Every good story requires a shared understanding of context. If a person tries reading John Steinbeck’s masterful “The Grapes of Wrath” with a 21st century context instead of properly understanding its early 20th century context, details of the story will seem absurd. Farming in the 20th century was vastly different than in the 21st century, and although we have recently known recessions, we are a far cry away from the Great Depression, which is the central context of the story. If we do not properly understand the context, the story will not make sense to us.
In a similar way, a proper understanding of salvation has been the missing context of the Christian story for contemporary western society. Because we have misunderstood the nature of salvation, we have had to contort scripture in an attempt to make sense of it, and we have drawn conclusions that are largely disconnected from the story.
Salvation – The Missing Context
One of the key indicators that we have distorted the context and, in the process, lost the plot of God’s story is found in a very common phrase that Christians often use: “getting saved.” We might ask someone, “When did you get saved?” Or we might share testimony of how we “got saved at the altar in junior high school.” Certainly, these are meaningful, powerful moments in a person’s life. The problem with this kind of phrase, however, is that it implies that our salvation is something that occurred at a particular moment in time, which has now passed. In other words, salvation was a moment in time. It is something that occurred long ago.
Look closely at the tense of the language we use when we describe salvation. We say we “got” saved – a phrase which utilizes the past-tense of both “get” and “save.” Whatever salvation was, we’re now past it. It is over. We are on the other side of “getting” and “saving.” The very way we speak about salvation lends itself to a misunderstanding of what salvation is.
Another indicator that we have not properly understood salvation is that we are very quick (far quicker than Jesus, even) to connect “getting saved” with “going to heaven when we die.” We understand salvation primarily in terms of something that happens to us post-mortem. Salvation, for many people, isn’t something for bodies, it is something for souls. The problem with this way of thinking is that it isn’t the kind of salvation that Jesus described.
If salvation isn’t something that happened at a moment in time, what is it? And how should we understand that important and pivotal moment in time if not with the language of salvation?
The problem is that we use salvation language to describe the experience of conversion, which has left us without the language we need to describe salvation. Conversion is an exceptionally important step in the life of a Christian. It is when we finally allow the truth of Jesus to orient our hearts toward him. It is the experience of giving our lives to Jesus. For many, it happens as a pivotal “decision,” often at a critical moment that we can point back to later.
Many of us can point to a moment in time in which we entered into faith in Christ. For those who grew up in the church, this moment might not be as obvious, but many can point to a time in which their faith became personal. It shifted from “my parents faith” or “my church’s faith” to “my faith.”
These are powerful moments in the life of the Christian, and the importance of these moments should not be understated. But to refer to these moments as the moments in which we “got saved” is an unfortunate confusion of terminology. A better term for this experience is conversion.
Imagine that you have placed all of the ingredients to make a loaf of bread into a mixing bowl. Rather than mixing it together, allowing it to rise, and baking it, imagine the look on their face if you presented the bowl of ingredients to your neighbor and say, “I made this bread for you!”
That is the very problem with using the language of salvation to describe conversion. Salvation refers to a process that is not complete, but ongoing. But when we say we “got saved,” it’s like saying “these ingredients are bread.” It treats an unfinished project as if it is already finished.
And friend – Praise God, he is not done with you. Praise God, he is not done with me!
Conversion is when we say “yes” to the still small voice that has been at work in us all of our lives. Conversion is our human response to God’s magnificent, restorative love. And as a pastor, I recognize that conversion is the vital starting point of a Christian faith. But as important as conversion is, it is not the totality of our salvation; it is merely our initial response to God’s saving invitation.
Consider the Jewish celebration of a young person’s bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The ceremony bestows the title of “adult” upon the young person. From that time forward, they will be recognized as an adult, and they will immediately take on some of the responsibilities of adulthood. But it will take time for them to fully enter into adulthood.
Similarly, a person becomes a Christian from the moment of their conversion. A powerful work of God takes place in the life of an individual at the time of their conversion. There are stories of miraculous immediate transformations, and occasionally even sudden relief from addictions. But although there is a powerful and immediate work of God in their life, it will take time for them to more fully resemble Christ. There is growth that will continue to occur in their life, and that growth is the product of the salvation that they are entering.
But before we move ahead to salvation, let’s take a step back, prior to the experience of conversion. Because even our conversion, upon reflection, doesn’t happen in a single moment in time. It is, instead, a response to what theologians refer to as “prevenient grace” – a concept which we’ll explore in more depth in the next post.