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We all live by some meta-narrative. We can’t help but try to make sense of our lives. We don’t just live life or experience reality, we constantly interpret it.

We all believe in a salvation story.

The Christian message of salvation tells the story of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.

The secular salvation story is a derivative and deviant version of the older Christian narrative. It tells the story of self, authenticity, and acceptance.

Instead of sin committed against a holy God, we have infractions committed against the self. We don’t struggle to keep God’s law. We struggle to keep our own internal sense of right and wrong. The problem is not God-offendedness, but personal integration and identity.

Instead of repentance before a holy God, we have authenticity of self-expression. We don’t bewail being so much less than we should be. We lament not being in touch with who we really are. The confession is not “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” but “Woe to me if I think myself unclean.”

And instead of forgiveness from a holy God, we have the casual acceptance of simply being the way we want to be. We don’t see the demands of justice met by the cries of a crucified Christ. We see the voice of conscience silenced in the cries of a thousand well-wishers. The good news is not grace and mercy, but tolerance and enlightenment.

We are all telling a story, living by a story, evangelizing a story. One story is ancient and rugged. The other modern and banal. One confronts. The other caresses.  One truly saves. The other falsely succors. Choose your story wisely. For one starts grim, but ends in life. The other looks cheery and ends in death.

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18 thoughts on “The Secular Salvation Story”

  1. anonymous says:

    “Instead of repentance before a holy God, we have authenticity of self-expression..we have the casual acceptance of simply being the way we want to be. “

    we want to acknowledge this is true, we confess, Lord. Please forgive us and help us; turn and draw us each and together back to You alone.

    My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate, declares the LORD. For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Jer 2:11b-13

  2. Mark says:

    Very insightful. Thanks. It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ vs. the gospel of Walt Disney.

  3. Thank you. This sums up my frustration with Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and similar crap that people are buying. We are destined for hell and in desperate need of a win and Jesus wins. Thank you Jesus!

  4. Kevin, this reminds me of what Maslow’s heirerarchy of needs, at the top being self-actualization based on the naturalistic worldview that man is only biological; there is no supernatural, no soul, no Triune God.

    Thanks for the reminder of what we are attacked by on a daily basis.

    Have you noticed this message in fields other than psychology?

  5. Lou G. says:

    Amen and amen! I needed this today – reflects exactly what I’ve been studying this week. Thank you Kevin.

  6. Lori says:

    I think the other half of the secular salvation story is being left out.

    Yes, there is the secular story of self-acceptance and tolerance.

    But there is also the secular story of self-improvement and punishment, and both are prevalent, often at the same time.

    The secular story is one where rule-keeping is our duty, and punishing rule-breakers is what will save us. Read any news story about a crime, and look at the comments. 90% will be calls for harsher punishments, firm in the belief that, if we just punished crime A, B, or C more harshly, people would stop committing it, oblivious to the fact that four decades of escalating punishments has not make people better. But that’s our cultural salvation story, particularly in the U.S., that if we can just identify and than harshly punish the evildoers, we will all be safe.

    And there’s the story of self-improvement. You *aren’t* okay as you are, most secular society tells us. To the contrary: you are all wrong. But, if you only buy X or eat Y or do Z, *then* you’ll be okay. We have corporations and experts holding up the secrets to happiness and (almost-)eternal life, if we only buy the right products, eat the right foods in the right amounts, and follow the right life plan.

    I’d say those stories are just as if not more common than the story of self-acceptance and tolerance.

  7. Bridget M says:

    Thank you Kevin!!The secular story is ages old. It is the lie of human perfectibility apart from God, whispered to us continually, perpetually since our fall. It induces us to believe in belief “of possible self” through ideas of betterment ground in pragmatic imperatives to become and know. These do not guarantee any outcome, as it gives us no real starting point, or end, or ability to do perfectly or consistently. Nor does it guarantee any desire to continue in this ‘becoming’. When “are” we? Really, it gives us nothing, makes us as “nothing” yet, a vapor chasing after the wind, feeding our craving for distinction, even unto giving what is “human” over to authorities to define and redefine, through observation of behavior, and proper thinking. How sad. Praise be that God does not do this to us!

  8. Ryan says:

    When I read this, it seems structured as a way for believers to understand the difference in how non-believers think. But as I think about it now, what strikes me most is how our cultural narrative infects the Christian understanding of our story. This is more than just a way to frame the discussion that takes place between two totally different perspective. What I really see happening here is that Christians often conflate both of these salvation stories. We dilute our salvation story with the one our culture has bought into. This is helpful not only as a way to understand our culture, but as a check for ourselves.

  9. Gil Neumann says:

    Very similar sentiments expressed here yesterday:

  10. Lois says:

    This kind of narrative is invading our colleges. This sounds like it is straight out of a book, by a Christian author, that was used in the freshman orientation class at my son’s Christian college this year! Just a few quotes…”True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth” – or – “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity” – or – referencing our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a “great liberation movement” since their deciding to live ‘divided no more’ is claiming authentic selfhood and their acting it out serves the selfhood of millions of others.” This narrative can look very appealing to anyone, especially young, college age students who are not grounded or discipled in their Christian faith and their personal relationship with Jesus Christ as their risen Lord and Savior.

  11. kyle says:

    Thoughtful read. Thanks for the post. This reminds me of a quote from “The Road Trip that Changed the World” by Mark Sayers:

    “By seeing life as a journey we can enjoy the moral cost-free benefits of secular living, but then later can Photoshop a layer of meaning over our lives by recounting our experiences as part of our life journey.” (p.48)

  12. Simon says:

    Very interesting thoughts. I can’t help but wonder what a non-christian would make of it. While many of us well-meaning christians nod in affirmation – “so true, so true”, I suspect the non-christians would think your comments dismissive and ignorant.
    So here I find myself nodding, all the while knowing that unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.
    May we seek His Kingdom, His righteousness and may we pray earnestly that God will open the eyes of the lost to Jesus. If God doesn’t do it, it ain’t gonna happen!

    Who is lost that YOU prayed for today???

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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