The most common approach to explaining God’s salvation is with analogies that relate to a business deal or a legal action.
They go like this:
- Business: Jesus paid the debt incurred by our sins. This debt is too much for anyone to pay. Jesus paid it all for us so we can go free with our debt forgiven.
- Legal: Our sins have made us guilty and therefore subject to punishment in hell as offenders. But Jesus not only intervenes to his Father, the Judge, on our behalf but takes our punishment himself as our substitute and thus satisfies a cosmic principle that all sin must be punished.
All a person has to do for salvation is acknowledge either one of these. This is “accepting Jesus as your saviour.”
However, these analogies suffer from several weaknesses:
- Business and legal analogies seem very inadequate to capture the grandeur of God’s love for his children and the power and mystery of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.
- When a debt is paid, the deal is done. When a judgment is rendered, the case is closed. These one-time deals lead people to believe that everything is settled between them and God. Since God is satisfied they are free to go about their merry way as they please.
- The threat of hell is not far from the surface of these analogies. They are promoted as the means to avoid eternal punishment in the afterlife. Is this really the best motive there is to enter into a life with God?
- Focusing so strongly on the death of Jesus as his sole purpose diminishes the significance of his life and teachings.
- Being more related to business or legal matters, these analogies are external and impersonal. If our relationship with God is indeed of a personal nature, there must be a better analogy that captures this.
There is a better analogy for God’s salvation. It is like being married. A marriage is where love is given and received, promises are made to last a lifetime. A marriage is based on mutual commitment and trust. A marriage grows over time as the love grows deeper, as promises are kept, and as tests of commitment reveal true faithfulness. It is a covenant where two parties voluntarily enter into a mutual agreement to support each other no matter what may come.
God’s salvation is like being married. A marriage begins with a wedding ceremony. Then the marriage begins. Our “marriage” to Jesus may begin in many different ways for different people. For some, it’s like they were always with Jesus from childhood. For some, Jesus comes in a flash of emotion, or a release from guilt. For some it is a cerebral process of knowledge. Or many other ways. However the “wedding” may occur, it is like we stand up with Jesus to accept His offer of steadfast love and in turn pledge our love and faithfulness from then onward. As life is lived and trials faced, our “marriage” with Jesus will grow deeper as love is tested and faithfulness is proven. Following Jesus in this relationship will lead to many wonderful experiences not possible any other way. The greatest sin in this relationship is being unfaithful to our “Partner.” When this happens, the relationship breaks down and can only be restored by confession and re-pledging our love and faithfulness, whereupon forgiveness is granted and the relationship resumes.
The business and legal analogies perhaps best describe the wedding ceremony, but the marriage begins after the wedding. If a marriage exists solely based on a legal contract and not a growing relationship, what kind of marriage would that be?
The outcomes of these salvation analogies are vastly different. The external, impersonal expressions allow us to make an initial transaction then go about the rest of life with only a casual acquaintance of Jesus and his ways. This results in leaving many believers remaining comfortably satisfied that they are “saved” without seeking to actually live a life that grows more and more in union with God. God is kept safely at bay. Even what might seem to be a long, devoted Christian life leaves many believers stuck not far from the salvation experience. All their life they are “entry level” Christians. It is like a legally married couple that lives apart. But the marriage analogy for salvation leads to a deeper relationship with God that continually grows over time as life is lived, as fears and prejudices are faced and conquered, as tests are passed and trials are overcome, as forgiveness and restoration is experienced, and love expands beyond one’s own tribe to include all people. The marriage analogy goes far beyond a simple business deal or legal action by encompassing all of life.
Being limited in scope, the business and legal analogies are fairly simple to grasp and quite familiar to most people. As such, they have become the most popular way of understanding God’s salvation. However, even as well known as marriage may be, it can be quite complex as seen in the large failure rate of marriages. Marriage encompasses the full range of living, not limited to part of life, and lasts a very long time. As such, the marriage analogy seems a much better way to point to the richness and grandeur of the life with God.
The “benefits” of the business and legal analogies are mostly understood to become effective after death since they explain the requirements to enter heaven. Thinking of salvation more as a marriage opens up immediate “benefits” as the recipients enter into an empowering relationship, learn lessons about love, patience, temptation, and find direction for all of life. The marriage analogy offers a positive reason to enter into the Way of Jesus instead of an escape from eternal punishment.
It might be argued that the marriage analogy relates more to the Christian life after the salvation experience, but the business and legal analogies are still most favorable for the initial entrance into salvation. If this were true, it would mean that entering the life with Jesus is one thing but continuing on is something else. How can that be true?
The marriage analogy for salvation is a strong biblical image for salvation. In the last chapters of Revelation describing the triumph of the kingdom of God and the consummation of the believer’s union with God, Jesus comes as a bride for his bridegroom. Business or legal images would fall far short in capturing the majesty and glory associated with God’s ultimate victory and our forever life with God.
How does a person become a Christian? Is it by saying a “Sinner’s Prayer”? By going through the Four Steps to salvation? By subscribing to a certain set of beliefs? What is the meaning of “accepting Jesus as my savior?” Or is our salvation obtained by entering into a love relationship with Jesus that starts by accepting God’s love and pledging our love by turning away from the sins of self-centeredness, greed, lust, blindness to injustice, and a host of ways to avoid intimacy with God? Thus are we saved!