THE BLOG
05/19/2013 04:20 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2013

Christian Salvation as Pentecost

To prepare for Pentecost, I've been reading Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong's "The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh." Yong argues for a "pneumatological soteriology" (Spirit-centered account of salvation) that "would be in contrast to soteriologies that tend to bifurcate the work of Christ and of the Spirit ... articulated by Protestant scholasticism ... [in which] Christ provides salvation objectively (e.g., in justification) and the Spirit accomplishes salvation subjectively (e.g., in sanctification)." In the prophecy from Joel that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, God makes an incredible promise: "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh." What if this statement is taken as the centerpiece of God's salvation of humanity and the world? What if the salvation made possible through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ finds its full expression in the perpetual Pentecost poured out by the Holy Spirit?

The God of the American evangelical gospel is mostly a duality of Father and Son with the Holy Spirit basically filling in the gaps of the story kind of like the way that God fills in the gaps that cannot be explained by science in modernity. Evangelicals tend to frame the problem of Christian salvation in terms of a fundamental dualism to God's nature (wrath vs. mercy, holiness vs. love, justice vs. grace) that involves a Marcionist split between the Old Testament Father (who is wrathful, holy and just) and the New Testament Son (who is merciful, loving and gracious).

This Marcionist dualism (or shall I say bitheism) is expressed most clearly in the claim that while the gracious/merciful Jesus is the one who "eats and drinks with sinners" (Matthew 9:11), His wrathful/holy Father cannot tolerate the presence of our sin (He has an allergy), so He needs Jesus to fumigate our souls of sin with His blood. That way, He will only see Jesus instead of us and pretend that we never made any mistakes after we die and go to face Him.

In such a schema, the Holy Spirit's sole purpose is to enable totally wicked and hell-destined human beings to get out of the doghouse with the wrathful Father by responding appropriately to the action of the merciful Son on the cross. A common piety for evangelical sensibilities is to say that salvation is not really about us; it's about God bringing glory to Himself. In the post-Anselmian Western church, God's glory is understood in terms of rectifying the dishonor that has been shown to God by human sin either through the sacrifice of Jesus' cross or through the eternal damnation of sinners (it makes no difference to God which of these as long as the debt gets paid).

But what happens if we take the promise God makes in Joel 2:28 as our starting premise? "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh." I realize that all is the least favorite word in the Bible for many evangelicals (isn't that universalism?). But suppose that God really is pouring His Spirit on all flesh. Does it seem very evident from looking around? I preached about this last night. We live in a world where God's Pentecost is being perpetually sabotaged by Satan's scandal. The pouring out of God's Spirit doesn't make the nightly news; it doesn't make it into our Facebook status updates; because the scandals of our world are so much more delicious, and our consciousness has been almost entirely consumed by them.

Could it be the case that the problem is our lack of awareness of the Spirit that God is actively pouring out on our flesh? Look at what Peter says at the conclusion of his first Pentecost sermon when his listeners ask what they must do to be saved: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Our sin is the obstacle that prevents us from receiving the Spirit that God is constantly giving. The same Greek word lambano is used for "receive" and "take." One of the options that the lexicon offers is "to appropriate to one's self." So when Peter says "receive," he is talking about an ability that we are given, not just a gift that is dumped in our laps, though the ability itself is also a gift.

To evangelicals reading this passage who define salvation exclusively in personal afterlife insurance terms, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is no more than a fringe benefit of salvation; the focus is on the forgiveness of sins (and the avoidance of damnation which has to be added/eisegeted parenthetically to that). But the most straightforward reading of Peter's sentence would leave us with the conclusion that the forgiveness of our sins serves the purpose of enabling us to receive the Holy Spirit, which is our salvation.

This makes perfect sense if we read it alongside Romans where the law of the spirit is at war with the law of the flesh. If the flesh is death and the spirit is life, then receiving the Holy Spirit that has been poured out on our flesh signifies entering into eternal life. Crucifying our sin with Christ and emerging from His empty tomb in our new resurrected selves is what needs to happen so that we can be kissed by the Holy Spirit's Pentecostal tongues of fire that make us fully alive, eternal creatures who glorify God.

Our salvation is in fact about God's glory, but it's a much richer glory than the "glory" of a marketplace of honor where every debt has been paid. God is most fundamentally an artist. Like every artist, God is glorified by the beauty of His art. The early Christian saint Irenaeus captures the essence of Christian salvation in two sentences: "The glory of God is man fully alive. The life of a man is the vision of God." Our salvation is to receive the gift of the One who not only sent His Son to crucify our sin and resurrect us from its shame, but is also pouring out His Spirit on all flesh that we might be made fully into His children and incorporated into the body of His Son. When Pentecost becomes our daily reality, we glorify God and enjoy the eternal life of delighting in His beauty.