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Do Christians Need a New “Plan of Salvation”?

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Now and then we hear someone criticize a preacher for not preaching the “plan of salvation.”

The critic is usually concerned that the church’s proclamation is veering away from an emphasis on personal salvation and into theological questions, social issues or (heaven forbid) the economic and political implications of the gospel.

We understand that the traditional formula (We are sinners / Jesus died for our sins / Accepting him as personal Savior restores our relationship with God) is intended to express the life-transforming power of accepting Jesus as one’s personal disclosure of the redemptive grace and mercy of God.

But we also know that the formula can privatize one’s understanding of salvation and cause it to be separated from life’s other dimensions – the social, the economic, the political – becoming in effect what one wag has described as a “get out of hell free” card.

Seeking to understand biblical faith has often led to formulas that capsule an understanding for ease of remembrance and education.

Ancient Israel embraced the “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6 as a summary of their complex covenant faith. Paul summarized his own conversion with the memorable and still used line, “By grace are we saved through faith.” The early church grappled with their experience of one God with diverse manifestations and gave us the concept of the Trinity.

Modern evangelical Protestants have emphasized a theological framework of sinful humanity, sacrificial and substitutionary atonement, and personal responsibility for public acceptance in what we know as the “plan of salvation.”

This formula has been the midwife of many a new birth into the Christian family, and it remains the framework of thought that supports many a Christian pilgrim.

But we have learned, sometimes with regrettable consequences, that over time formulas can become more important than the truths they intend to affirm and to which they were meant to point.

“Salvation by grace through faith, and not by works” can lead to a kind of belief that separates faith from concrete expression and tolerates all manner of abuse, exploitation and injustice.

The doctrine of the Trinity can become a template whose precise language and categories tend to define God rather than point to God’s mystery.

Because of time-honored use, formulas can both reduce and overshadow the larger message of the biblical witness.

I wonder if we might consider a “plan of salvation” that moves beyond saying yes to a three-step formula and recalls some persistent features of the experience of our ancestors in the faith.

Recall the climax of the patriarchal stories, where the rejected brother, Joseph, becomes the agent of God’s redemptive mercy to his brothers and father.

Recall the prophets who powerfully connect the covenant faith with efforts on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the vulnerable, and the victims of injustice.

Recall Jesus’ own identity of his mission to preach the good news to the poor, liberation for the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. Recall his response to Peter’s three-time declaration of his love: “Take care of my sheep.”

Recall the decisive scene in Matthew 25, where faith is identified with compassionate service to the weak and vulnerable “least of these,” rather than with efforts to provide security for privilege.

Recall Paul’s affirmation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that he has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

Recall the book of Revelation’s announcement, “Behold the dwelling of God is with people ….”

With much respect for both the intention and the practice of applying the time-honored “plan of salvation,” I wonder if there would be value in weaving a broader “plan” from these threads that are so prevalent in Scripture.

Moving beyond a concern for our personal standing before God and accepting the invitation to a partnership in God’s agenda would seem to be the essence of the journey of faith we claim to be ours, and a faithful stewardship of the heritage that generations of ancestors in this family have bequeathed to us.

Maybe Scripture invites us to let one important question – Have we accepted Jesus as our personal Savior? – mature into another: Are we aligning ourselves with what is disclosed by Jesus and the rest of the biblical witness as God’s redemptive plan for all people and their planet, and are we accepting God’s invitation to a covenant partnership in the working out of that agenda?

Would that preach? I wonder.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.