Book Review: Who Will Be Saved? (William Willimon)

Who Will Be SavedISBN 9780687651191
Available from Amazon

Reviewed by Ted Babcock, Canon to the Ordinary, Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.

Who Will Be Saved? It is a question often asked in our congregations.  How often have we heard “I am saved because…?" If we are honest it is a difficult question to answer. The Bible gives us many contradictory indications. And more importantly, what does it mean to be saved?  Does it mean being swept up and taken to some far off place where you dwell with God, or does it mean something else?

These are all questions Bishop William Willimon attempts to wrestle with in his provocative, well-written book “Who Will Be Saved.” Willimon, a celebrated exegete who once taught at Duke Divinity School, is now the United Methodist Bishop of the North Alabama Conference. He has been and continues to be a prolific writer and challenging thinker.

Willimon begins his book by trying to understand who God is and what God’s attributes are that make God so important to us. He argues that God is a creator who refuses to be alone and that God is one who wants an intimate relationship with each of us. He asserts that “salvation is primarily about God.” (p. 2) It is what God does throughout Scripture, and it is the product of God’s divine love. And it is through our awareness and knowledge of Jesus that we choose to live “the light of that Story.” (p. 9) We need to come to know Jesus as the one who embodies God’s reckless expenditure of love. It is through our knowledge and relationship with Jesus that we are transformed, not only by what Jesus has done for us, but also by what he continues to do for us as we rebel and are disobedient to God’s desires. God has been and continues to be a God of salvation. God never gives up on us, even if we give up on God.

As Willimon asks the question “Who will be saved” he poses an even more interesting question, “Who saves?” Building on God’s character he notes that “(s)alvation, from our side is acceptance rather than decision, result or program because salvation is, in the word of Paul, ‘free gift.’” God desires us to receive this gift and more. God desires our participation in salvation by rebelling against “the illusory word that is produced by the modern state and its salvations…” (p. 31)

Our rebellion against the world and its fake salvations begins with an inquiry on our part into “what God wants.”  He argues, “Persuasive nihilism is at the heart of modernity…” and creates a strong “sense of scarcity.” (p. 37) It is against this cultural ethos of scarcity that we must become protagonists. Working from Barth’s works, Willimon argues God’s love is so abundant, so wasteful, that “all” will be saved.

As he delves into and defines “all,” Willimon also clearly addresses the idea that he is becoming a “universalist”, a politically correct pluralist. He notes that in Jesus comes the notion of a full and complete salvation, one that is radically different than offered in any other faith. It is Jesus alone who offers us God’s radical redeeming love and salvation.

Willimon makes the church the focal point of his effort to understand this incomprehensible offering from God. It is in the church, he argues, that we are forced to meet and converse with all others, even those we wish to avoid. It is in this multiplicity of humanity that we are transformed. He argues we begin to taste salvation when we all come to the table and hold our empty hands out to receive, share, ingest and take Jesus into our lives.  (p. 93) Willimon also contends that salvation is an invitation to become part of something much greater than any of us can fathom. It requires us to become “part of a different people and to accept a new assignment.” (p. 124)  Salvation as received by the church and passed on is tied to obedience and “responsiveness to the divine summons.” (p. 125) It is linked to a public witness, knowing that to be saved requires knowledge of God and our dependence upon God.

Based upon his analysis Willimon argues that the church has been too timid, that in many ways it has lost its way and forgotten that the one thing that sets the Christian faith apart from all others is the radical salvation offered to all in Jesus. A fresh understanding of what has been offered us in Jesus should embolden the church to go into the world proclaiming this gift, not to continue in wishy-washy ways or continue to hide the gift of salvation or ignore it because of what it means.

This, like so many of Willimon’s works, is a book worth reading. As in any book there are issues but the thesis and its implicit critique of how we do church today should give each of us much to think about. Reading and reflecting upon this book may even re-frame our understanding about how and why we do church.

Take the time to read it. It is short, readable and it will challenge you.