For the first 20 or so years of my life, I understood salvation as one concrete idea: that Jesus died for my sin on the cross.
Substitutionary Atonement is what we call it. Jesus took our place. He was our substitute and paid the price for our sins.
But before too long, I discovered that I was terribly mistaken.
Not about Jesus dying for our sins.
But about thinking that was all salvation meant.
In its fullest sense, “Salvation is ‘God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need… resulting in their restoration to wholeness.’ It is restoration because salvation does not offer something new; it is God’s original intent for creation.” (Introduction, The Lord is Our Salvation)
The best word I can find to describe that original intent, the life that God intends for each of us is the word shalom.
It means completeness, wholeness, well-being.
And God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ rescues us from whatever hell we might experience in our lives that has destroyed shalom, so we might experience life and life abundant once again.
Christ dying and paying the price for our sins is one piece of that work of salvation. But it isn’t the only one.
In fact, in the Western world, there are three major understandings of what the cross means, all different ways of talking about how Jesus saves us.
These are called atonement theories. They describe how we become at-one again with God… how we are brought back into shalom… how we experience wholeness once again.
The first is the one most of us grew up being familiar with – a Forensic understanding of salvation. These theories say we are like a defendant on trial and have been found guilty of breaking our covenant with God. So, a penalty must be paid. Jesus knows we are guilty and out of love, pays the price for us. He satisfies the debt we owe.
The second is called Moral Example. This grouping of theories claims that the cross is the natural outcome of the life of Jesus, who spoke truth to power and dared to love those who society rejected. And in his life and death, Christ shows us how we should live, too.
The third of the major groupings is called “Christus Victor” – Christ as the Victor! This theory claims that in the eternal battle for good and evil, we are imprisoned by sin and held captive by Satan. Jesus defeats death and evil on the cross and we are set free.
Throughout this season of Lent, we are going to see how this isn’t a debate or competition about which of these sets of theories is right, but that each and every one of them is a part of the whole. Taken all together, they describe how God continually and relentlessly works to bring us salvation, to restore us to shalom.
I want to share with you one more scripture this morning as we hear the word.
In 1 Peter, chapter 3 we hear:
17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.
18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous…
19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison.
Right there, in three verses, all three of these major theories are at play. Be like Jesus and suffer for doing good… He died because of our sins… and he went down to hell and preached to the spirits in prison.
This morning, we are going to focus on the idea of being rescued. 1 Peter tells us, and the Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus descended to the dead. He went down into hell after the crucifixion to preach to the spirits held in the prison of death.
The verses go on to say:
In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.
As we remember in our first reading this morning, the whole world was drowning in sin… and eight lives were rescued through the water.
With the children, we remembered the promise God made right then and there, a promise to seek forgiveness and not punishment. God put the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that never again would life be destroyed, that God wants to restore us to life.
But I sometimes wonder about those souls who weren’t rescued. Whatever happened to them?
1 Peter tells us, God’s rainbow promise extends even to those who died in the flood. They were trapped by their own sin, imprisoned by Satan and death, but through the cross, Jesus wins the victory over death itself and even the unfaithful disobedient spirits of the ancient world were given the opportunity to hear the message of God’s love and offered shalom.
That’s how powerful God is. That is how mighty Christ’s victory is.
And if Jesus can rescue disobedient spirits from hell itself, than Jesus can rescue you.
Maybe you are struggling with an addiction that just seems to have you in its grip. Jesus can help set you free.
Maybe bad habits and a poor attitude have been dragging you down. Jesus can lift you up.
Maybe you are swimming in worries and fears and feel lost in that sea. Jesus will keep you from drowning.
On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded of our sin, our mortality, our finite natures. We are all sinners. We are all made out the dust of the earth. And we can’t save ourselves from drowning in all of the dirt and muck of this world.
But Jesus can.
And just as God took the dust of the earth and formed us as his people, God can take the dust of our lives and make something beautiful out of it. God can rescue us from even the dust of death and raise us up.
We’ve talked about some big words and some big concepts this morning. Atonement. Christus Victor. Salvation and Shalom.
And sometimes the only antidote to being overwhelmed by new information is to look at pictures of puppies.
These puppies are rescue dogs and these amazing photos capture them on the day they were rescued… on the day they were brought home from the shelter.
They transform from these sad and pitiful creatures, to vibrant and life filled friends.
They come to find themselves at home, loved, taken care of.
And this is what God wants for us. God wants to rescue us from the hell we experience in our lives. God wants to save us from our guilt and addiction, from our sin and temptation, from our fears and our failures.
God wants to bring us home. To restore us to shalom. To wholeness. To life and life abundant.
Jesus is strong enough to save even the spirits in hell and Jesus can save you. Jesus can transform you. Jesus can set free this entire world.
It is interesting that Mark’s account of the wilderness is not a long series of temptations and failures, but a few words about faithfulness: Jesus was tempted by Satan. He was with the animals. The angels took care of him. No drama. No mistakes. No surrender. And in the midst of it all, Satan just disappears. Jesus transforms even the wilderness, the time of testing and struggle, into shalom – a place where all are cared for. Pheme Perkins writes that even before his ministry began, Jesus had already broken Satan’s power on this world.
And Jesus can enter the wilderness of our lives, the prisons we construct for ourselves, and can transform it too.
Now is the time. Today is the moment. Let Christ set you free.