Salvation. It's one of the most basic and fundamental concepts of Christianity. Do you have it? How can you get it? Can you lose it? What is it, anyway? Ask 7 Christians and you may get 7 answers. Most of the debates that revolve around the subject reduce salvation to a thing to be possessed or a status to maintained, and the general assumption seems to be that salvation is almost completely related to one's destination in the afterlife.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is translated "salvation" literally means "rescue". As a Biblical concept, it finds its dominant expression in the Exodus,where the enslaved Israelites called out for generations to God, who eventually delivered them from their oppression. Most Biblical references to salvation seem intended to evoke this imagery again and again. Another prominent idea found in the Old Testament is that God IS Salvation. The New Testament relies heavily on the Old Testament imagery of Salvation, but there are a few subtle differences. In these texts, Salvation (rescue) takes place by Grace (unmerited), through Faith (trust, confidence) in Jesus. But even this short overview might lead one to an individualistic, escapist understanding of Salvation. Such an understanding would be deeply mistaken and profoundly unbiblical.
I have less than no interest in the debate between "Once Saved, Always Saved" and a Salvation that is called into question by the commission of a sin or the misunderstanding of a concept. The extremes at both ends of that spectrum are equally ridiculous, and frankly I question the spectrum itself. In Galatians, Paul seems to call out the Galatian church for thee distorted version of Salvation they were promoting. He says:
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
-Gal. 5:4-6 NIV
That's right. The infamous phrase "fall from grace" actually originates in a passage that is arguing against trying to justify yourself by law, as if you were "paying off the god". He essentially says that to do so is to fall from grace...seemingly because you don't recognize it, and you don't believe you need it (or that it's sufficient in the first place). Salvation is not payment for services rendered. It is a gift from God. no Don't miss the next thought though: "The only thing that counts if faith expressing itself through love". Paul refuses to choose from their options. Instead, he transcends them. To do anything else is to reduce grace to a commodity and Salvation to a status game.
I've come to believe that the Christian concept of Salvation is rooted in the Hebrew concept of Shalom. Shalom is a word that the ancient rabbis used to describe both the original condition of the world in the Genesis creation narratives, and God's intention for how the world should be. It means something like "harmony", and the rabbis argued that it exhibited itself in 3 ways: Harmony between God and people, harmony between people and other people, and harmony between people and God's creation. They argue that what we normally refer to as "the fall" in the Genesis 3 narrative is not merely meant to indicate a break the relationship between God and people, but rather the breaking of Shalom in all three of the dimensions we've discussed and a new trajectory towards chaos. It can be argued that all sin can be traced back to the breaking of harmony in these 3 areas. It can also be argued that sin isn't a matter accumulating demerits so much as it is a matter of further distancing yourself and the world from the harmony God intends for it. Salvation then, is rescue from this situation by the God who is most clearly revealed in Jesus.
This re-framing has been profoundly helpful for me. However, there is another aspect of Salvation that I believe may be just as important and just as overlooked. Paul articulates it well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! …
Notice the language of "Creation" and "New Creation" here, and how resonant it is with what we've already discussed. Paul isn't the only one who makes this connection (and this isn't the only place he does it). In the Gospel that bears his name, John structures his telling of the story of Jesus after the Genesis 1 Creation narrative. He names 7 days (in order) in the course of the narrative, and lists 7 signs/miracles (each of which can be tied to the parallel day of Creation). On the 7th day, Jesus "rests" in the tomb. He is resurrected (in a garden, no less) on the first day of the new week, indicating that New Creation has begun. Although I could certainly keep going down that rabbit trail, I want to get back to Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians, because the next part of his argument is fascinating:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God
I've argued that Salvation is essentially reconciliation...rescue from the trajectory towards chaos...a return to the harmony (Shalom) that was broken, in all of its dimensions. Now, Paul lets the other shoe drop. Those who have been (are being) reconciled have also become agents of reconciliation. Those who have been saved/rescued by God become agents of salvation. It's not that you "have" salvation. It's that salvation has you. The writer of Ephesians makes a similar argument:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do
-Eph. 2:8-10 NIV
To be clear, I'm not arguing for a works-based Salvation. This text (as well as many others), deconstructs any such argument before it can even get started. However, I am absolutely arguing for Salvation-based-works. To be rescued is to become involved in the rescue. Individual Salvation is not an end unto itself. It is a means, by which we become active participants of what a living and active God is doing in the world. Biblically, Salvation isn't just a status to be claimed, it is a vocation to be embraced.
Salvation is the delightful surprise of having your little life caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world.
-Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon