First, a disclaimer: As this post came together, it began to take the form more of a manifesto than a simple blog post. The rest of my lexicon will not be this long, but this is foundational. This project required reviewing well over 10 years of notes from my study and contemplation, and distilling it down even this far was a chore. But this topic explains my brand, Salubris, which is latin for wellness or wholeness, and a translation of the Greek term used for salvation. It is literally the intended focus of the rest of my life, and I needed to spill a little extra ink (quaint metaphor, isn’t it?) on this one.
I begin this little journey with the big kahuna, the point behind all of it: salvation. Every good evangelical knows what that means, of course. It means you managed some kind of a transaction (asking Jesus into your heart, praying a sinner’s prayer, signing a communication card, the mechanics vary) with God so you go to Heaven when you die instead of the other place. This example of one of the most patently offensive Christian billboards yet that have been popping up all over town exemplifies that understanding. We need to somehow be saved from whatever it is Jesus is going to do to us after our heart stops.
All the ways and reasons that narrative no longer holds water for me is literally the point of this entire lexicon, so I won’t dwell on it in this post. But to begin this journey I will explain what this term has come to mean for me.
The New Testament term that is translated as salvation is sozo, which means to rescue from danger but also to heal or make whole. I have come to believe that the emphasis on wholeness, or integration as the means to be healed from that which dis-integrates, is the proper way to think of it. Furthermore, I think that while it can have personalized, individual implications it applies to something much bigger than just a series of transactional events to get people to heaven. Allow me to work through a few of my favorite “salvation” passages in the New Testament to illustrate, beginning with the most familiar and foundational to the way in which most of us have understood this issue:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16,17)
This phrase “believes in him” needs some unpacking. The term translated “to believe” is not about agreeing with a proposition about a person or a doctrine, it actually has connotations of faithfulness, or trustworthiness. The preposition is not so much “in,” but “into”, and the phrase “eternal life” is not about living forever after you die, it’s about living the kind of life that characterizes the new age of God. I know, that’s a lot to undo with our favorite salvation passage, but the way I think of it now is that if you are faithful into the way of Jesus, you will participate in the process of healing and integration that characterizes the age Jesus came to inaugurate. The following verses (and John in general) make it clear that it’s all about “living in the light,” not about believing certain things. Plus, one of the key things to take note of is just who it is that Jesus came to save: the world. Of course, I used to just think of that as “all the people in the world” (even though my crew never thought any but a small percentage would actually be saved, but I digress), but the term is cosmos, the entirety of the created order. More on that soon.
Second only to John 3:16, or maybe even more important to some, is a passage that comes from Ephesians 2:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (8,9)
Here again, some translation work is in order. First of all when Paul says “not by works,” he almost certainly means “not by your religious observances.” With regard to the phrase “through faith,” In my opinion the footnote that you will find in the latest NIV translations here and elsewhere in the N.T. will one day be the main thing, which gives us (for now) the alternate translation of “by the faithfulness of Jesus.” It isn’t about what we acknowledge to be true at all: it’s about what Jesus did. Furthermore, in my mind Paul probably intends it to be understood as embracing for ourselves the kind of faithfulness Jesus exemplified, so “through the faithfulness of Jesus” would be something like, “by living in the ways Jesus did.” I would go so far as to say that when Paul says salvation is by grace, he isn’t talking about God’s grace at all, or at least not just about that. It’s about us living a grace saturated existence: experiencing it, but also (especially) offering it. Certainly it isn’t about what we believe: the grammar is very clear with regard to that, it seems to me. I think the only reason our translations don’t read correctly is that we have a lot of institutions that have been built on the way we have been thinking about it, and I can tell you that once you start tugging on threads like this, the whole system is in danger of unraveling. But what I think is the correct understanding is what makes sense of the actual point, which is that there are good works for us to do- a clever way of re-interpreting this term to not mean religiosity, but living in the ways Jesus taught and displayed: entirely consistent with Paul’s main point he keeps coming back to in his letters. So, bringing it all back around, I now think of this passage as something like “live a grace saturated life: faithful to the ways of Jesus, so you fulfill your role in the redemptive plan of God.” Not the standard “God will have mercy on your sin-sick soul because you believed the right dogma about Jesus” approach from my past, but the grammar allows for it and it is absolutely consistent with the message of the New Testament on this subject. So just how do we live out the kind of works that are referenced in order to do that? Here I go to Philippians for some clarification.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:12,13)
This used to be a truly troublesome passage in my evangelical days, something to not pay much attention to or figure out how to spin, like it really means to “display” your salvation. But I think it means what it says: complete the process, git ‘er done. How do we do that? Once again, it is through embracing the way of Jesus described previously in that chapter: ….being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, (Phil. 2:3-7)
Completing the process of salvation means looking to the interests of others, not your own, and living a life of servitude. The kind Jesus taught and exemplified. That is what it means to be faithful into the way of Jesus, as we saw was central to the previous two passages.
There are a lot more passages that mention this, but I want to underscore just a couple more that have become essential to me in really understanding this. The first is from Romans 5:
..while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
This has become really critical to me, because it underscores that there is a difference between being reconciled to God and being saved. My experience is that it has been assumed those are the same thing: you’re “saved” because God is no longer mad at you, since you’ve accomplished whatever transaction it was to prove that you have embraced the blood sacrifice of his son to appease his wrath. “Being saved” was a way of speaking of whatever thing it is you did or believed that reconciled you to God. Paul concedes that a transaction to accomplish that reconciliation did happen, but it was a one time past tense event, and it applied to everyone: just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (v.18) Frankly, I’m not at all sure what this reconciliation thing is really all about: it never gets explained. Was there really some sort of fundamental cosmic rift between people and God, or did people just think there was and it required an event of this magnitude to release us from these kinds of toxic religious intuitions? I tend toward the latter view, actually, but It didn’t really work very well: The movement that Jesus started rapidly deteriorated into one more version of that kind of fear and shame based religiosity that requires us to assume some sort of disconnect between us and God and oh-by-the-way, the institution that arose happens to hold the solution for you within the confines. But it doesn’t matter at all which it was, since either way the deed is done. So what we need to be “saved” (healed, delivered, made whole) from is thinking that there’s anything that needs to happen to be reconciled to God since that transaction has been completed and requires nothing from us. Yet that has been the entire focus of the salvation narrative in our history, leading to untold stress and anxiety we should never have had to deal with. Reconciliation is universal and a one time event in the past. Salvation is a current process. Once again, “in”, meaning through, or by means of, or entering into the realm of the kind of life Jesus led.
In 2 Corinthians Paul reiterates this: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (5:19). Again, reconciliation is a thing that happened and applies to not just everyone, but to the cosmos: the entire created order. This brings up the 3rd option I can see regarding the issue of reconciliation, which is that the term focuses more on becoming aligned with a plan or a process. So at a cosmic level, something about the crucifixion acccomplished that. Once again, not something I can really understand, and the point Paul is making is that we don’t have to worry about that part. (Actually, there’s a 4th option regarding this issue that I’ve been considering, but it has to do with spirituality and quantum physics and it may be a while before I get around to thinking that one through enough to write about it.) The truly important thing for us is where he ends it in ch. 6: As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
There you go. If we obsess over being reconciled to God, the grace of God is literally in vain: it doesn’t accomplish the intended purpose, which is to get us involved in bringing salvation: the process of re-integration and wholeness planned for the cosmos. In this statement Paul is appealing to a quote from Isaiah 49, telling us that Jesus inaugurated that time that the prophet looked forward to. The rest of Isaiah following that passage to the end describes the kind of world God wants, but here I quote a familiar portion at the very end as an example:
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,” (65:20-25)
As with a lot of Bible passages, I can sometimes have a hard time separating what to read literally and what to read metaphorically, such as the wolf and lamb thing here: these are not actual animals, but represent the weak and the powerful, the haves and have nots. There is no distinction between these in God’s economy. But there really isn’t a metaphorical parallel for things like living to 100+ years, a lack of infant mortality, or enjoying the fruits of your own labor. This to me describes a world of wellness: personally and economically and socially as our lives are lived without avoidable calamity in a context of economic and social equality and justice. If we jump back to the New Testament where Paul once again puts this issue of new creation front and center in Galatians, we see how to accomplish this. At the end of the book he states:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation (6:15)This refers back to the previous chapter when Paul says this: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith(fulness, parentheses mine) expressing itself through love.(5:6)
This is a classic parallelism, underscoring what we have already seen in his writings: the religious rules and practices that you think are necessary to be reconciled to God are irrelevant. What counts is living lives of faithfulness expressed in love. That is how we bring the new creation, the day of salvation.
The message is entirely consistent: We shouldn’t even be worrying about whether we’re reconciled to God, the result that we have traditionally thought came from the transaction of being “saved.” The point is to live into the way of Jesus to be God’s co-workers to accomplish the process of healing and wholeness and integration in this world right now. I’ve always been intrigued by Peter’s exhortation at Pentecost for the crowd to “save themselves.” Oops. And from what? This corrupt generation. Salvation is entering into a new way of being in the world according to the pattern of God that is not subject to corruption, or dis-integration. Those who accepted that invitation went on to live lives of sharing and community and “looking not to their own needs but to the needs of others” (see discussion on Phil. 2) in profound ways (take a look at 2:42-27 for a description of how that played out in that immediate context).
So, salvation for me is about wholeness, wellness, the healing of disintegrations and dysfunctions that occur in individual lives and in the larger society as well as the created order when ego driven people live for themselves and not each other. It begins with the individual to be sure, as we become delivered from the stress of worrying about our eternal relationship to God and embrace the way of Jesus: a life of love and service not driven by all the stresses and dysfunctions that come with a self-centered “what about me?” approach to living. Being released from that allows us to stop worrying about not getting what we want, or things not happening the way we want them to for our benefit, because it’s no longer about us. We can chill out. Be cool. That’s the place from which we can begin to make our contribution to the healing and wholeness and deliverance of the world we live in and all others who occupy it, because that’s what we start to live for rather than ourselves: to be charitable, compassionate, caring. To be kind.
That’s how I intend to focus on salvation, on salubris, for the remainder of my existence, and it seems to me the formula can be boiled down to something pretty simple.