Part 6 of the series “What’s the Deal with Christianity?”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 12, 2014
Isaiah 51:4-6; Psalm 27:1-9; Acts 4:8-12
Isaiah 51:4–6 • Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands hope for me; they wait for my judgment. Look up to the heavens, and gaze at the earth beneath. The heavens will disappear like smoke, the earth will wear out like clothing, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But my salvation will endure forever, and my righteousness will be unbroken.Image courtesy wordle.net
Psalms 27:1–9 • The LORD is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The LORD is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be frightened of anything? When evildoers come at me trying to eat me up— it’s they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall! If an army camps against me, my heart won’t be afraid. If war comes up against me, I will continue to trust in this: I have asked one thing from the LORD— it’s all I seek— to live in the LORD’s house all the days of my life, seeing the LORD’s beauty and constantly adoring his temple. Because he will shelter me in his own dwelling during troubling times; he will hide me in a secret place in his own tent; he will set me up high, safe on a rock. Now my head is higher than the enemies surrounding me, and I will offer sacrifices in God’s tent— sacrifices with shouts of joy! I will sing and praise the LORD.
LORD, listen to my voice when I cry out— have mercy on me and answer me! Come, my heart says, seek God’s face. LORD, I do seek your face! Please don’t hide it from me! Don’t push your servant aside angrily— you have been my help! God who saves me, don’t neglect me! Don’t leave me all alone!Acts 4:8–12 • Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”
A few years ago, our fall sermon series was entitled “10 Things I Hate About Church.” We even had the artwork of the series match the artwork from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. It was a fun series. And among the usual suspects of things like “Boring,” “Out of Touch,” “Judgmental and Intolerant,” “Homophobia,” and so on was the phrase, “Are you saved?”
See, if there’s one question that irritates mainline Christians more than any other, it’s probably this one, especially when asked by their Evangelical brothers and sisters. Now the reason that it bothers most mainline Christians is that it smacks of condescension or of verification. As if the questioner is inquiring as to whether you’re really a Christian or not.
When is the moment that you had that salvation experience? When were you born again? Well, when was it? When? When???
And most Christians of the non-evangelical variety could not give you an answer. Because the one-time experience of salvation, that “born again” moment is frequently outside of their experience. While Wesley was an evangelical and believed every Christian was entitled to this experience of salvation, he acknowledged that it could come as a gradual dawning in the soul, rather than as a sudden flash.
And since most Methodists these days are likely to be appreciative of the “gradual process” definition, the question still puts them on edge: because if you don’t have an answer for it, then the questioner is going to conclude that you’re not really a Christian. (By the way, if anyone is looking for a good answer to the “When did you get saved?” question, I like to answer, “2000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.”)
And then, of course, if you’re not a Christian, the question seems aggressive, as if the questioner is asking you if you have life insurance and then offering to sell it to you if you can’t demonstrate that you have it already. And to be fair, there are a great many people who ask the question who are intending to proselytize to anyone they feel is not sufficiently saved.
So what’s the deal with “getting saved”? Saved from what?
II. LET US INQUIRE: WHAT IS SALVATION?
But the real thing that ought to annoy us is not the question, but the assumptions that come along with the question. Because, honestly, those are far more annoying than the question itself. The question merely reveals that the understanding of salvation that is behind the question is limited and unbiblical.
In one of his more famous sermons entitled “Scripture Way of Salvation,” John Wesley expertly takes on this central mission of evangelical Christianity. And he does so by posing and addressing this central question:
And, first, let us inquire, What is salvation? The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory. 
Wesley notes that what we think of as salvation “going to heaven, eternal happiness” is not what salvation is. That it is something more.
But isn’t that what salvation is? Isn’t that what most people think salvation is? Certainly the ones who ask that question do. Because it is clear in so many people’s minds that “salvation” is all about getting into heaven once you have died. “What must I do to be saved?” asks the rich young ruler of Jesus and everyone assumes that what he means by that is that he wants to know what he can do to ensure that when he dies he goes to heaven and not to hell.
And this understanding of salvation is everywhere. You can see it on billboards throughout the country where messages say things like, “If you died tomorrow, where would you go?” and then a bible verse attached then when looked up will say something like the verse we heard read earlier from the Book of Acts:
This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.
But as Wesley reminds us, there are a number of things wrong with this understanding of our salvation.
A. The Timing of Salvation
The first is the timing. Wesley did believe that every Christian was entitled to an experience of the assurance of salvation, whether through that “born again” moment or the gradual dawning of realization on the soul. But that experience is not salvation. That is the experience of one’s assurance of salvation.
See, the glibness of my answer to the “When were you saved?” question notwithstanding, the point is essentially sound. I did not get saved when I realized that I’d been saved. I’d been saved already. That’s the whole point. And that is Wesley’s point as well. When the writer of Ephesians reminds his readers that they are saved by God’s grace and not their own doing, he writes “You are saved…” not “you will be,” “you might be,” “you can be,” or “you should be,” but “you are saved.” Wesley points out that you could translate the Greek equally correctly as “You have been saved.” Our salvation is something that has already been accomplished. It does not lie on the other side of death, it is a present reality to be experienced in the here and now.
But the other thing that is in need of correction is not simply the when, but also the how long. Because salvation is not a one-off thing. It is a lifelong process.
Wesley understood the process of salvation as happening in three ways. First, salvation works in us when we realize that we are not the person we ought to be. You might call it conscience or the operation of the natural law, but Wesley called this the result of ‘prevenient grace’ that convicted us of our sins and spurred us toward God. That salvation continues in our reconciliation with God, which Christ has already accomplished. But once we are prompted by the spirit to seek reconciliation with God, we come to understand that this has been accomplished for us already and we receive the assurance of that salvation. In that moment, we are born again, or “regenerated” as Wesley would say. But at that moment, the process of our sanctification begins, a lifelong process of being made more and more holy in our personal and our social living.
All of this is our salvation. The term might be extended, as Wesley himself says, “to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.” That is, from the first inkling of grace that we have to when we are resurrected in the Kingdom of God. Salvation is the entire thing. Not simply one moment or one experience.
B. The Scope of Salvation
Secondly, it bears noting that salvation has become greatly privatized. Especially in America, we imagine that salvation is something that I get or that you get. But the Bible is clear that salvation is something that we all expect.
The earliest understandings of salvation were salvation for the people. Listen again to some of those words from the Prophet Isaiah:
Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples.
“My salvation is on its way, ” God says to the nation. Salvation is not an individual thing; it is a collective reality. Even the line from Ephesians makes that clear, even more so in Wesley’s translation where it is written “Ye are saved…” “Ye” is plural. If the verse were referring to individual salvation it would say, “Thou art saved…” But over and over again throughout scripture, salvation is addressed not to individuals, but to communities, peoples, and nations. Salvation is not meant to be experienced alone. That is not to say that there isn’t an individual experience of salvation, but salvation is not something that applies on an individual basis.
One of the reasons I prefer as a vision of the afterlife a General Resurrection of the dead when all people will be raised to new life and stand before the throne to the “dying and my soul going off to heaven” version is that the latter is individualistic. When I die, I get my salvation fulfilled right then and there. I go off to heaven and it’s done for me. I like the idea that we rest in peace until the resurrection (an idea I maintain is the older, biblical idea) because the consummation of the salvation is shared. “All flesh shall see it together.”
C. The Nature of Salvation
The third assumption of salvation that is in need of correction is the nature of salvation itself. We have already noted that it is not something that lies on the other side of death. It is not an event, but a process. But what does salvation look like, if not my getting my ticket punched for the afterlife?
It is clear in the Biblical passages we read earlier that salvation is a here and now kind of thing. It is a very real deliverance from peril. And this makes sense: if someone falls into a raging river and shouts out to onlookers on the shore: “Save me! Save me!” that person could be forgiven for being upset if the response was, “Don’t worry—we’re sure that you’ll go to heaven once you die!”
That kind of salvation, is, well, useless in the immediate circumstance. And that’s not the salvation the Bible promises. The Bible promises real salvation, real deliverance. And so we should expect that salvation should have some real, concrete significance. Now, we needn’t be wedded to the idea of national deliverance in the sense of military rescue, but we should at least embrace both the collective and real-world nature of deliverance.
So, then, what does salvation look like?
In the passage from the Book of Acts, Peter is addressing the leaders of the people, after the disciples had caused a commotion earlier by healing a man who had been crippled since birth.
“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”
It is important to note that salvation is mentioned twice in this speech. Once at the end, when Peter declares that Salvation can be found in no one else but Jesus. But also once at the beginning when Peter asks, “Are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him?” The verb that is used here to mean “heal” is the same verb that is used later when Peter says, “no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.” The Greek verb Σωζω Sōzō can be translated both as “save” and “heal.” Salvation, then, is the same thing as healing. (The English word “salve” is a reminder of the link between healing and salv-ation.)
There is obvious wordplay in the Greek that is lost in the English, not only because the words are different, but because the concepts have been so removed from one another. When we think of salvation we are so inclined to see it as a spiritual reality that lies on the other side of death that we fail to see that the man who has been crippled since birth is saved by the name of Jesus Christ. This man has been saved. And we missed it.
If salvation is in there here and now, if it is meant for all of us together, and if it involves real world experiences not simply “pie in the sky, by-and-by”, then Salvation is something we have a right to claim in the here and now. “Look for it then every day, every hour, every moment! Why not this hour, this moment Certainly you may look for it now, if you believe it is by faith,” says Wesley.
And if salvation be our healing, then we can understand that we can in the here and now, know salvation and be healed. We Methodists follow in the Orthodox way of looking at sin. Whereas the Roman Catholic tradition—and most of the Protestants who descend from that tradition—view sin as criminal act against God, the Orthodox (and the Wesleyans with them), view sin as an illness. You do not judge someone who is sick, you seek to heal them.
And so we can expect to be healed of our brokenness in this life because it is the salvation God has promised us. Whatever brokenness we bring, whatever personal challenges, barriers, and afflictions we may have, our understanding of salvation reminds us that we can be healed of them.
The question of “Are you saved?” or “When did you get saved?” is a question that not only puts people on edge defensively but undercuts the power of the Gospel that we are called to share.
For the gospel we are called to proclaim is about salvation, not the narrow process of getting your ticket punched for eternal life after death, but of a life-encompassing salvation that heals us of our brokenness, that restores human relationships with God and one another, and that will eventually restore the very world itself.