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Salvation we seek more than just avoiding sin

Sat., July 9, 2011

Sin and salvation in 600 words! Can this be done? No, but I’ll do my best.

There’s more to life than sin. But some of us focus so much on sin that we miss the bigger experience of life that we all receive from God.

Sin is real, to be sure. But if it is what drives our spirituality, we may ironically move away from God, not toward God.

Is real sin simply living into the depraved image of “original sin” as institutionalized by St. Augustine? Or is it actually our resistance to the original good which God created us to live out?

Philip Gulley’s newest book, “The Evolution of Faith” (HarperOne, $24.99), suggests that the yearning to “be rescued” is a human desire, regardless of faith tradition. But Christians have a unique twist on how salvation is seen by many.

As a word, salvation means “salve, healing, wholeness.” But over the centuries, orthodox (traditional) church doctrine evolved to suggest salvation was meant to “rescue” us from sin and offer a one-way ticket to heaven.

Jesus emphasized the coming of God’s Kingdom not as heaven, but an earthly healing. I also wonder: Do we seek rescue from our condition of “original sin”? Or could that rescue actually be a restoration to our original state of “goodness”?

This is not a flippant question. If you’re shaking your head at my words, stop long enough to read and think further.

I pose a valid question. It’s based on reading the Genesis creation story where God declares each phase of creation as “good,” including creating humanity.

It’s based not on the assumption that Adam and Eve were innately depraved and needed rescuing, but that they were given the freedom to say both “no” and “yes,” then take responsibility for their decisions.

“Sin” can so often be our excuse for irresponsibility. It’s based on seeing that Jesus lived out God’s character in a far more mature response to sin than sacrifice. He embodied God’s deep compassion and unrelenting justice for all people, pompous and pathetic alike.

But these interpretations of the biblical God create a problem for me as I wrestle with orthodox Christianity. How does this same God of compassion and justice, who moved Jesus to tell Peter to forgive “70 times seven” (code for “infinity”), get portrayed as a God who offers forgiveness only after the sacrificial blood of Jesus is spilled?

It looks like God demands more of us than of Himself when it comes to forgiveness. This dilemma suggests that we are pretty inconsistent in how we interpret both sin and salvation.

Christian traditions are pock-marked with selective, self-centered interpretations that skip over the parts we don’t like in the Jesus stories. To me, it’s like our Christian forefathers skipped right over Jesus’ experience of a compassionate and just God, then went all the way back to the ancient Hebrews’ penchant for sacrifice of one kind or another.

They began to emphasize Jesus’ sacrifice at the expense of other equally valid interpretations of why he died. “Our sins…” had less to do with his death than we usually settle for. The Jewish religious system and the domination system of Rome also played a major role.

All this is to say that sin and salvation are both more and less than we traditionally interpret them to be – both historically and in today’s religious culture.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research, both in and beyond the Bible. You might be wide-eyed surprised.

It could be the least sinful and most saving thing you do this week.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via email at


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