This article was originally an essay in a booklet I am putting together called "Explaining Anglicans". But, today I read a wonderfully touching, yet insufficient, explanation of salvation from a fellow Episcopal youth minister. You can find it here.
Although I really, truly sympathize with the pastor who posted this article, I believe he frames the issue in an EITHER/OR debate: Either salvation is individual, other-worldly, and about doctrinal correctness (as in Fundamentalism) or salvation is communal, this-worldly, and about loving social justice (as in Liberalism). I think this is too simplistic. Salvation is rather both-and.
It is the central question of all Christianity. It may be asked different ways: How can I be saved? How can I know God? What is the meaning of life? How can I be made right with God? How can I be redeemed from all my mistakes and failures? If Anglicanism is to be called a Christian Church, it must have a Christian answer to how we are "saved" and enter into a relationship with the living God.
There are two different types of people who will read this essay. First, there are those who do not know God, but who are looking for a community of faith to find God. It would be a very sad thing indeed to tell all about the Anglican Church, without sharing the good news of Christ: how to receive salvation and know the living God. Second, there are those from other Christian traditions reading this, and they may want to know if Anglicanism is fully Christian by knowing what we teach about salvation in Christ. They want to know what the "Gospel", or "Good News" is that we proclaim. This answer should suffice for both readers.
With that said, let us define how we are saved. We believe in St. Paul's definition of salvation: "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:8-10). To fully understand what this means, we need to define four concepts: saved, grace, faith, and good works.
First, Anglicans think of being "saved", or rather "salvation" as much more than a "get out of hell free card". In fact, salvation after death (that is, avoiding hell and gaining heaven) is just one effect of being saved. It is not the essence of salvation itself. Salvation is first and foremost a new relationship, or a new state of being, with God (Tit 3:3-7; 2Co 5:17). Salvation is love: to love the Lord with all of you are, above all else (Deu 6:5; Mat 22:37-40). To be saved means to go from a state of disconnection and alienation with God, to a state of being united with Him through Christ. When we are saved, we become new creations (2Co 5:17). Christ becomes our life, and lives in us (Gal 2:20). As a result, we partake in Christ's divine life and that life becomes a part of us, joined to us, flowing through us (2Pe 1:3-4; John 14:20, 17:21; Eph 3:16-19).
Think of it this way. We are like lamps that were made to show forth Christ's light (Mat 5:14-16). Being "unsaved" is like being an unplugged lamp. It is useless and cannot fulfill its purpose without electricity flowing through it. God is the power plant, the source of divine life. From Him flows all purpose, all love, all existence, through Christ. Being "saved" is being plugged back into God through Christ, so that His electric life, love, and purpose flows through you. This "plugging in" is what the Bible calls reconciliation (2Co 5:18-20; Rom 11:15; Eph 2:16; Col 1:20-22). This is an important distinction, because many people see salvation just in terms of avoiding hell after you die, and there is SO much more to salvation than that.
Salvation means entering into eternal life, but eternal life starts right here, right now. In fact, salvation stretches across time and includes a past event, a present process, and a future promise. We are "saved" in the past event of Christ's death and resurrection, because that event allows all people to be reconciled with God (2Ti 1:9; Eph 2:4-7; Col 1:21-22). We are individually "saved" as a past event when we hear the message of Christ and put our trust in Him (Eph 1:13-14, 2:8-10; Tit 3:5-7; John 1:12-13, 3:14-18). As a present process, we are being saved as we "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" while God's Spirit works in us to accomplish salvation (Phi 2:12-13; 1Pe. 1:9). As a future promise, we will be saved as we meet Christ face to face in the resurrection, and live with Him forever in the New Creation (Mat 10:22, 24:13; Rom 5:10, 13:11; Rev 21-22).
Now, if someone asks you "are you saved?" You can say: (a) Yes, I was saved 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross; (b) Yes, I was saved when I put my faith in Christ as my Lord and Savior; (c) Yes, I am being saved as Christ's Spirit works in me to make me more like Christ; (d) Not yet, but I know I will be saved when Christ raises me from the dead; (e) All of the above: they are all correct if you have faith in Christ.
Finally, for Anglicans salvation is more than just a "me and Jesus" thing. While salvation is a personal relationship with God through Christ, it is also a community relationship. God did not save us to be lone rangers. He saved us to be brothers and sisters in a family (see Eph 2:11-22). Remember, right after loving God above all, loving other people is next on God's list (Mat 22:37-40). Salvation is first and foremost communion with God, but secondly it is also community with God's people. You can't really love God if you don't really love God's family (1Jo 3:11-24, 4:7-21). Loving God and loving others are mutually dependent on each other, and the more you participate in one, the deeper you will grow in the other.
For this reason, Anglicans stress being a part of the Church, God's Family, as a necessary part of salvation. In extra-ordinary circumstances you can be saved apart from being part of the Church. The thief on the cross next to Christ was (Luke 23:39-43). But ordinarily, salvation includes membership in Christ's family, the Church (Eph 2:19-22; Mat 18:19-20; Act 2:42-47; 1Co 12:12-13:7). Neglecting God's family is neglecting God and neglecting to grow in salvation (Heb 3:13, 10:24-25).
Becoming a member of the Church happens by baptism (1Co 12:13; Eph 4:4-6). In one way, we are "saved" by being baptized and participating in the sacraments of the Church, because we are joining together with the community of salvation (1Pe 3:21). Yet, just participating in the Church is not enough if we do not have a personal faith in Christ (Heb 11:1-6, 4:2; Gal 5:6; Rom 14:23). Just sitting in an airplane does not make you a pilot, although getting on plane is a necessary step to becoming a pilot. In the same way, just sitting in a Church does not make you Christian, although it is a necessary part of being Christian. You miss out on all that salvation is if you do not know Christ personally AND participate in His family.
Now we turn to discuss "grace". Grace in the original language means "free, unmerited gift given to one that is not worthy". That is what salvation is to us. We can not earn or merit God's gift of salvation. We cannot go up to God and say "Remember that favor you owe me? Time to pay up!" If you want to make God laugh, tell Him that He owes you something. Everything we have, and I do mean everything, is a gift from God to us that we cannot earn. From our society, to our food, to the air we breathe, to the fundamental physical laws that hold the universe together, it is all a gift from God held in His hands (Job 33:4; Psa 104, 139; Col 1:16-17; 1Co 4:7).
To make things worse, it is not just that we don't deserve God's gifts. We have actually rebelled against Him. We have sinned, and sin means "to miss the mark" of God's perfection. Remember I said that the top two things on God's list are to love Him above all, and next to love His children (Mat 22:37-40). Sin is a fundamental denial of these two things. It is choosing to not love God, and choosing to use and abuse his children, which we all do in big and small ways (Rom 1, 3, 7). This sin disconnects us from God, literally unplugging us from His life, love, and purpose. It leaves us lost, hopeless, and needy. Sin destroys society, the environment we live in, and carries this destruction to generations yet unborn (Gen 3:7-24; Deu 5:8-10; Ezra 9:11; Rom 1:18-32, 5:12-21). In short, sin leads to death: social death, emotional death, spiritual death, physical death, and if we are not saved, eternal death (Rom 6:23; Jam 1:13-15; Eph 2:1-3).
Because of our weakness and sin, Anglicans do not believe that you can be saved in any way, shape, or form by earning salvation from God. We are not saved by good works, nice deeds, religious rituals, or cosmic merit badges (Eph 2:9; 2Ti 1:9; Rom 3:20, 9:16). We believe that God so far surpasses anything good we can do, that there is nothing we have in ourselves that will impress God enough to make Him Love us. With Isaiah, we say that "all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags" before Him who is totally pure and Loving (Isa 53:6, 64:6; Job 15:14-16).
That is where God's grace, His unmerited, un-earned gift, steps in like some sort of super-hero to save us helpless wretches (Tit 3:4-7; Eph 2:4-5). In fact, grace is not LIKE a super-hero. It IS a real-life super-hero: Jesus Christ. God became one of us to lead us back to Himself. When we were lost, Jesus showed us the way back to God in Himself (John 14:1-7). When we were dead in sin, Jesus took our death and sin into Himself on the cross and died for us (1Pe 2:24; Isa 53:4-6; 2Co 5:21). That's right, I just said that God died for us. But even more than that, He conquered sin, suffering, and death by rising again from the grave (Rom 1:4; 1Co 15). Death could not hold Him. Sin could not shackle Him. As the embodiment of grace, the embodiment of God Himself, Jesus saved us when we could never save ourselves (Rom 5:6-10).
In a very real way, we are babies to God like an infant in the arms of it's father. The baby can do nothing positive for the father except trust him. In fact, all the baby can do is poop on itself and cry for help (kind of like us with God). Yet the father loves the baby because it is his: his flesh, his blood, his creation. It is the same with us and God. God saves us by an act of sheer grace in Christ because we are His. All we can give God is trust which brings us to love, know, and follow Him. In return, we become His children, re-born by His grace (Tit 3:4-7; John 1:12-13, 3:1-8).
This brings us to the third word I want to describe from St. Paul's definition: faith. Faith and grace work together like a gift and a recipient. God's grace is like a Christmas gift under the tree. We have the choice of whether or not to open it. If we never open it, we never get to personally receive what is inside. It becomes useless to us, even if it was the most priceless gift in the world. Well, Jesus' gift of grace IS the most priceless gift in the universe (1Pe 1:18-19; Psa 49:7; 1Co 6:20). It is the gift of eternal life purchased with the blood of God's Son! It is sitting right there. But we must open it by faith. We must place our whole-hearted faith in the Giver and the Gift (John 1:12-13, 3:1-18). Without faith nothing else we do will contribute to our salvation one iota (Heb 11:1-6, 4:2; Gal 5:6; Rom 14:23).
So what is faith? Faith in Christ is a whole-person response to accept Him as your Lord and Savior (John 1:12-13; Rom 10:9-10). Faith includes our mind, our heart, and our will, and is made of three parts: Belief, Trust, and Repentance. Belief is simple. It is knowing and accepting facts about Christ. He lived, he did miracles, he taught, he died, he rose again, he will come again (1Co 15:3-8; Phi 2:4-8). Yep, I believe all those things are a reality. That is belief. Trust is a bit more difficult. While belief is knowing about Christ, trust is knowing Christ personally and relying on Him. Belief is head-knowledge of Christ, but trust is heart-knowledge of Christ. It is love, dependence, caring. Both believing in Christ with our mind and trusting in Christ with our heart are necessary to faith in Christ (Mat 22:37).
Finally true faith requires a movement of our will. This movement is called "repentance". Repentance means to turn from one thing toward another. It means to turn from lesser lords and turn toward THE Lord of All, Jesus Christ. This repentance includes renouncing all lesser gods and announcing that we believe in the one true God, who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 10:9-10). This three-faced faith of belief, trust, and repentance is what opens the gift of grace. If you don't have that faith, then ask for it from God. He will give it to you (Jam 1:2-5; Help my unbelief). After all, St. Paul tells us above that this faith is "not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph 2:8-10).
This brings us to the end of St. Paul's definition, in which he tells us that we were saved so we could do "good works". What are good works? "Good works" means to do the things that Jesus did: to obey His commandments, follow His example, and live in His Love (). They are not the cause of salvation. They are the effect. They are the result of living as new creations, saved by grace through faith.
Think of it like this: Salvation is like a plant, representing our new life as we grow in Christ (see Col 2:6-7). God's grace is the soil and water that this plant grows in. Faith is the root that holds the plant in the soil of God's grace. Good works are the fruit that grows out of the root. Notice that the fruit does not cause the root, but the root causes the fruit. In the same way, good works do not cause our salvation, but they demonstrate the growth of our salvation.
Just as a new plant grows toward the sun, the life of salvation grows toward the Son of God. Good works show that we are growing both closer to the Son and more like the Son. If we truly have faith, we will grow. If we are not growing closer to Jesus and growing to be more like Him, we need to ask God to "re-plant" us with even greater faith. If we have no good works, we may have a "dead faith", and we need to ask God for genuine, living faith (Jam 2).
So, are good works necessary in salvation? As a sign, yes, but not as a cause. Anglicans firmly believe that we are "saved by grace through faith" and that good works are the outgrowth of this salvation. We believe that this is the meaning of life, and that the whole universe was made by God for salvation, so that everything could participate in His divine live with Him. Anglicans invite everyone to join with us in participating in the salvation of Jesus Christ. This is our Gospel. Amen.