John talked about growing up being told the following about 'how God saves sinners'. I'll bet you'll recognise the idea. I know that I was told that this is precisely what salvation is all about. John was taught that:
God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.
In his book, The Story of Atonement, Sykes talks about how much of popular Christian theology is based on the idea of reciprocity - and on the idea that justice is reciprocity. So, the idea is that if I do something good, God will/should reward me with something good and when you do something bad, God should punish you. When this does not happen, we become outraged. Hence the idea that many people express "What have I done to deserve this tragedy?" or "I cannot believe in a God who would let such bad things happen."
Sykes points out that this idea of reciprocity is NOT part of Christian tradition; Christians do not believe that God rewards good behaviour with good things and bad behaviour with bad things. On the contrary, Christians believe that there is nothing that we can do that is 'good enough' to gain our salvation or other rewards from God and therefore we have to rely on the grace of God. 'Reward for good behaviour' may be hard-wired into the human psyche (as any parent of a two-year-old will tell you), but it is not a Christian idea.
Grace, the popular saying goes, means getting something good that you don't deserve. Well, amen to that.
But where does that grace come from? I think we get into trouble when we start saying that God's 'justice' means that he is not capable of being gracious until he has received some kind of payment. In the event of God receiving a payment, grace is not grace but is rather a quid pro quo reward for good behaviour. It makes reciprocity more important than grace.
But the worst thing about these popular versions of salvation is that they turn Christianity into just another system of those who are in with the in-group and those who are out. There is a reason that the Christian church orginally called itself 'catholic' (which just means 'universal'); because Christianity is not about defining which categories of people are not offered the grace of God. Christianity is about God's universal offer of grace to all people.
We are always in debt to God. There is no system of reciprocity involved in our relationship with God. God does not 'reward' us for believing in him and punish other people for not believing in him. The whole point of Christianity is that the love of God is a free gift.
To quote Sykes, faith is not something that we do; faith is a being present when a revelation takes place. By faith, we enter a realm of the mutuality of love through grace; by faith we are the recipients of unimaginable generosity.
[Edited on 21/4/07 to correct the spelling of Jeffrey John's surname as pointed out to me by Peter Kirk in the 'Commments' section.]