Salvation As Partnering with God: Moving Beyond Transactional Religion into Transformational Relationship
By Joshua G. Patterson
Salvation is not going to heaven when you die, but entering genuine relationship with God, here and now, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
When one is tasked with writing a short essay, attempting to tackle the idea of salvation is not the best of ideas, but here we are. Before jumping in, I just want to be clear and state that what I am going to present is not an exhaustive understanding of salvation. Instead, my aim is to present an angle on salvation that widens the concept beyond what I was handed growing up in a conservative evangelical church.
With that in mind, let’s begin with a question. When you think of salvation, what comes to mind for you? If you are anything like me, I grew up assuming that salvation simply meant going to heaven when you die. Salvation was the gift that Jesus gave me by dying on the cross for my sins, and one day when my life finally ended, I would end up in the good place with Jesus.
Now I don’t want to provide any sort of low-grade caricature of what I was taught, so please allow me to lay out the basic idea of salvation I was given growing up. In youth group, I was introduced to what is known as the “Roman’s Road.” It’s quite easy to remember and made all of this Jesus and salvation stuff really simple.
It begins with the idea that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). The bummer news to follow that up is that unfortunately, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). The good news is that there is a but, and I was told that it’s the nicest “but” in all of Scripture. (You know, because joking about nice butts is how you get teenage boys to listen to you.) This nice but goes something like this; but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus (Rom 5:8). Finally, if you confess with your mouth that “Jesus is Lord” and believe that he was raised from the dead, even you could be saved! (Rom 10:9).
There you have it. Salvation is as simple as that! Or is it? With all due sincerity and respect for the Jesus-loving people who taught me this growing up, I would like to kindly offer some critiques of this understanding of salvation that I have borrowed from my former professor and now friend, Dr. Richard D. Crane.
For starters, this view of salvation is profoundly individualistic in nature and is only concerned with one’s individual relationship with God. Yet, a strong argument can and has been made for a more communal understanding of salvation from Scripture, even using the book of Romans.
Second, one’s conversion and justification are reduced to an abstract legal transaction painted specifically in retributive terms. The life and teachings of Jesus are all but forgotten, and aside from the fact that Jesus was crucified at some point in history, the real drama of salvation has a very ahistorical nature to it.
A third and final critique is the creation of a false dualism, namely the bifurcation between salvation and Christian ethics/discipleship. In this sense, the life of faith is reduced to simply believing and trusting. Any form of human action or “works” is labeled as faith’s polar opposite. The Christian life of fidelity to Jesus as Lord and participation with God to bring about the kingdom on earth as in heaven is simply reduced to a secondary expression of one’s faith. Salvation truly is a transactional event between humans and God.
But what if there is more? What if salvation is bigger than just going to heaven when you die? What if salvation has more to do with the life we have been given in the present, then the life we will be given when we die? Please allow me to offer a different understanding of salvation. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to take away the idea of an afterlife in heaven.
Admittedly, I am not really sure what I think happens when we die. The Bible doesn’t seem too interested in the question and, honestly, neither was Jesus. Am I hopeful for some sort of afterlife of bliss with the eternal Creator of the universe? Absolutely! Do I know what that means? Nope! Not at all. I simply hold with faith and trust that when we die, we are wrapped up into the loving arms of the Creator.
So for argument’s sake, let’s assume that salvation entails “going to heaven when you die” but is also much bigger than that. What if salvation also includes participation with God in the here and now? What if salvation is not simply an abstract transaction but is actually a transformational relationship with God?
My basic argument here is simple: God is essentially kenotic and therefore, by definition, non-coercive. Because of this, God requires our partnership and cooperation to bring about God’s plans and desires for creation. Salvation, therefore, can be thought of as accepting the invitation of God and entering into partnership to carry out God’s plans and desires for creation. Instead of salvation being purely transactional and ahistorical, this concept paints salvation as a transformative relationship with God that is accessible right here, right now. Please allow me to explain.
When I say that God is essentially kenotic, I simply mean that God, in God’s very nature, is self-giving love. The Greek word “kenosis” can be found in the New Testament about a dozen times. The primary focus is found in Paul’s famous hymn in Philippians 2:4-13. It is here that Paul proclaims that Jesus, even though he was God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself (kenosis).
God is essentially loving, and because of that, by definition, cannot be coercive. To coerce, manipulate, or force somebody to do something is not loving. (For a strong argument on this point, see The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord). God does not break the laws of physics and does not take control of, or coerce, God’s creatures. God is always present and actively working to bring about the most amount of love and good in every situation. But by definition, God cannot force creation to cooperate with Godself to bring about God’s desires.
If this is the case, then we can safely say that God does, in fact, require the participation of creation to bring about God’s ultimate desires. In fact, I would argue that not only does God require our participation but that God also desires our participation and friendship. Curtis Holtzen makes a compelling case for a God who trusts and seeks genuine relationship with creation in his book, The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, And Love.
Could it be, then, that at the very least, salvation is the acceptance of God’s invitation into a loving and genuine relationship? Could it be that God is inviting us to participate in the life of the Trinity to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?
If this is the case, then it means salvation is not simply individualistic in nature, but rather has a strong communal nature that seeks the good of all creation. Salvation, in this sense, is not just relationship with God for the sake of relationship with God, but is rather relationship with God for the sake of all creation.
If this is the case, then the life and teachings of Jesus are absolutely essential to the living out of our salvation. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of who God is, and his life and teachings show us a better way to be human. Jesus offers a perfect example of what it looks like to enter a genuine relationship with God, partnering with God to bring about the salvation of all creation.
Finally, this would mean that there can be no bifurcation between salvation and Christian ethics/discipleship. Here, they are the same thing. To live out a life of discipleship, in genuine relationship with God, would be, at the very least, what we mean by salvation. Again, there is more to it than this, however there is not less.
The purpose of this relationship is not just so we can go to heaven when we die, but is instead the acceptance of an invitation to be a part of the restoration and redemption of all creation. It is an invitation to step into the all-embracing love of the God who was expressed fully as essentially kenotic in the person of Jesus.
The question is: will you accept the invitation? Will you ditch transactional religion, for a genuine transformative relationship with the God of the universe? Will you accept the gift of salvation, the gift of a better way to be human?
Question: How might this understanding of salvation impact your current understanding of what it means to be a Christian?
Joshua G. Patterson is the host of the (Re)thinking Faith Podcast. He has previously served within the local church as both a High School / Young Adult Pastor and Teaching Pastor. He is heavily involved in Jesus Collective, loves ice hockey (Go Caps!) And is particularly interested in the intersection of Open and Relational and Jesus Centered Theology.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.