I have a philosopher friend (who sells insurance for a living) who, if given a chance in conversation, has a tendency to say something simple but very meaningful. One day we were talking about how we both grew up within the same streams of Christianity (for which we are both very grateful), and one of the things we picked up along the way was the version of Christianity that goes something like this: you’re a really bad sinner, and Jesus died on the cross so that you could be forgiven. Therefore, you need to ask him to forgive your sins so that you’ll get into heaven when you die.
Then my philosopher/insurance salesman friend made the following observation:
Something that seems to make more sense is to think of it like a marriage. Forgiveness in a marriage is kind of like the foundation poured for a house––there’s no chance for the marriage to exist without forgiveness in place. A marriage has to has forgiveness to begin, and it has to have forgiveness to keep going, but forgiveness isn’t the marriage.
Apparently, in addition to the time my friend spends selling insurance and philosophizing, he also does some very good theologizing. He certainly isn’t the first to compare life with God to a marriage. If that metaphor isn’t your favorite, pick a different relationship––they’ve all been used in scripture and Christian tradition to help us understand what the life God intends for us is like: God is a loving parent and we are beloved children, or we are friends who walk and talk together, or––back to the marriage metaphor––we are like two people whose lives are meant to become so interwoven with each other that there are no longer barriers between where one’s life ends and the other’s begins.
Though a marriage must have forgiveness, forgiveness isn’t the marriage; though we desperately need God’s pardon, being forgiven doesn’t constitute the life with God that we’re offered. Rather, our lives are meant to become so interwoven with God’s that there are no longer barriers between where God’s life ends and ours begins. (Again––pick your biblical metaphor, because we’re so often pointed in this direction: “I am the vine, you are the branches…”; “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; “…that you may be filled with the fullness of God.”)
Understanding this helps us to rethink two central terms in Christian vocabulary: “For it is by grace you have been saved…” Since we try to fit those terms into our “have your sins forgiven so that you can get into heaven when you die” framework, we often reduce the meaning of both of them to forgiveness. Though forgiveness is an indispensable part of each of them, they are both much bigger, much richer, than just being forgiven.
“…Grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
“…Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you…”
“…press on toward the goal…”
In other words, keep going further and further into this life of being deeply beloved of God.
Think of all that we miss out on if we aim for anything less.