The Words We’ve Fudged: Salvation & Righteousness
We’ve waded through a number of enlightening passages of Scripture in this series and we’ve uncovered some truths in a new light. That’s not to say, we’re seeing things others have never seen. Not at all. Rather, we’re trying to see things as they may have been seen at the first. Our aim is to filter out the murky dogma that has often muddied the message.
Several crucial words have surfaced in the process that demand attention. That beg for a relook. As anyone who has worked cross-culturally knows, words are often lost in translation. I recall once encouraging a Japanese audience to “draw a line in the sand and to jump over it.” The bemusement on their faces only made sense when it came to light that my translator told the audience to leap over a lion in the sand!
This is the 7th article in our series on Messy Dogma. Recall, we’re fussing with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this first of a new sub-series, The Words We’ve Fudged, we look at two words we’ve truncated and how this muddies Jesus’ message. If you’re just joining us, you’ll probably find it helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2839 words (c. 8 pages) = 35 minute read
Salvation & Righteousness: Two Fudged Words
Fortunately, I was able to correct the mistranslation of “line” and clarify what I meant … after we all had a good laugh about it. Other mistranslations aren’t as humorous, however. In this article, we consider two such words that we’ve reduced in meaning and garbled our message in the process.
The word “save” in the Bible means to get out of trouble, where trouble includes any number of things from oppression to danger, from poverty to sickness, and from evil to war. In general, it means to rescue or heal or deliver or forgive, and even to judge (that is, God reproves us with truth, and thereby saves us). It is a wonderful multifaceted, holistic concept that essentially speaks of God’s intervention in human affairs. And here’s the thing: it does not automatically mean eternal life postmortem or salvation from eternal damnation, as many believers assume every time they hear the word.
One of the Bible’s first mentions of the word “salvation” is found in Exodus 14:13. With an Egyptian army descending upon them from one side and the impassable Red Sea on the other, Moses told a terrified people: “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” He was of course referring to God’s deliverance in their immediate predicament not promising them postmortem assurance.
Don’t get me wrong. The Gospel obviously has glorious implications for mankind beyond this life. Yet, without a broader, more holistic view of salvation we’ve got blinkers on, and we end up booting everything into the afterlife. Our glorious message that reveals God’s desire to intervene in all of mankind’s affairs is reduced to one about getting saved to heaven (or saved from hell) despite the fact that this does not reflect the message Jesus seemed primarily concerned with. As we have seen, when Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9, 10), He was talking about one-time rascal Zacchaeus. And He was describing a God-intervention that shattered a cycle of corruption and oppression, bringing a little bit of heaven to earth.
Short and sweet for now. We’ll unravel this thread more in the articles ahead. A lot more. Suffice to say, salvation speaks of God’s will (desire, concern) to rescue, redeem and perfect His creation in the here and now as well as the hereafter.
Describing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7 as the Sermon on the Mount does no justice to it at all (yes, justice being a core issue, as we’ll see shortly). Jesus’ download from heaven in this discourse was more like a bomb going off; a revolutionary battle-cry … insurrection talk … a clarion call to a completely new way of living.
In this Kingdom declaration, Jesus began with eight qualities of a new breed of humanity; not an elitist, exclusive club of spiritual ‘black-belts,’ rather a vision of a Kingdom-shaped people. And “righteousness” is a key word in this discourse.
Mentioned three times in the opening twenty verses (Matthew 5:1-20), it soon becomes clear that an undercurrent to God’s Kingdom project, is how we view this issue of righteousness. Jesus summed up those first twenty verses by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
So, how did the religious establishment view righteousness?
The Pharisees primarily envisioned righteousness as one’s personal, moral, right-standing before God. And only a scrupulous adherence to personal piety would beget God’s blessings.
Sound familiar? A little too close to how a lot of Christendom views it today?
Moreover, the Pharisees turned righteousness into a self-serving measure of personal piety, a spiritualised selfishness … a sanitised, self-centred religion.
So, for example, when Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), it’s easy to assume He’s urging us to strive to become more upright, moral, virtuous. And when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10), it’s easy to take this to mean that He’s encouraging us to stand firm when we are ridiculed for being upright, pure, pious.
However … and buckle up tight … the word “righteousness” (Greek: dikaiosune) refers to “equity of character and action,” where the stress on equity (impartiality, fairness) and action links it with the concept of justice. Throughout Scripture, righteousness and justice go hand in hand. The psalmist declared: “righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne” (Psalm 97:2), expressing the importance of both God’s moral character and just nature in His Rule.
Therefore, Jesus was not merely referring to one’s private and personal piety but also to one’s public and societal responsibility to seek and stand for justice; that is, the well-being and good of others, especially the disenfranchised. And justice, of course, deals with the use or abuse of privilege and power (a core issue in Jesus’ teachings). What is the point of being upright if we don’t then, in His power, right all the wrong we can?
It goes without saying that I’m not suggesting a renewed course of finger wagging and guilt dumping as society’s self-proclaimed moral police. We’ve majored on the minors for too long. Jesus condemned the pious high-horsing of the Pharisees: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). They specialised in turning minor issues into major ones but “neglected the weightier matter of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). Justice, mercy and faith. True faith that champions justice and mercy; that’s what I’m banging on about here.
In this light, let’s look at what Jesus teaches in Matthew, Chapter 5.
Firstly, in speaking to a violently oppressed and harassed people (this context is crucial to keep in mind), Jesus highlights eight qualities God desires—often called the Beatitudes—that relate to the theme of justice (Matthew 5:3-10). Jesus refers to…
- the “poor in spirit” … and though some are quick to suggest that this may have nothing to do with the literal underprivileged, Luke’s account quotes Jesus saying precisely this: “Blessed are you poor” … full stop (see Luke 6:20). Not only are the poor more likely to embrace the message, not only are they key beneficiaries in Jesus’ otherworldly Kingdom; they’re invited to change the very systems that once oppressed them.
- “those who mourn,” as in those who suffer and “weep” (see Luke 6:21), for they will know the comfort and joy of freedom.
- the “meek” who, exercising restraint and refusing to abuse power, will “inherit the earth.”
- those who hunger and thirst for righteous justice, for they will see justice fulfilled.
- the “merciful” who, showing mercy in a corrupt world of injustice, will reap mercy.
- the “pure in heart” who, unbiased, fair and free from prejudice, will see and experience God’s nature.
- the “peacemakers” who, seeking literal peace in a brutal, violent, prejudiced world will be identified as God’s people.
- those who are persecuted for standing up for righteous justice (against oppression), for they’re a reflection of all Jesus came to do.
Hmm, am I taking liberties in using the phrase righteous justice in place of righteousness?
I don’t think so.
The word righteous certainly includes the aspect of justice, as mentioned above, but in comforting those who “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus alludes to the “prophets who were persecuted before you.” What were the prophets persecuted for? For pious snobbery? For establishing an elite, holy club? For preaching a holier-than-thou message? Of course not. The prophets were persecuted for confronting two related issues: on the one hand, idolatry, and on the other hand, for decrying the unjust systems of their day; those systemic attitudes and structures responsible for the neglect and oppression of the poor and marginalised. (To highlight this point, we’ll look at this in the Related Question below.)
Secondly, Jesus goes on to emphatically call His audience to do as much good as they possibly can: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” And He was adamant that this was not about merely impressing others with shallow efforts and image management; in fact, He confronted this in the next chapter, saying, “do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Don’t miss the power of this.
A new Kingdom-shaped people, delivered from injustice, untangled from systemic oppression, are called to be change agents themselves. The metaphors Jesus used to define our influence in the world are telling. Like “salt” we’re to flavour and season society, and like “light” we’re to expel the darkness by demonstrating the Kingdom’s radiance.
Thirdly, Jesus provides some telling examples of how He sees this working practically in the first-century context. Let’s look at one.
Living under the oppressive thumb of Rome meant that even a snot-nosed, green-horn Roman soldier could use his position, as one of the oppressors, to compel a high-ranking Jew to, among others things, carry his heavy weaponry (Matthew 5:41). Can you imagine a proud, elderly Jew forced to carry the very symbols of his oppression? Bitterness, anger and hate would have simmered palpably under the surface of Jesus’ audience in recalling such common injustices afflicted upon them, and the humiliation they suffered as a result.
What does Jesus tell them to do? Yes, to go the extra mile.
Now, He was not advocating some doormat mentality. He wasn’t saying, “Let them stand on you, and rub their dirty, smelly feet all over you.” No, He was pointing out that they were free. In fact, delivered from the oppressive system, they could act beyond it. He was urging them to go the first mile out of obedience, but not to stop there. Rather, He encouraged going the second mile out of empowered love and service. There was no need to wallow in bitterness as they “did their (enforced) duty,” rather they were to transcend the Empire’s oppressive demands in joy and power of spirit.
Wow! They were to transform this attempt to oppress them into an opportunity to serve, showing the world a new Kingdom that superseded the petty, prejudiced kingdom of Rome. In so doing, they’d expose the powerlessness of the Empire, and would confront the soldier in question with another beautiful, otherworldly Kingdom.
Fourthly, after Jesus touches on some practical issues of the Kingdom-shaped life with his custom, “you have heard that it was said … but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-42), He speaks of a God of love, who—don’t miss this—“…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus then calls His audience to “be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48).
True-blue Pharisees would seize a statement like this and cry, “Ha! God demands that we be perfect! Who dares not measure up?” and by doing so, act in just the opposite spirit to what Jesus taught here.
Jesus is calling us to “be perfect” in showing love without prejudice or bias; in a word, to show justice. He’d already explained, “if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). The issue is again clearly the justice of God and His desire that we, His people, seek and stand for justice—even as He gives rain to bless “the just and the unjust.”
A final point then about Jesus’ Explosion on the Mount. It is fairly common knowledge that Jesus radically altered the traditional version of the Golden Rule. Most religions teach some version of this rule yet tend to state it in a negative, defensive way. The Jews, for instance, taught: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.” If you don’t want others to defraud or harm you, don’t defraud or harm them. Great advice for sure; but really a basic expression of self-protective, ‘minimum standard,’ on-the-back-foot morality.
Jesus repositioned the Golden Rule putting the onus on His followers to be radical doers of good. He taught: “whatever you want men to do for you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, get on the front foot.
How would you like to be treated? Treat men likewise. You want respect? Respect others. Do you deserve to be heard, your point of view considered, your contributions valued and your effort rewarded? Yes? Then do unto others. Create a better world by being a better person; ignite a chain reaction of good actions; set in motion a string of godly events. Pass good forward. (And recall again that Jesus spoke these words to a harshly oppressed people, who were, in fact, seeking justice above all things.)
Imagine a world in which God’s Kingdom has come; a society in which His will is actively being done. What kind of blessedness do you expect citizens of such a society to enjoy? Then … serve your fellowmen towards these high aims.
What’s the key point to ponder?
How much of church as we know it, lives with a badly truncated definition of the words “salvation” and “righteousness,” and how does this hinder our ministry to world? How much of Jesus’ message actually focused on immediate salvation from the prevailing framing reference of His day, and how much of Jesus’ message called us not merely to a personal, pious righteousness, but to contend for righteous justice?
Take for example, James’ exhortation to “keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Surely that’s a call to shun worldly vices; you know, to not “drink and chew or run with those who do”?
Actually, James exhorts us to a “pure and undefiled” faith; a practical faith that includes the care of the most marginalised people of society: “orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27). In the very next breath, he confronts our tendency towards prejudice (James 2:1ff)—the very virus from which injustice goes airborne—before calling us to an exemplary faith backed up by works of justice and service (James 2:14ff). The call to a pure, undefiled and unspotted faith isn’t a fixation on the minors, but has everything to do with a heart free from prejudice, corruption and self-seeking.
Where we’re going next?
In the next post, we’re going to look at how we’ve fudged a few more words that have critical implications for Jesus’ message today. Get those crash helmets on, we’re going to look at “eternal” and “hell” next.
What were the two things that most grieved God about His people throughout the Old Testament? Idolatry is the obvious one, yes. Their propensity to worship other gods and adopt pagan practices was very definitely issue number one. And the second?
People are often surprised to hear that the second thing that most grieved God was the neglect of the poor; specifically, their nonchalance towards the issue of justice.
Consider Isaiah, known more for His Messianic prophesies, as one example. Isaiah begins his ministry by delivering a scathing rebuke (not exactly the way to raise your popularity stakes): “‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings … I do not delight in the blood of bulls … Bring no more futile sacrifices … Your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them … Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear…’” (Isaiah 1:11-15). Ouch! Talk about wasted worship!
Why did God detest their worship, even though He had prescribed it? Because it was a smokescreen behind which injustice ran rampant. God cut through the facade: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean … Learn to do good; seek justice. Rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16, 17).
Learn to do good; seek justice! Champion the underprivileged of society.
Through Isaiah, God rebuked Judah’s greedy urbanization—“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left”—while “cries of distress” went unheard (Isaiah 5:7, 8 NIV). He chided their excessive pleasure-seeking while they neglected to stand up for “justice to the innocent” (Isaiah 5:22, 23 NIV).
Unsurprisingly Isaiah then reveals God as “a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18) who will, through the Messiah, “bring forth justice to the Gentiles … and establish justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4). And one of God’s core indictments against the people was that “no one calls for justice” (Isaiah 59:4); that is, the nation had become inundated with injustice, deceit and oppression and no one seemed to care. He laments: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off; for truth is fallen in the street and equity cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14). Notice how justice and righteousness (and truth and equity, for that matter) are used here as two sides of the same coin.
Stressing “I, the Lord, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8), God promises through the Messiah and His legacy, to “build the old waste places … raise up the foundation of many generations” being a testimony as a “Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12). Of course, these all have to do with establishing justice. Not merely spiritualised, theoretical justice. Substantial, practical justice in a real time and space location.
Then in declaring “the Spirit of the Lord God upon” the Messiah—the exact passage Jesus chose to launch His ministry off—God makes it clear the anointing of the Spirit is, in large part, to establish justice: “good tidings to the poor,” healing to “the broken-hearted,” “liberty to the captives” and freedom to the indebted, the implication of proclaiming “the acceptable year” or year of Jubilee (Isaiah 61:1, 2). And then God continues to unveil His intention to establish justice through the Messiah’s rule: “And they shall rebuild the old ruins, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).
Until we understand the issue of justice, our righteousness will never exceed that of the Pharisees. Amen or O me?