How God changes lives: Part 1

Jesus Saves sign in the city

What everybody ought to know about salvation

Salvation. We often hear that term in Christian circles, but do we understand what the word means? If someone were to ask you to define salvation, what would you say? If you are part of the 74% of Americans who check the “Christian” box when filling out forms, you would probably say something like, “salvation is about believing in Jesus and assuring ourselves a spot in heaven after we die.”

Most Christians understand salvation to be about preparing for the afterlife. It’s often explained like this: God the Father and God the Son made an arrangement (Jesus’s death on the cross) that would make it possible for our sins to be forgiven. Our part is to say “Yes” to God’s invitation by believing in Jesus. Our faith results in the forgiveness of our sins and guarantees us a home in heaven after we die.

That’s as far as “salvation” goes for most of us. An eternal insurance policy. But is that the core meaning of salvation? Is it primarily about getting our sins forgiven so we can get into heaven? No, but the belief that salvation is only about the afterlife has contributed to some sobering statistics: when the percentages are tallied, there is no appreciable difference between those who check the Christian box and those who don’t when it comes to crime rates, drug addiction, divorce rates, pornography, child abuse, and everything else. Those stats shock me. How can the people of light be indistinguishable from those who stumble around in the darkness?

Is it possible we are missing something very important about the concept of salvation when we treat it as little more than a get-out-of-hell-free card? Most of us hear the word “salvation” and think “ticket to heaven.” But what if salvation is something altogether different?

If we want a good biblical definition, perhaps we should consider the word Jesus most often used to describe salvation: zoe, the little Greek word for life.

  • When Jesus met with Nicodemus (John 3), he spoke of the necessity of being born again–receiving new life from God.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes two paths: a broad one leading to death and a narrow one leading to life (Matthew 7).
  • In John 10, Jesus says he came that we might have life, and life to its fullest.

Jesus described salvation as life and taught his disciples to do the same. The word appears throughout the New Testament.

  • So we read in 1 John 5, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life.”
  • Romans 6 says, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
  • In Ephesians 2 we read, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ… it is by grace you have been saved.”

We could look at many other examples, but here is the takeaway from the Bible: the message of Jesus and his first disciples is not focused on forgiveness of sin–it is focused on newness of life. Now that involves the forgiveness of sin, but forgiveness is only a small part of the story. The larger part is about walking through life’s ups and downs with Jesus at your side.

This is what salvation is in its fullest sense–being in tune with the rhythms of the life God created us for. Living out 1 Thessalonians 5 by always being joyful, staying in constant touch with God, and giving thanks in all circumstances. This is how our life is connected to our salvation. It becomes an outworking of the life God placed in us (Philippians 2:12–13).

If we limit the meaning of salvation to the forgiveness of sins, we will never make sense of what it has to do with our life. It is only when we see the connection between salvation and what happens in our day-to-day life that we will begin to understand that salvation is not about the future so much as its about our life today.

And when we look to Scripture we find it has always been that way. The one characteristic of all those who truly believed in God was their belief that salvation is about life in the here and now. When Abram left home to follow God’s promise, he left home trusting in a God who would be involved in his life today, guiding and directing his steps. The same was true of Moses, David, Daniel, and many others.

Jesus gives us a definition of eternal life in John 17 that can really help us understand what salvation is. Jesus says to the Father, “This is eternal life–to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent.” Jesus says the key to salvation and eternal life is knowing God. Now that may sound like mere head knowledge until we realize Jesus is not saying eternal life is knowing about God. He says it is about knowing God personally. Jesus uses the term “know” in the same sense of personal relationship that God uses it in Amos 3 when he says to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Obviously God knew about the other families on earth, but he did not “know” them in the sense of having a personal relationship with them. Or Mary’s words in response to the angel who told her she would bear a child. “How can that be,” she asked, “since I know no man?” Mary knew about men, but she had not yet known a man in the sense of becoming intimate. In the same way, the eternal life (salvation) Jesus speaks of is not knowledge about God, but an intimate interactive relationship with him.

When we understand salvation in terms of accepting an arrangement made between God the Father and God the Son that involved a cross, we totally miss what salvation is about. The real issue with God is not whether we have said or done something that brought about our forgiveness–the real issue with God is whether we are alive or dead to him. Do we have an interactive relationship with him that constitutes a new kind of life, a life from above? Do we have genuine confidence in God in every dimension of our daily life? Do we believe the Lord is right about everything and adequate to take care of anything? And, most importantly, do our thoughts and prayers and actions reflect our confidence in Jesus? For most believers, the answer to that last question is, “sometimes.” We have faith, but we are often distracted by dark forces and preoccupied with worry.

Next: the myth of the overnight disciple.

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