In the modern way of thinking, everything must be assigned states and properties. This makes it easier to measure things, to categorize them, to understand what they are. Is matter liquid? Solid? Gas? What is the humidity this morning? The temperature? What philum is that animal? Species? Are you white? Hispanic? Asian? (Political pollsters might combine this information with data about your income to predict your views on important issues in the next election.) Are you a criminal? Or innocent? (The legal system has a process to determine this particular state of being.)
Assign properties to things, categorize them, and then measure them. This makes things predictable, and you can create processes that will hopefully generate similar results every time you repeat the process with similar objects, animals, people, etc.
God’s work in “saving” people is an important concept in scripture. Is it any wonder, then, that modern Christians became obsessed with finding a way to definitively determine whether someone is “saved” or not. Once we know what “saved” means, we can tell who is in and who is out and maybe even generate systems (“evangelism”) that will help to generate the maximum possible number of “saved” people.
At least, that was the theory.
But what was wrongly assumed by a lot of folks (myself included) is that to be “saved” is a simple, measurable state – like a state of matter. In other words, that one is either “saved” or not “saved.” The result? Grossly oversimplified views of scripture that reduce a wonderful, powerful, mysterious concept to a simple statement or act: a single defining event.
Here are a few of the most popular defining events that Christians have used in determining whether a person in a “saved” state:
1. State and intellectually acknolwedge that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior.
2. Be baptized, while intellectually acknowledging that Jesus is your Savior (this was/is my faith tradition’s approach for many years).
3. Demonstrate a charismatic gift, such as speaking in tongues.
Don’t get me wrong. All of these can be part of the process of being saved. But may I suggest a couple of ideas that, though it may cause some distress because of our need to categorize people, may be a better model of the concept of God’s saving work in scripture?
First, like Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, salvation is a journey in which God dwells in and among us, leading us to a new place. Second, like a diamond, there are many aspects, or facets to the process by which God is saving us. Thus, no single defining event moves us from one state into another, becuase many, many things are happening, and they are all happening on a long journey.
On one level, to be “saved” by God is to be changed from a person who sins into a person who does not sin. When you have been made completely perfect, the process is complete. To put it another way, at the beginning, we are slaves to sin – we sin whether we want to or not, because our sin controls us. But God “saves” us from sin (giving us freedom) by making us into people who aren’t subject to its control.
On another level, we are saved because God “forgives” our sins. Forgiveness is a really good thing because it makes us aware of a willingness, on God’s part, to come and make the journey with us, even though we can be pretty crummy people . But receiving forgiveness isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of being “saved”. Its only a part of it. Knowing that we are and will be forgiven assures us that God will put up with our shortcomings while we are making the journey.
On another level, God is at work saving the entire world, not just you or me as individuals. There are all kinds of things that people need “saving” from in the world. Oppression. Poverty. Addiction. Sickness. Isolation and rejection. Violence. Thus, there is this movement in the world known as the Kingdom of God, which grows and grows from humble beginnings to something much bigger and more powerful. The Kingdom itself represents God’s saving work in the world, lifting oppression and unfairness and bringing hope to people who are in dark places.
To be “saved” is to experience all of these things, and so much more that I’m not even taking the time to write in this post.
The bad news (for those of us who are obsessed with categorizing everyone and everything) is that salvation isn’t so much about instantly switching from “unsaved” to “saved” states as it is about how we are all being saved. We are all on different parts of a journey, in which God is more or less involved, depending on how much we are inviting him to be involved. Some of us have been “saved” from some things (perhaps, a particular addiction), but are still waiting for salvation to come with respect to other things (illness or poverty or a bad attitude about a relative). In one sense, salvation has yet to reach the world, because there is still oppression and injustice. In another sense, we’re already saved because God has forgiven us, offering his son as a sacrifice, and pledging to walk along side us – as his son did – in our suffering and imperfection.
The good news (for those of us who are willing to let go of ideas that reduce “salvation” to either/or states that result from simple, defining events) is that there is hope for something more than an abstract promise that God will forgive us so that we can someday secure our free pass into heaven. God is here. Now. He wants to save us from things that are important in the here and now. And he wants us to play a role in his saving work in others’ lives and in the world.
Let your ideas about what God is doing when he “saves” people out of the box that you have created, and big, wonder-filled, mysterious possilibites for the future (both yours and that of the world around you) begin to unfold.