Are you saved? Not only the question, but the word itself makes many of us queasy. It has the capacity to cull up memories of shouting hell-fire and brimstone preachers, or, encounters with self-assured Christians whose very asking that strongly implies they are and we’re not. The question reeks of an attitude of religious superiority and smacks of religious exclusivism contrary to what Jesus was about. Yet salvation is a common concept in the Bible, the words “saved”, “salvation” and “saviour” appear about 280 times. As we are now into the Easter season, it is a good time to review what we mean when we say “Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world”, what Biblical faith means when it speaks of being saved, how such salvation can be personal—how that happens—and its results. Are you saved? Why?
What is salvation? In the Bible the word has a broad range of meanings. Salvation means wholeness. It suggests an event so dramatic that it fills the blank places of our lives, while restoring those who have been crushed, maimed or destroyed. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus healing, restoring sight, mobility, hearing or speech and reaching out to those who have been rejected or crushed by life, acting in such a way that they can be restored both to life and community. Salvation means wholeness.
Salvation also means deliverance, as was the case with Israel. Because of their rebellious complaint against both Moses and God, God has sent fiery serpents to punish the people. As they begin to die, they repent and cry to God for help. God instructs Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so those who have been bitten can look at it and live. God, who can punish when scorned or mocked, saves when embraced. The Wisdom of Solomon, recalling the event in prayer, says “the one who turned toward [the serpent on the pole] was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all… For you have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hell and back again”. Salvation means deliverance, and in its most dramatic instances, deliverance from death to life.
But salvation is more than being saved from something, even if that something is death. Salvation is about being saved for something. Unfortunately, when we hear the question, “Are you saved”, we almost universally fall into thinking of nothing more than escaping damnation and Hell — concepts which have
more to do with Dante’s Inferno than with the Biblical witness. What’s important for us is knowing that the Biblical notion of “being saved” is far more dynamic a concept than escaping eternal death. More than being saved from death, salvation is about being saved for life.
Eternal life, as the Bible talks about it, isn’t just life after death. The eternal life for which God saves us is a present as well as future reality: a quality of life that you and I can experience now. Eternal life is life empowered by God, life which can’t be stopped, even by death. Not only is it life that continues into a future beyond death, it’s life that transcends death in our present. Eternal life is what enables a newly widowed person to continue living, and to risk loving another once again. God’s gift of eternal life is what empowers the one who has been betrayed to risk trusting again. It permits one who has been crushed by the defeat of life’s deadly circumstances to begin again. God’s gift of eternal life is what lets someone who was victimised in childhood leave victimhood behind, trust the power of God to give new life, and to risk at precisely the places previously hurt. It gives courage and hope to the person facing terminal illness, permitting those caught in the grip of such illness to suddenly decide that enough treatment is enough, and it’s time to entrust themselves to another. It’s not hope in hope, nor hope in life. It is a recognition that linked to God’s love and power, nothing can destroy us—not loss, not failure, not betrayal, not victimisation, not illness, not even death itself.
Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something sought through our own actions or decisions, much less earned by determined tenacity. Further to this, salvation and its eternal life aren’t rewards for our faith: we’re not saved by our faith. The Bible doesn’t say, “by faith in Jesus Christ you have been saved” (a common misunderstanding of what Christianity professes). We’re not saved by our faith. St Paul says, “by grace you have been saved… this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”
God sent Jesus Christ to establish a relationship with us, to forge a link to God. Like the ancient bronze serpent God gave the dying Israelites, those who look to Jesus Christ are healed in those places where they’ve been poisonously bitten or crushed. The transformation from death to life comes as we embrace God’s gift of Jesus Christ as our source of light and life. In that embrace we die with Christ to the past and are raised with him to new life, not just metaphorically, but actually! That’s the point St Paul continues to press. St Paul is saying that in our looking to Jesus Christ, God joins us to
the risen Lord in such a way that we may now live out of the power of his resurrection. Resurrection isn’t simply a future event. We can be raised to new life now!
How? By welcoming it, by embracing God’s embrace. Salvation and its gift of eternal life is after all, not a status achieved by believing something about Jesus, or an achievement because we’ve confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. It is first and foremost a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ—a relationship the Bible calls faith. “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Faith isn’t believing this or that about Jesus Christ. It’s simply looking to him as the source of life, embracing him as God’s gift to us and giving ourselves to living out of Christ’s power.
Faith isn’t about creeds or doctrine, though both are important and have their place. Having trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity… with the Incarnation? Not feeling very fervently faithful? That’s not the question. Faith is simply looking to Jesus, and in that gaze discovering a relationship with God so that God fills and empowers our lives and gives us the strength and will to obey him. When that happens, you and I experience salvation, power that makes life eternal here and now. For Jesus Christ not only brings the light of God’s presence, not only enlightens us as to life and its purposes but more, he’s the linchpin between God and us, the conduit through whom God’s life-giving Spirit flows into our lives to defeat the power of sin and death and give us eternal life.
As you and I live into this, the “Why”? of our salvation begins to emerge. The purpose of our lives begins to change. We no longer live for ourselves alone, because we know that the life we live is not ours alone. It’s a gift God continues to give us to be a force for his love and good works in this world.
The Rev’d George M Rogers