What do we Christians mean when we talk about salvation? What does it mean to be saved? As Christians who strive to follow the Bible in matters personal and social, what is involved in the concept of salvation, and how does one achieve the status of “saved”?
It should surprise no one that there are wildly differing answers to those questions, so let’s begin with the words of Jesus, always a good place to start.
Jesus said many things about salvation. Those who followed Him recorded what he said. Here are a few from the Gospel of John. Perhaps the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, reads that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says “He who hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). Even later in his earthly ministry, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me:” (14:6). Near the end of his life, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus said while speaking to Pontius Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (18:37). After the resurrection, John says of his own gospel that “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
What are we to make of these and many other statements of and about Jesus on the subject of salvation? Several brief points:
First, there is a human need for salvation. And this need is universal. If this were not so, the gospels would make no sense. Moreover, our consciences tell us it is true. We bear a guilt of some kind, a guilt that is part our own doing, and part the doing of something or someone else. It is a guilt that attaches both to our sinful nature and our sinful choices. It is a guilt that we cannot seem to erase by our own efforts, no matter how hard we try. Salvation consists of having something done about that guilt, of having it taken off our consciences and our souls.
Second, Jesus is the One who has dealt with our guilt. He has come to remove it from us by dying for us and taking it upon himself. There are technical doctrines that spell out this central event in all of history, but all of them agree on this point: That Christ came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15).
Third, the nature of belief is far more than mental assent. Though it entails cognitive agreement with the truth, the scriptures say that even “the devils believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). It is a matter of serious intention that is required. The will must be involved. When this is so, Jesus will take you as seriously as you take him. “You will seek me, and find me,” God says, “when you will search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Fourth, even though salvation is technically “free” in the sense that it has been accomplished for us, it is not “cheap.” Jesus always framed a decision to follow him as one fraught with high moral significance. He likened it to taking up one’s cross daily and following him (Luke 9:23). There is a steep price to be paid to believe in Jesus Christ and to follow him. The gospels tell the stories of some who were both willing and (sadly) unwilling to pay that price.
Fifth, part of the price to be paid is captured in the biblical term “repentance.” The root of this old word means to “think anew.” To repent is to turn away from the habits, the assumptions, the worldviews, and the allegiances that have characterized our lives prior to his call, and to follow the new path on which Jesus leads us. “I have come to call sinners to repentance,” said Jesus (Luke 5:32).
There can be no true conversion unless repentance is front and center to the notion of believing. Repentance is first of all an abrupt break with the past and taking up the way of Jesus. On the other hand it is a process, a lifelong turning away from the sins that continue to beset us. A child who trusts Jesus as savior, and who has few specific sins to confess, will still enter a life of confession and repentance that will last a lifetime. If this is true for children, it applies all the more to those of us who have many sins and much rebellion in our backgrounds.
Sixth, salvation has social aspects. It begins with a private act of believing and trusting, expressed in prayer that confesses sin and professes Jesus as Savior and Lord. But then it takes concrete form in baptism or rebaptism, participation with the life of the people of God in church, and observance of the disciplines of faith such as study of the Bible, testifying to others of God’s mercy toward you, sharing the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, and sacrificial giving to God’s work in the world.
Seventh, the scriptures know almost nothing of private, isolated Christian belief. That doesn’t mean a person cannot be saved in secret, but rather that it is normative for the believer to share a common life with others of like mind. We do not know how to live an effective Christian life unless we see it modeled in others, nor will others see Christ in us unless we are held accountable by other believers.
There are many people who believe in Jesus, who say their prayers, read their Guideposts and abstain from certain social practices, but nobody knows them as Christians. That is not their primary identity. They live solitary, fruitless, often confused lives, half in this world and half out of it. Their habits and pastimes differ little from the world around them. They will probably go to heaven, but their rewards will be few.
Eighth, nobody attains perfection in this world. We are all of us tainted by sin, and it is only the constantly renewed grace of God that gets any of us to the finish line. “Therefore, as you have always obeyed,” St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “so now continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Finally, it is a wonderful adventure to be a serious Christian, and none of us who have experienced such a calling would trade it for anything else. And though our gaze is fixed on the Celestial City on the distant horizon, we have a clearer understanding of this world. We are pilgrims, passing through, but seeking the happiness of all we meet on the way. We are fit for the world to come only insofar as we are fit for the world at hand. As an old Christian hymn has it, “perishing things of clay / born but for one brief day, / pass from my heart away; / Jesus is mine.”
If your heart is crying out to be saved, you have but to get on your knees and seek God. Those who seek, he says, will find. But you must come with your whole heart and be willing to go where he leads. He will soon call you by name and lead you. For you will be the sheep of his pasture, and you will know his voice. And he will give you life both eternal and abundant.
Tomorrow may be too late, so do it now.