Liberal Salvation? What's THAT?

Friday night I wrote:
I would argue there is something wrong with too little distinction between these two groups (liberal Christians, and liberal non-Christians). I would argue that Christians should stand out in certain ways, and that the liberal Christian church in America has lost one of the core messages inherent in the Scriptures: we need a Savior; we are not enough.

So I think it's interesting to look at the question of salvation in the context of the liberal church in America. What does salvation mean in those traditions? What does sin mean?

There's a lot of baggage when discussing sin. All sorts of Catholic and fundamentalist imagery comes to mind, especially regarding guilt and shame - makes me feel like a little self-flagellation (whether literal or emotional). "Original sin" suggests we are, in our natural state, sinful. "Total depravity" implies there is nothing good that comes from us or through us, apart from Christ.

And there is probably truth in those, because I believe God is goodness, and that "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17) We do not always recognize Perfect Goodness for who it is, but that doesn't take away from the truth of its source.

Sin then, is whatever is other than good. Sin certainly, at times, is equivalent with common notions of evil. I do believe there is evil in the world - true evil - and that it is in direct opposition to God and to goodness. I may be treading on thin theology here, but I don't believe all sin is evil (in the common, present usage of the word). The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies evil merely as "what ought not to exist," and Wikipedia identifies the word "sinned" in Hebrew as chata, which means, "missed the mark." I say, some sin is no sexier than unhealthiness. And I think God wants us healthy.

I have a hunch that many liberal Mainline churches (one of which, I attend) have drifted away from talking about personal sin and even personal salvation because those concepts suggest a level of personal "evil" that is offensive to contemporary, educated, socially active, ecologically conscious, "good citizen" Christians. And maybe that's arrogance and self-righteousness. But perhaps we shouldn't be required to despise our humanity, or degrade our inherent nature, to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. I know I'm an asshole, I know I'm selfish and inconsistent, and I know I need Christ, but if I told you I believed I was truly evil apart from Christ... I'm not sure if I'd be telling the truth. You can disapprove, but would you be telling the truth? It reminds me of Jim Henderson (Off The Map) discussing people's "secret beliefs." His example: many faithful, traditional Christians have a hard time believing - in private - that their wonderful non-Christian friends are really doomed to hell. So privately, I don't think a lot of Christians would equate themselves with serial killers or terrorists or other predators. We have a cognitive distinction.

So what, then, do we need to recognize?

Liberal churches seem to focus more on systems of injustice and evil - "principalities and powers" - in their discussion of sin. Brian McLaren's book Everything Must Change deals in-depth with what he (and Len Sweet) call the "Suicide Machine" of human governments, cultures, systems and societies.

I won't complain about that focus, because we need to be looking at these systems. But systems are made up of individuals, and if individuals can't acknowledge or accept personal transformation, then the systems built by individuals will likely never be transformed from the inside - only fought head-on, by what eventually become mirror principalities and powers: opposite in agenda but identical in maneuver.

Wellman's book, Evangelical vs. Liberal, wrestles with why liberal churches have done such a poor job recruiting new members. It is in terms of this "Gospel message." Maybe at their core, many non-Christians are looking for a story of personal redemption, a source of strength and hope beyond human limitations. Maybe liberal churches underestimate that perceived need for salvation from sin - from unhealthiness - from dysfunction - from selfishness - and yes, perhaps even from evil.

If we can begin to repaint the narrative of salvation through Jesus Christ in terms of responding to hope for personal completion rather than guilt over personal badness, perhaps the message can get through. It's not a new message, it's a very very old one: I need help getting through this life. I'm not powerful enough to save myself. I am messy, limited, and I am scared.

In Jesus' name, may we all be saved from the dispair pumping thickly through this afflicted ecosystem.



Chris Brundage said...

Good points in this post. I think people in mainline churches hunger for a personal message of wholeness and forgiveness. Peace to you.

Existential Punk said...


You make some interesting points yet on this post i have to disagree with you.

i just kinda feel hopeless for the greater Christian church at large. Europe is a good 15 to 20 years ahead of us in becoming post-Christian and i think we in the USA are not far behind.

People i meet either want nothing to do with either evangelical or mainline churches. They are either anti-church or ant-GOD. i think the emerging churches for the most part have become a safe-haven for disaffected evangelicals and mainliners already committed to Christ but want something more and who are questioning their long-held pat beliefs.

i don't know if mega churches continue to grow b/c it is easy to hide and not be accountable or what.

The Christian Right has hijacked the Republican Party and if it moves more morally conservative will render itself obsolete. i really think Western Christianity in the USA is on the verge of obsoletism as well.

I wonder why the charismatic movement is thriving in the Southern Hemisphere like S. America and Africa?

Your thoughts, Pete?


Peter said...

I'm so glad you disagreed here because you pointed out the core weakness of the argument: we are in a post-Christian society, and "growing the church" in terms of what we experienced through Modernity is not only unlikely - it is probably undesirable.

I think there will always be a role for organized churches in the West, but as with western Europe, it will probably be more as a symbol of carried-on tradition, rather than the vibrant center of spiritual growth.

However, in the present moment, there is more - I believe - that liberal churches could be doing to attract non-Christians away from the highly-publicized evangelical conversion efforts.

I would even argue that a liberal church that taught a more personal story of salvation would resonate very similarly to an "emerging" church.

I'd say that ORIGINALLY, the Republican Pary hijacked the Christian Right, but now the tables have turned and the Republicans can't seem to shake them off.

My hunch is that mega-church growth is more closely associated with modern success-and-prosperity/self-improvement movements as with Dr. Phil or Oprah Winfrey than with Christianity. Joel Osteen has more in common with Tony Robbins (apart from personality) than with Billy Graham. Additionally, mega-churches are "high-modern" country clubs, offering comfortable moral certainty, along with political and social status and prominence.

That's not to say people aren't encountering the living God in those places - only that I believe those places are successful for a number of reasons entirely separate from radical, spirit-led growth (and I do apologize for how judgmental that sounds).

I think that the 3rd World Church continues to explode because Christianity is, by its nature and history, a diaspora religion - constantly blooming and growing at the edges, always "burning out" at the stable middle (what's that say against "middle ground?" A lot, I think).

Christianity was never meant to be a religion of power (Rome, Medieval Europe, United States...). Power corrupts - so does wealth. A little incompatible with dying to yourself and living the Beatitudes.

Peter said...

Also, Adele, you said "i just kinda feel hopeless for the greater Christian church at large."

And I feel you. But my hope is that in the death of Christianity in the West, we'll rediscover a new way of being the Body. It may take religious, programmatic death to bring that about.

Post-Christendom may be just what the doctor ordered.

Existential Punk said...

Have you heard about Phyllis Tickle's newest book, "The Great Emergence"? It is supposed to be really good.

Peter said...

Yes, but have not read beyond the back cover at Borders. I like her, and from what I've heard, that book is really going to be at the forefront of emerging church dialogue for some time.

Chris said...


Interesting thread here. I've never met you, but can almost assuredly say that you're not truly evil apart from Christ. HOWEVER (and didn't you know that there was gonna be a however), it doesn't have anything to do with being truly evil.

James 2:10 says, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."

Plain and simple, that is why we need Christ. We cannot keep God's law. We all fail in one or, in my case, multiple points. God's grace and Christ's death is what snatches us from the flames of hell.


Peter said...

Chris, thanks for the visit! I think you're right - that we do fall short because we ARE sinful. My complaint is with "sin language" as it carries a lot of baggage and inference: evil, depravity and the like.

I don't think it's a betrayal of Christ or a disservice to the beauty of grace to rethink our language. We are in need, we lack power and means to redeem ourselves - to transcend our messy, earthbound lives. Christ doesn't bring ONLY forgiveness (the primary focus of atonement language) but ALSO peace, hope, strength and healing. It is in all these gifts, including forgiveness, that Christ's transformation works its way through our lives.

Thanks again for dropping by!

Chris said...


It is dangerous to change the language as changing the language changes the meaning.

The whole, "I need Jesus to fill a hole in my heart," is errant. It brings thousands, if not millions, to 'faith' in Christ, but are they born again? Probably not. Plus it does those folks a disservice. They almost begin to think Jesus is a magic pill, when he's not in the manner of fixing all of our lives here on Earth. He actually promises the opposite several times.

The language of sin, like it or not, is essential. Christ is truly the beginning and the end, so he brings so much to us, but first and foremost he brings us salvation from damnation because God knew we couldn't tow the line.

Why is that a bad message? It's an awesome message. It's the message of the Gospel.

Peter said...

I hear you Chris, but I don't think I'm suggesting changing any language that's actually biblical. My complaint is with the "errant" langage adopted by contemporary church culture.

Jesus said, "follow," not, "admit you're a dick," but I'm sure the implication was likely both. As you said, I'm quite comfortable rethinking the language surrounding Christianity - particularly the language that is cultural, vs. Scriptural.

I'm probably more comfortable thinking "creatively" about Scriptural language too, but I can tell the difference between the two, and certainly understand and respect aprehension specifically about that.

I think I can hold to the entire dialogue of this string without even needing to touch Scripture. The heart of the problem is in the cultural baggage we bring.

But I'd still be careful about the "changing the language" argument, as the LANGUAGE is ancient Hebrew and Greek. We can't even approach the Scriptures without changing the language. "Jesus" wasn't even his name.

I finished a year (just an introduction, really) of Biblical Hebrew, and I was amazed at how differently "literal" interpretations are from much of what we have in our modern translations. Translators, by nature of their job, have to make choices that impact what comes to the reader.

We don't refer to the Spirit of God as "she" but the ancient Jews did.

Fun (and dizzying) topic that I'm not well-equipped for ;)

Chris said...

I'm not equipped for that topic either, but I still rest on the fact that all major translations have been put up to major scholarly discussion.

I don't think Jesus wants us to admit we're dicks, but admit we are sinners through and through. Without him we are doomed. Plain and simple.

I also agree that he said to follow him. Which if we're really doing, we'll again realize how short we fall and how much we need him.

Our conversations promise to be interesting, I'm sure.

God bless,


Sarah said...

Peter, my brother, I am out of time for reading today. :-) Hopefully I will catch up on the rest of your blog soon. Maybe you could slow down on the posts? You've been writing like crazy!

Thanks for the thoughts. You make me think, and I may have some response posts soon.

Hope you had a lovely Christmas. Thanks for staying in touch.


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