Every finals season during the fall semester, I like to table in Mary Graydon and give out free chocolate.  It’s our “Spiritual Therapy Through Chocolate” program and it’s something I enjoy doing a lot, especially since the joy on the face of stressed out college students when they see free chocolate is something I really enjoy getting to see.  My colleague and frequent theological sparring partner, Rabbi Cohen, will sometimes come by while I’m tabling there and ask, “Saving souls, Reverend?”  To which I usually respond, “God saves souls, Rabbi, I’m just giving out chocolate.”

About this Sermon
Part 9 of the sermon series “10 Things I Hate about Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 7, 2010
Isaiah 40:1-5; Ephesians 2:1-10

But something else strikes me about that question.  It presupposes that the only reason a Christian minister would be engaged in any kind of generosity would be because it was just simply a way to rack up some new converts.  There couldn’t possibly be another motive.  Such a gesture couldn’t simply be about trying to brighten the day of stressed out students.  It must be a sideways attempt at conversion.


I will confess, there are a great many people on campus who imagine the same thing.  People will come up to the table and ask, “Can I have some chocolate?”  That’s when I have to tell them that it’s free.  Sometimes, they’ll ask if they have to do anything to get the chocolate.  That’s usually when I point to the sign that says, “Free chocolate.  If you had to do anything to get it, it wouldn’t be free, would it?”  By the way, this illustration also works for a sermon on grace, but for now we’ll use it to demonstrate how often people are suspicious of Christian motives.  How often we are suspected of charity or good works only because we hope to gain some new converts by doing it.

Image courtesy wordle.net

In their book UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that one of the biggest gaps between insiders and outsiders in the church arises over the question of evangelism.  Most Christians believe their efforts are genuine, but most outsiders are skeptical.  Only one-third of young adult outsiders believe that Christians genuinely care about them, whereas nearly two-thirds of Christians believe that outsiders perceive their efforts as genuine.[1] In fact, the authors report, that most outsiders feel targeted, as if Christians merely want another new member or a new “notch in the ‘get-saved’ belt”.[2]

Of course, this says nothing about the loudest purveyors of salvation.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  The ones who literally stand on street corners with bullhorns shouting at people about the Gospel.

The result of this all is that the very question, “Are you saved?” creates anxiety and dread by those outside the church.  Here they come again, they think, trying to convert me.  And it should be pointed out that there are a great many in the church made uncomfortable by the question.  Feeling judged by fellow Christians seeking to attain their status before God.


But here’s the thing: a question like that could make you ask if we really understand the salvation we claim to be sharing with the world.  There are a number of things we Christians get wrong about salvation and this question sums a number of them up.

A.    It’s not something we do

The first is that some how salvation is something we obtain.  “Are you saved?” is often asked with the same attitude that “Got milk?” is.  If not, why not?  Go get some.  Pick up some salvation on the way home.

But it is important to note one thing in particular: salvation is by grace through faith.  That is, salvation is God’s doing, not ours.  The letter to the Ephesians makes that clear:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

So often, Christians imagine salvation as something we do.  As some benchmark we have to attain.  The question, “Are you saved?” is a question designed to ask a person whether they have had the right experience or not.  Whether they have made that commitment that will save them.  Like so much in our culture, salvation becomes an accomplishment, a line on our spiritual resumes, more cause for boasting.

But salvation is something God does for us.  Wesley taught that every aspect of salvation was by God’s grace.  The invitation to salvation was by God’s grace.  In fact, even the desire to turn to God was something God’s grace worked in you.  The justification of the believer and the assurance of salvation was accomplished by God’s grace.  And the sanctification of the Christian, the growth in personal and social holiness was accomplished by God’s grace.  Our task was simply to accept this grace through faith—by trusting in that grace.

“Getting saved” is not something we do.  It is something God does for us and in us. The next time, by the way, someone asks you when you were saved, feel free to answer, “Almost 2,000 years ago, on a hill outside Jerusalem.”

B.    Salvation is not a one time thing

We also get this idea that salvation is a one time thing.  The question, “Are you saved?” or its cousin “When did you get saved?” imply a one-time event.  A moment of salvation.  A response to an altar call, a declaration of faith.  Or an experience of salvation.  Now, many people have had very powerful experiences, responses to altar calls, and powerful moments of conviction in faith.  And those experiences should be valued. But are those experiences alone what make for salvation?

Methodists make a lot about Wesley’s experience of salvation at a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. When he reported his “heart strangely warmed” and his assurance that Christ had saved him.  And yet, what is fascinating about that event, is that Wesley only mentions it in his journal for the day that it occurred and never again.  For Wesley, an evangelical Christian, you might have thought that his ‘moment of conversion’ would be the most important thing in his life.  You would imagine him preaching sermon after sermon about that experience, but the reality is that he never mentions it again.

See, for Wesley, salvation is not a once in a lifetime event.  Salvation is a lifetime in faith.  Salvation is a process, something God accomplishes through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, but something that encompasses a Christian’s entire life.  It is not about a one-time thing on which you can now rest.  If one has an experience of assurance of salvation, that is only the beginning.  It is not the end of the journey.

C.   Salvation is not about the afterlife

And, we have the timing of it all wrong. Salvation has become synonymous with a guarantee of life after death. As Wesley himself would write:

And, first, let us inquire, What is salvation? The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.[3]

Salvation is a present reality, it is the lifelong process of our sanctification, our growth in the knowledge of God, our growth in works of piety and mercy, of personal and social holiness.  It is not a one-time accomplishment, it is a lifelong work of God in our lives.  As Wesley points out, the scripture tells us that “You are saved”—not will be, not might be, not can be.  Are.  Now. The Charles Wesley hymn we just sang addresses this: “Heaven already is begun/ everlasting life is won.”[4]

When salvation is equated with the afterlife alone, it is robbed of its theological depth and richness.  The Greek word for salvation—soteria—is related to the word “healing” implying something much deeper than the awarding of a particular status after death. Healing implies transformation and wholeness. It is, as Wesley said, ‘not something at a distance’, it is something meant for the here and now.  Barbara Brown Taylor noted that the Jewish understanding of salvation has been lost in Christian thought.  “The point of human life on earth, as any son or daughter of the Torah can tell you, is to assist God in the redeeming of this world now.” The salvation we proclaim is a salvation of the entire world, a transformation of the Creation itself, which we are called to proclaim and to witness to.[5]

D.   Salvation is not an individual thing

Now actually, Wesley’s version says, “Ye are saved” and what often goes overlooked in our modern English translations is that the “you” in “by grace you are saved through faith” is plural.

We can become fixated on the idea that salvation is individual and be content to say “I’ve got mine”. What scripture so often tells us is that we sink or swim together. Being saved is something we do together—not apart from one another. It’s not a race or a competition—there is no shortage of grace such that we’d better hurry up and get some now before it runs out, like those people who line up at 4 a.m. on Black Friday outside of Target.

But, as surprising as it is to discover, the Bible doesn’t really talk a lot about faith as an individual enterprise. To be sure, there are individual relationships with God, individual conversations, individual callings, but there isn’t really a lot of talk of individual salvation. That’s an idea that owes itself more to American Protestantism than to Jesus or the Jewish theology out of which Christianity came. If they’d let me add a central tenet to Christianity, I’d add: “It’s not about you.” Alas, they never let me add anything.

Much more frequently encountered is the idea found in Isaiah about “all people seeing it together” or the idea from Revelation of the “great multitude that no one could count”.  Indeed, the original Hebrew word for salvation “yeshuah” (which is related to Jesus’ own name “Yeshua”) means deliverance, rescue and is generally understood in a collective or national sense.  That transformation of the world, that healing and deliverance is not on a one-by-one basis. It is meant for the entire world.  And it begins in the here and now.


Today is All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate our “blessed communion” that “fellowship divine” with all those who have gone on before us in faith. But we do them and ourselves an injustice if we imagine that the saints are merely those who have died already and who constitute a list of those who have gotten into heaven.  We do them a disservice if we imagine that what we celebrate is that they all managed to make it.  That their afterlife experience is working out well for them.

No, those we remember having gone on before us did far more than simply arrange their own successful and peaceful afterlife.  They witnessed, they testified, they proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  They struggled for justice.  They witnessed to peace.  They reached out to the suffering in compassion and mercy.  They built community and places of welcome and refuge.  They lifted people up in praise and worship of God.  They loved God and humanity.  They cared for the ‘least of these’.  They tended God’s good planting and exercised stewardship over the earth.  They participated in the salvation of the world.  They sought and worked for the healing of the nations.

It is for that faithful witness that we remember them.  It is for that testimony, that reminder of the salvation being worked out in our midst, that we declare that “great cloud of witnesses” as our inspiration and our guide.


Christian faith has a lot to offer this broken and hurting world.  We have God’s offer of salvation to offer.  But this is not our doing. This is not something we accomplish. This is not something we are peddling, like magazine subscriptions, to meet some kind of quota.  And we have a fair amount of work ahead of us in helping to remind the church of what salvation is supposed to mean.

The salvation we share is the healing and the restoration of the entire world.  It is a present reality as well as a future hope.  It is something we can experience in the here and now and it is something whose final consummation we await from God.

Are you saved?  It’s a question that prompts annoyance in many and insecurity and doubt in others.  But make no mistake: you are saved.  You are reconciled to God.  This is something Christ has done for us already.  Our task alone is to claim that salvation.  To let others know that they, too, can claim it.  Because claiming it makes us participants in salvation.

Our task is not to make converts for the sake of making converts.  Out task is not to make new members of the church.  Our task is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s the official mission statement of The United Methodist Church, by the way.[6] We do not busy ourselves with converting people because we have to save them—that is not something we can do.  But we can help people to see how much God already loves them.  How valuable their lives are.  And invite them into living out that love to others.  A love that can transform the world.

So, we have a choice. We could ask people “Are you saved?” We could reduce the richness of our faith to a simple three-word question that makes us look like convert hunters, or we could witness to that salvation with our very being.  We could work for justice, we could build communities of welcome, we could reach out in compassion, we could build fellowships of praise, we could build relationship with God and one another, we could help people come to healing.  And in so doing we could demonstrate the salvation that God has given us.  In so doing, we can proclaim a saving love and a hope so that “all people will see it together”.

The Texts

Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

[1] David Kinnaman, UnChristian, Baker Books, Grand Rapids: 2007, pp. 68-69.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] “Scripture Way of Salvation”, John Wesley, https://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-43-the-scripture-way-of-salvation/

[4] Charles Wesley, “Let Us Plead for Faith Alone”, United Methodist Hymnal, #385.

[5] Sara Emmerich, “Salvation” citing, From Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley Publications, 2000).

[6] Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, (2008), ¶ 120.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *