Good evening. When I was in high school, my mother had a part-time job as the alto soloist in the choir at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. Eventually, she started dragging me with her to church. By that point, I was a freshman in high school, so she couldn’t physically drag me—I was too big for that—but I didn’t want to go. I wanted to sleep in and I really wasn’t all that interested in church. Eventually I got to know and like the other kids who were in the youth group, so I came around to the idea of going to church. It kinda scares me to think that this was about thirty years ago. In my mind, I’m only in my early thirties.
At one point, the pastor felt that the kids in the youth group weren’t getting enough religion, so he thought it would be a good idea to send the youth group down South to church camp. Southern Baptist church camp. I can’t speak for any of the other kids in that youth group, but I am a Yankee, through and through. I am not saying that I have anything against Southerners and I don’t mean to speak ill of the entire region. I am just saying that it was quite a bit of culture shock. And let me tell you, we got a whole lot of religion that week.
As Yankees, we were also something of a curiosity to all of the Southerners. Very often, we were asked, “Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Now I’m perfectly comfortable confessing Christ as my Lord and Savior. But to this very day, I get a little anxious when I hear the question, “Are you saved?”
My problem is not that I have a guilty conscience—though I suspect that any good Presbyterian or Lutheran feels a little bit of guilt from time to time. No, my problem with that question is theological. The very question suggests that salvation is a once-and-for-all kind of thing. The way the question is phrased suggests that the work of salvation is completed the moment you accept Jesus. That’s it. Accept Jesus and there’s nothing more you need to do. You’re saved from eternal damnation. Period.
On one level, that’s absolutely true. As Reformed Christians, we believe that Jesus has done all the work that is necessary for our salvation. We believe that we are saved by grace alone, and there is nothing, not a single blessed thing, that any one of us can do to work our way into heaven. So in that sense, if you are a Christian, the only possible answer to the question, “Are you saved?” is, “Yes!”
The English theologian N.T. Wright has a slightly different take on that question. Instead of looking at what we’re saved from—eternal damnation—Wright focuses on what we are saved for. The short answer is that we are also saved for building God’s kingdom here on earth; this is our calling. Wright says: “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end.” For this reason, what we do here on earth matters a great deal.
Salvation, then, is also a process. It is the ongoing work of God’s re-creation in each one of us. This is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in his letter to the Colossians. According to Wright, Paul is telling them—and us—to develop “the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age.” So Paul tells the Colossians to “put to death” the things that are of this world: impurity, passion, greed, and idolatry. Paul isn’t telling us to do these things so that we may get into heaven. Paul is reminding us that our true identity is in Christ. And these worldly things get in the way of that relationship.
Yet Paul doesn’t stop with the things that we’re supposed to give up. Yes, we are supposed to unlearn the ways of the world. By doing so, we make room for heavenly things. Rather, Paul says to the Colossians and to us, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” This doesn’t come naturally to us, nor does it come easily. How then, do we do this? How do get rid of the ways of the world? How do we become holy, compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient?
Remember that Paul is not writing this letter to one person, or to a few select members of a community. No. Paul is writing to the entire Christian community at Colossae. This context is vitally important. It is the job of the entire community to move in the direction of holiness. No single person can do this alone. No pastor can do this for you. It is a process in which all of us must participate.
Tending vines and branches is a process, an ongoing process. You don’t just harvest the grapes once and then forget about it. Jesus chose this metaphor and Paul built on that metaphor because it was something that people understood. Attending to your faith, your character, and your spiritual development is an ongoing process, just like tending a vineyard. You don’t do this once, you do this all the time, and you do it together. So instead of asking, “Are you saved?” I’m going to ask, have you been pruned? Or are you resisting the pruning hook? If you feel that you have been pruned, that great! Now go help tend someone else’s vine. And if you think you might be resisting the pruning hook, don’t hesitate to ask someone else for help. Remember, we are a community of faith; we’re all in this together. Thanks be to God. Amen!