The Grammar of the Gospel: The Difference between the Subject and Object of Salvation

What is more fundamental to the structure of English grammar than knowing the difference between the “subject” and the “object.” When we say, for example, “John hit the ball,” it is really important to know that the sentence is about something John is doing, not something the ball is doing. The “narrative” of the sentence is that John hit the ball. It is wrong to somehow read the sentence as if it is really all about the ball hitting John. If one wants to say that they must switch the subject and the object and say, “The ball hit John” rather than, “John hit the ball.”

The Gospel also has a basic grammar. Christianity is about God revealing himself to us. It is about a great rescue operation which He initiates. We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). Dead people cannot bring themselves back to life. He saves us. We don’t “discover” God. We don’t “save ourselves.” Biblically, we don’t even “find God.” Rather, we are the ones being found. We are the ones who are being saved. We are called to seek and to respond and to act, but these actions are always in response to his prior work, his prior action and his prior revelation. God is the subject of salvation. We are the object of salvation. Let’s keep that straight.

In Galatians 4:9 when Paul uses the phrase, “now that you know God” he quickly clarifies the phrase by placing it in its larger theological context by saying “or rather, are known by God.” It is a distinction so important that the whole Christian faith rises or falls on it.

Today, we see a subtle movement to make Christianity about some inward search for God. In this view, we are all on a spiritual journey to “find God” or to “do our spirituality.” We are now the subject (the seeker) and God is the object (the one being found). We love to speak of unbelievers as “seekers” even though Romans 3:11 says that there is no one who seeks God. However, in a happy theological convergence, both Reformed and Wesleyan Christians agree that the commands for us to “seek” and to “knock” and to “come” are only possible if God has already acted. In the Wesleyan tradition it is called prevenient grace. In the Reformed tradition it is called regeneration. In either case, God remains in the subject. If this basic point is lost, we are left with some spiritual journey which is not really that different from, say, a follower of Hinduism or Buddhism.

The Hindus have a doctrine which is known as sarva-dharma-samabhava. It means, “all religions (dharmas) are equal.” In other words, there are many roads to God. In this view, Christianity is one of many roads to God. It is all about our journey, our path, our groping after God. However, Christianity has never accepted the doctrine of sarva-dharma-samabhava. Muslims don’t accept it either. For Christians the “scandal of particularity” is that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

Salvation is not generic. It is tied to specific acts of redemption which were initiated by God himself: incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and eternal session at the Father’s right hand. God the Father sends the Holy Spirit. These are all specific acts which God initiates. God acts… we respond. God seeks… and we are found. God calls… and we hear. Sometimes God seeks and we resist being found. God calls and we won’t listen. This, too, is part of the tapestry and drama.

Through it all, from the “big picture” perspective, God is always the subject. We might be tempted to think there is surely one place where this is not true – Jesus hanging on a cross. There on Golgotha, are we not seeing the one place where God is the object of our hatred, the object of our scorn, the object of the wrath of an unbelieving world? But even there, God is acting. Even at the cross, God is still acting to unfold His plan of redemption. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. In an increasingly pluralistic world with a myriad of new spiritualities, let us not confuse the subject and the object of salvation.

Must We All Clap Loudly? Thoughts on Phil Robertson, Legalized Marijuana, Obamacare and the Dignity of Dissent.

Americans love to disagree with one another. The right of dissent is crucial to our identity as a people. We all learned with horror on December 12th that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed. This uncle had been a long time regime loyalist and supporter of Un’s father and had even provided valuable legitimization of Un himself during the time of his transition to power in 2012.

One of the most revealing statements was found in the list of reasons the uncle was executed. The government said that Un’s uncle had failed to show ‘sufficient enthusiasm’ in applauding when Kim Jong Un was named to a key post. In other words, he didn’t clap loudly enough. This was taken as a public act of disrespect and, therefore, he had to be silenced. There were other reasons given, but the underlying message behind the whole episode is that there is no place for dissent in N. Korea.

I don’t want to live in a society like that. I suspect that you don’t want that either. Let me illustrate the importance of this point by choosing three very different issues which would most likely elicit very different responses from readers of this blog: 1) Legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes. 2) The Affordable Health Care (ObamaCare) requirement that insurers provide contraceptives. 3) The normalization of homosexual marriage. These are all complex, nuanced issues where Americans disagree. We can’t just sweep the dissent away with the question, “Aren’t we all really saying the same thing?” No, there really are different views about issues like the recreational use of marijuana, extending the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples, and the use of birth control to prevent conception. This is, of course, a list which could be much longer. Gun control, climate change, the use of nuclear weapons, abortion and immigration/border security come quickly to mind.

This post is not about positions on any of these issues. It is about the underlying dignity of dissent. Do we live in a country where the Little Sisters, an organization of Roman Catholic nuns who adamantly oppose contraception, should be forced to purchase health care which provides contraception? This will be decided in 2014. (My colleague, J.D. Walt, wrote a compelling post about this issue of “the dissent of the governed” some months back at Seedbed.com. It’s well worth your time to read.)

January 1, 2014 is also when the first retail stores are allowed to legally open across Colorado selling marijuana for recreational purposes. The majority of the citizens of Colorado apparently favor this since they voted to accept it. The question is, do we live in a country where a group of health care officials in Colorado can continue their vocal campaign against it, even though it is now legalized in Colorado? Alternatively, must everyone in Colorado now show “sufficient enthusiasm” or suffer the consequences?

Homosexual marriage is now being recognized across the country and before long will likely be legal in all 50 states. Do we live in a country where Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty can state publicly that he believes that homosexuality is a sin? It obscures the point if we focus only on the “coarseness” of the way he stated it. The deeper point is that after all the dust is cleared, can Phil Robertson (or anyone else) state publicly their opinion that homosexuality is a sin. Or, is this now the cause of immediate execution because of insufficient enthusiasm? Must we clap loudly at whatever the culture embraces? Is there no place for the dignity of dissent?