Jesus' Death Didn't Save Us

His life did.

When we think of our salvation, we usually think of Jesus' death and resurrection. We celebrate Easter and sometimes Good Friday and thank God that his agony made our five-second prayer meaningful.

We don't usually think of Christmas. Christmas is great for talking about the deity of Christ or, for some, the historicity of his coming, but we rarely associate it with our salvation. As miraculous as his birth was, Jesus' incarnation was only necessary so he could get here and die for us.

Though many western Christians (Protestants and Catholics) disregard the incarnation, eastern Christians certainly do not. Eastern Orthodox churches believe that we're saved through a process called theosis which means that we become like God.

Unfortunately, whenever westerners hear "become like God", they immediately flashback to Genesis and accuse our eastern sisters and brothers of sinning like Eve and Adam. They probably don't recall Peter's words about how we participate in the divine nature. Or Jesus' prayer for us to be one with him and the Father. Or Paul's confession that he no longer lives but Christ lives in him.

Christians are united to Christ in a mysterious way. We all accept that but we don't often consider how it plays into our salvation. For example, we know that Jesus was born human and divine and that he was resurrected as both human and divine. And as such, we too will be raised--body and spirit.

But what changes from our birth as human beings to our rebirth as new creations? In the west, we say that our standing before God has changed. The prevailing theory, known as substitutionary atonement, claims that Jesus' death paid the penalty for our sins and imputed righteousness upon us so that we would be accepted by the Father.

However, Paul makes it clear that Jesus' resurrection was necessary for our salvation, and that if Christ had simply died, we would still be in our sins. In other words, Jesus' death alone couldn't save us. Likewise, if simply confessing Christ's death and resurrection saved us, then we shouldn't still be wallowing on earth in our decaying bodies.

Our salvation demanded that Jesus be incarnated. Not so that his sacrifice would fulfill God's requirements but so that his life would be the pattern for ours. To be united with Christ is to be united with God--a feat not even the most righteous person could accomplish. Something mysterious had to happen, something metaphysical: Emmanuel, God with us.

God didn't just take on human flesh like a veil as one of the many theologically incorrect Christmas carols proclaims. He didn't clothe himself in frail humanity like some disposable scarf. John testified that he became flesh, he became one of us. Jesus' divinity is forever fused with humanity. Thus, if the Spirit that was in Christ is in us, we too will be raised and we will be like him.

Western Christians, however (especially those of us on this side of the Enlightenment), tend to be very rational theologians. Though we resist the label, many of us are functional naturalists--choosing like Thomas Jefferson to rip the pages out of the Bible related to spiritual gifts or the Eucharist. We prefer to see everything as symbolic, from the Spirit's movement in the church to our own transformation.

For those who subscribe to substitutionary atonement, salvation is a symbolic transaction. We stand before God, our judge, condemned and guilty until Jesus, our savior, volunteers to bear the due penalty of our sins. The gavel falls, Christ dies, and we get to walk back out the front door of the courthouse like nothing ever happened. We get a do-over. Of course, all of this occurs outside of our reality, but we're assured of our righteousness because our theology says so.

The problem with symbolic doctrine is that it leads to symbolic practice. A religion that exists primarily on the figurative plane will only produce figurative righteousness. We may feel good about our quiet times, private confessionals, and ascetic pursuits of holiness, but we soon ignore certain commands as spiritually inconsequential.

Many have gone the way of "preaching" the gospel over living it. They take the Scripture about worldly gain not worth losing our soul to mean spiritual needs outweigh physical ones. So they politely pass by the poor and the oppressed and the least of these. In fulfillment of James' condemnation, they say "be warm and fed" with just a touch of "Jesus loves you" before walking away in self-righteous indifference.

Jesus never loved anyone with mere words. In fact, the very passage they misquote reminds us that salvation is not a simple acquiescence to the historicity of his death and resurrection. It is a daily denial of self, it is a devotion not to his teachings but to his life. We follow Jesus by living and suffering as he did that we may be resurrected as he was into the new creation prepared for us through him.

Salvation through substitutionary atonement, through a handful of cherry-picked moments from the gospels, is a gnostic gospel. It is a neo-Platonic episode of Law and Order that deceives us into believing our self-centered religion can save us.

Salvation through Christ's life, all of it from incarnation to resurrection and glory, brings life abundant. For it is only through a life of sacrifice to him in love of others that we will see our own resurrection and incarnation.

Christmas reminds us that we are more than the redeemed. We are the recreated. Our salvation is oneness with God himself and Christ our brother. And that means the Christian life is less about our spiritual standing as it is our metaphysical obligations.

God entered the physical world to save us. How do we expect to be saved if we don't do likewise?
photo credit: Lawrence OP Redeemer in the Manger via photopin (license)