22 – The Way of Salvation
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘
So he set off and went to his father.
This parable has been understood down the centuries as the account of the wonderful conversion of a lost son. When most of us read this story we find ourselves entering into the joy of the shepherd and his friends, the woman and her neighbours, and the father and his household. Though religious language is not being used throughout this parable, we cannot help but read it as the story of a sinner’s conversion. This may be the reason that this is the best known and most loved parable that Jesus ever told. It describes an event that reminds us so much of that moment, in so many of our own lives, when we found ourselves being encountered by God and finding him friend and not foe.
It has long been recognized that each person comes to God in very personal ways. We come at different ages, from varying backgrounds, with various ways of responding. Some come with quiet relief, others come with great sorrow, others come in thankful jubilation. And God comes to us in ways that are meaningful to each of us individually. To the doubter he comes offering certitude. To the guilty he comes giving peace of mind. To the disheartened he comes as hope born anew. God knows how to temper the wind of his Spirit to the shorn lamb. He will not break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax, but approaches each as we are able to bear it, so that the human heart can say with relief, “Abba! Father!”
So when the father welcomes his returning son, knowing his son as well as he does, he greets him with eager embrace and fervent kisses, and without a moment to waste, restores him to all the privileges and responsibilities of sonship: the only antidote to a son who has felt unworthy of such a status, and who has presumed himself only fit for a menial life.
But though the relationship with God is tailor made for each of us, it has long been recognized that there are some things about this story that are so familiar, that it has become the normative way to describe a person coming to God. And those very same voices that remind us that God fashions his approach to us in unique ways, also say there are some commonalities in all of our stories. The reflections below explore that side of our common salvation in more detail.
The question has been raised: How do people come to God? What are the events that take place in those who come to experience Christian conversion? Theologians in the Methodist tradition have called this sequence of events “The Via Salutis” – the way of salvation. Let me note those elements and indicate in what way the story of the returning son fleshes out that theological perspective. (Caution: If you are allergic to all things Methodist, you may want to skip the rest of this chapter and move to safer ground in the next one.)
The first reality is “grace.” The gracious God is active long before any of us becomes aware of Him. This gracious approach of God is often called “Prevenient Grace.” This is grace that precedes any action of ours. That is why we are saved by grace. If God did not act first, we would never respond to him!
This parable is in fact the story of the father who is shown to be grace-filled from start to finish, to both his sons. Without the graciousness of the father there would be no standing invitation to either son to come home. Pure omnipotence might have forced them to come home, but grace invites, and is prepared to take our “no” for an answer. This gracious God is prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt and bestow upon us his resources, whether or not they are deserved.
The Gospel Call
There is a second necessary action of God if we are to ever get home. Theologians call it, the Gospel Call. God calls people to himself. He calls us through the beauty of creation. He calls us from the thunderstorms that threaten our very existence. He calls us in the joys of life as well as its hurts. He stands at each door and knocks. He calls through the witness of the church. He calls us through the Scriptures and by His own Spirit. He calls out “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He calls out “Ho everyone that is thirsty, come to the waters and drink.” God calls to Adam, “Adam, where are you?” and he has called every child of Adam since that day. In fact the New Testament word “ecclesia” we translate with the word “Church” is actually a word that means “the called ones”.
The runaway son heard the voice of memory, more dominating than the squeal of the pigs, calling him home. He, like us, would not have perceived these reminders from his past as the voice of God, but God has used whatever means he chooses to give voice to his words. This calling is the work of God. That is why we are saved by Grace!
But the theologians describe a third activity of God that is intended to bring about our salvation. It is called “Awakening”. It is when a person awakes out of his sleep to discover that something has gone wrong. There comes a discontent with life the way it is. The person senses a longing for something more in life. There is disequilibrium. An unsettledness about life in general.
When the runaway son, “came to himself” he is being awakened. In the pigpen he becomes aware that life has gone awfully awry. But this awakening is not something that a person chooses to have happen. Runaways do not say, “I think I will now wake myself up.” This too is what God does. It is God that prods us into circumstantial awareness.
In this story of the lost son it was the rumbling of his belly, and the excitement of his salivary glands as he remembered the smorgasbord of home, that awakened him. But God is not so proud that he would refuse to use a rumbling stomach to get our attention. He has spoken through Balaam’s donkey before, and is prepared to do the same again. It was the working of something higher than an appetite for food that brought the runaway to himself and to his father.
But even though an alarm clock has rung in our ears and awakened us, we can shut off the alarm, turn over and go back to sleep. We can hear God calling and ignore it, and develop a deafness to it.
I remember when my family moved from England in 1955 to Marlborough Street in Brantford, Ontario. Our house was almost next to the railway tracks. For the first few weeks we heard every train and felt every shudder of the house as it passed. But a few months later a change had taken place. As visitors came to the house, they would suddenly start and say, “what was that?” and we would say, “What was what?” and they would describe the sound, and then it dawned on us that it was the train. We had gotten so used to it we no longer heard or felt it. But the sounds went on whether we aware of them or not.
All people go through such moments of hearing a call and feeling someone stirring them awake. Any of us, however, can get so used to the calling voice, that it no longer awakens us. But God is faithful. He calls us by his grace. He awakens us by his grace. This is why the New Testament reminds us, “It is by grace you are saved.”
But there is a fourth step that occurs in human salvation. It is a subtle change. The person who has been awakened begins to move from the awareness “that something is wrong” to the conviction that “I am in the wrong.” He moves from feelings of unease to feeling guilty. He begins to feel responsible for his part in the disequilibrium he feels.
Our wanderer comes to this moment. His stomach and his memory have been used to get him thinking. But our wanderer has been awakened not only to his plight, but also to its cause. He admits that he has sinned before God and before his father! He has done things that he believes make him unworthy to be called his father’s son. He knows that it is not his friends that are to blame. It is his own folly.
But once more I need to remind us that the wanderers of our world do not convict themselves. Listen to Jesus “The Holy Spirit … will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and judgment.” Conviction is the work of the gracious God. For that reason the New Testament is right when it says, “By grace you have been saved.”
There is a fifth step in a person coming to God. It is “repentance”. It means in the original languages: “to turn”, “to turn around”, “to change my mind”, and “to regret”. Repentance is a change of mind about myself. I thought I was pretty cool. Now I know different. I thought I was OK. Now I know otherwise.
Penitence involves contrition, confession, and resolution.
– Contrition is a godly sorrow, not simply for what has happened, but for what I have become.
– Confession is actually stating my guilt out loud, instead of trying to cover it up.
– The resolve to return is the declaration to myself, that the future is not going to be a copy of my past, God being my helper.
The runaway son came to such a moment. The passage says, “I will arise… I will go…. I will say to him, “I have sinned…” All the elements of repentance.
But another word of caution is needed. Repentance too is a gift of God. Listen to Acts 11:18, “Even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance unto life.” It is why salvation from start to finish is due to the sheer grace of God.
But here we must add another reality. The calling, the awakening, the convicting is entirely of God. We do not have anything to do with what is happening within us. God’s grace, however, is not irresistible. God does not kidnap or coerce people into his Kingdom. God offers the gift. He holds it out to us, but will not ram it down our throats. God will convict and offer persuasion to repent, but just like the lost son, I too “must arise, and go, and say I have sinned.” Beside God doing his part, he also calls us to respond as we are able, or better “enabled”, since even our enablement is the gift of a gracious God.
This is not earning salvation, anymore than the beggar earns his meal by holding out his empty bowl. The beggar does not deserve to be fed because he came for food. He is fed because he is in need and can offer nothing in return.
Repentance is not the destination towards which God moves us, however. For the theologians say there is a sixth step that is needed. It is Faith.
Faith involves the assent of the mind to something that is true. If repentance is believing what God says about me is true, then faith is believing what God says about himself is also true.
But there is more to faith than intellectual assent. Faith is also trust. To have faith in someone is to place trust in that person. Faith in God is to trust Him with my life. To put myself in His hands. To put my past as well as my future into His care.
The Wandering Son went home to his father. Why to his father? Because he knew something about his father. He knew that he could put himself under the leadership of his father without regret. And so in faith he moved towards home.
So while faith is a gift of God, it is at the same time a fully human act. For faith is not earning or deserving salvation. It is the simple awareness and assurance that God forgives sins, even mine, and that I can come to Him.
There is one more element in our salvation. It is “Election”. All Christian theologians are absolutely sure that repentance and faith saves no one. The passage in Ephesians reads, “For by grace you are saved through faith.” It is God that does the saving. I repent, but God forgives. I believe, but God elects and adopts me into his family. The final decision is His, not mine. And there is a message of great comfort in this regard, “He that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37)
In this story of the wanderer you can see what the father does. He runs out to meet the returning runaway. He calls for the robe, the ring, the shoes, and the calf. He is re-choosing his own son. He is adopting him, grafting him, back into the family.
The Son does not come home. He is brought home. The son has no need to find a cleverly concealed latch, and produce the right key. The son does not have to find the right door in a multiple option game. He has to thread no maze before he can enter the house. The father himself comes out to bring his son home. With an arm around his son, the father draws the son into the sanctuary of their home. The son is passive. We hear no more words from him. But, the father has left him in no doubt about whether he is welcome.
Our salvation from start to finish is due to the graciousness of God. It is God who because he is gracious calls, awakens, convicts, assists us towards repentance and faith and then brings us to Himself. Salvation is his gift to us from start to finish. Thanks be to God!