A lot of ink has been spilled over where humans fit into the equation of their own salvation. What must humans do in order to be saved by God from the Curse of Genesis chapter three? Are we completely out of the equation? Is it truly God’s choice or has He given Mankind a choice of their own? If it is God choice alone and we have no control, why doesn’t He save everyone? If we have a choice, is God still Sovereign? These are all important questions in any soteriological study. If we are to approach these questions responsibly we must come to our conclusions through a proper understanding of the scriptural narrative.
In order to come to a conclusion we have to begin by getting our terms strait. What is it that we mean by “salvation?” what are we being saved from and to? It begins in the Genesis account. God creates a “very good” (Genesis 1:31) world in which nothing is corrupt and nothing is in need of salvation. The man and the woman lived without any shame. Then something happens. The man, Adam, and the woman, Eve, sin. Adam and eve eat of the tree of “knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). Something came in and covered up the good—corrupted it. Shame and death entered like an invader and Adam and Eve covered themselves. From that point on corruption began to get worse and made itself part of the existence which God created to be very good. Throughout the rest of the Scriptural narrative, God is mending the world—saving it—until the climactic event when the Messiah—God Himself—came and defeated the curse of shame and death by taking up the life of humankind into his own life. This Messiah, Jesus, offered the “Kingdom of God” which was the alternative to the curse. He called humankind to “repent”—to return to the beginning—to the good creation (Mark 1:14-15). God took up the sin of humankind into his own life died on a cross and was vindicated through resurrection bringing new creation through the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Through the Holy Spirit, humankind takes part in God’s Salvific work, implementing the new-creation-causing work of the Cross of Christ. The culmination of God’s salvific action is Revelation 21-22. Christ returns to His people in a unique way and brings forth the renewal of the world. He restores the good creation and brings it bursting into life once again. Once again God is walking with humankind without shame in a paradise of Eden. Salvation, in the Biblical Narrative, is a return to the Garden of Eden, so to speak. It is God bringing humankind back into a world without shame and death where the River of Life flows.
We find ourselves between the climax and the culmination—between Christ’s Cross and the Garden of Eden. We find ourselves in this place with the Holy Spirit as our guide toward the healing of the world. We have been called to join with God in restorative action. But are we working for our salvation? The Scriptures seem less interested in answering this question than we are. We have argued about it for years and have struggled to find an answer which is not explicit in the texts of Scripture. The Narrative leaves us with a paradox. God is saving everything but humankind can choose against him. In Revelation 21 there are some who do not enter into the new Eden. “But the Cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This will be the second death” (Rev. 21:8). What is this “fiery lake?” In contrast to the culmination of the salvific work of new creation, the fiery lake must be the culmination of the curse. So salvation is a return to Eden but it is also an escape from the curse.
Why are some left out of the New Creation? Either God has chosen to keep some from Salvation and leave them in the curse or humankind has a choice. From the Old Testament Scriptures to even Pauline texts there is a constant urging to choose rightly. In the Deuteronomy account God urges His people—“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, [that] I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life so that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). This call to choose life, rather than death rings loudly throughout the Biblical Narrative. God has called us to choose life over death—Eden rather than the Curse. Paul presents this dichotomy to us as well, calling us to live out our newly created lives. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Paul understood that we must live out our Salvation. We are not simply waiting on God but we are called to be active participants in the restorative act.
From this point we must ask the question, how is God sovereign if we have choice? Surely the work of Salvation is work only God can do—it is God’s work not ours. Why then, has God invited us to join Him in this work? My friend and pastor Nathan Barnes once gave a great analogy. Nathan told the story of when he was doing some remodeling on his home. Now Nathan is a pretty good craftsman, he could obviously have done this work on his own and in pretty good time as well. But there was a problem. Nathan’s son wanted to help and Nathan wanted to include him. Nathan’s son was not a good craftsman; in fact he was barely old enough to swing a hammer. Nevertheless Nathan, being the loving father that he is, allowed his son to help in the work that really only Nathan could do, thus slowing down the project and giving Nathan a little more work in keeping track of his son. Nathan’s story may help us understand this paradox. God, a good craftsman, wants to include us, who can barely swing the hammer in bringing restoration. So we “help” our father. It’s messier this way and a lot slower but nevertheless we’re in on it. The work of salvation is God’s work and we have been invited to participate as children.
It is therefore what we are participating with that we will eventually take part in. If we are participating with the life of Salvation—the new creation, then the trajectory of our life will culminate in glorious life. We are asking the wrong question. The necessity of human effort for individual salvation was not a question in the minds of the biblical authors. The effort, rather, is the exercise of Salvation. So, therefore works and salvation cannot be separated. If our lives are in participation with the curse of Genesis chapter three then we our lives will culminate in nothing but death. How does one participate? Is it only by action? Action cannot be separated from the heart. “Faith without works is dead” (James). But somehow this Salvation finds its way beneath the surface of our actions into our blood. How does this work? How can we fail yet at the same time be victorious? This must be left in mystery lest we tear from the arms of God an answer that cannot be given. Let us join with God in His Salvific work and hope in the Grace of God through which all who are saved are brought to life.