A wealthy young man is recorded in Mark 10 as asking "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man senses that there's more, and when he presses for further details, Jesus tells him to give away all his possessions and come follow. At this, the young man turns sadly away. In Acts 16, St. Paul's prison guard asks, "What must I do to be saved?" and Paul tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus. So is it the law? Selfless acts? Believing the right things?
What salvation is and how it works is not exactly a tidy bit of information. I once bought a book about salvation based solely on the fact that people were mad about it. John Killinger's book, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation, was the topic of some heated comments printed in The Alabama Baptist newspaper and it was denounced from the pulpit of my own church. Add the fact that Dr. Killinger and I were on the faculty of Samford University at the same time, and it was just too much for me. Thank goodness for rush shipping on Amazon! To my surprise and mild disappointment, it was a very low-key, common sense account of the views of salvation from the earliest scriptures to today. Killinger points out that in the Old Testament salvation had nothing to do with life after death, and was understood to mean survival and success in the world. An example is Job, whose story of trials and salvation ended when he died "old and full of days." Between the Old and New Testaments, the concept of eternal life arose, and from here the history proceeds to the New Testament writings of Paul and the "Roman Road" which many of us memorized in youth groups as a way to present the "plan of salvation." But as pointed out in the book, "The more detailed the instructions get, the more restrictive they are, and the more humanly created they are rather than God-given." This realization along with the problem of what to do with righteous people of other faiths has resulted in some modern definitions of salvation that sound like watered-down Psychology 101 -- "self-actualization," "harmonious relationship," "mindfulness." But of course, being too general is just the flip side mistake of being too specific.
Killinger ends the book with three conclusions. First, that God is the arbiter of salvation, not we. It is God who initiates human salvation and it is God who finally consummates it. Second, because it is God who effects our salvation and not we ourselves, our methods of seeking salvation don't really matter all that much. From the sacrificial system of the Hebrews to the sacramental system of the medieval churches to whatever modern twist we follow on the methodology of redemption today, we must guard against establishing a series of obstacles for believers to negotiate before they earn God's rewards for their trouble. The point is not to huddle up and proclaim that we are the best and ours is the only way to God. Killinger quotes Billy Graham in reference to the fate of non-Christians as saying, "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." And third, if salvation is in God's hands and if the methodology is of little consequence, then God will save us whether we accept it or not, but acceptance is important to us in our understanding of grace. I can't quite get my head around that last one, because it's a little hard to square with free will, but I'm leaving that option open for now.
In the conclusion to The Canon of St. Andrew, Frederica Mathewes-Green says, "If we have been praying through this great hymn attentively, we arrive at the end less sure of ourselves, less confident, and more sensitive to our weakness in resisting the things that drag us away from God. And yet we can be more confident in God's mercy; we have less to worry about and more tranquility in the assurance of God's complete knowledge of us, inside and out, and His unceasing will to rescue and save us."