Thinking About Salvation



How do you define salvation? Which set of terms best characterizes your understanding: “temporal, bodily, and communal” or “spatial, spiritual, and individual”?

My hunch is that you begin with the spatial, spiritual, and individual and “salvation” is a word that primarily refers to your status as an individual.

Is the primary determinate of how we experience reality (time or space)? Both are factors, but one or the other tends to take the lead in how we understand being.

From Plato and Aristotle up to our time, the people in the West typically think with spatial imagination. But, the Jewish thought world, which includes Jesus and Paul, is “temporal, historical, and communal.”

When salvation thought of as the direct encounter between God and the individual sinner, one of the results tends to be the thought that the church is a support group for saved people. Some people think of belonging to a congregation like belonging to a gym. You were more likely to be in shape if you belonged to a gym, but you could be in shape on your own, just like faith. If you belong to a church, you’re more likely to be close to God, but it is not necessary. The church exists to serve the “saved individual.”

Paul sees things like gospel and salvation through a particular understanding of how God is related to history. Paul describes salvation in several ways, including Christians as those upon whom the end of the ages has arrived or reached (1 Cor. 10:11); people are being saved from this present age (Gal. 1:4); and salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11). Turning the gospel into an individualistic, interior encounter between “God and me” is for Paul a different gospel altogether.

When history, not the individual, is the horizon of interpretation, the fundamental question changes from the salvation of the individual to what God is up to in history (including the present). Paul views the death and resurrection of Jesus as the inauguration of the coming Day of the Lord and the sign of the general resurrection of the dead that will come at the end of the age. The future state of things has broken into the present. The question is now about how we live if we believe that the coming salvation of God is both real and present?

The question for the church is not whether or not I like the sermon or the music style, but whether the church’s life is a sign of the age to come (“how are we in this particular time and place a sign of the coming glory of God?”).

Mark Johnson

(hat tip to Mark Love blog posts from several years ago)

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