The Error of Personal Salvation

This is a guest blog by David Rawls

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Colossians 1:19

When I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, I had someone from one of the campus ministries talk to me about Jesus.  They asked me the two famous Evangelism Explosion questions created by D. James Kennedy.[1]  The first question: “Do you know for sure that you will go to Heaven one day?” And the second is this: “If God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into My Heaven?’ what would you say?”  Of course as a young college student I had not given these questions much thought.  Through our discussion he shared with me that I was going to go to Hell if I did not give my life to Jesus.  He asked me if I wanted to go to Heaven.  How could I say no.  He went on to tell me that if I want to go to heaven all I had to do was pray a sinner’s prayer and I would be assured of heaven.  So on that day I said the sinner’s prayer and asked God into my heart.  Later that night I went to the local college bar and got drunk to celebrate the fact that I was going to go to heaven.  A few years later I actually took my faith a lot more seriously and prayed the prayer again but this time with the idea that I was going to follow Jesus.

I start with this story not because it is wrong to think about one’s eternal destiny but because what I was taught about the salvific work of Jesus was that it was simply about me getting saved.  I was told the gospel message and what Jesus did on the cross was about me personally going to Heaven when I died.  Even after many years of taking Jesus and the Bible seriously, enrolling in Bible College and graduate school, I still continued to hold this belief that the gospel message and salvation are focused on me.  I was not the only one who believed this. It is actually the most predominant idea within our culture. All one has to do to back up this idea that salvation is about personal heaven or hell is to go to any Christian organization and look at their belief statement.  Possibly one of the most influential ministries in America is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  Here is what they believe about salvation:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God,that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore we believe that God will reward the righteous with eternal life in heaven, and that He will banish the unrighteous to everlasting punishment in hell.

The problem with this belief statement and others like it is that they only frame salvation in terms of one’s personal journey.  To be clear, Jesus’ work on the cross does affect me personally, but it’s effect is a part of a much greater issue.  Jesus did not simply come for me but he came to defeat the powers of darkness, to destroy all that was evil that held all of creation in bondage.  The apostle Paul would say in Romans 8:21 that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” Salvation, in the eyes of Paul was both apocalyptic and cosmic.  This idea is supported by Paul’s words to the Colossians when he reminds them that Jesus came to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”(Colossians 1:19). New Testament professor at Baylor University Beverly Gaventa sums it up well when she says,

“in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death).”[2]

If we are to understand Gaventa and the narrative of the Bible we must talk about salvation in its cosmic impact.  In others words, we must use the language of Jesus when we are told that he came to reconcile all things.  If we don’t, we may mistake the problem for the solution or at the very least minimize the problem.  So what is the problem and how does cosmic salvation address it?

Years ago I was having problems with the power steering in my car.  I decided to pour some fluid into the vehicle to help with the problem.  It did not work.  The reason it did not work is because I poured the fluid into the container that said “brakes.”  Power steering fluid in the brake lines will never fix the power steering problem.  It actually will destroy your brake lines.  The idea of salvation only being personal is not only the wrong way to address salvation, it can be destructive in its application.  The apostle Paul pinpoints the problem in Romans 5:12 when he talks about the disease of sin and death.  He says that “therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” The problem that Paul points out is that sin and death is a disease that has spread through the whole World.  The problem is not simply that I have done something bad and I deserve to die but that death reigns in the World.  Paul Axton says “death is a corruption that infects all of life”[3]  The problem to be resolved is death.  Death that is, is not simply personal but cosmic.  It has infected every area of the cosmos.  Where many Christians err is in focusing primarily on sin as a personal problem that leads to death in Hell.  The answer to this personal problem is that Jesus must suffer on the cross.  This is known as contractual theology or penal substitution.  It is the idea that because God is holy that all those who sin must pay a payment or have a debt removed by God.  The only way this debt can be paid is through death.  The contractual theory goes on to say that God hates sin so much that he must pour his wrath upon us.  This is where Jesus comes in. The belief is, that since we would be condemned to hell for eternity if we had to pay this debt, God steps in and gives us Jesus who receives wrath from the Father on our behalf.  God takes our punishment so we might live.  Notice again that in this theory the main problem is personal sin.  Death is simply a secondary problem or a bump in the road to be overcome. Once sin is dealt with we can simply wait so we can go to heaven at some later point.  The focus is all on “me” and my sin. 

Hopefully you see the problem with this approach.  It does not deal with the problem of death infecting the whole World. It is all personal.  Nothing is said about how Jesus death and resurrection deal with reconciling all things in heaven and earth.  This approach is like pouring fluid in the wrong place.  We feel good about pouring the fluid (of personal salvation) but we miss the problem of the whole cosmos needing repair.  In Revelation 21 we get a beautiful picture of the New Heavens and Earth coming down to us.  This beautiful picture of what God is doing comes on the heels of Revelation 20 in which death and hades are no longer with us.  They have been destroyed.  The great enemy that has ravaged the World is gone.  We can join with the Apostle Paul in saying, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:54).

Death which held the cosmos in bondage has now been defeated by the work of salvation which has touched us personally but has brought salvation to the whole cosmos.  This type of salvation is not an escape from real world realties.  There is no going to heaven when you die but a renewal of this earth and a renewal of our own bodies.  Heaven comes to us in the one last cosmic and apocalyptic scene in the Bible. 


[1]  https://evangelismexplosion.org/two-important-questions/

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: John Knox, 2007), 80.  

[3] Class notes

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