I’ve agreed to write a chapter on “Salvation in Christianity” for an edited study that compares Christianity to a competing faith system. In preparation I’ve surveyed the many uses of “saved” and “salvation” in the Bible. From my reading came a set of questions I’m still trying to process. What, for instance, are we saved from? From Satan, or death, or God’s judgment? Maybe all three? Maybe more than those?
And, in a related question, who saves us? Is it something we can accomplish on our own? If, for instance, we speak of someone being saved from a burning building we might mean that they were saved because an alert person set off the building fire alarm so that the saved person knew to rush out of the building just in time. Or, in the same sort of scene, we might speak of a person rendered unconscious by smoke who is saved by a fireman wearing a respirator who carries that person out of the building. The first of these two people was helped by the fire alarm but, in a real sense, saved himself by taking the alarm seriously and then rushing down the stairwell to get out of the building. But the second person was utterly helpless and needed to be saved by the skill and bravery of the fireman.
Another question has to do with the outcome: what are we saved “to”? In other words, does the Christian story of salvation deal mainly with avoidance: how to avoid the fires of hell? Or is it more relational—like the story of the prodigal son who is saved from his degraded lifestyle by returning to his father’s loving embrace? Or is it mainly a utilitarian theological exercise that pits the elect who are saved over against the reprobates who aren’t, with both displaying God’s glory via his mercy on the one hand and his justice on the other?
I suppose we could analyze all the questions and the possibilities I’ve just raised, then try to chart them to see if the biblical evidence promotes certain options more than any others. But I’m hesitant because it’s not the way God approaches the topic in the Bible. As he moved the many Bible writers to address “salvation” they almost always offer rescue stories or brief aphorisms, psalms, or proverbs that speak of troubled settings where a divine rescue is needed.
So let me offer a brief storyline here that helps me, and perhaps can help others, probe the question.
The triune God is the star of the overall Bible story. He existed in an eternal communion of mutual love and glory, speaking of how to share this triune love. How? By creating a universe with relational beings (the male-female “man”) created in his own image. Why? Because the Father wanted to share his Son with others in order to spread the goodness of their own shared love and glory, and to offer his Son a beautiful bride, perfectly suited to him.
So God created Adam and Eve, the inaugural pair, to be bonded to each other and to him in love. Their union was meant to prosper in just the same way that God’s own triune communion prospers as an unending union-of-love. But God also knew that love by its very nature—as wholly other-centered—can never be imposed. It breathes the air of free and spontaneous reciprocity in mutual devotion and delight.
God also knew that his own creativity would be expressed in and through this new “man” and with that creative impulse a hideous option would be taken sooner or later: the exploration of independence from God. It did come: in the simple act of looking away from God and others in order to look simply at oneself in love. This, as God knew would be the case, led to a living death because his Spirit departed from the man’s soul in the instant the man looked away from God, his first love, and made himself into a replacement for God.
The bond of God to his created man was the man’s basis for life: he relied in God’s indwelling Spirit to give life to his own human spirit, as well as to the spiritual bond of the husband and his wife. Eternal life, after all, is something that only God has, and which humanity only shares by union with God in his Son and by his Spirit. The Spirit who had bonded him to God was grieved by this betrayal of love and instantly fled from Adam’s soul.
And, as God knew would happen, the first couple were instantly enslaved by self-love: Adam had no greater desire than to care for—to protect, nurture, and please—himself. Adam was now dead in his sins; and so were all his offspring as they were all born as Spirit-less people. Nothing could save him from the black hole of self-love except a love far more attractive than self-love. That would be God’s love.
God, then, was determined to draw some—yet it would never be all—back to himself by sending his Son with the offer of restored life and escape from the tragedies produced by self-love. This was his great offer of love because it would send the Son to the cross to die for our sins.
Here’s what happened next. God invited all to come to the wedding feast for his Son. But not a single RSVP arrived with a “yes”. Instead everyone was busy in their self-concerned pursuits. Yet not all were successful in their pursuits. In fact, while the more able and impressive people were able to succeed—often at the expense of their poorer and weaker neighbors—many of the poorer were broken and despairing. Many, in fact, had discovered the emptiness of sinful independence from God. But nothing could save them from the state they were in.
So God the Father—determined to go forward with the wedding feast and to find a bride for his Son—then began to draw to himself mostly the poor, the weak, the foolish and sinful of the world to be his elect. Those who are forgiven much loved much, and they became his targets. Many responded and were saved—they became children to the Father and a bride to the Son. None was ever forced to love him, but all had turned away from their self-love when the beauty of the Son captured them. The Spirit came to pour out God’s triune love in their hearts and they couldn’t resist him. They had tasted independence and now despised it. But for all the others who were more successful in their self-love . . . well, God finally gives them over to what they want.
Some will live happily ever after. This is salvation. Many won’t. This was by their own preference—a judgment God accepts and sustains. The End.