(The following is a lesson written for Canvas, a new series for young adults being developed by the United Methodist Publishing House. The press decided to run with the first five, leaving this and another lesson orphaned, so I share them here.)
The pilot could not avoid the flock of birds that suddenly appeared in front of him, and the birdstrike caused both engines of the small jet to fail. The fuselage broke into several pieces as it struck the sea below. A few of the passengers were able to make it to the inflatable life rafts, floating through the night into the next day before the search helicopter found them. Two rescue boats were called in, and the survivors were taken on board and back to port. At what point were they “saved”? When they survived the crash and made it on to the life rafts? When the search and rescue operation found them and took them on board? When they were safely reunited with their families and their lives back home? At every step of the way, in some sense?
Charles Wesley understood that God’s plan for salvation was much bigger, much fuller, than getting into a life raft (though it is essential first to get into the life raft!). It involved getting us all the way back home, not merely reconciled to God here in the midst of this life, but at home with God in God’s eternal realm. It involved getting us all the way to becoming the “new creation” in which God’s image is fully restored in us because the Holy Spirit has brought Christ fully to life within us. His hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (which you can find in the United Methodist Hymnal, #384) captures in this way the fuller, biblical vision for “salvation,” the deliverance God is working in and for each one of us as he changes us “from glory into glory,” further and further into the image of Christ, “till in heaven we take our place.”
Commentary: the Biblical Foundations for the Doctrine of “Salvation”
You may have heard people talk about “being saved” or “getting saved” as something that happens for them when they have an encounter with Jesus, put their trust in him, and commit their lives to him. They might even have invited you to “get saved” in this way. This is certainly an important facet of salvation, and one that is in keeping with some of the things Scripture has to say about salvation. We encounter it, for example, when Paul writes about Christians as already “saved” in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus: “You have been saved by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8), or in Paul’s advice to Titus: “When the goodness and beneficence of God, our Savior, manifested itself, he saved us … through the washing of a new beginning and through renewal effected by the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:4–5). Something important happened when Christ became a reality for us, when we first came to believe that God was reaching out to us in Christ and when we reached out in response. We were saved from our alienation from God and invited into an intimate connection with God. But this is only the beginning of the “salvation,” the “deliverance,” the “rescue” (all ways to translate the same Greek word), that God has set in motion for us. Salvation is much more than being forgiven and going to heaven. Salvation is as wide and as deep as the human problem is wide and deep.
Paul also speaks of “salvation” as something that’s still out there ahead of us, something that happens at the end of the journey. He writes to the Christians in Rome: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:11-12). Paul is looking ahead here to the day of the Lord, to the day of Christ’s return, as the ultimate day of deliverance. Other New Testament authors speak in the same vein. The author of Hebrews affirms that “Christ … will appear a second time … for the benefit of those who are eagerly awaiting him, unto their salvation” (Heb 9:28). The author of 1 Peter writes about Christians “being guarded by God’s power, through faith, unto salvation” (1:5), naming “the outcome of their faith” as “the salvation of your souls” (1:9), the gift that will come “at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). The most dramatic “deliverance” still lies ahead – deliverance from this death-bound life for the eternal life of the resurrection, deliverance when we all “stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10), deliverance from the world that labors under the domination of the powers that resist God for the life of the kingdom of God.
With deliverance in some sense behind us and deliverance in some sense in front of us, we might suspect that we are right now in the thick of the process of God’s delivering us. This is exactly how Paul speaks about “salvation” to his friends in Philippi, whom he urges: “keep working out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one working in your midst both to desire and to work on behalf of what pleases him” (Phil 2:12–13). The “salvation” of the Christians in Philippi is something in which God is deeply and personally invested and something in which the Christians are to be deeply and personally invested. God’s involvement is what makes the Christians’ investment fruitful, but Paul is not at all afraid to call for “intentional discipleship” here as playing an essential role in God’s drama of salvation.
Believing in Jesus was the essential first step in this journey of salvation – without it, there is no journey. But just “believing” does not get us all the way to the end. What we do as a result of believing seems to matter a great deal, that is, how we “work out our salvation” empowered by the God who “is the one working in your midst both to desire and to work on behalf of what pleases him” (Phil 2:13). If we hope for “salvation” on the Last Day, we need to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” to “live honorably as in the day, … and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:12, 14 NRSV). If we look forward to “deliverance” on the Day of Judgment, or the day of Christ’s visitation, the light of that Day must illumine all our steps today, tomorrow, and all our days.
In this regard, God is seeking to save us from being “what we were” (and would continue to become apart from God’s Holy Spirit’s intervention) – self-centered, self-serving, self-gratifying shadows of what human beings were meant to become – and to free us to become holy and righteous in God’s sight. Paul urged his friends in Philippi to allow God’s work within them to achieve its full effect, focusing their daily goals toward becoming more and more like Jesus, particularly reflecting more and more the heart for God and others and the commitment to God and others that Jesus showed by giving himself over to death in obedience to God and to bring benefit to others. If we heed Paul, these will also become our driving passions and agenda as we look forward to the completion of the deliverance God is providing for us.
Questions for Exploration and Conversation
1. Using a Bible software program or other search utility, look up every New Testament occurrence of the word “salvation” (best to use NIV or NRSV for this). Read each in context and try to categorize each occurrence: “salvation” as something that has already happened for his hearers, is in the process of being worked out, or is something to which they still look forward (“unclear” is also an acceptable category). What kind of big picture of “salvation” might you begin to form from this survey?
2. Read Romans 13:11-14. Draw a timeline between “coming to faith” and experiencing “salvation” according to this passage. How does Paul think living within this timeline should shape our lives in the in-between? Why?
3. Read Philippians 2:1-13. Since 2:12-13 is a “wrap-up” for this section, what does 2:1-11 tell us about what it looks like to “work out our own salvation”?
4. Read Titus 2:11-14. What are the various elements of God’s “salvation” that appear in these verses? What kind of timeline (past, present, future) is suggested by the descriptions of these various facets of salvation? How do these facets work together to articulate a “plan” of salvation, and what does the author suggest is our role in this plan as we respond to God’s grace?
5. Read Titus 3:3-4. From what, according to this passage, did God “save” us? How does this facet of salvation happen among us, and what does it look like when it comes about?
Lord Jesus, you who loved me and gave yourself up for me, don’t let me neglect any part of this great salvation that you have secured for me.
You have saved me from alienation from God; keep me open to God’s presence and attentive to this relationship.
You are saving me from living the kind of life and being the kind of person that my own inclinations to selfishness and the powers and pressures of the world around me would make of me; keep me growing in love for you and for others; keep remaking my own attitudes and desires after the image of your own.
You will save me on the day of your coming again from all the powers of this world and the fate of those who have despised your salvation and opposed your kingdom; keep me living here and now as a loyal citizen of that kingdom, so that I may indeed “belong” there where I will live forever.
From beginning to end my salvation is in your hands; keep me living humbly, obediently, responsively under your guiding hands every day so that, at the last day, your hands will raise me up. Amen.
For further reflection:
1.There are some passages that seem to suggest that salvation (“being saved”) is as easy as praying a “sinner’s prayer.” Read Acts 16:30-31; Rom 10:9-10. There are others that suggest that arriving at salvation requires a great deal more investment than that. Read Luke 9:23-26; 13:22-24; James 2:14-17, all of which employ the language of being “saved.” What kind of understanding of “salvation” – and of “faith” – is required to hold these statements together, valuing each one.
2.Read Ephesians 2:1-10, paying special attention to this larger context in which the often-quoted statements in 2:6 and 2:8 appear. According to this larger context, what are we saved “from”? What are we saved “for”? How do the element of a changed life and changed actions play into the vision of “salvation by faith” in this paragraph?