The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 5 — Salvation from Sin: Schematic Accommodation


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 5

Salvation from Sin: Schematic Accommodation

According to traditional Christian doctrine, if human beings are to be saved or rescued from death, they must be saved from sin.47 The reason for that is implicit in Paul’s statement that “Wherefore, by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned….”48 Paul ties death to Adam’s49 sin that resulted in his “fall” from Paradise — and ties our fate to Adam’s because we inherit his now-fallen nature. But a crucial question is what it means to be saved from sin.

In what follows, we will focus on the Quaker reaction against the principal Protestant/Reformed conception of salvation, which remains current today. First, however, a brief look at the Catholic view is in order. For the Catholic tradition, salvation is mediated through the sacraments, the major rituals of the church. The sacrament of baptism is believed to transform the essential nature of the soul, but that “regeneration”50 has no practical effect on a person’s basic orientation or behavior. The baptized person is, therefore, constantly in danger of falling into sinful behavior, and needs to receive sufficient strength through sacramentally-mediated “grace” — a spiritual commodity in the “economy of salvation”51 — to avoid seriously sinful acts, so that death finds one free from “mortal” (damning) sin. The possibility of sanctity in this life is acknowledged, but it is expected that almost all persons will fall short of that goal and will continue to sin throughout their lives. Consequently, and because the sacraments are considered to be the most efficacious means of securing the graces needed for salvation, metanoia and moral perfection do not hold the central position that they hold in Quaker thought. Friends rejected the idea of a spiritual transformation that changed nothing sensible, as they rejected the doctrines of sacraments (or any media) and commoditized grace as “popish inventions, whereby Christ is denied come in the flesh, the everlasting priest, and something set up instead of his way….”52

Whether Catholic or Protestant, traditional Christianity exonerates God by placing responsibility for evil upon human beings. But it eases our personal feeling of responsibility by attributing our evil to an unfortunate inheritance — a depraved “nature,” or essential being — from “our first parents.”53 On the one hand, that doctrine seems to recognize that there may be a biological or, as we would say today, evolutionary basis for at least some of our selfishness. On the other hand, it projects responsibility for our selfishness onto those mythical parents — projection being, like denial, a defense mechanism, a means of reducing the stress of inner conflict.

Correspondingly, the traditional Protestant solution to sin and guilt also involves projection: it is claimed that our guilt for sin has been placed on the scapegoat54 Jesus, and that believers will be saved from its effects after death simply by giving cognitive acceptance to that mythic substitution. In the meantime, righteousness is “imputed” to them now, which means that their actual unrighteousness is ignored by a legal fiction.55 In this system, salvation from sin means only that God overlooks the sins of believers because they accept a transaction between him and Jesus. In practice, believers continue in their fallen state, continuing to do evil in this life. That doctrine is summed up in the bumper sticker slogan, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” In terms of cognitive theory, traditional Protestant Christianity eases the dissonance caused by the biblical call to moral perfection and real justice by assimilating it into its sola fide (“by faith alone”) doctrinal schema through a convenient interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of imputed righteousness.56

Quakers, however, denounced that as “preaching up sin” and called it a doctrine of the devil. “I know,” wrote Nayler, “there are a people who have a desire to heaven more than to holiness; and they, lest they should spoil their carnal delights, have in their brain-imagination conceited a justification without sanctification….”57 “That is the devil’s hope, which hopes not freedom from sin as much as freedom from hell.”58 The Friends could accept neither the dodge of projection nor the cheap grace of imputed “righteousness” as a means of maintaining cognitive consistency: any schema that allows evil to be rationalized must be changed to accommodate Jesus’ call to perfection through love. They argued that Paul’s concept of imputation refers to an actual and effective, not merely nominal or fictional, infusion of righteousness through conversion into the nature of Christ — i.e., love. “[T]he creature becomes God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, by which he becomes free from the evil; dead to sin, but alive to God’s righteousness….”59 Faith is trust in the reality and efficacy of that infusion, that re-creation of our sense of who we are and what matters most, and fidelity to its leadings. And faith leads to salvation, the moral perfection of the primary orientation to love, attained by joining with the life of God in the heart and expressed naturally in a life of justice, mercy, and peace.

Isaac Penington stated the Quaker case in his 1658 comments on Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Note that action and faith cannot be separated: justification comes “by receiving and exercising the faith,” which means exchanging one’s “own understanding,” one’s schematic bias toward selfishness, for “the living power and wisdom of God.”

God promised him [i.e., Abraham] a seed; he believed God. God bid him sacrifice this type; he believed. This was it which was imputed unto him for righteousness. Now if he had not believed; if he had not received the gift, or not exercised the gift, could he have been righteous? So that Abraham was not justified by any work he did, or could do; but by receiving and exercising the faith in the seed: by going out of his country, kindred, and father’s house, not of himself, but by faith, and by living to God, and obeying his [i.e., God’s] voice in that land to which he was led; not in his own will or power, but in the faith. And by hearing the call of God, and receiving the faith, and living out[side] of self, out[side] of a man’s own understanding, will, and power, in the faith and living power and wisdom of God, is the justification now: and they that do thus are children of Abraham, born of the free woman; when as they who take up practices from the letter, without being ingrafted into the life, are but children of the bond-woman … and cannot inherit that promise which belongs to the spiritual seed while they live in that state.60

Nayler, too, made the Quaker case forcefully.

That righteousness which God accepts is but one, which is his own, perfectly fulfilled and manifest in the world in Christ Jesus the light and Savior thereof; which righteousness is not of the world, nor manifest to the world, nor in the world received, but by the world ever judged as unrighteousness, nor can the world inherit it, but only they who believe in the light of Christ, which God hath given into the world, to lead out of the world to Christ, where God’s righteousness is. And there be many talkers of this righteousness, yet none inherit it further than by faith they receive the Son of righteousness, and with him his righteousness is freely imputed, or put into the creature, a free gift from the Father; and with this righteousness is the creature made righteous even as he [i.e., Christ] is righteous, even as the measure of Christ is received, and no further; and whose life is kept in the measure of him, as he is so are we in this present world, and not of this world, even as he is not of this world; and herein is boldness in the day of judgment, in that which is perfect. And all that is not perfect is self [i.e., the self-centered schematic bias]; and with the righteousness of Christ, denied in the light; which condemns all self-actings under what pretense soever.61

So the Quaker riposte to the “forgiven” bumper sticker would be something like “Not perfect = Not forgiven,” a condensation of Nayler’s assertion that “no farther than the creature is in…perfection, can any…be blessed, but … [remains] unredeemed, and hath no more of Christ, than what he hath of perfection; for perfection is of Christ, and imperfection is of the devil; and these are two contraries….”62 Or perhaps the Quaker slogan would simply be a reference to one of the biblical passages which Nayler would have had in mind: Matt. 5:48 — “Therefore be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” or Eph. 4:13 — “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ….”

That Pauline image of the “measure”63 would serve to explain how perfection could seemingly coexist with imperfection in the Friends. “[F]or the least measure of God’s righteousness is perfect,” explained Nayler, “and all are in perfection who become servants to it, and thereby become free from sin.”64 One might have flaws, but one’s basic orientation had changed; one’s heart had been set free from the self-centered orientation that is sin. Perfection is not so much an attainment as a deep-seated change of orientation, a profound conversion to love as the criterion of right and wrong and the center of one’s life. To be perfect is to “have the mind of Christ.”65

Whether we understand salvation as rescue from physical death or not — and many of us today do not — we see that for the first Friends it is essentially rescue from spiritual death through metanoia here and now.66 Arguing from the evidence of scripture as well as their own experience, the Friends insisted that salvation is the moral perfection of a changed heart, of a basic orientation toward genuine righteousness in this life. It is to be saved from sin, in the sense of actually living God’s love now instead of our own ersatz righteousness. Salvation is not a legal transaction between gods or divine “persons,” not a nominal status conferred by belief or ritual, not a change that can be deferred until death, and not a matter of self-delusion: it is strictly our transformation into persons of practical godliness in the present. Penington puts the comparison succinctly in “The Scattered Sheep Sought After”:

And then [when thou art joined to this light] thou wilt come clearly to perceive, how that which thou hast called religion formerly (which flowed not from this principle) hath been but the invention of thine own imaginary mind (though thou fatheredst it upon the Scriptures, as most men do most of their inventions about doctrine and worship), wherein thou hast been in a dream of being changed, and yet remainest still the same in nature: and hast had a name that thou hast lived, but art still dead; a name of being sanctified, but still unclean; a name of being justified, but still condemned by the light in thine own conscience; which is one with him who is thy judge, and who will judge according to it: and so, as that which is real taketh place in thee, so that which hath been but imaginary will pass away.67

The cognitive dissonance of that teaching could lead to schematic accommodation through a fundamental change, a radical turning of the heart toward love.

[Previous: Cognitive Dissonance and Metanoia] [Next: Inheriting the World’s Perspective]

NOTES for Part 5
[47] “As sin is the greatest evil, being the root and source of all evil, Sacred Scripture uses the word ‘salvation’ mainly in the sense of liberation of the human race or of individual man from sin and its consequences.” — Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) entry on Salvation.
[48] Romans 5:12. It is instructive to look at the same passage in the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560 and still popular at the time of the first Quakers: “Wherefore, as by one man sinne entred into ye world, and death by sinne, and so death went ouer all men: in who all men haue sinned.” Note the phrases “ouer [i.e., over] all men” and “in who all men [have] sinned”: the first Friends said that sin/death covers and obscures the life of God in us, and that normally we live “in” the spirit/schemas of Adam but that salvation means living in the spirit/schemas of Christ.
[49] I speak here only of Adam, and not Adam and Eve, for two reasons. First, the term “Adam” represents unsaved humanity in New Testament and Quaker imagery. “Adam” will be contrasted with “Christ” as the two opposite ways of human being-in-the-world. Second, Adam and Eve are seen as a unit, because for Adam she is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” an identity-description applied, especially by the first Friends, to Christ and his saints as well.
[50] The Catholic doctrine is summed up in the claim that by baptism “We are reborn from the state of slaves of sin into the freedom of the Sons of God” (Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917). Friends saw that the claim was not borne out by facts: baptized persons usually continue to live selfish, sinful lives.
[51] “‘[T]he sacramental economy’ … is the communication (or ‘dispensation’) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s ‘sacramental’ liturgy.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Two, Section One, # 1076.
[52] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 103.
[53] See for example Aquinas on “the cause of sin.”
[54] See Leviticus 16:8, 10, 26.
[55] This is very much a simplification; however, an exploration of the various doctrines of justification and sanctification would lead us too far afield. For our purposes, it is sufficient to understand that both Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification and sanctification were seen as unsatisfactory and inauthentic by early Quaker writers like Nayler. Rosemary Moore provides a brief introduction to 17th-century ideas about justification in The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666.
[56] See Romans 4. The Quaker view is that “imputed” means actually “put into the creature” (Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 57). Real, practical righteousness is given to the creature here and now through the indwelling Christ.
[57] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 118.
[58] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 73.
[59] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 69.
[60] Isaac Penington, “The Way of Life and Death Made Manifest and Set Before Men,” from The Works of Isaac Penington, Vol. I (Glenside, Pennsylvania, Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 99. Available on line at Quaker Heritage Press.
[61] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 57.
[62] Nayler, Love to the Lost, pp. 79, 80.
[63] See also Ephesians 4:7: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
[64] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 81.
[65] 1 Corinthians 2:16.
[66] “And this I say to all who desire to attain the resurrection from the dead and to be counted worthy thereof, consult not with flesh and blood about it, nor seek to comprehend it in thy reason, lest thou lose it and become brutish in thy judgment; but in the light wait, which shows the old man’s deeds, that out of darkness thou may be led, to obtain the new birth and first resurrection; and as thou becomes conformable to that body which came down from heaven and ascended into heaven, so shalt thou see the resurrection, the form and power and purity thereof: but the woeful estate of the wicked, who die not in the Lord, who are talking of the resurrection but the old man still living, so live and so die, that resurrection is to eternal destruction. Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 100.
[67] Isaac Penington, “The Scattered Sheep Sought After” (1659), from The Works of Isaac Penington, Vol. I, pp. 119-120. Available on line at Quaker Heritage Press.

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 5 — Salvation from Sin: Schematic Accommodation

  1. To me this is the clearest and most helpful so far. Thank you! I would so much like to belong to a group that takes this seriously and helps each other search for the corresponding truth in our collective heart.

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