Nothing is more certain about Jesus Christ than that he saves, theologian William H. Willimon said at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School Feb. 20.
"Salvation is a name for whoever God is and whatever God does," said Willimon, adding that God is not thwarted by rejection. "There is a relentless quality to God. It is not just that God loves, but the relentless way that He loves."
Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, delivered Beeson's 2008 William E. Conger, Jr., Lectures on Biblical Preaching Feb. 19-21.
In the second of three presentations on the theme "Preaching Salvation: Proclaiming Jesus Saves," Willimon stressed that salvation is a gift from God.
In some contemporary churches, he noted, there seems to be a Godlessness where auto-salvation is the goal of the preaching, such as the style that stresses "you are good, but negative people drag you down," and then advises people to face the mirror and say "God wants me to succeed."
"That kind of preaching flatters me into thinking that I might be God and can have salvation without Jesus Christ," said Willimon, who is author of almost 60 books and considered one of America's best-known preachers.
Salvation has an edge to it because it is salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, and the hardest thing about it is that it is a peculiarly Christian salvation, he said.
"We don't like to picture ourselves as being in need of salvation," he said. "Sometimes it seems salvation comes easier to the empty handed. It's easy to think of ourselves as good until we meet Jesus."
"Salvation is a name for all of that which Jesus does among us, and the peculiar way that he does it," said Willimon.
One great challenge of being a pastor, he said, is living among those who Christ has saved, and to help them live with the demands of a living God. "A dead God will never surprise you."
In the gospel of Matthew, he noted, the resurrected Christ tells the disciples to go out into the world and that He would be with them unto the end of the world.
"He's saying, 'You'll never get rid of me.'"
Willimon was named to his present post in 2004 after 20 years as dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, N.C. His books include the popular Worship as Pastoral Care.