My last few posts were a tongue-in-cheek look at the dogmatic, formulaic views of salvation by a few of the more popular Christian denominations. I imagine that most folks who hold any of those particular views would be irate at the lampooning of their views, but would chuckle at the depictions of the others. I should state that I have very good friends who subscribe to each of those views.
What I was trying to point out through satirical and overly-simplistic illustrations, was that there are groups of dedicated followers of Christ who all are absolutely convinced that they have the knowledge of The Formula for Salvation. By “salvation,” of course, they mean God’s forgiveness which releases one from the sentence of punishment in hell and permits them to enter heaven.
I could have added dozens of other denominations’ views, each one containing a different formula. Each of these formulas contain elements that would largely exclude those belonging to other denominations from entering heaven. Each denomination’s adherents would likely be irate at their views being satirized, because they believe very strongly that their views are The Truth, and that people who don’t follow their formula are destined to spend an eternity in Hell/the Lake of Fire (capitalized, of course, because they are specific, geographic locations).
The root of the strife between the many denominations of Christianity is the view that the bible was personally authored by God. When read this way, each verse generally has the same weight as every other verse. The human author is irrelevant, the intended audience is not considered, and the author’s intended message is completely ignored. Even worse, the context is generally considered to be fluid, meaning that regardless of the context in which the verse was written, it is viewed as universally applicable to all people, at all times, because, of course, God never changes. So if God has written a perfect, complete book that contains all of the knowledge He wants us to possess, then all that is left for us to do is to develop a simplistic formula the solves the many dichotomies found in the complementary, but very disparate, books of the bible.
So if we take a formulaic view, when we find a few verses about predestination, then of course we are forced to conclude that God predestines some people to go to heaven and some to go to hell. Unless you read the few verses that indicate that humans have free will, and that aligns more closely with your world view. In that case, you are forced to conclude that humans choose their eternal destiny, and we can simply explain away the verses about predestination.
And when a biblical author states something about “salvation,” it doesn’t matter what the author was trying to communicate or to whom they were communicating. God has apparently issued a blanket, universal statement in black and white. Therefore, the surrounding sentences are treated as a formula for salvation.
Over the centuries, it seems, Christians have increasingly seen the Bible as formulaic. Somehow, someone along the way decided to treat a collection of writings as if they were directly authored by God Himself. Blind acceptance of this theory has led to a formulaic view of the bible and a very myopic view of the Word of God. Religious leaders retain their hold over their appropriately-termed “flocks” by their prowess at “preaching,” “expositing,” or “expounding” the Word of God™, but what they’re really doing is stringing people along by claiming to understand the formula. The formula for salvation. The formula for getting to heaven. The formula for pleasing God. The formula for getting God to pour out his blessing on you (read, getting rich).
The entire institutional Christian establishment is predicated on reading the bible as if it is a collection of formulas. The detrimental effects of this practice are too numerous to list in this article, but here are a few.
The first downfall is that, over time, Christians form mutually exclusive cliques based on a shared interpretation of their reading of the bible. The divisions and hostility among the followers of Christ is, quite possibly, the number one reason that the Christian community as a whole is impotent and unable to influence the culture for good.
Another detrimental effect of a formulaic reading of the bible is that rather than personally experiencing Christ and allowing His spirit to imbue us with eternal life now, our spiritual endeavors are diminished to a purely academic exercise that includes studying the bible to better understand The Formula. Relationship is reduced to a religion which forces people to sit with their backs to each other while a cleric piously imparts further knowledge of The Formula.
All other formulaic elements that ensue such as communicating with God or serving other people, are reduced to a mandatory step in the checklist of Things That Must Be Accomplished in order to follow The Formula.
I felt like a blind man receiving sight when I came to the realization that there is no formula! God’s forgiveness is not contingent on your academic understanding of the nature of God, your theory of the atonement, or your concept of the trinity. Your ticket to heaven is not a function of what you believe about how precisely God bestows salvation on sinners. And “faith” is not pledging blind allegiance to a narrative in order to appease an angry God.
Once you understand that there is no formula for life, for salvation, for forgiveness, then everything changes. You begin to realize that empty religion can be replaced with fulfilling relationships. An academic pursuit of biblical knowledge can be replaced by the indwelling Spirit of God. And a wishful longing for a place called heaven can be replaced by experiencing the kingdom of God right now!
When we stop living according to fabricated formulas, it opens up a whole new world of discovery and possibilities. It allows us to receive eternal life now. Let’s stop this alchemistic search for a formula and start living.