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Post-Enlightenment Sorting Bins

September 24, 2012

Last week I admitted to being an elitist. This week I wish to discuss some of the soteriological underpinnings of modern Protestant populism, a phrase designed to make you fall asleep.

I was careful last week to stress that while I don’t think the average church-goer is “getting it” very well I do think they are saved. This week I want to talk more extensively about this idea. The basic issue is that we are often very binary thinkers when it comes to Christianity. “Christian” and “saved” become categories one is either all the way in or all the way out without any levels or progress. Once someone has accepted Jesus they are in and that’s that. Personally, I’m not a big fan of calling this “saved” as if that’s all there is to salvation. I think salvation is quite a lot deeper than that and that using “saved” to mean essentially “they have taken the first step on the journey” cheapens the entire notion of salvation. If God’s transforming work involves no transformation, just lip-service, then why buy it?

Now, there’s clearly a sense in which it is perfectly Biblical to talk about whether someone is in or out. I’m not challenging that. I’m merely challenging the idea that this is the whole story. There’s also a strong sense that once in one should be growing and changing – see, for instance, Ephesians 4 where theological argument suddenly becomes one about how to live as Christians. Reducing salvation to in-or-out is part of a larger trend in American Christianity where Christianity itself is a rather binary thing. I refer to this binary idea of Christianity as the sorting bin model – are you in the bin that’s going to heaven or the bin that’s going to hell? A lot of energy is devoted to this issue without asking whether it’s sufficient merely to be in the bin that is going to heaven.

I see several problems with the sorting bin model. The biggest one, which I’ve addressed elsewhere, is that it’s not the complete, Biblical picture. However, in this essay I want to focus on why it’s so popular anyway, which is itself a problem. Essentially, the sorting bin model is a model that is very comfortable to us at this moment in the history of the world and in the Western democracies that most of my readers live in. It’s popular because it tells us what we want to hear but that itself is almost certainly an issue.

Firstly, the sorting bin model is a model centered on us, not God. No matter how much we talk about how salvation is God’s gracious gift to us and how much we minimize any sort of response that might look work-ish we are, at the end of the day, talking about what God can do for us. God ceases to be a being Whose will should set the standards for our lives and becomes, instead, a being Who gives us a nice gift so we should try to stay on His good side. While shifting focus towards works can be a way to inflate our own importance it can also be a way to deflate it – it’s not about what God can do for me, it’s about what God can do through me for others.

Secondly, it’s a private model. You’re in or you’re out. You’re not continually striving to place more of your life under Christ’s lordship, you’re just in or out. You can influence someone else’s private decision but that is what we are talking about – did you say some words indicating the acceptance of a private belief? We’re not talking about a whole new way of living or a fundamentally different set of rules (although some people talk as if they are even while touting this model), we’re just talking about what you do in your own time.

Fundamentally this is about how religion fills a role in our lives. Religion does X for us to which it is well-suited and religion should not do Y or Z but should remain firmly in its compartment. It’s a thoroughly Post-Enlightenment view of religion and a fairly self-centered one (although any view of religion can be made self-centered quite easily). Of course, we live in a Post-Enlightenment world where many of us are extremely self-centered. What better model for our religion than one that fits the biases we already have?

Rather than the sorting bin model I tend towards embracing the idea that “salvation” in the normal sense is only the first thing God does for us. When I suggest that the average church-goer is both saved and doesn’t really get it I mean that they haven’t gotten much further than being saved. They have, as it were, a ticket to heaven (and the Resurrection of the Dead) but they will realize when they get there that they skipped a lot of other things that were being handed out. This isn’t a neat compartmentalized model of salvation but I actually think the modern discomfort with the demand for continual transformation across all areas of one’s life is a commendation and not a demerit.

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