In the last few weeks, a number of people have asked me how I understand the whole concept of salvation, of “being saved.”
Church folk like to throw that word throw around a lot. “Have you been saved?” has become part of the jargon of the church. The trouble with jargon is that too often we stop asking what it means.
An online dictionary defines it this way: “salvation: noun (Christianity) the act of delivering from sin or saving from evil; 2: a means of preserving from harm or unpleasantness.”
Most Christians in North America agree with that definition. Salvation has to do with what happens to us after we die. On the cross, Jesus died and saved us from our sins, giving us a ticket to heaven after we have died.
The trouble with that understanding is that it’s too reductionistic. It turns Christianity into what Marcus Borg calls a “religion of requirements”. If we live the right way, if we believe, if we “accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour”, then we will get to go to eternal bliss.
In the Bible, however, salvation is a much larger and richer concept than that. Salvation is not about the afterlife. Salvation is something that happens in this world. The Greek word for salvation (the language of the New Testament) is the same word which is ordinarily used for “health” or “wholeness”. To be saved is to be healed, to be made whole. And that happens here, in this world, in this time, in this life.
Salvation isn’t just about getting the prize at the end of life. Salvation is a process in which we are constantly being transformed in an ongoing encounter with God. It is a process of renewal and transformation. We take a journey with God, in which we are being made whole, in which we are being healed, in which we are being transformed.
The New Testament uses many different images for salvation. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus is the light of the world. In that sense, salvation is about light shining in the darkness of our world, so that we can see reality through the lens of God’s love.
Another image used by John is to Jesus as the bread of life or living water. Salvation is about satisfying our deepest hungers. Jesus fills us and nourishes us and quenches our deepest thirsts in ways that consumerism and materialism never can.
These images, and others, are metaphors for salvation. As we receive God’s goodness, we are being made whole. We receive life in all its fullness.
The other problem for me with the limited understanding of salvation is that it’s so individualistic. It’s about what happens to me after I die. But Biblical faith is never private. In the Bible, salvation is intensely social and communal. The Old Testament tells the story of the creation of a nation, a new people, a community. Israel’s mission is to live together as people of God in the world. In the nation, salvation is about life together. It is about peace and justice, not only within the community, but beyond it as well.
The prophet Isaiah talks about Israel being “given as a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The prophet understood God’s purpose for the world to be one where all people lived together in justice and peace and hope. The purpose of life was for healing and wholeness, not separation and brokenness.
In the same way, the New Testament continues this social thrust. Jesus’ main message in the gospels is the “kingdom of God”. By definition, the good news is about community.
Paul went about the ancient world, setting up communities where people could learn to live together in ways of justice and wholeness. He talked about the church as a body, a community, with many members.
Salvation is God at work in our lives. We need to respond to God’s work in order for wholeness to be made real in us. Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted Augustine in a lecture some years ago when he said, “God without us will not, as we without God cannot.” Without us, without our response, God will not heal our lives. We must participate in God’s project of reclaiming the world.
If Jesus is bread to feed our deepest hungers, then we must take and eat. If Jesus is light in the darkness, we must open our eyes and see. If Jesus leads us home, we must follow.
Salvation is the transformation of a person and a community in an ongoing encounter with God. It is about being open to the healing power of God’s love for ourselves as individuals, and for ourselves in community.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor of Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook