A Better Way To Talk About Salvation
Conversations about Salvation can easily get derailed into arguments about the logistics of how a person goes from being lost to being saved. Usually, the way this happens is that one party will try to make the case for asserting one part of the process as more valuable than all other parts, or whether some part is “non-essential.” There are several components that typically show up in both Scripture and in church practice for how a person goes from being lost to being saved.
- Through life experiences, pivotal moments, etc., God works on the person’s heart so that they become open to him
- The person comes to believe that Christ is Lord, and desires to respond to his offer of grace
- The person repents, partnering with God so that their mind/heart can change and they can abandon what parts of their life are in opposition to God’s purposes
- The person makes a verbal confession of faith in Christ and/or an expressed desire for God to save him/her
- The person is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “for the forgiveness of sins” and to invite the indwelling of the Holy Spirit
My belief is that all of these components are of great importance. The problem with treating one component above all other components is that it can produce imbalance.
The Problem with ‘Wet Sinners’
Several years ago, I was in an online graduate school course with a classmate in Africa. His perspective as an African on Western missions was enlightening. He lamented what he called “wet sinners.”
He said, “Churches in the U.S. are always pressuring their mission points to get lots of baptisms. And so here in Africa, because we want the funding to keep coming, we make sure we baptize lots and lots of people. Unfortunately, where I’m located there is little discipleship happening. In the U.S., everyone seems pleased enough with a large number of baptisms reported, but here in Africa, what we have are a lot of wet sinners running around who haven’t repented and aren’t becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ.”
This is certainly not to say that there aren’t good discipleship practices happening in Africa. I’m sure that in many places there are, and I’m hardly in a position to evaluate either way. The point I’m trying to make is that if we emphasize one part of how a person comes to Christ at the expense of the other parts, we produce unbalanced believers.
In the image above, I’ve tried to highlight some of the typical components we associate with a person becoming a Christian. All of these elements matter, and in ways that are of ongoing significance. A disciple of Christ needs to be learning and growing, needs to trust in God, needs to turn away from sin, needs to confess openly whom they serve, and needs to have a concrete moment of decision in life, connecting them to Jesus in his death, burial, and resurrection. It is to the detriment of a Christian if any of these elements are not present in his/her life of faith.
Every Part Matters
I feel like many squabbles about how a person is saved hinge around isolated proof-texts. If you operate merely from a favored proof-text, you miss out on a much more holistic process that Scripture imagines. For example:
- In Acts 2:38, Peter says for each person to repent and to be baptized. Does this mean that a person does not need to grow in knowledge, or to have faith?
- Matthew 28:18-20 contains Jesus’ great commission, where he says that people are to be taught and baptized.
Does this mean that they are not expected to repent or confess?
- Paul says in Romans 10:9-10 that when people believe (have faith) in Christ and confess verbally that they will be saved.
Does this mean that baptism or repentance is unnecessary?
- In I Peter 3:21, Peter says that it is baptism that saves us.
Is his neglect of mentioning faith, repentance, or confession evidence that these are therefore non-essential?
I think that in each of these cases we would readily affirm that it is better to look at all of the passages together, in light of each other, rather than to treat one as the only teaching that matters.
Our Whole Person Needs Saving
When I consider the elements mentioned as part of how we are saved, I find a remarkably holistic picture of how salvation works. In fact, as we allow sin to be at work in our lives, sin corrupts each part of our person.
- Sin permeates our thoughts and intentions. Where God gave us creative minds capable of incredible good, we often have chosen to use our thoughts for selfish and corrupted goals. We have devised evil when we were created for good. Our minds become corrupted.
- Sin affects our speech. We lie. We insult. We belittle those made in God’s image. James laments the way that blessing and cursing come from the same mouth and insists this ought not to be so!
- Sin is present in our actions. It is with our bodies that we defy God and indulge in our delusions of independence from God. What we do with our actions defines a majority of our existence in this life. Who are you as a person apart from what you’ve done?
- Sin corrupts our relationships. When it comes to relationships, sin is in the business of bringing separation. Where harm or dishonesty have occurred, division also occurs. Those we should be sharing life with and enjoying as companions, instead we avoid them, or they avoid us because of what has happened.
Redemption Deeper Than Our Corruption
Jesus as the “New Adam,” the ultimate representative of humanity, undoes the power of sin at work in us since the first sin. When we are in Christ, we are not merely brought to some neutral point. Jesus restores us as full heirs of the promises of God and members of the royal household of God. Jesus became sin for our sake so that we could be made righteous in him and through him.
I invite you to consider how the way in which we are saved reaches into all the crevices of our lives where sin has otherwise seeped in and restores us.
- Our minds are redeemed as we learn of the truth of Jesus and repent of the ways we’ve rebelled against God. The word for repent in Greek literally means “different mind.” Repentance is how God is at work in redeeming our minds.
- Our speech is redeemed when we use our mouths to call upon the Lord and confess that we believe Jesus to be our savior. Confession is how God is at work in redeeming our speech.
- Our actions are redeemed when we are baptized into Christ. In the same way that we have sinned with our physical bodies, baptism is a physical response to Christ that allows the saving work of God through Christ to come and remake our tattered houses into dwelling places for the spirit.
- Our relationships are redeemed when we receive forgiveness and are added to the church. The most important of these severed relationships is our relationship with God, but turning our life around is a healthy starting point for beginning to restore that which has been separated in our lives. In the church, we are not regarded according to what we deserve, but according to God’s mercy.
God’s redemption through Christ runs even deeper than our corruption. Jesus has led the way for us, taking on all the burdens that we could not carry, and inviting us to follow him.
When I see the way in which God goes about saving us, I see a beautiful, redemptive symmetry that speaks to all the parts of our lives in which we’ve shown rebellion. When we are saved, we come to Christ with our whole person.
Salvation is not merely a prayer, a better set of thoughts, or a physical ritual. Salvation is for every part of us, because in Christ, we are wholly redeemed. Our walk of faith will involve continual growth in all of these areas, but from the moment we come to Christ, God is at work in every part of who we are.