Focus Scripture – Matthew 18:21-22
No one knows for sure. But I believe that God is eternal, and life stretches infinitely from past into future, lived out in three distinct phases of salvation, like “legs” of a journey, if you will. In other words, existence has a beginning, middle, and an end that transcend time and space. Case in point, I suspect that my life began in the mystery of the infinite and will ultimately end there – wherever “there” happens to be. To get to everlasting from everlasting, we have no choice but to travel through the here and now, even if only for a brief moment in time. These legs may be defined by the three stages of salvation identified by Lehman Strauss (Bible.org): (a) Salvation from the penalty of sin, (b) salvation from the practice of sin, and (c) salvation from the possibility of sin. All three stages are benchmarked by forgiveness.
Long ago St. Augustine identified sin as the inevitable consequence of humanity’s choice to become separated from God in the Garden of Eden. The penalty of sin is death both figuratively and literally, physically and spiritually. At first, sin manifested in humankind’s nakedness but later blossomed into shamefulness, self-loathing, moral bankruptcy, and other transgressions. In the Christian view, because of God’s love and through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the hermeneutical Lamb of God, the penalty of sin was forgiven once for all. Even so, freedom from the penalty is still a yet-to-be-realized reward.
In today’s world, a large body of empirical evidence shows that humans are sinful both by nature and by choice. St. Augustine might even argue that given their innate depravity, garden-variety humans would find it is impossible not to sin. No matter what they do in this world, they will be the victims or perpetrators of sin in one or more of its evolving varieties. Hence being free from the possibility of sin is something that is attainable only on the other side of eternity through Divine acts of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
That leaves for consideration only the second category – salvation from the practice of sin. This category deals with what we humans do during the middle leg of life’s journey from birth to death when the choices are mostly our own. Life’s trajectory has a fixed destination. But if St. Augustine was correct, we have no choice but to bump into sin along the way. Then, like dust in a sandstorm or petals in the wind, we are blown away too quickly and soon become part of that which we cannot see and do not understand. What does salvation look like along the way?
I submit to you that salvation can be found in loving and forgiving self and others as we navigate from this side of eternity to the next. If we have faith, our steps will be less tentative, for we will be guided by our peace. We will recognize salvation in the faces of those who are not like us as we embrace mercy and strive for justice. Salvation will crystallize in our spirits as we draw closer to the same God who is in ourselves and the other. Through it all, we will grow into resilient beings enlivened by hope in tangible and intangible ways as we forgive and are forgiven – one day at a time – by the grace of God.