Saved from God or saved by God?

Michael Westmoreland-White points to the website and blog of Ted Grimsrud, a professor of theology and religion at Eastern Mennonite University. Both sites focus on Christian pacifism in the Anabaptist tradition, particularly as represented by John Howard Yoder.

Prof. Grimsrud also has a series of essays on his site looking at core Christian doctrines. I read the chapter on salvation and really liked the way he framed the problem:

The theology I was first taught as a Christian implicitly told me that it was God from whom I needed to be saved. God is furious at each of us because of our sin. So we are doomed—and we fully deserve our doom. Our only way out is through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. God visits upon Jesus the violence we deserve because God must punish sin. Jesus is our substitute who saves us by paying the price required to satisfy God’s righteous anger.

I’ve never heard it put quite that way, but this really pinpoints the problem with what often passes for “traditional” atonement doctrine: it portrays Jesus as saving us from an angry God rather than portraying God in Christ as the origin and agent of our salvation.

Prof. Grimsrud goes on to argue that we aren’t saved from God, but saved by God. More specifically, God is not bound to some cosmic cycle of retributive violence that requires inflicting punishment on Jesus in order for God to forgive us, but instead seeks to heal us from the damage we inflict on others and ourselves when we turn away from trusting in God and put our trust in various idols.

He sees the salvation taught by Jesus as fully continuous with the salvation story of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. God acts to save without needing to be appeased, sacrificed to, or otherwise bought off, because it’s God’s nature to be merciful. “Contrary to many Christian soteriologies, for Jesus the salvation story of the Old Testament remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truthfulness of the old story.”

Jesus’s ministry of healing, forgiving, and proclaiming God’s love (exemplified in parables like the story of the prodigal son) leads to his death on the cross, but the cross is not a necessary condition for God being willing to save us:

Jesus’ death adds nothing to the means of salvation—God’s mercy saves, from the calling of Abraham on. Rather, Jesus’ death reveals the depth of the rebellion of the Powers, especially the political and religious human institutions that line up to execute Jesus. Even more so, Jesus’ death reveals the power of God’s love. Jesus’ death does indeed profoundly heighten our understanding of salvation. It reveals that the logic of retribution is an instrument of evil and that God’s love prevails even over the most extreme expression of (demonic) retribution.

Trusting in God’s love–the love revealed in the story of Israel and in Jesus–frees us to break the cycle of retributive violence (shades of Girard) and to live a life of celebration and “creative and healing nonconformity.”

This view also strikes me as being very similar to that of Clark Williamson, who argues that the salvation we receive through Jesus is the self-same salvation present in God’s covenant with Israel. Jesus does not make possible salvation, but re-presents God’s universal saving will. This universal, unmerited love of God and the ever-expanding love of neighbor it elicits are the two foci around which the Christian life revolves.

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4 thoughts on “Saved from God or saved by God?

  1. I don’t agree at all. There are certainly texts you can line up on both sides of the equation, but the general thrust of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching (not to mention the Torah and Prophets) is that God acts to save people from the forces that oppress them.

  2. You say “The CROSS is NOT necessary”! Wow! Hebrews 9:22 – “Without the shedding of BLOOD, there is no forgiveness of SINS.” The penalty needs to be paid and no one but JESUS CHRIST could pay that price by HIS BLOOD shed on the cross.” and again you say the CROSS is NOT necessary! Without the taking place we all would go to HELL (Separation FROM God).

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