I had an email waiting for me this morning with this simple question at the end of a lengthy preamble: What is salvation? My response is below.
Salvation. As I understand it, salvation is (and I’m testing out some new language here) assurance of one’s place in the world to come, which is also now.
The world to come, however, is not what most Western Christians think. More often then not, we would equate this with going to heaven when we die. While it is true that those who have placed their faith in Christ will reside with him in heaven upon death (Phi 1:23), this is never the end goal for New Testament believers. The end goal is a physical resurrection in a renewed earth that is joined with heaven (See Phi 3:11, for example).
Anyway, the world to come was not heaven for either the Jews or the early Christians. The world to come was the reality hoped for when God’s Spirit broke into the world and made right everything that was wrong in the Lord’s creation. The world to come was the renewed and redeemed creation. It was the longed for shalom. Other terms for this might be the Age of the Spirit, the New Creation, or the Life of the Age (zoen aionion, usually translated “eternal life” in, for example, John 3:16). We might also call this the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jews had an expectation that there would come a day in the future in which this renewed reality would break into their world all at once, with the vindication of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked at one time. Part of the great shock of the New Testament is that by virtue of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit, this future hope was actually breaking into the present in smaller, unforeseen doses in their present. This diagram at right contrasts well the Jewish expectation (top) and the Christian realization (bottom).
Salvation, for the Jews, had been admittance into that future Age by virtue of their place in covenant with the Creator. Their belief, broadly, was that God had entered into a unique covenant with the people of Israel that graciously guaranteed their place when the Lord acted to restore creation. On their better days, they didn’t believe this was exclusive to them as Jews or as descendants of Abraham, but perhaps it was exclusive to those within the covenant (which could include Gentiles who took upon themselves the covenant).
This differs from our common understanding of salvation in several ways, but at least in its communal nature. The covenant is for the entire people of God. True, it was up to the individual to keep the covenant as best he could, and an individual could exclude himself from the covenant by throwing it off individually, but the default position was that God had graciously extended the covenant to the nation. The default position was to be in the covenant and therefore secured a place in the world to come.
The issue at stake is not just salvation of the individual, but of the entire nation and of the earth they inhabit.
The fundamental shift following the resurrection for the early Christians, I believe, was simply the sudden awareness that this Age was now. That they could, by the power of the Spirit, engage in the world to come in the present, that their salvation had already come. (That, and it was now openly and freely available to Gentiles.) This is what Jesus would have meant when he went about with his message:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14-15, NIV)
In other words, “the future Age of God’s Spirit, the Age to Come, is close at hand, so adjust your thinking and walk the way I’m going!”
This is why salvation and the Gospel need to be articulated in a more holistic manner. Salvation is for everyone and for the creation in which they live. The Gospel is the good news of God reestablishing dominion over this creation and setting right what has gone wrong, of God becoming king.
I should also say that the conventional Evangelical Gospel of atonement, that Christ came to die for the eradication of our sins, is also valid in this framework. Sin was the very thing that put the peoples of the earth in bondage in the first place. Sin was the thing that so distorted the good creation that it needed rescue in the first place. Sin had to be dealt with in order for the Age to Come to break into the now.
I should also say that salvation is simultaneously present and future. While the scandal of the Gospel in the first century was that this future age was bursting into the present (and among Gentiles), it remains the case that this is not a completely finished work. It remains that the earth will not see the fullness of that Age until Christ’s return. This is often referred to as “the already but not yet,” or a partially realized eschatology.