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Salvation, according to common usage, is basically "rescue from harm." The theological term for the study of salvation is Soteriology (soter being the Greek word for savior). The biblical names Yeshua, Joshua, and Jesus all mean to rescue, to deliver, to save. If we look at some of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible, we find El-Yeshuati (God of salvation), El-Yeshuatenu (God of our salvation), YHWH Hosheah (Lord saves), and YHWH Yasha (Lord my Savior). These names let us know that these texts are about a God who saves; it is in his very nature and part of his character. Salvation is not just a contingency plan, but part of who God is.
An important question to ask is this: What do we need salvation from? We can distill the answer to two things: sin and death. What is sin? Often that word (especially in evangelical circles) carries a lot of moral heaviness with it, the implication being that sins are actions which are the worst of the worst. However, I believe that sin is best defined as that which separates us from God. It is not the baddest of bad things, not something we measure by degree (one sin being worse than the other), but a reflection of our state as sinners. We make choices that separate us from God. We wander away from God. This is the state of sin. It is the opposite of holiness, and holiness, again, is not moral perfection, but what God is. God is holy. There is no one like God.
Paul writes: "For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ." (Romans 3, The Message)
Paul is writing about Jews and non-Jews (us and them), but it doesn't take too much effort to translate that to our present context. We, too, often position others as morally inferior to ourselves. Paul's point here is that we are all in the same boat: incapable of living the glorious life which God wants for us. When we are saved from sin, we are no longer prisoners to those situations and actions which separate us from God; we are free! "All your lives you've let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you've started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!" (Romans 6, The Message)
The second thing we need to be rescued from is death. Death is a lack of life (obvious, I know), but when life is equated with the breath of God, with flourishing, with growth, with ongoing transformation and reproduction, then death can be thought of as a downward trajectory. Instead of moving toward life and flourishing, death means we are headed toward decay and destruction. When we are rescued from death, we enter the realm of life! "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I [Jesus] came to give life with joy and abundance." (John 10, The Voice)
Another way to look at the dynamic of salvation is to think of change. There is a change from slavery to freedom. There is a change from sickness to healing. There is a change from being lost (like a sheep who has wandered off into dangerous territory) to being found. There is a change from the trajectory of death to the trajectory of life. And instead of separation from God, we are connected to God in a loving relationship. Salvation is also adoption: when we are rescued by God, we have a change in identity. No longer are we enemies of God or far away from God, we are children of God (an intimate relationship). Salvation is also justification, which is a change in legal status; instead of being guilty, God forgives us through Jesus and declares us not guilty! Salvation can also be described as redemption, a transaction which releases something or someone. In the first century, it was not uncommon for someone who was in debt (and had no resources) to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay that debt. That slave could be redeemed (released from slavery) by someone coming to their aid, their rescue, and paying for their freedom by wiping out the debt.
It is important to remember that salvation, God rescuing us, happens in the context of covenant. As we saw earlier, God is a saving God, it is in his nature to save and redeem and restore. The covenant(s) which God established with people like Noah, Abraham, and David were all invitations to be connected in loving, ongoing, faithful relationship. Even though history shows how humanity broke those covenants, God never gave up, never stopped desiring loving connection. Because God saves, God continues to offer covenant through Jesus. That's who God is, a saving God.
How does salvation happen? Through sacrifice, which is love that gives itself for another. Through victory, which is love that overcomes all obstacles. Through forgiveness, which is love that brings wholeness back to creation. In 1526, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English and noticed that the language was lacking a word for reconciliation, so he invented one: atonement. It means a coming together of that which has been separated: at-one-ment. The atoning action of God is at its peak in Jesus Christ. When God united divinity and humanity into one person, God affected a rescue which changes everything. We no longer need to be separated from him. We no longer need to be prisoners of hate, fear, addiction, pride, greed, selfishness, etc. We are saved. We are found. We are free. This once for all act (Jesus's sacrificial death) means that we have salvation available to us all the time.
In the story of Zacchaeus, we read about a despised tax collector who stole from people as part of his livelihood. Jesus saw him in a tree, looking for Jesus, and said to him, "I am coming to your house." Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into home and, overwhelmed by the presence of compassion and love in Jesus, embraced the offer of rescue. He renounced his thieving ways and became part of a vibrant community of Jesus-followers, no longer an outcast. Jesus said, "Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” In these few statements, we see the context of covenant (son of Abraham), the initiation of God to rescue the lost, and the restoration of one who was a sinner (on the outside, separated from God), a prisoner to greed (heading down the trajectory of death). The change from death to life, from slave to free, was there for all to witness.
Sometimes we think of salvation as that one-time prayer we say to accept Jesus into our life and surrender ourselves to God. I don't know about you, but I need saving every day. I need to be rescued from hopeless places in my life. I need to be connected to God again, every morning, afternoon, and evening. Salvation is not a one-time event; it is ongoing. We always need to be rescued from sin and death, we always need God's grace to take us off the trajectory of destruction and decay and place us on a pathway to flourishing and transformation. God, through Jesus, offers us salvation every moment of the day, because that's the kind of God he is: a saving God.
Let that word, salvation, cause our hearts to leap every time we think about it, hear it, read it, or say it, for it reveals the never ending, loving action of our God, a God who never gives up on us.
Just for fun: Rescue Me by Fontella Bass