Today I’d like to think about the question “What does it mean to be saved?”. In other words, this is a post about not the how but the what of salvation. Another way we could ask the question is “What are we saved for, or what are we saved into?”
If you asked a random sample of western believers what is the purpose of salvation, I’m pretty sure a high proportion would give as their first answer something involving eternal life and/or “going to heaven” after you die. We see salvation largely as a kind of status that secures benefits for us that kick in once our time on earth is done – a celestial insurance policy, if you will. Of course, there are also some benefits to be enjoyed now, but these largely revolve around the assurance of knowing that we are included in the group whose eternal destiny is sorted and secure.
This “now versus future” duality is so deeply ingrained in our western psyche that it’s hard for us to be aware of it, let alone shake it off.
In almost thirty years of being a Christian, I’ve sat through more evangelistic services than I could possibly count. The vast majority of them have operated on the premise of “selling” the benefits of eternal security in order to get people to “make a commitment” today. Often no apology is made for using extreme psychological and emotional pressure to get people to “pray the prayer”. The justification is apparently quite sound: when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake, you use any means you can to get them to sit up and take notice.
If I sound uncharitable about those who practice this approach to evangelism, I don’t mean to. In most cases, they are deeply sincere and loving people who genuinely want the best for those they are addressing.
But I’ve been thinking. Specifically, about Jesus and his ministry. If you measure evangelistic efficiency by the number of appeals or altar calls made, Jesus wasn’t much of an evangelist. He didn’t go around trying to convince people to tick the right boxes so they could be saved. He mostly just encouraged people to repent and follow him. Which could be paraphrased “Change the way you think, and do like I do”.
I also note that Jesus had remarkably little to say about the afterlife, the hereafter, our eternal destination, or whatever else you might like to call it. What he did spend an enormous amount of time talking about was how we should live and relate to one another here and now, in the present. (It similarly strikes me that most of the rest of the New Testament is also much more concerned with how we should live now than with what happens to us after we die.)
It’s been noted elsewhere that Jesus’ ethical teachings – i.e. his teachings about how to live well – often appear to be largely ignored by the church. This makes sense once you understand that the church often tends to see salvation as a future issue, whereas Jesus mostly seemed to see it as a present issue.
Think about it. If the content of salvation mainly consists of what happens to you after you die, then it’s only logical that any talk of life in this present world should be relegated to a place of secondary importance.
The thing is, Jesus didn’t describe the kingdom of God as a post-mortem destination with entry requirements that revolve around right doctrine or prayer. He described it as something that is here, now, that is found within us, and that is evidenced by how we live and relate, rather than what beliefs we intellectually subscribe to.
At this point, we need to take a step back and reconsider how we understand the notion of sin. I’ve previously proposed that it’s more helpful to see sin as a kind of sickness or brokenness than simply as wrongdoing, which tends to have inescapable legal connotations.
I’d like to suggest that how we understand sin is crucial to how we understand salvation. If we see sin purely as transgression (i.e. failure to live up to a defined moral and/or legal standard), then we will naturally tend to understand salvation as being rescued from the consequences of transgression. And, since the consequences of transgression are most often understood to be eternal separation from God (the classic western view of hell), salvation becomes little more than a ticket out of hell and into heaven.
However, if we instead see sin as a state of dysfunction (i.e. sickness, brokenness, or all that stops us from being and living as the kind of people we were made to be), then all of a sudden we can begin to reinterpret salvation as being rescued from that state of dysfunction. And what does it mean to be rescued from a state of dysfunction? It means, of course, to be healed, to be made whole, to be restored so that we can be all that we were made to be, in the here and now of this present world (and stretching into eternity when heaven comes to meet us on earth)!
What I’m suggesting, then, is that there are essentially two approaches to sin, salvation and the Christian life:
Under the first and by far the most common approach, sin is transgressing God’s holy law, the penalty for which is eternal condemnation. Salvation is being granted, by God’s grace, a pass out of eternal condemnation. The Christian life is living in the assurance of eternal security, and trying our best to be worthy of it.
Under the second approach, sin is being afflicted by a terrible sickness that prevents us from fully expressing the imago dei (the image of God) that is imprinted upon us. The penalty for this is simply the brokenness and suffering that we see all around us. Salvation is being healed by God’s grace and the knowledge of his love and forgiveness. The Christian life is a process of learning to live fully as God’s beloved children – which is to say, as those who increasingly reflect the Father’s character and, in doing so, bring healing to each other and to a hurting world.
The first of these two options is the one that has largely been espoused by the western church. But the second, I would contend, is the one that is much closer to what Jesus taught and demonstrated.
While I have for many years lived and believed as though what matters most is what happens after death, more recently I’ve come to realise that what I really need most is healing and restoration here and now. In fact, the same is true of the whole world: the world needs saving, but not in the sense that the world needs a ticket to heaven. What the world needs is healing and restoration. This is what we ask for each time we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
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