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

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

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.