“I will not let you fall into sin.”
These words formed in my mind, as if uttered by a still, small voice, some ten years ago as I sat in worship. At the time I was fearful of being subjected to temptation beyond my power to resist. Reassured by these words, I made several decisions in the following days that bore good fruit. The comforting of a persecuted faith community far away is one of those fruits; my marriage to Elizabeth is another.
I still cherish the experience, enough to make me want to advertise the kindness of God to the whole world. I hope God will give me the “mouth and wisdom” to do it effectively throughout the remainder of my lifetime here. It’s recorded in the writings of the Apostles that God takes care to keep us from falling back into the things we want to outgrow, for example in 1 Corinthians 10:13 and 1 John 3:6 and 9; and George Fox, among more modern saints, seems to have known this from experience: “he that walks in the light, there is no occasion of stumbling in him; it teacheth righteousness and holiness; it will keep thee from lieing [sic], and not let thee lie, and keep thee in tenderness of conscience toward God and man…” (To All that Would Know the Way to the Kingdom, Works, v. 4, p. 15). But reading in a book about God’s protection against our own bad habits is one thing, and getting a personal assurance of it is quite another, memorable as one’s first kiss. And the sick feeling one gets when one is about to tell a lie is just indescribable – as no doubt you know.
I attribute guidance like this to my having accepted Jesus as my Savior – mine, and the whole world’s – and letting Him justify and sanctify me. But what do these words mean, Savior, justify, sanctify? Many people that I love find traditional Christian language alien or even repellent, language that smells of Puritan rigidity, Crusader imperialism, or the various corrupt pseudo-Christianities of their own childhood. I therefore pray for words to frame my personal experience in, fresh words that don’t prematurely shut doors in my face for no good reason. If people then reject my witness, let it be because they, clearly seeing what God asks of them, plainly don’t want to do it at this time! And if so, let them know that God and Christ won’t stop loving them, and neither must I. They who shut the door may open it later.
Let me start by looking for fresh words for “Savior” and “salvation.” By “Savior” I mean that, through His agency, I now have nothing to fear from pain, shame, death or the operation of chance. “Salvation” means that I expect, through membership in a larger Organism whose head or core identity I call Jesus Christ, soon to enjoy an unshakeable and eternal intimacy with the Source of All Being, Consciousness and Good, whom the Biblical Jesus called God our Heavenly Father. This, I understand, may happen before or after the death of the physical body, as God thinks best.
This perspective might conceivably be expressed in the Arabic of the Sufis or the Sanskrit of the Yogins – Allah, nirvana, moksha, Brahman – just as I might speak to a 12-step group of the marvelous workings of my Higher Power, all without referring to Jesus by name. But a Savior would have to be part of any true account, for there was a wise and loving Somebody who liberated me from bondage, and it was not myself. And that liberation was revealed to me only after a repentance – a metamorphosis of outlook – that involved a renunciation of old ways. “There is no salvation without repentance,” as an old saint wrote. And that repentance was itself a gift to me from that Somebody, not something “I” got myself to do by reading enough wise books or, God forbid, punishing myself enough. Repentance doesn’t work that way.
The question remains, why am I so sure that this Savior is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who is said to have died and rose again? What if all truths were suddenly revealed and the Savior showed Himself (or Herself) to be the Krishna of Hindu tradition or the First Hypostasis of Plotinus’ philosophy? Or if my Savior is the Messiah of Israel, how do I know that the Messiah is Jesus and not, say, the saintly Rabbi Menachem Schneerson?
The fact is that I’m about as ignorant as a sheep about divine mysteries, and so I must depend on my Shepherd to understand them for me. But sheep somehow know their shepherd’s voice, as Jesus taught, “and a stranger will they not follow.” John 10:5. I recognize the voice of the Biblical Jesus as my Shepherd’s. It’s as simple as that.
But there’s more: the Apostle Paul wrote of our becoming more like Him as we contemplate His glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), and as we die to the “old Adam,” He more fully and clearly lives in us, and we in Him. I experience and welcome this transformation. I trust that it’s part of the salvation process. As I become more forgiving and less self-protective, I recognize myself as growing more like Jesus. Whether I’m simultaneously becoming more like Krishna and Rabbi Schneerson is not my concern, though, since they are real beings and not lifeless idols, I wish for them, too, the great blessing of being gathered into the oneness of Christ (Ephesians 1:10), whose work, I’m persuaded, is “to reconcile all things unto himself” (Colossians 1:20). Meanwhile, I don’t rule out the possibility that Christ may speak to me through their recorded words; I trust the Holy Spirit to give me the necessary discernment (1 Corinthians 2:10-12).
Earlier I said that my Savior “justified” and “sanctified” me. “Justified” means exonerated of guilt. I have hurt others. I have many shameful memories of things I wish I hadn’t said or done, which rise up at odd moments to grieve me, but they’ve lost most of the toxic sting they once had, as if some keyhole that their sharp points once fit into had been removed, perhaps at the moment that I truly “got” the divine promise, “I will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Now every such memory can serve me as a reminder to be thankful for God’s mercy.
I recognize the power of God to make all things work for the good, and I trust that God can heal the victims of all my past malice, negligence and ignorance on the day that “God wipes all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4), if not before. I also trust my Savior to kill the root of sin in me, and until the root is dead, to stay my tongue from lying and cursing and my hand from stealing and injuring. If this happens I’ll be not merely forgiven my injustices but truly made “just,” or, more to the point, safe for people to be around.
As for being “sanctified,” it does not mean being turned into something I never could be, but rather means being dedicated to God’s uses, so that my gifts and faculties may not be put to any purpose contrary to God’s own. As my greatest desire now is to have no will divergent from God’s, who knows what is best for all of us and wills it, I take great joy in being taught what this means. And in belonging to God I am finding great freedom.