Our pre-teen conversation overheated quickly, as pre-teen conversations often do. While sitting in class, I argued for the doctrine of “grace alone,” with a friend of another faith, though I didn’t yet have the language to call it that.
I was extolling God’s ability to save anyone, yet my friend grew more and more indignant. “You mean to tell me,” he reasoned, “that the death-row prisoner who robbed and murdered all his life could whisper a prayer at the eleventh hour and go to heaven?”
His indignance was making me indignant. “Yes, of course!” Didn’t he want God to be like that?
More than twenty years later, I’m still right. The God I see in the Bible will condescend to save anyone who calls on his name (Romans 10:13). It should be our joy to know he is no respecter of our persons (Acts 10:34), and doesn’t exclude us on the basis of our sins—or include us on the strength of our resumes (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And yet I now see a little more nuance behind my friend’s response than I did years ago.
Recently while reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, I came across a passage that clarified the conversation for me:
“It is now understood to be part of the ‘good news’ that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christian and receive forgiveness of sins. This gives a precise meaning to the phrase ‘cheap grace,’ though it would be better described as ‘costly faithfulness.’ ”
To be clear, this wasn’t the argument my friend was making. His doctrine of salvation involved a divine ledger of debits and credits.
But there is something sad—a shame, really—to the idea that we would embrace Jesus at the last minute or treat him as a life-insurance policy. Not when we have the chance to enjoy him as long as we can on earth in view of enjoying him throughout eternity.
ERRORS ON BOTH SIDES
People on both sides of the Christian spectrum can uphold an incomplete view of salvation. Historically, conservative Christians have been guilty of perpetuating the idea that once you’re saved, you’re good to go. There is nothing left to do or think about. They easily can promote a “set it and forget it” view of our relationship to the Redeemer.
Christians with more progressive leanings have rightly criticized this view. Doesn’t the life and message of Jesus matter, they argue? We are intended to follow him in the here and now. How else will we follow him all the way to heaven?
But often it is people in this group who make the argument that unbelievers might, at the end of their lives, be saved through some miraculous act of God. Perhaps they’ll turn to Jesus in the afterlife—or, as some posit, it will be revealed that genuine faith in another god or way gets fulfilled in Christ.
Which is it? Are we meant to immerse ourselves in the life of Christ or not? Is salvation for now or for later?
We aren’t as careful with these questions as we ought to be, which reduces the conversation about who can be saved to an ethical or philosophical quandary.
“Who can God save?” keeps getting invited to the same parties and gets stuck in the corner talking to “Can God create a rock so big even he can’t lift it?” and “If you could, would you time travel back and kill Hitler?”
LIFE, NOW AND FOREVER
The cross is not a “get out of jail free” card; it is an invitation into the all-consuming life of God. Jesus does not preside over marriages of convenience; he enters into covenants with his people.
The gospel is good news for the death-row prisoner, the lifelong atheist, or the one who makes an eleventh-hour plea. That God would save anyone at all is amazing grace.
But when we treat that grace as a normal, or even desirable, view of salvation, we sacrifice God’s best at the altar of the merely good. We pit fullness of life against sufficiency to save. But these two things never were meant to be at odds.
The ideal seen in the Gospels is people who immediately answer Jesus’ life-changing call to “follow me” (Matthew 4:18-22). Those who wished to accomplish something first or wanted to wait for the right moment, walked away from their encounters with Jesus disappointed (Matthew 8:21-22).
Jesus came to save us eternally, no doubt (John 3:17). But he also came to offer us an abundance of life in the here and now (John 10:10). He treats us to a full measure of God’s presence; we get to open the treasure chest of delights he makes available (Psalm 16:11).
This should be our ideal: life now with Christ. Life forevermore with him.
CALLING PEOPLE TO MORE LIFE
What does this have to do with discipleship? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
In the same section of his book, Willard refers to what he calls “nondiscipleship” as the elephant in the church. He writes:
“The division of professing Christians into those for whom it is a matter of whole-life devotion to God and those who maintain a consumer, or client, relationship to the church has now been an accepted reality for over fifteen hundred years.”
There are at least two ways that our view of salvation affects our ability to make disciples.
First, how we win disciples is how we’ll keep them. From our pulpits to our casual conversations, we need to hold up a full and true doctrine of salvation. We should strive to be honest and complete about what it is we’re calling people into and who we’re urging them to follow.
If we hold up the cross as a way to avoid hell and herald Jesus as a victor who enables us to live free of divine worry, we can’t be surprised when we make disciples more interested in security than sanctification.
But if we call people to lose their life with the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) and to pursue a life which aims to know God no matter what it costs (Philippians 3:7-11), we will find ourselves leading disciples who are willing to bear their daily cross and fight for joy in Jesus.
Second, we are called both to equip people to live for Christ now while preparing them for heaven in the future. Biblically, this is one and the same pursuit.
I’ve heard numerous preachers ask congregations whether they could enjoy heaven and all its benefits—no sin, no sickness, no death—if Jesus were not there. This isn’t some rhetorical guilt-trip. It’s a question that really matters. If our lives today aren’t about enjoying as much of Jesus as we can, what makes us think we’ll enjoy his presence unleashed and unbridled?
Once again, Willard is here to challenge us:
“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it. But ‘standing it’ may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think. The fires in heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.”
Life eternal and life abundant were always meant to go hand-in-hand. They are not enemies or opposites, but the closest of companions. The salvation experience you treasure is the one you will begin to live out.
Those who have been rescued and redeemed by Jesus are offered fullness of life and joy in him today. Right this very minute.
Let’s not wait. Let abundant life start now!
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri, where he also serves Karis Church as a lay pastor. Find his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites and follow him on Twitter: @aarikdanielsen.