What does it mean to “be saved”?

February 12, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 5:21-37 |

“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Let me tell you, these words still haunt me. They were once thrust at me by a girlfriend I was breaking up with, soon after we’d started dating. She was full of righteous indignation. And the thing of it was, she was righteous in her indignation. She was fully justified in her anger. She was saying, “Don’t say you want to be my boyfriend; don’t say you love me, if in fact you don’t have the wherewithal to follow through with it. You need to go work out your issues without dragging women like me down into your mess.”

Ouch. You can see why this verse might stand out in my memory. She was speaking a harsh truth I needed to hear. And, indeed, her rebuke was formative in me “working out my issues” like she so eloquently recommended.

And I bring up this story – not just as a kind of striptease of my early dating failures – but because her stern rebuke was so like that of Jesus, who she was quoting. Her message was pretty much right in line with what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount:

Don’t say you want to be my disciples; don’t say you love God, if in fact you don’t intend to follow through with it.

Let me tell you, the Bible is full of comfort and solace for those who are hurting – but the Sermon on the Mount is not exactly the first place I’d send you when you’re feeling down about yourself. It’s Jesus’ tour de force on what the Kingdom of God looks like. One hundred eleven verses of what righteousness looks like, what holiness looks like. He raises the bar to the highest heights, and is scathing of religious hypocrites. The threat of hell weaves throughout.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment….If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…in his heart.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out….It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Jesus’ standard for holiness is absolute and the threat of hell frequent. And yet, the Sermon on the Mount also contains some of our most beloved scriptures: the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, “Love your enemies,” the Golden Rule.

So what are we supposed to make of it?

Well for starters, I don’t believe it is Jesus’ intent to make a test whose sole purpose is our failure. I don’t believe he’s building a smooth twenty foot wall then threatening hell when we fail to climb it.

Rather, I think he’s showing us a pretty clear picture of what righteousness looks like, and we can take it at face value. He’s showing us that righteousness is not about legalistic obedience, but about the condition of our heart. It’s legalism that says, “Don’t commit adultery,” but righteousness that says, “Don’t look at a woman with lust.”

And this, of course, freaks people out. Because we’re actually far more comfortable with legalism. Theoretically, it’s obtainable. The condition of our heart – well – that seems less in our control. It just happens. And when this is coupled with Jesus’ threat of hell we become very uncomfortable with Jesus. So what do we do?

Well, we’ve got a few options:

One is just to drop the bits of scripture that are too difficult, or drop the faith all together because we can’t live up to the standards.

Two, we just carry on with some form of hypocrisy – keeping up appearances and saying the right things. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

Or three, we revert immediately to a theology of grace: Don’t worry that you don’t live up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount, because Jesus died on the cross to forgive your sins and you have been saved. Your slate is washed clean.

My critique of the first two options is self-evident and warrants no further commentary. The third is what I want to focus on – our tendency as Christians to rush quickly to a gospel of grace to compensate for our failure to live out the Kingdom of God with integrity. Here me out: I do believe in grace. I must. There is no gospel without mercy and forgiveness. But here’s my concern: When we rush towards a theology of salvation through grace, what’s often driving us is our panicked need to be assured that when we die we go to heaven. That’s what people often mean when they talk about “being saved.”

And you know what? That is a very puny vision of salvation. In fact, it totally undermines the gospel that Jesus actually preached. Why? Because it’s utterly self-absorbed. It’s all about getting yourself off the Titanic and into the lifeboat. The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached was entirely about a righteousness that obeys God and serves your neighbor. And it is to that which Jesus has saved us.

After all, what are we really saying about God if God’s salvation only refers to the afterlife?

Picture it like this: a mother told her daughter to go out and walk the dog, but to stay away from the pond. And – you can guess what happened – she and the dog went out for a walk and before you know it they’re both out playing in the pond and having a marvelous time….until she discovers that she’s stuck in the mud. It’s oozed up nearly to her knees and she can’t move. After a while the mother starts checking her watch and getting increasingly nervous, then finally goes out looking for her. She finds her stuck out there and cries out, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry you’re stuck. I told you not to go out there. But you know what? I love you. I forgive you. And once you get hypothermia and drown out there in the pond, I’m going to bring you home and give you the warmest bed and hot chocolate with all the marshmallows you want.”

What kind of mother is that!? Well it’s the same kind of mother that many Christians believe God to be: You’re a lousy sinner who doesn’t live up to my standards, but I love and forgive you and will give a place in paradise nonetheless. In the meantime, do the best you can in your sorry condition.

Certainly I believe that salvation includes resurrection and eternal life. But the whole point is that we have been set free from our sin – we have been saved – to join Christ now, as well as in the life to come. We have been saved from our deceit, from our selfishness, from our fear. Christ is saving our character – and not just for our benefit – but for all those around us.

But the question still lingers: If we have been saved in this life to live out our true identity of Christlikeness – such as it’s depicted in the Sermon on the Mount – what do we do with the fact that we’re still failing to reach that standard, even if we’re earnestly trying?

Perhaps we can think of it like this:

We were all taught in school about the runaway slaves – how, when they were trying to find their way north, they would travel by night with their eyes set to the North Star. It would guide them through swamp and forest – a dependable beacon of safety and freedom. And for those of us who are seeking to follow Christ, the Sermon on the Mount is our North Star. We’ve left the plantation. Friends and strangers alike are helping us along the underground railroad. And all along, our sights are set on that vision of the Kingdom of God Jesus shows us in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course the standard is high. Of course the holiness it depicts is absolute. Would we want anything less? If we can just get past the obsessive fear of whether we’re saved or not, and accept the assurance that we are saved – we are loved by God – then the standards of Jesus’ preaching are no longer a threat, but a beacon to the true life that God has desired for us all along.

Because here’s the other thing: when God calls us to live righteously, it is a call to live as God lives. Which means everything we’re used to reading in the Sermon on the Mount as so overwhelmingly impossible to achieve, is also a description of how God is living – how God is living with us. Don’t you see? It changes everything. If we look back – at just the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we read today – what does it reveal about God’s righteous living with us?

God is not angry with you.

God does not call you “fool,” but does whatever it takes to create reconciliation with you.

God does not look at you with lust, which is to say, as an object to be used for some perverse and degrading pleasure.

Rather, God is as your husband or wife, one who will never cheat on you or divorce you in preference of a “better Christian.”

God’s “yes” is always “yes.”

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for us as we seek to live into God’s salvation, is being saved from our misconceptions about God and the nature of God’s kingdom. For the more we truly know God, the more we will know our true selves – beloved of God and partners with God in this grand purpose of love – when righteousness is no longer about legalistic obedience, but about a heart that beats with God’s heart, in rhythms of compassion and mercy, humility and servanthood, and a deepening delight in all who surround us.

And that girlfriend I told you about? It had been years since we’d seen each other. But last summer, she and her husband and three children stayed with us in our home. Their kids played with mine, climbing trees and swinging on the rope swing. The adults sat on the back patio drinking wine, laughing and sharing stories. And as the visit ended and we hugged good-bye I could say with gratitude and joy, “We have been saved indeed.”

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