Salvation is Not an Insurance Contract

One of the biggest paradigm shifts in my faith over the past years has to do with what it means for God to “save” us, which relates to many different aspect so faith.

For example, I’ve written before about how righteousness isn’t so much about moral performance for God as it is mutual participation with God. To grow in holiness and goodness is not a matter of gritting our spiritual teeth and “trying” really hard, it’s a matter of learning to consent to the “flow” of God’s power that is available to us every moment.

Salvation as insurance contract?

Just as “righteousness” is about participation, so is salvation.

This cuts against the grain of the inherited assumptions many of us have about what it means to “get saved,” especially those who grew up in an evangelical church. Many people I know have learned to think of salvation as a contract that allows entry into “heaven” (which is typically imagined as “The Good Place” where we don’t suffer any consequences for wrongdoing and live in luxury and leisure).

We fulfill some stipulations (confess you’re a sinner, trust in Jesus alone for forgiveness) and expect God to come through on God’s end of the bargain (entry into The Good Place). Sign on the dotted line and you’ve “received” salvation (payable upon death).

woman sitting at a desk with lots of papers

Then what? This was the question I asked (as a teenager) that started the paradigm shift for me. Essentially we’re stuck in a holding pattern until we die, right? Just try not to violate the terms of your contract before you can use it. It’s essentially insurance against calamity. There’s nothing to “do” with an insurance contract until something bad happens (except make sure you pay the premium on time).

Salvation as participation

But “insurance contract salvation” doesn’t do justice to the way the New Testament talks about it. I’m think specifically of Paul’s oft-used phrase “in Christ.”

  • The normative description of following Jesus is that a person is “in Christ” (Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30).
  • Being “in Christ” means embracing a way of life that can be lived through apprenticeship (1 Cor 4:17).
  • A spiritual veil over hearts is taken away “in Christ” (2 Cor 3:14).
  • If a person is “in Christ” we see that new creation is here! (2 Cor 5:17).
  • Those “in Christ” have (now!) been blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3).

According to the New Testament, being “in Christ” is not just having your name on a list for entry into The Good Place. It’s a present, moment-by-moment experience of God’s power (which is love) flowing into you and through you. It brings about a new reality in your life right now.

Salvation is participation in a life made available to us now. We actually “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), as incredible as that seems. We participate in our salvation day-by-day, rather than just hope for it as a future promise to look forward to.

Salvation isn’t an insurance contract, it’s an ongoing, immersive, relational encounter with God. Salvation is a relational covenant that starts now, not a requisite contract for later.

Salvation is Christ himself

In other words, Jesus isn’t just God’s “fix” for sin. Even if humanity had never sinned, Christ would still have become incarnate as a human in order to bring humanity into union with God.

Because God and humankind are now one in Christ, we who are “in Christ” can become one with God. This is the telos of creation: God sharing divine love and power with humanity in covenant relationship. “The reciprocity of those imaged—both God and humanity—reveals the divine dignity of the human person and the human lowliness of the divine Persons, who come to dwell with us in the one dynamism of God’s eternal life.”1

The amazing surprise of the New Testament is that, because of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, this all starts now. In Jesus Christ, we participate in the divine nature. It starts now and continues into eternity. This is salvation, and it’s available to everyone.

Theosis for ordinary people

Transfiguration Icon

I want to end with a quote from theologian Ben Myers, who was asked once whether he agreed with Michael Gorman’s analysis that the center of Paul’s theology was theosis (an Eastern Orthodox theological concept referring to the process of coming into union with God.)

Myers’ response (which is also included in my book Having the Mind of Christ) is one of the most beautiful proclamations of the gospel I’ve heard in a long time. Listen for the good news as you read.

If by theosis we mean participation, then yes, absolutely. That phrase “in Christ” just keeps tolling like a bell through all the Pauline letters.

It’s not that Christ was an instrument that God used to fix things up. Rather, for St Paul, Christ is himself our salvation.

Christ is humanity made new, he is the place where human nature now resides, he is the new Adam who includes all human beings within himself, he is the oldest brother of many adopted siblings, all of whom now share in his status.

Christ is God’s child by nature, and we are God’s children by grace. We get to share by grace everything that belongs to Christ by nature. We are adopted, but God treats us with all the privileges of natural sons and daughters.

We eat at the same table with Christ. We exercise the same freedoms that we see in Christ. We address God with the same words, “Abba, Father.” We know God as Christ knows God – from the inside.

“Theosis” or “deification” is just a convenient shorthand to describe all that. Personally I think the word “participation” is better, since it doesn’t just describe what’s happening to me, but it describes the way I’m drawn into something beyond myself – into Christ’s relationship to his Father through the Holy Spirit.


This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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