Salvation as a Human Right? (pt 3 of 3)

(Continued from Part 2)       (Or you can start with Part 1)

If looking at salvation as a human right can be seen as valid, then the question is whether it is useful. What, if anything, can be gained from this perspective. Here are a few VERY TENTATIVE suggestions.

  1. It firmly places salvation within a community. It has been common for Christians, especially Evangelical Protestant Christians to focus on the individualistic aspect of salvation. That is quite valid, but the Bible expresses salvation in both individualistic and communitarian terms. In this sense it is more like the public health perspective. Lostness in an individual is a social ill, a failure for the individual members to flourish to their potentials.

  2. Lostness would be seen as a problem. If condemnation is getting what one deserves, then one might argue that condemnation is not really a problem. If salvation is a human right, then lostness is a problem that must be addressed.

  3. It does condemn community complicity in lostness. The public health perspective, or the disease model, is often seen avoiding judgment. This is especially true in the United States, but also true in places like here in the Philippines. When we label a social ill as a disease, many people decry that saying that pulls it out of ethical scrutiny. There is nothing inherent to that, of course. To call addiction a disease does not remove moral issues or judgment from it. Still, the public health perspective does tend to downplay the ethical. Identifying hunger as a public health problem certainly does get people thinking about what can be done to solve the problem. However, if one says that it is a human right for each person to have enough food daily to live, then there is a more clear condemnation of any society that accepts the condition where some people in the society do not have enough food to eat, while there is overall enough food to go around. Likewise, if salvation is a “public health” problem, then it is a problem that must be rooted out and addressed. On the other hand, if salvation is a basic human right, then the community that makes salvation unavailable, through inaction or through making salvation appear undesirable, is held accountable for this. It other words, embracing an ancient metaphor, if the church holds the “keys to the kingdom,” then if people find the door locked, then the church is culpable.

  4. Seeing salvation as a human rights issue balances the focus between God and Mankind. In the criminal justice perspective, God is the standard, the judge, the mediator, and the provider of salvation. This is not wrong. With the public health perspective, salvation is seen as a more human activity. It is a disease that must be rooted out, from causes, the hindrances, to opportunities, and then to holistic transformation and flourishing. God is there, but the human aspect is given greater attention. This is not inappropriate. However, the human rights perspective draws from both. It takes seriously our humanity and communal responsibility for making salvation available, and living out our salvation. However, salvation as a human right only has real meaning if understood as instituted by God.

So is one perspective right and the others wrong? There is great benefit to intersubjectivity or multi-perspectival understanding. Each overcomes the weakness of the other, giving a fuller understanding of what is real– God’s activity for us.

Salvation as a Human Right? (pt 2 of 3)

(Continuation from Part One)

In Evangelical circles, at least, salvation has been classically framed in a CRIMINAL JUSTICE model. We are all sinners, guilty before God, the judge. Salvation is only available through the payment of the judgment against us… that price was paid by Jesus. This is a perfectly fine way of looking at salvation, but of course, it is just a way of looking at it. It is a perspective that does not actually change salvation, just how it is acted upon. This view comes off more individualistic. Also, from a community perspective, the responsibility appears a bit muted since it is seen as primarily a contract between the person and God. Ultimately, however, if someone dies unsaved, it can be interpreted as “getting what he deserved.”

Another perspective a consideration of salvation is through the lens of PUBLIC HEALTH. This main seem odd at first, and yet not only is this perspective with us, it is quite strong. An early adopter of this view in the 20th century was Medical Ambassadors with the development of CHE or Community Health Evangelism. The view is that evangelism needs to have a perspective that is broader than simply a “get out of jail free card.” In fact, a more holistic approach is needed, with the understanding that salvation is meant to be transformative. The concept of Shalom as a condition of spiritual, physical, mental, and social well-being is emphasized.

But what about salvation as a HUMAN RIGHT? From the criminal justice perspective, or metaphor, such a statement appears to be ridiculous. After all, would it not be accurate to say that all humans are deserving of condemnation rather than salvation. This is the basic message of the first two verses of the Romans Road (Romans 3:23; 6:23). However, a perspective is merely that— a way of viewing something. This does not affect the thing itself. As such, all that is really needed is to establish that the perspective has validity, and that it is useful.

Could it be valid to say that salvation is a human right? Since salvation is from God, the concept of a “human right” in this case must clearly come from God. So what might God have revealed that would support the idea that salvation is a human right?

  • Much of Biblical Anthropology is established in the first three chapters of Genesis. According to this section, mankind (male and female) were created by God in His image. There has been a lot of ink used to argue what to make of mankind being created in God’s image, some of which is non-sensical. However, less controversial would be that mankind was a good and intentioal creation of God, that mankind was intended to have a unique yet harmonious position in the created realm, and mankind was meant to have a unique and harmonius relationship with God. In other words, mankind was created to live in a state of salvation— or in a sense to never need saving because the relationship was not broken in the first place.

  • The rest of the Bible maintains the intertwined threads of righteousness (right relationship with God) and salvation (the process to have that right relationship). One can go to one of the most oft memorized verses in the Bible, John 3:16, to see the follow-on to Genesis (and foreshadowed in Genesis 3:15). God’s love of the cosmos (mankind) compels Him to act so that salvation, restoration of harmony, between God, mankind, and the rest of creation can be available to all.

Now if you bring these together, the result is that God created mankind (each person) to live in a “saved state” and with mankind’s failure/fall, has acted for all, to make that state possible.

I think that it would make it valid to say that salvation (or living in a state of “savedness”) is a human right. For one not to be saved is genuine failure to possess whatever is actually their right. This doesn’t cancel out the criminal justice or public health perspectives, but provides another complementary view.

(I am well aware that there are those of the Limited Atonement camp that would argue against both of my above points. In the end for them, God has created some for salvation and some for condemnation. As such, one could neither view salvation as a human right, nor Christ’s sacrifice as their gift of love from God. However, the Biblical and Theological challenges with that perspective appear to me to outweight the interpretive ease it provides for a relatively few verses. For me I have to view it as a sub-biblical perspective.)

(Continued in Part 3)

Salvation as a Human Right? (pt 1 of 3)

I have been reading the essay, “Women Confronting State-Instigated Violence” by Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana. This is not normally the type of writing I would be reading, but it was part of a book that was gifted to me by Father Terry from Aglipay Central Theological Seminary. The book is a collection of essays and poems of female theologians in the Philippines. So far it is an interesting read. The writer of this particular essay noted three fairly rapid transitions that have occurred in looking at an addressing Violence Against Women (VAW).

One phase goes back a few decades, particularly the 1970s, where VAW was seen in terms of CRIMINAL JUSTICE. To address concerns regarding violence against women, laws had to be changed, and the way existing laws are interpreted or applied also had to change. In the early 1990s there was a transition towards seeing things as a PUBLIC HEALTH issue. Violence is a symptom of an overall sociological sickness that needs to be addressed much like many other illnesses. One can’t simply punish or quarantine those who act violently, one must root what causes violence and creates the environment where such violence flourishes. In other words, one must discover and cause of the contagion, and eradicate the supporting environment and carriers.

By the mid-1990s, things had changed further and there was a growth of seeing violence in terms of HUMAN RIGHTS. The way women are to be treated is not simply a matter of legal violation, culturo-social malady, but is a supracultural violation of what should be expected based on, well, being human.

I have known some Christians who balk at this term “human rights,” noting that such rights are generally agreed upon by mutual consent, rather than based on anything indubitable. In a sense this is obvious, but such a statement is not particularly useful. Of course— we are born without warning labels, warrantees, or operating manuals. As such, we have three choices. One choice is to say that since we come with no contractual obligations, we can act however we want. People can be bought and sold as chattel, tortured or blessed at the whim of those who who have the power to have their wills acted out. If that choice is undesirable (and I certainly think it is) another option would be as a people to agree that there are certain inalienable rights. Perhaps these can be seen as derived from natural law, or perhaps they can be seen as drawn from cultural values. Either way, it is a human-based agreement. A third option is to see human rights coming from God. With this view, human rights exist because God seesthem existing supraculturally, and has then made them known to us through divine or special revelation.

For Christians, such revelation would be seen, primarily, as the Bible. The Bible says that certain behaviors are right and certain are wrong. They can be seen in terms of Law— matter of keeping the law or breaking it. Another way would be to look at them as sociologically healthy (“It is not just the law, it is a good idea,” societally.) But it can also be seen a a statement of basic rights. We have a basic right to not be murdered, to not be stolen from, to be trained up in a nurturing family and community. Anything less than this is a violation of the rights that we have as revealed by God.

These three perspectives do not change reality. Rather they change perception. VAW exists and that existence is unaffected by how it is viewed. However, a different view can lead to a different response.

So I was thinking about these three views as it relates to Salvation— a strange thing to think about, I grant you. I wondered how salvation may be seen in terms of Criminal Jusitice, Public Health, and Human Rights.

Continued in the next post

Salvation versus Conversion. Missiological Implications

The Great Commission
The Great Commission (Matthew Version) Image via Wikipedia

I believe missionaries/evangelists should focus on “salvation” more than “conversion.” Of course, there are so many different meanings for the terms, I will give what I mean by them. If you don’t like the definitions… I understand.

Conversion is a single, one-time divine event where a person transitions from a state of judgment to a state of grace, being adopted into the family of God.

Salvation is a process that starts at birth, goes through a time of searching to divine justification (freedom from the penalty of sin) through to a process of sanctification (increasing freedom from the power of sin) and ultimately to eternal glorification (freedom from the presence of sin).

A lot of people think of salvation as a one-time event… but I think that theologically speaking, that concept really applies to conversion/adoption/justification/redemption. So one might say that “I am redeemed” but also say “I am BEING saved.” However, even if you don’t like terms as they are used, I think you can agree that these are reasonable concepts (at least within the Evangelical understanding of Christianity). Term “A” refers to a one-time “saving” event. Term “B” refers to a process of growth leading to eternal life (that includes the salvific event).

8 Reasons for focusing on salvation (process) rather than conversion (event) in missions.

  1. The Great Commission (Matthew version especially) sees mission work in terms of life process. Go into all the world and preach the Gospel (share God’s word to all), baptizing them (those that are responsive), and teaching them to obey (long process of sanctification). There is no “fire and forget” in missions. The John version suggests we are sent out in like manner and calling the Jesus was sent out by the Father. This also suggests a broad understanding of our mission since the mission of Christ was broad.
  2. Overemphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer. While the “Sinner’s Prayer” is a nice encapsulation of some basic Gospel truths, it is just words. We are saved by faith, not by words. Maybe in some parts of the world this is not a problem… but in the Philippines, it is easy to get people to say some words if you do some act of kindness for them. Telling a person of faith that they are not saved because they haven’t said the sinner’s prayer is wrong. Telling a person who says the sinner’s prayer that he/she is saved regardless of heart condition is dangerous.
  3. It tends to disconnect “faith” from “faithfulness” and the cognitive from the volitional and active parts of our being. Overemphasis on the one-time experience can confuse us into thinking of faith as a momentary cognitive logical assent. However, faith without faithfulness is not faith. Faith without volitional and active involvement is not real faith. I am not arguing for losing one’s salvation. I am not arguing for a works-based salvation. I am simply pointing out that the idea that faith is simply a “mental assent to a doctrinal truth” is not well-grounded. We should be emphasizing that a Christian is to live a faithful life, choosing daily to follow Christ, ignoring temptations to go astray. A Christian perhaps can be converted without faithfully following Christ, but a young follower of Christ should understand this person to be abnormal… a mutant of sorts. We need to focus on the Christian as a faithful follower/disciple of Christ.
  4. Focusing on conversion tends to make us stereotype non-Christians. Non-Christians may be hard or soft atheists, closed or open agnostics, ignostics, are an innumerable broader range of religious/philosphical and emotional convictions. If conversion is our goal in every gospel presentation, then every presentation without a conversion response is a failure. However, if one recognizes that some non-Christians are completely ignorant, or woefully misinformed about Christ and living as a follower of Christ, then any conversation that leads to a better understanding and brings them to a point that they can ultimately start to follow Him, is a successful conversation. This is the Engel Scale in action. Likewise, if someone is hostile to Christ, and is brought toward a more positive attitude about Christ and following Him, then this also was a success. This is the affective axis on the Gray Matrix. One could turn the straight line scale (Engel) to a plane (Gray) and then to a cube by adding a third axis. This axis would be behavioral. We can not only work to explain God’s truth (cognitive growth) and increase affective/emotional growth of unbelievers, but we can also help them to conform behaviorally. This is touchy since the world is fully of people who conform superficially. However, if we recognize that behavior can be self-destructive and addictive. Helping the unbeliever to find release from the destructive behavior may also be a useful part of their path towards following Christ. Some people need to be freed from their personal demons before they are able to move forward in the path of Christ.
  5. Focus on conversion means that we often expect too much in too little time. It is perfectly normal and healthy for a person to “count the cost” of following Christ. A missionary/evangelist should help them gently through that process rather than forcing a poorly thought out (and perhaps unreal) response. In the case of where a person comes from a culture or family network that is actively opposed to Christianity, focus on a radical conversion experience leads to a clash of culture that the person is ill-prepared (yet) to deal with. Must he or she reject his new faith (at least externally) and revert back to the culture/religious system of those around? Must he/she radically separate themselves and become an outsider? Must he/she become a compartmentalized “closet” Christian. Is their another option? Focusing on following Christ as a journey may allow those interested in following Christ in these situations to work through these challenges with the help of a loving and Christlike mentor.
  6. Focus on conversion is built on the questionable premise that we know who is converted. The Bible, such as in I John, describes how we may know that we are children of God. However, the Bible does NOT give definitive guidelines for knowing if another person is a child of God. The Bible focuses on self-examination. If one is simply focused on conversion, this is a problem. Who should we try to convert? If someone says that he is a Christian, should the missionary try to prove to him that he is not really? Or if someone says that he is a Christian, should the missionary ignore him since “he is already saved?” This gets into some of Paul Hiebert‘s ideas regarding Centered Sets, Bounded Sets, and Fuzzy Sets. But even if you don’t like set theory, the concept is pretty simple. A conversion-focused missionary is focusing on the boundary (between the converted and unconverted). But if you can’t be sure where the boundary is (since God is the judge of faith/hearts of others, not us), then what are we really supposed to do? On the other hand, if missionaries are salvation-focused, they are focused on Christ. Why? If a person is not a child of God, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a young believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. If a person is a mature believer, what should a missionary do? Direct them to follow Christ and become conformed to His will. That is much clearer.
  1. Focus on conversion tends to lead towards nominalism. I suppose this is obvious, but the term “easy-believism” came from the over-emphasis on the conversion experience. “All you gotta do is accept the free gift of Christ. It doesn’t cost anything. Jesus paid it all. Just say ‘Yes’ and the blessings of God are yours.” This understanding is so shallow (following Christ has led many to martyrdom… salvation may be free, but it is also costly) and has left many open to apostasy. The church, the mentor, must disciple and nurture young believers, seekers, and mature believers alike. This requires focusing on the full lifespan of a follower of Christ.
  2. Conversion is more quantitative, Salvation is more qualitative. Conversion is an easy metric. I was reading a website of an evangelist of someone I hadn’t heard of who claimed to have led (I believe it was) 800 million people to Christ. Is that true? Presumably that is not even remotely true. But outward conversions (remember, we can’t know what is going on in the heart) is easy to measure. We can count people “walking the aisle,” raising their hand in church, saying the sinner’s prayer, or testifying. In some other religious traditions, one could count going through confirmation, joining a church, or exhibiting some “miraculous” manifestation. Counting this way is easy. But salvation is hard to measure because it is process orientated (Romans 12:1-2 becoming conformed to Christ and transformed) is hard to measure. It is not measurable except in the lives being changed. It is easy to get credit from man and church for conversions, but for the transforming of lives to faithful followers of Christ, the credit goes to God and He alone. One might argue that the quantitative nature of conversion is better for missionaries to focus on because it easier to measure. But the missionary is meant to be a catalyst of change… not a numbers keeper. In the long run, transforming a few lives will cause greater impact than a lot of shallow decisions.  This is a better thing.

Quoting Harvie Conn regarding Christian mission work in some Muslim cultures:

“’Sound conversion’ become largely limited to one-step transitions of allegiance. That step is essential as initiation into the process. But it must not be isolated either from the process of growing in understanding of what commitment to Christ means or we face again the onslaught of ‘nominal Christianity.’ Faith thus becomes devalued to the act of one moment rather than the attitude of a lifetime that has a beginning at a moment in time,… Conversion must be genuine by all means. But its genuineness will be tested by a lifetime of fruitbearing, not a quick step to some altar rail more ideological than biblical.”

(The Muslim Convert and His Culture, Harvie M. Conn)