May 24th, 1738, at 8:45 p.m. in Aldersgate Street. That seems to be a Special Place Or Time for Wesley. An assurance was given Wesley, who was raised in a religious household full of clergy and dedicated laypersons. Indeed, it was after this experience that he wrote his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” outlining preventing grace, justification, and sanctification that would be classified by Albert Outler and other sermon cataloguers as “Sermon No. 1” (even though he had been preaching for several years before writing this one in 1738). In this story, the salvation is already there; Wesley was simply made more keenly aware of it through the assurance of the Holy Spirit at the reading of Luther’s preface to Romans. He uses these phrases in “The Scripture Way of Salvation to denote the three types of grace:
Preventing Grace: “All the Drawings of the Father”
Justification: “The forgiveness of all our sins” and “Our acceptance with God”
Sanctification: “Born again” “Born from above” “Born of the Spirit” “The love of God shed abroad in our heart” and “Expelled” into the community
I wish now to convey here that assurance can certainly be a S.P.O.T. The story of my calling into ministry contains a S.P.O.T. so vivid that I can still see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the event when I share it with individuals, Sunday School classes, campers, and congregations. However, because of my upbringing and my story, I can’t reconcile the idea of salvation with the idea of a S.P.O.T.
Even the grammar and syntax become problematic for me. Let’s explore the problem:
“I was/got saved.”
This is a linear statement. It is past tense. This statement, to me, places salvation as a point in history that is to be looked upon when reflecting on the past. There is a chronology to this statement. It leads me to feel out the unspoken implications of the statement that serve as the middle and end of this linear beginning. “I was saved. Because I was saved I am always saved. Because I am saved I am going to heaven.” Maybe I’m wrong here, but I feel like the statement “I got saved” is merely a reflection on a past event and emphasizes only the beginning and the ending: I got saved, and I will go to heaven when I die.
“I got saved,” while allowing for the movement of prevenient and justifying grace, does not take sanctification into account. Where is the moving on to live in Christian perfection? Where is the rest of the story that takes place in between getting saved and going to heaven?
I also feel like an “I got saved” ethos doesn’t fit well in a denomination that celebrates an open table, but again that might just be me. What were those wonderful lyrics that Charles penned?
Come sinners to the Gospel feast | let every soul be Jesus’ guest | Ye need not one be left behind | For God hath bid all humankind
Now let’s consider a worked-out salvation, one reminiscent of our beginning passage from Philippians, an idea of salvation that is less linear:
“I am working out my salvation” or “I am (continually/always/ever) being saved” or “I am living out salvation”
This statement is less linear. It is focused less on a particular event located in the past. It is present progressive in tense. It is an action that is continually taking place in the present. It is less focused on the beginning and ending and more focused on the middle, the living out of salvation and the receiving of grace. This leaves room for consideration of sanctification.
“I got saved” ends with justification, but “I am being saved/I am continually/always/ever being saved” never ends! In his sermon “On the Marks of New Birth” Wesley writes:
Say not, “I was once baptized, therefore I am a child of God.” How many are gluttons and drunkkards, liars and thieves, extortioners and evil-sayers, common swearers and whoremongers?
An “I got saved” theology focusing on a S.P.O.T. is not about sheep and goats, wheat and chaff. It is about a line from John Wesley’s sermon “On Knowing Christ After the Flesh” in which he deals with those who exercise
“Too much familiarity with the great Lord of Heaven…”
An “I am continually being saved” theology does not confine the work of Christ to a point in history but allows that work to be seen as standing both inside and outside of time with the resurrection. We might think of Good Friday as a S.P.O.T., but the resurrection of Christ cannot be contained to a single point in history. The resurrected Christ is timeless.
This kind of idea also changes the idea of salvation from too heavily emphasizing an us vs. them community. We come to view people differently. Wesley writes
“We regard no man according to his former state – his country, riches, power, or wisdom. We consider all men only in their spiritual state, and as they stand related to a better world.”
In short, I don’t think the phrase “I got saved” is heresy or unusable; I simply feel it doesn’t go far enough in conveying what it really is that Christ does for us. It is in the process of working out salvation daily that we seek earnestly and are forced to focus on “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and less upon “When we all get to heaven, in the sweet by and by, just beyond the river.” Like Christ, our salvation story must not be bound up in history. We rightly sing the words of Bryan Wren in worship:
Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine! He comes to claim the here and now, to live in every place and time!
I leave you with Wesley’s famous metaphor of the three types of grace as a house
Prevenient Grace: the porch. Justifying Grace: the door. Sanctifying Grace: the exploration of the rooms of the house.
Prevenient Grace is the porch. The Holy Spirit has intervened in such a way that you have been made unmistakably aware that you have been invited to God’s house, short of it falling on your head in a Lewis Carroll fashion. You wander onto the porch because the house has been there all along but you were so used to walking past it that the house may have blended into the scenery, or you simply never stopped to consider the path you were walking day after day.
You respond to the invitation to God’s house as you would to any invitation: you say yes. You open the door. You live into the invitation to come inside. This is justification. This is the I got saved portion of the salvation experience. This is the S.P.O.T. I opened the door on XX/XX/XXXX at XX:XX. We may always see opening that door as a special place or time, but we can’t end the story there.
Indeed, you aren’t finished yet. Your adventure in living out your salvation continues, and your journey to perfection in Christ is going to continue until you die. This is sanctification. This is the love of God shed abroad in your heart and expelled into the community. This is exploring the many rooms of God’s house. This is a salvation that is continually occurring in the present.
Now when people ask me, “When did you get saved?” I answer, “I am saved. I am continually being saved. I am living out salvation.” Salvation and resurrection cannot – must not – be solely looked back upon, but simultaneously looked back upon, continually lived out in the present, and looked forward to, until Christ comes in final victory and we all feast at his heavenly banquet.
“I got saved” is a part of the salvation story, perhaps by means of assurance, but it is not the whole story.