Weekly Edgework #76 - December 12, 2005

Saved by His Life

For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life. (Romans 5:10)

As the pages of the Gospels amply show, Christ’s transcendent life in the present Kingdom of heaven is what drew the disciples together around Jesus prior to his death. And then resurrection and post-resurrection events proved that life to be indestructible. They verified that all of Jesus’ teachings about life in the Kingdom were true. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard, p. 35.)

It has been customary for so long now to see the “cross” as the central symbol of Christianity that we tend to assume it has always been that way. There is copious evidence, however, demonstrating that for the first three or four centuries the central symbol representing Christian faith was that of a “fish.” Images of fish appear in the art of the oldest Christian catacombs. The Greek letters for the word “fish” form an acronym for the words, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” It is not until well into the fifth century A.D. that the symbol of the cross begins to appear in Christian art, and then only in relatively obscure ways. But in subsequent centuries the symbol of the cross became synonymous with Christianity.

That is not to say that early Christians placed no significance on the death of Christ. Writers of the Gospels all tell of Christ’s suffering and death in great detail. It should be noted, however, that invariably the recounting of Christ’s death comes after an extended retelling of the story of Christ’s life. And other apostolic writings definitely recognize Christ’s death as an historic and pivotal event in the saga of his life. But that is precisely the point that is often forgotten. It seems that early Christians saw the “death” of Christ on the cross as a specific event in the “eternal life” of God’s Son – a life that encompassed his pre-incarnational state, his life among them in physical form, and his post-resurrection life at the right hand of the Father.

Indeed, it would appear that it was the life of Christ, seen from this panoramic perspective, that gave rise to the courageous life of the early Church. His death on the cross was the point where his life was most fully displayed and triumphant, forever breaking the power of sin over concrete human existence. (p. 36) It would have been inconceivable, it seems to me, for early Christians to have seen the death of Christ as the central cosmic event of the millennia apart from his life. The fact that God had visited them in the life of Christ was not seen only as a necessary preliminary act to his death on the cross. Rather the cross was the ultimate expression of Christ’s life lived to the full.

With the passing of time, however, the focus on the transcendent “life” of Christ – which of course included his death – narrowed down to an almost singular focus on his “death.” In light of this paradigm shift, it is quite natural that the image of the fish would be replaced with the image of the cross. Having lost sight of the inspiration and power that could be drawn from the life of Christ seen in its entirety, Christians began thinking of salvation primarily in terms of the forgiveness of sins leading to eternal life in heaven. And it was Christ’s death on the cross that provided the merit required for this change of status to take place.

In the process of this paradigm shift Christians seem to have lost a coherent notion of how the central Christ event actually connected with their lives. And this is the great tragedy of most of the history of Christianity. The most important debates centered around just “how” the death of Christ actually accomplished human forgiveness. Many theories of atonement arose – still alive and well today – most of which had lost sight of the transcendent life of Christ. Incarnation, for many of these theories, was just a precursor to the “real event.” So not only did this shift lose any significant connection to the life of Christ, it also lost any intelligible connection with the life of his followers.

To be fair there have been sporadic efforts throughout Church history to connect the Christ event to the life of believers. Mostly they have been futile because they have started out on the wrong foot by leaving out the life of Christ as significant in any substantial way. Some have even gone to great lengths to reinforce the notion that salvation has nothing to do with your life – that if you even attempt life changes you will be guilty of seeking salvation by “works” – which then would expose your salvation experiences as being invalid. Others have tacked on to the salvation experience the notion that to demonstrate that Christ is indeed your Savior he should also be your Lord. In most versions of this idea I have encountered, however, if in the end you fail to make Christ Lord it is no big deal. And so Christ remains largely detached from the real life of many Christians today even while they clutch tightly to their tickets to heaven.

It is time for us as contemporary Christians to rethink our concept of salvation. Along with early Christians, we must understand that our relationship to God is rooted in the transcendent and eternal life of Christ, not only in his death. With them, we must come to understand that the resurrection eclipses the crucifixion. The resurrection was a cosmic event only because it validated the reality and the indestructibility of what Jesus had preached and exemplified before his death – the enduring reality and openness of God’s Kingdom. (p. 37) However one chooses to theologize about it, the central notion of salvation in Christ must include the idea of “the impartation of life,” not just the forgiveness of sin.