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Salvation – Not for Sale. Introductory Address at the LWF European Pre-Assembly in Höör, Sweden

Dear participants in the Europe pre-Assembly of the LWF, dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

As representatives of the European member churches of the Lutheran Communion, yesterday we celebrated a joint worship service. Today we heard a presentation on the social and political challenges facing European societies. They shape the environment in which European churches work. In this context, we can discuss the ways how these challenges are perceived by churches and how churches interpret their role when faced with them. We will now focus on the sub-themes that illuminate different aspects of the central theme of the Assembly. The first is “Salvation – Not for Sale”. I am happy and honoured to present a brief reflection as an introduction to group discussions. It consists of two parts. In the first and slightly longer part, I will take a look at the booklet with the same title, which has now probably found readers everywhere in the world and particularly in the churches of the European region of our communion. These texts, written in different settings, reflect various interpretations of the meaning of the slogan “Salvation – Not for Sale” and offer fascinating insights into different living contexts of the Lutheran Communion. Together, they form a unifying and inspiring background for us to connect with this theme also in this pre-Assembly in Höör. In the second, shorter part I will add a suggestion about another important message of the theme “Salvation – Not for Sale”.

Let us then, firstly, recall the directions of interpretation of the theme “Salvation – Not for Sale” in the light of the texts of the thematic booklet. The opening essay outlines the development context and characteristic features of the doctrine of justification during the Reformation period, while also looking into relevant criticisms. The practice of selling indulgences brought economic thinking into the realm of faith, creating the impression that the path of salvation itself is for sale, that the church could arbitrarily place salvation on the market (8). Luther’s understanding of freely granted righteousness becomes the standard to gauge the doctrine and practice of the church.  Salvation comes from God alone. It does not give us possession of anything that we could bring before God (10). The framework of largely shared beliefs of that period is now almost a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the doctrine of justification can still be topical and relevant. Even today, people are characterised by “fear for themselves”: they yearn for acceptance and dignified life, but they also feel guilt and a desire for forgiveness and a new beginning. The message of the doctrine of justification, affirming God’s unconditional support that cannot be coerced or sold, liberates, comforts and encourages us. Salvation – a new, authentic life in faith – is not for sale. Therefore, we do not need continually to calculate whether we have enough of our own capital to purchase it. This is the essential opening chord to the theme “Salvation – Not for Sale”, therefore deserving this slightly longer recollection, and it concentrates on the dynamics of the relationship between the human being and God. The focus is on the individual and the gift of the new relationship with God – that is, a new life in faith.

The next essay, which discusses the freedom of human will, includes a reference to self-help books. Such books are quite popular in my country, in the current Estonian society. They promote the idea of boundlessness of human will, emphasising that you can achieve anything if you truly want it. All you need is to influence your will in the right way (19). This pattern of thinking is described as magical in the essay. Our free will has a rather limited scope, even when it comes to everyday decisions. But we cannot “buy our way to heaven”. In connection with the requalification of the human relationship to God it is valid that salvation and faith are from grace (21).

Next, the focus shifts to the doctrine of so-called “prosperity gospel”, which originated in the United States. It is described as the most widespread and successful heresy of the 21st century, having reached every church and every nation of the world (25). It is a version of the magical thinking that is found in self-help literature – “twenty-first century Christian magic” (27). The prosperity doctrine wants a God who can be “bought off with ‘faith’ or with generous giving in hope of an even bigger return”. The wealthy and the successful are assumed to be the true believers, while all the others must be doubters who need to be cast off in the name of holiness. However, it is true that “God is not for sale any more than salvation” (27). Based on a differentiation between law and gospel, the Trinitarian critique of prosperity culminates in the acknowledgement that “the gospel is not conditioned on our doing anything right”, because it is “nothing other than God’s self-giving for us and for our salvation, purely gracious, purely entirely on account of who God is”. God is “God for us, with us and in us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. This promise “sustains us through doubt, persecution, failure and suffering” (28).

The principle “Salvation – Not for Sale” can also be illustrated by reflecting on the meaning of prayer and praying from the Christian perspective. One of the essays describes a true “prayer business”, which is taking place in Africa – but certainly not only there –, where holy oil, water and other similar materials are sold with the promise that using them will make prayer more effective or more or less “guarantee” being heard. However, “[s]alvation as well as prayers cannot be for sale because what is essential to Christian prayer are not the magic elements” (36), making dictates to God or trying to “buy” the responses to our prayers (37). The essence of prayer can be found in “faith and the readiness to entrust your life into God’s hands” (36).

But what are the consequences of the widespread belief that our work is integral to our identity? What does it mean, for instance, from the perspective of the untouchables (Dalits)? In the caste society, they are believed to be ritually impure and lacking any religious/spiritual capacity by virtue of birth. The only way how they can manage their situation is working as manual scavengers. The status of a priest is inaccessible and banned for them (46). The essay describes how the gospel message of salvation/liberation as God’s gift has given Dalits a radically new “priestly work identity”. Like any other human being, they are called to minister unto others and do not need to earn their salvation (47, 50). The identity of being God’s children empowers them “in their struggle for the restoration of their human dignity, self-respect, equality and liberation, all of which have been denied and robbed by religiously sanctioned caste discrimination” (47).

In these essays, the slogan “Salvation – Not for Sale” is primarily a signal of criticism of such concepts and practices that seem to transform the individual relationship with God into a controlled and calculated commodity, but also serves as a critical reference point in relation to religiously justified inhumanity and social injustice. “Salvation – Not for Sale” can be an expression of criticism of society, which is based on capitalist market economy, and of interpretation of the world as a marketplace where human beings are important only as “consumers” and “have value due to their power to buy and possess” (59). It can convey “ethical indignation against injustice” (60), which can be seen, for instance, in attitudes towards migrants, refugees and displaced persons. The mentality of active non-acceptance of social injustice proceeds "from the solidarity of God, in Jesus Christ, with those who are excluded" (60), i.e., a faith that provides a “feeling of belonging, recognition and participation” (59).

A very important idea is also put into words in the Bible study of the booklet. The liberating gospel message and its reception cannot be reduced to being contingent on a previously articulated need or a posed question. Hermeneutically, “Salvation – Not for Sale” means that “the gospel always comes as a surprise” (72).

I have now reached the second, shorter part of my presentation. I would argue that the principle “Salvation – Not for Sale” urges us to explicit articulation of the ecclesiological question, i.e., the dimension of being church and communion in connection with the justification event. This aspect is not highlighted in the essays of the booklet. The only exception is the overview of the Catholic doctrine of justification in the ecumenical context. It refers to the communion that comes into being through participation in Jesus Christ and is the goal of the justification event. Similarly, the ecclesiological dimension of the Reformation remains on the background in the other thematic booklets, even though Kjell Nordstokke rightly emphasises that the core message of the Lutheran Reformation also entails the being of the church (Liberated by God’s Grace, 27-39). I would like to stress the importance of this aspect. The principle “Salvation – Not for Sale” has significant ecclesiological and ecumenical implications. However, I will not go into further detail for now, beyond pointing to its relevance in connection with the self-understanding of our communion. This will be a separate topic of discussion tomorrow morning. Therefore, my proposal is to discuss the thesis “Salvation – Not for Sale” also in connection with questions such as, what does it mean to be a communion of faith or church, how to live in communion as churches and, last but not least, how to respond to conflict situations in our communion?

My own position is based on the response of the Estonian Lutheran church to the study document “The Self-Understanding of the Lutheran Communion”. Of crucial importance and relevance is the document’s central emphasis on the mutual relations between member churches as ‘communion’, based on sharing in Word and sacraments, and understanding this communion primarily as a ‘gift’, because its foundation is not a human agreement or cooperation but it is located extra nos, i.e., in the gospel of Jesus Christ – it is rooted in the Triune God, in divine will and action.

From the perspective of the Estonian church, it is very encouraging that the communion has approached some regrettable and hurtful conflict situations as a source of extra motivation to focus on the foundations of the communion, to reflect on its meaning, to help discern and accept communion in the midst of diversity, to engage actively in the issues of responsible development of the shared life of the member churches.

For the precise reason that we are in communion with each other, the decisions of some member churches can cause sadness and pain for others. However, continuing on the shared path of life and communion is indeed the only responsible option in the light of this gift of communion. The document repeatedly emphasises the importance of theological dialogue, enabling the parties to clarify the reasons why they make or oppose certain decisions, explaining that and how this particular approach is an attempt in their context at achieving greater fidelity to the gospel and closer conformity with the Bible. With a strong constructive force, the document points to the source of communion, based on which member churches can perceive and seek communion even in connection with various strenuous decisions. The repeated emphasising of mutual accountability is highly necessary and important, including the point that churches should consider the potential impact of their decisions on communion. It is laudable how mutual accountability – the duty of rendering a theological account – is presented as responsibility before the gospel and the Triune God – the foundation and source of communion.

I have come to the end of my train of thought. To open our group discussions, I recalled in the first part the important directions of interpretation of “Salvation – Not for Sale” in the light of the texts in the thematic booklet.  In the second part, I suggested to open up the potential of the theme “Salvation – Not for Sale” also in connection with the way we perceive and live the communion. Thank you for your attention! I wish us all fruitful discussions!


Urmas Viilma

Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church

Urmas Viilma

01.02.2017 Höör, Sweden

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