Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Hebrews 7:11-25[1]

The movie “Shawshank Redemption” is a story about a guy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. His name is Andy Dufresne. After serving almost 20 years of a life sentence in a literal hell-hole of a prison he disappears. As it turns out, he had dug himself a hole in the wall of his cell, a wet wall in which were housed all kinds of pipes, including a sewage line that ran out of the prison and to freedom.

But Andy not only delivers himself; he also delivers his friend Red. A few years after Andy’s deliverance, and after serving 40 years of his life sentence, Red gets paroled. The problem is, he’s an “institutional man”—he had lived longer inside prison than on the outside. And the outside world terrified him. But before he escaped, Andy had made Red promise to find a box he had hidden in a nearby field. In the box was enough cash to take him to the paradise on the Mexican coast of the Pacific Ocean where Andy had vowed to go when he got out. Red could have backed out, but his faith in his friend Andy inspired him to take the risk. And Red found his friend Andy working on an old boat on a white sandy beach in front of the bluest ocean you can imagine.

What is salvation? The best we can do is come up with analogies. For me, I think spending an eternity on a beautiful beach by the Pacific Ocean with my best friend would come pretty close. The church has tried to articulate the meaning of salvation in many ways. The “official” view that most people live by today was developed by Anselm in the 11th Century. Anselm used the analogy of the medieval feudal system to explain the meaning of salvation. He said that human sin had offended God’s honor, and that the only way for God’s offended honor to be satisfied was for a penalty to be paid. Anselm went on to say that Jesus paid the penalty for us so that we would not have to.

That sounds a lot like the letter to the Hebrews. But there is a different analogy for salvation here. The author appeals to the sacrificial system of the OT to explain the meaning of salvation. He acknowledges the sacrifices that were established as a means of forgiveness for sins. But he points out two things—the sacrifices were not permanent, and the priests were just as flawed as anyone else. By contrast, Jesus’ death on the cross is presented as a sacrifice that is both perfect and complete. It is perfect in that it effects permanently what the other sacrifices could not—forgiveness for sins. And it is complete in that it never needs to be repeated; because he lives forever “he is able, now and always, to save those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25, TEV).

Talk about the offended honor of a feudal lord that is satisfied by the penalty being paid may have worked a thousand years ago, but today it carries some implications that don’t fit the Gospel. It suggests an image of God as strict, exacting, and punitive; a God who keeps track of every little mistake we make and refuses to forgive even the slightest failing. I’m afraid the same can be said about the precise logic of the letter to the Hebrews—analogies of salvation based on the fine points of the Jewish sacrificial law fall on deaf ears these days.

In all fairness to the author of Hebrews, however, there are some interesting clues that there is more to “salvation” than just some kind of heavenly balance sheet. He speaks of true freedom (Heb. 2:15), lasting rest (Heb. 4:9-10), secure hope (Heb. 6:19), and open access (Heb. 10:20). He says (Heb. 8:8-12) that Jesus brings the better covenant of Jeremiah 31, where the prophet promises in the name of the Lord that God will change the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. In that same chapter, Jeremiah also promises that “their life will be like a watered garden” (Jer 31:12)!

Those analogies speak more to me than talk about penalties and punishments. The good news is that God is out to make right whatever it is that is wrong with humanity. Whether you call it alienation, fragmentation, or selfishness; violence, greed, or falsehood; there is something about our lives that just doesn’t seem to be right.[2] It keeps us from being our true selves, it keeps us from relating to others in a healthy way, and it keeps us from the life we were intended to live.

But the message of salvation is one of deliverance: God is working to set us free from all that. God is working to heal the wounds, to right all wrongs, and to restore the beauty of life. God is working to overcome violence with peace, to end all forms of oppression by establishing true justice, to expose all the lies with the truth that sets us free. God is working to restore all creation to the point where everything is “very good” again.[3] God is working to establish his reign, which will bring “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[4] God is working to reunite everything and everyone with God’s own rich, joyful, loving, eternal life.[5]

That’s what salvation is about—freedom, peace, beauty, and life. It’s about deliverance. Whether your image of that is a thriving garden or a white sandy beach by a beautiful blue ocean, the good news is that God’s grace will prevail.[6]

[1] A Sermon preached 10/29/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 47-55, where he speaks of sin as “estrangement” under three headings: God, self and others.

[3] Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, 61; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:187; Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, 37.

[4] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at http://www.pres-outlook.com/HTML/guthrie030602.html. Cf. also Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. 2: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 299.

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 181; cf. also Paul Tillich, “Salvation,” in The Eternal Now, 114; Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 166-67, 177-180. See further Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-39, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85.

[6] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120; see also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 190, 216; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411.

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