Every follower of Jesus is assured salvation, but personal salvation is only a benefit, a gift. In the Reforming Church, salvation is not the point of faith or of following Jesus. If the Gospel message is clear about anything, it is that Jesus commissions his followers to service – to find their way through the darkness of the world bearing the light of hope. It is a frightening thing to do, that no one has courage to do, except in the knowledge that he or she serves at Jesus’ beckoning, following he who leads. Truly, Jesus leads his followers into the darkness of despair and sin, greed and apathy, death and bloodshed, stumbling along with the lost and confused. The followers of Jesus are not alone. He says to his disciples, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20b). And the banner of Jesus’ followers is mercy.
A message of salvation that does not demonstrate hands on commitment to address, and attempts to redress, the despair of the world falls on deaf ears. To serve only the message of personal salvation trivializes the mission and the work of Jesus Christ.
To be sure, the Epistles are clear about Justification by Faith. Belief in the salvific act of Jesus Christ is the key to salvation. Salvation’s formula in the Epistles is accepting Jesus by faith, with the accompanying confession and forgiveness or sins, and heartfelt repentance – turning from the power of sin to the way of righteousness. Yes, but how to come to believing?
At least one of the writers of the epistles wonders, “Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV, James 2:14b-17).
In the culture of Christianity is the exhortation to make disciples. In one of his last post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV, Matthew 28:18b-20a). It is an incomplete gospel that proclaims only justification by faith without also teaching discipleship.
Is not faith that fetches followers demonstrated in Followers’ of the Way acts of mercy? The Reforming Church affirms that the mercy of Jesus Christ demonstrated by his followers in their selfless acts of service, is salvific in and of itself.
When I was a boy I’d watch episodes of the Lone Ranger on the television. Maybe not every episode, but enough that I got it, as the Lone Ranger, his service complete, rides off into the plains, someone invariably asked, “Who was that masked man?” The service of the Follower of the Way of Jesus invariably proclaims the promised salvation, by the mercy of Jesus Christ Those who are served ask the same question – who was that man? It is the Jesus Christ whose mercy is proclaimed in their thousands of acts of service that step over every boundary imaginable, allowing those served unequaled access to the hope of salvation.
The 1941 novel, Keys of the Kingdom, by A. J. Cronin was subsequently produced on the big screen in 1944 starring Gregory Peck as the humble, if not controversial priest, Father Francis Chisholm. Eventually, in his long career of service to the Church, Chisholm is sent to Pan-tai, China. The setting is the blinding poverty of the Chinese, suffering the constant threat of civil war between two warlords and the Imperial government. In his years of service in Pan-tai, if the number of people affirming faith in Jesus Christ was the measure of Father Chisholm’s success, the evangelist’s mission was a failure. His funders’, exasperated with his failure, called the old priest home.
Years before, the warlord, Chia, his son became quite ill – ill unto death, it seemed certain. Chia had called on traditional medicine and shamans to work their magic to restore his son to health. As a last ditch effort, Chia called on Father Chisholm to do what he could. With little more than practicing hygiene, for he was not a medical doctor, Chisholm was able to restore Chia’s son to full life.
As an act of thanksgiving and unwilling to be indebted to the kindly priest, Chia was ready to become a Christian. Chisholm described what it meant to be a Christian, but sadly the War Lord went away feeling rebuffed– but not without donating a considerable piece of property to the mission.
Years later, as he was boarding to leave China, the warlord, Chia, came to Father Chisholm again. It seems, after years of observing the faithful service of the Christian priest, Chia had become a believer. Again, Chia, declared he was ready to become a Christian. As before, Chisholm was unwilling to accept Chia’s offer until the warlord said, and I am paraphrasing, “If you are an example of who Jesus is, I will follow him.”
I have to laugh at myself, as I thought to look up Chia’s exact quote, I couldn’t find it. It has been years since I read this little book so it may be I made this episode up – but if it didn’t happen this way, it should have. It does make a great story. In any case, my point is this. Our lives lived in service to Jesus Christ is our best witness to the hope of Salvation. And perhaps the hope of salvation is following the way of Jesus.
I have been often confronted by Followers of the Way who would say, I don’t know how to talk to people about my faith. In the Reforming Church, the plan of salvation has less to do about telling than living. The most compelling witness of the Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ is their lives lived in faithful service.