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Salvation? What Is That?

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I said earlier in this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” that we need to allow the gospel to expand our severely restricted view of salvation. The Bible presents salvation as something that happens for us in context – that is, within the context of human distress and need. Water is salvific for a person dying of thirst but not for one who is drowning. That example may sound trivial in contrast to the question of our ultimate destiny beyond our dying, but its implications are not trivial at all. At issue are questions of when, where, and how life matters.

If the only truly significant question in the life were how each of us will spend eternity, salvation would be nothing more than a matter of ensuring the proper arrangements were made for us before we died. This life would be meaningless aside from the decision about hereafter. Christianity departs from the Bible when it presents life that way, as merely a matter of time allotted for making the choice between heaven and hell. That stick-and-carrot means for driving us has driven us astray, thereby degrading life, love, and all that gives worth to being human in this world. Fear hell (the stick) and hope for heaven (the carrot)! Decide before it is too late because you never know when you’ll die! Get saved! And then stay saved, which has generally meant being obedient to Christian authority and giving “time, talents, and treasure” to a church or to the latest evangelist with a commanding personality and an entertaining show. No wonder that from the outside Christian faith has seemed a clever and insidious way of driving the sheep, keeping them under control, and fleecing them! It has too often and for too long been just that. But, no! Biblically, salvation is coming alive, stepping out of confinement into freedom to move, being healed, coming to a dignity that enables life and love to be shared, going forward with hope and courage. And, because human life is relational, living it involves going forward together with shared purpose and responsibility.

In the Bible, salvation is restoration to life – to freedom, wholeness, and vitality. Salvation takes many forms, depending upon the present distress of the person or people in need of saving. For the enslaved people of Israel, salvation came as exodus (stepping out) from the bondage that had kept them degraded to the level of beasts of burden. Those who were no people, subhuman, were released from their shame and delivered into freedom as God’s people, and their release required great adjustments because it made them responsible for their shared life in ways they had not been allowed to be responsible during their enslavement. For the prisoner, salvation comes as release. For the outcast, it comes as acceptance back into the family or community. For the mentally ill, as clearing of the mind. For the sick or broken, as healing. For the lonely, as friendship and love. For the childless who long for children, as conception and birth. For the abused, as escape, healing, and dignity. For the refugee, safety and freedom in a new home. The list could go on to be as long as the list of life-threatening, life-robbing, life-diminishing distresses and agonies of being human in this world. And those last three words in the previous sentence matter greatly – “in this world” – because here is where God meets us with salvific grace.

The focus of the Bible is upon this world, not another, and upon this life. I am not denying the important role of salvation in responding to the distress of our mortality – to the human crisis of death and impending oblivion. “I believe in the resurrection of the particular person who is loved and the life everlasting.” But even distress over our mortality belongs to us in this life in this world – within the context of our actual being where we are. It is the living who fear death. The person who learns to trust God here and now will be learning to trust God also for then and forever, but the biblical focus is upon here and now.

I want to keep these posts shorter than some have been, and so I’ll hold for next time a consideration of the life-damaging consequences of falsely deferring salvation until after death. Faith, hope, and love belong in the present. We do not see what lies around the next bend in our life’s road, but we can learn to trust, and we can discover what salvation means in our present anxieties.