There is no question more central to the heart of the Christian faith than the question of salvation. It is a term bandied about and publicly affirmed, yet rarely well defined. What does it mean to be “saved”?
The answers are varied. To some, we are saved from eternal condemnation, freed from the wrath of God by appeasing His anger in dedicating our allegiance and worship to Him. To others, we are saved from separation, that our sin no longer prevents us from the ability to enter into the fullness of the Divine-Human relationship for which we were created. To Baptist theologians, we are saved from our sinful past in that we are forgiven for actions which separate us from God. To Wesleyan theologians, we are in the process of being saved from our very sin nature, freed from our own inner darkness as we are being sanctified into the reflection of the image of God. To Liberation theologians, we are in the process of being saved from worldly oppressive structures as sin’s very presence in society is confronted and exposed by the people of God. To Reformed theologians, we are not saved “from” something so much as we are saved “to” the glory of God. The spectrum of salvation theology is incredibly diverse.
Is it possible that this diversity reveals something deeper? Perhaps the scope of salvation is bigger than any one of these interpretations might suggest. Perhaps encapsulating salvation in terms such as “forgiven” or “sanctified” or “redeemed” or “freed” are, in themselves, too small… too myopic. Perhaps – just perhaps – there is more to this story than popular Christianity might suggest.
I contend that there is. I contend that salvation principally (and most importantly) confronts sin, exposes it, and overcomes it. Sin, however, is also far more complex than we suppose.
The Complexity Of Sin
For many of us, sin is defined as a violation of moral behavior or acts that fundamentally rebel against God. This is certainly true. Throughout the pages of Scripture, we are told “in your anger, do not sin” (Eph 4:26), we are called to confess our sins (certainly we can only confess sin acts), and Paul identifies sin with “lawless deeds” (Rom 4:7). Sin is described as the “desires of the flesh” in listing decisive acts such as drunkenness, orgies, and idolatry. This list is then contrasted starkly with the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 4:11-24. Certainly, sin can be identified with sinful acts.
It goes beyond this, however. Sin is not only defined in terms of behavioral immorality, it is identified in terms of an inherent nature which consistently battles against our desire for the “good”. We all recongize that within ourselves… there is the person we want to be, the person we are, and the gap in between. Paul described the phenomenon with surprising vulnerability, saying “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Roman 7:15, 22-24). Certainly, sin can be identified as the darker side of our own nature.
There is still another aspect, however, that largely goes ignored. In the west, we emphasize the individual so heavily that we largely define sin and salvation solely in terms of the person, and rarely in terms of the society. Scripture, however, is replete with its depiction of societal sin. When the pages of the Old Testament cry out for justice for the oppressed and compassion for the poor, it is dealing with the way the brokenness of sin manifests itself in societal evil. When the New Testament speaks about “the least of these”, or how pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), it is speaking against societal evil. Sin is societal as well as personal.
The Genesis narrative in chapters 3-11 details the development of this all. It begins with the first sin there in the garden, and spirals from there. First, humanity is separated from God, and exiled from Paradise… sin is separation from God. Then, sin manifests in the shattering of human relationships, as Cain kills his own brother… sin is separation from each other. Then, sin spreads throughout the entire earth, resulting in the flood because there was no place left untainted by an all-consuming wickedness… sin is consuming of all humanity. Finally, sin manifests in society, as the story of Babel parallels the story in the garden – the desire to be equal to God, the rejection of God’s command, and the resulting exile… sin infects human society.
Sin is more complex than we often realize.
What It Means To Be Saved
Salvation, then, addresses the issue of sin in all its forms.
For our sinful acts, we are justified; our broken behavior is forgiven, and we move from being enemies of God to friends of God. We are cleaned. We are born anew. We are a new creation.
For our sinful nature, we are being transformed. The Christian faith begins with new birth, but continues on into Christian maturity. This is our sanctification. This is the process by which we participate with the inner working of the Holy Spirit, and become a transformed people. This is how our inner darkness is slowly overtaken by the Light of the World, and we are reformed into the image of our Creator. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)
For societal sin, we are called to be a people of God, a royal priesthood, who participate with the work of God in two key ways: one, by becoming a living ecclesia, a community of saints whose collective existence functions in ways which contrast and expose the prevailing systems and their concepts of wealth, power, and privilege. Two, by joining in the rich heritage of Christian movements that challenge systems of oppression at a grassroots level.
After all, it was Basil of Caesarea who founded the first hospital in the fifth century which was geared towards providing medical treatment not just for the elite and powerful, but (primarily) for the poor and oppressed… a movement which reverberated throughout the Roman Empire and whose legacy we continue to see today. It was the church who, after seeing children working the fields who were illiterate and uneducated, initiated the foundation of what grew into our modern public education system. It was Christians who first raised their voice against slavery, with the Methodist movement outlawing slavery to their members even before the United States declared their independence from England. It was the ordained Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who exposed himself and his followers to violence and oppression in his notoriously nonviolent movement to expose the systemic oppression of minorities.
Liberation theologians are correct… salvation means freedom from oppressive structures. Wesleyan theologians are correct… salvation means freedom from our own inner darkness. Baptist theologians are correct… salvation means forgiveness for our own sinful acts. Reformed theologians are correct… we are saved to be a people who bring glory to our sovereign God.
They are all correct, because we are saved from sin to be a world-changing people in particpation with the work of God in all creation.
This is what it means to be “saved”.
What do you think? How do you think about Christian salvation?
Image Credit: Minnie Mouse Aunt