I realized when making out my final for my freshman Bible class that I hadn’t adequately prepared them to write an essay on Paul for the final exam. So, I wrote one for them and asked for their reaction (haven’t graded them yet). Here’s what I wrote.
Sometimes, we make salvation like a math problem. (My sin)—(Jesus’ death)=salvation. This view of salvation makes the particulars of the life of Jesus and his resurrection, and even the presence of the Holy Spirit unnecessary for salvation. Moreover, few of us live life like we’re trying to solve a math problem. No one ever said, life is like a banking transaction. We don’t live life that way, and salvation should be about life.
The apostle Paul thought of salvation and the death of Jesus in terms very different than this. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked a dramatic turning of the ages. “Everything is passing away,” he says in 2 Corinthians. “Everything has become new.” The old age that is passing away was ruled by the powers of sin and death. But the coming age, the age of a new creation is ruled by God’s life, by faith and grace and the Holy Spirit. A different human life is possible under those conditions. Our life doesn’t have to be one of constant futility where we are always doing the thing we don’t want to do. A slogan for the old life under the powers of the old age might be, “the thing I hate is the thing I do.”
But in the new age it is possible to live a transformed life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who have the Spirit, Paul says, are constantly being transformed from “one degree of glory to another.” This is salvation; not just being forgiven for my sins, but receiving a new power for a different kind of life.
The trick is knowing what transforming power looks like. We tend to be drawn, those of us who live by the values of the old age that is passing away, by power that controls. But as you know, if you’ve been around controlling people very much, while this power can be impressive, it is also dangerous and ripe for abuse. It’s like a downed power line, arcing all over the place, threatening anyone near it.
For Paul, the cross is the sign of God’s power. How can that be? On the cross, Jesus seems like a victim, as someone having the opposite of power. And Paul admits as much. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” whose lives are vanishing like the old age. “But to those of us who are being saved,” he says, “it is the power of God.”
The coming new age of God’s salvation turns a lot of the values of the old age on its head. Power, real power, is not power over others. Power is a life given for others. In the death of Jesus we see other expressions of power—humility, gentleness, kindness, peacefulness, forgiveness. And these are the kinds of power that bring life, that add to life, that make life abundant. These kinds of power God honors, just like he did when he raised Jesus from the dead.
So the way to live in this power, is not to think of the death of Jesus as a variable in a math problem, but as a different kind of script for life. This is how Paul thought about it. When we are baptized, we make the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus our own. “We are buried with Christ in baptism,” Paul says in Romans 6, “so that we can be raised with him to live in a new kind of life.” This become Paul’s personal story. “I am crucified with Christ,” he says in Galatians 2, “nevertheless, I live, yet not I but Christ who lives in me.” This kind of life is made possible by the Holy Spirit, the very presence of the risen Jesus—Christ lives in me.
And when the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes our story—our way of life—when we take up our crosses daily and follow Jesus—we find ourselves being transformed. This is salvation from the old age and its deathly views of power.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be nailed to a cross like Jesus, though many Christians through the ages have given their lives because of their commitment to the Christian story. Instead, we might think about this life in relation to the description Paul gives it in Romans 12. We are “living sacrifices.” And the very first thing he says about “living sacrifices” is that they don’t think of themselves more highly than others. They put others first. They weep with those who weep. They rejoice with those who rejoice. They share their homes with others. They associate with the lowly. They don’t return abuse for abuse, but respond to abuse with a blessing.
This kind of life not only transforms those who live this way, but the world around them. This is God’s power for us, on our behalf, which does not come as controlling power—not as deathly power, not like a downed power line—but as power for and with. As love. As steadfast love. As self-giving love. This kind of power saves the world.