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Relating to the Vending Machine

October 31, 2011
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The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” has been worn into cliché through overuse. Ironically, it’s also not been applied to several areas of the Christian life. Applying it to these areas would not only be useful for better understanding the idea of a personal relationship but it might shed useful light on some otherwise tricky questions.

Take, for instance, the question, “Can your earn your salvation?” If you’ve grown up around Christians anything like the ones I know, you know that the answer is “no” and then goes on for somewhere between six paragraphs and thirty-seven books. In fact, the answer to this question (whether or not there is anyone but the boogeyman asking it) is a favorite theological topic for many Christians. I was once working as a volunteer at a Christian organization when a man helping me asked me what I would say to Jesus to demonstrate that I should get into heaven when I died (this person knew I was a Christian). The question made very little sense and I wasn’t sure how to answer. It turned out the whole question was just a lead-in for this person to lecture me about how the correct answer was that nothing I had done could be presented to Jesus as a “work” (a Christian swear word, I think) that would earn my salvation.

As some of you are probably aware, I don’t worry particularly much about this issue. I don’t even see much value in separating out faith and works in the normal modern sense (as opposed to the Pauline sense where “works” are nearly always “works of the Law”, Torah obedience) since, as James points out, works demonstrate what we actually believe. In a practical sense you can’t get anything between faith and works to separate them out.

However, there’s another reason I don’t think much of this dispute: once you ask the question, “Can you earn your salvation?” you have already presupposed a way of thinking that locks you into one of two answers. The first is to deny that one can do anything related to salvation. If you simply cannot engage in any relevant activity because you have become God’s remotely-operated person then you are clearly not earning salvation. The other choice is that any answer will be earning salvation.

Let’s expand on this. When we say “earning salvation” what we generally don’t realize is that we’re proposing a transactional model. The relationship between the sinner and Christ is of the same type as the relationship between a hungry man and a vending machine or the relationship between a parts supplier and the factory where whole items are assembled. The essence of the relationship is the transaction in which salvation, seen as an item, is transferred to the sinner. (It’s worth noting that there are several different things one can mean by “salvation” and that we are currently discussing the state of salvation that a living person can have.) The problem here is rather obvious: if the sinner gives Christ anything (obedience, love, trust, or a promise of future action or attempted future action) in a transactional model that looks like earning. That’s the nature of transactional relationships. If two people exchange items in a transaction then one item is the other item’s price.

This is part of the great appeal of Calvinism: it solves this problem by removing free will in the relevant areas. The transaction becomes a transaction between God and His sock puppet and so obviously the sinner isn’t earning anything. Problematically, this is also because the sinner is no longer involved because his or her will is overridden at this point and that can have some odd consequences for anthropology. However, there’s another approach to this dilemma: challenge the framework. (I should note that one can challenge the framework from within Calvinism. This isn’t an alternative to Calvinism, it’s an alternative to a particular path that happens to lead some people to Calvinism.)

There are two potential problems with the framework. First, there’s the transactional nature of the framework – is salvation really that much like buying a soda or having a soda given to one? Second, and inherent to the first issue, is salvation an item to be transferred in this manner? To treat salvation as an item, one must split it off from sanctification which is clearly not an item in the same way – the transformation of your character is obviously something that you are involved in unless we start making you a shorthand for a particular way God acts in the world using a particular sack of meat. However, splitting salvation off from sanctification gets rather difficult. If one is saved why go through with sanctification? If the answer is something like “gratitude” one should feel grateful but what if one doesn’t? Rapidly, it turns out that the price for salvation was that you have to feel grateful which is supposed to result in sanctification. Several other approaches end in the same way: the price for salvation is commitment to sanctification, perhaps through some intermediary virtue.

However, we could also claim that salvation isn’t an item, it’s a relationship, perhaps even that personal relationship that, until now, hasn’t had a real place. Or maybe it’s been a price – God will save you but you have to be His buddy. (Nobody’s really wanted to hang around Him since Leviticus and so he’s got this exchange going, you see.) But what if the relationship was central? What if salvation was a right relationship to God and sanctification was what happened to one as one continued to be in right relationship with God? The metaphor of marriage is common in the New Testament so let’s work with that one. When I married my wife it was not a transaction. She did not give me something called “the status of being married” in exchange for me giving the same to her. Instead, we entered into a new relationship. Furthermore, when I married my wife I had a number of habits for which she didn’t much care. Over time some of those have been lessened or made to disappear entirely. The more time I spend with her in this relationship then the more I know how to act properly towards her. In this metaphor, marriage is salvation and my change of habits is sanctification.

Note the effect that this relational way of thinking would have on the question, “Can you earn your salvation?” It doesn’t entirely make sense from within this perspective. Can you earn a friendship? Not a real one. Can you earn a marriage? Yes, but, again, not the reality of the things, just the paperwork and some associated benefits. For these relationships to work, the person to whom you are relating to has to actually like you. Simply being put in your debt is not enough. The reason you can’t earn your salvation from within a relational view is that salvation is simply not the sort of item that one can barter for – it’s a relationship. The idea of earning salvation only makes sense within the transactional framework where the question is asked despite the fact that it is so often asked only so that it can be answered with a “no”.

I could stop here but I feel that it’s worth poking at another major question from this angle. I’ve got a shirt that reads on one side “Calvinism: this shirt chose me” and on the other “Arminianism: I chose this shirt”. The question of whether you choose God or God chooses you is a rather hot topic in Protestantism and it’s closely linked to the idea of earning salvation. However, you’ll note that it also doesn’t make sense in a relational framework. Does God choose you or did you choose God? Yes. Did I marry my wife or did she marry me? Yes. The question presupposes an either/or that only makes sense in a transactional model where God’s choosing is a transaction, specifically the gift of salvation. In a relational model that question also doesn’t make sense.

The relational model has its faults. It is, necessarily, based on human relationships with which we have experience. God is not a human and so at some points this model will break down. However, what I want to suggest is that by challenging the frame in which we are thinking we can bring some new light on these important questions.

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