Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Is Salvation?

The question of when someone is saved, or who can we say is a Christian, comes up from time to time in my circles. The ensuing dialogue usually includes points concerning faith, repentance, baptism, Calvinism, free will, grace, and a few other topics. The discussion seems to revolve around a point in time, a place where, on one side, someone is not a Christian, and on the other side, one can safely be said to be a Christian. This is important, it seems since it directly affects fellowship, communion, membership in a local congregation, and participation in assemblies.

This question has been debated for centuries, and I don’t presume to settle it in this short essay. I do however, believe that it has taken a lot more ink, blood, and hurt feelings than it deserves. It seems to me that salvation is not so much about having completed a complete ritual, but is rather a state of being in which we live with, in, and for God. It is, quite frankly, being allowed by God, through our submission to Him, to have a relationship and a character that displays the image of God in our lives.

Jesus calls people to return to God, to recognize in Jesus the presence of God, and to submit ourselves again to God’s leading. It is in submitting to God’s leading that we can be said to be living in the Kingdom. We tend to put labels on the various aspects of submitting to God. Repentance is one such aspect. While it can be described as a point in time, the import of repenting is not when one does it, but the fact that it is done. It isn’t so much that we can anticipate all that God may ask us to be or to do when we decide to follow Him, but that we submit to Him when He does ask us to be or do particular things.

Paul’s version of Jesus’ call is to transformation. This is really the same thing as repentance. While we can logically tease apart the difference between the two concepts, they are in reality the same. If we have submitted to God, we are being and will be transformed. The only way to be transformed is to return to, and submit to God. Salvation is not primarily an event, but a process, and returning to how we were made to be.

In some discussions of salvation history, we talk about “now and not yet” to describe our living in God now, but looking forward to our eventual complete restoration to and with Him in the future. Salvation can be described as a now and not yet concept, but the not yet does not invalidate the now in which we live in a submissive relationship with God. It is important to understand that we are not saved by living in a relationship with God, nor are we placed in a relationship with God by being saved. The two concepts are identical. We cannot be saved and yet not have a relationship with God, and we cannot have that relationship without at the same time being saved. They are the same; they are different ways of describing identical ideas.

It is important to note that the now does not invalidate the not yet. The history of time is moving toward a completion in which God’s plan for the Creation will be finished or in which it will be returned to its original state. It is this ultimate state that is not yet. But the idea of not yet embodies some uncertainty. If we are not saved yet, is it possible that we may at some point be unsaved? I think that possibility is entirely possible given the history of God’s working in the world. We know that God’s promises to Israel included a not yet clause. Normally the formula is similar to “I will be your God, and you will be my people if you keep the commandments that I have given you today. If you don’t keep the commandments, I will remove you from before me.” These conditions are repeated so often through the Old Testament that it is hard to miss. We argue over God’s promises to Abraham and David, saying that God’s promises are always kept. What we fail to realize is that God’ promises include the conditions attached to them. While it is true that a descendent of David’s in on The Throne, it is also true that David did not have that in mind when he received the promise. The promise to have a king in Israel forever was conditional as God’s discussion with Solomon makes clear.

But the Old Testament is not the only place we find God’s conditions. We find passages similar to those found in the Old Testament in the New. For instance, Deuteronomy 28.1-2 says:

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” (NIV)

There is a similar passage in 1 John 1.7:

“…if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his son, purifies us from all sin.” (NIV)

The two passages carry the same ideas. If we submissively live with God, if we follow him, if we allow him to nurture and guide us, he will remain with us and allow us to remain with him. If we elect to follow our own desires, our own egos, our own rationalizations of what’s good for me, we separate ourselves from him, and he no longer lives with us. We are no longer ‘saved.’

This is not new theology; it has been evidenced by God from the very beginning. Adam and Eve were not thrown out of the Garden because they sinned, because they didn’t do something quite correctly. God removed them from him because they listened to someone other than God; they were no longer submissive to him. Their sin was not a “something” they did, it was an attitude they allowed to develop within themselves. When we no longer wish to live as God has made us to live, we separate ourselves from Him and we are lost, unsaved, cast away. The good news is that our God is merciful and we can come and go, apparently, a number of times. Well, until our hearts and minds become so seared, so calloused, that we can no longer see in Jesus the essence of God; we can no longer be enticed by the goodness of God to submit to him.

Salvation is not then, primarily an event. It is rather, a state of being, a state of living in which we submit ourselves to the leading of God, denying ourselves in order to be shaped by God and minister to his creation. Salvation really is Life, lived as we were created to live it.

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