Saved or Unsaved? Rethinking the “Only Two Kinds of People In the World” Mindset
In American contemporary Christian culture the word “saved” gets thrown around quite often; so often in fact that the concept of salvation to which it refers seems to have become minimized to refer solely to the moment of one’s mental conversion to Christianity. The term has become overused within a fixed paradigm with very limited vocabulary in which a preaching individual presents the gospel or lays out the plan of salvation, to the point that most Christians view any alternate or further dissection of theological meaning within the word “salvation” as an incomplete or unclear presentation of the gospel message. The common mindset is that when someone gives cognitive assent to this narrow explanation, they are then saved and bound for Heaven, and everyone else remains unsaved – or “lost as last year’s Easter eggs” as some like to put it – and bound for Hell until they give their rational assent to this same paradigm with its limited jargon. The purpose of this article is to reconsider the biblical and historical accuracy of this mentality.
You Been Bawn Again?
It seems that the situation described above can be traced back to the Great Awakening periods in New England of the 18th and 19th centuries, where the earlier Puritan emphasis on subjective, personal faith gave way to more charismatic revivalists’ movements and tent meetings. This shift began to stress receiving salvation through an emotional, dramatic conversion experience which usually included the need to walk an aisle or repeat the “sinner’s prayer” (baptism, however, is not salvific in any way, for that action would be viewed as works-based under this model). It was in these revivalist movements that the mourners or anxious bench (today called an altar call) was introduced, while having a catechumenate for those seeking entrance into the Church began to decline. Discerning how early Christians understood these concepts prior to the reductionism of recent centuries requires a look at how the Scriptures use overused terms like “saved,” “salvation,” “preaching the gospel,” or the concept of “going” to Heaven or Hell.
A Healing Faith
Most prominently in the Scriptures, the concept of salvation pointed early Christians towards a medicinal or therapeutic reality, a cleansing or restoring process. It is interesting how English Bibles even translate a particular recurring phrase of Christ various ways in different Gospels. Sometimes it appears as “your faith has healed you,” sometimes “your faith has made you well,” and sometimes “your faith has saved you”; but all of this is the exact same Greek phrase: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκεν σε.
To be “saved” thus is to be “healed,” to be “made well” or “made whole” from one’s illness of sin and bodily corruption. While there is certainly a moment in time where salvation in the person of Christ becomes real for us, as for the infirmed persons in these verses, the completeness of our being saved is not instantaneous like a lightning bolt, for we are still overcoming the plague of sin and still “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” (Nicene Creed). Thus the New Testament epistles use more than past tenses when speaking to believers about salvation: that we “will be saved from wrath,” that we are “those who are being saved,” or that “those who endure to the end will be saved.”
Christ’s Method of Preaching
Interestingly Christ is not described as sitting down and repeatedly laying out the same basic juridical paradigm with the same terminology to different audiences, trying to get as many people to affirm it as possible and move on to find other converts. Rather, he told stories. He told story after story to show the infinite multifaceted nature of what “the Kingdom of God is like,” seeming to never fully pin it down with one particular articulation. Yet these stories truly were just as legitimate (if not much more) as the most intellectual systematic theological manuals of our day that lay out every abstract detail of soteriology. His stories themselves were the Gospel:
“Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him…”
All Christians can agree that salvation consists primarily in “eternal life,” and Christ tells us that this comes from knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. This brings us to the ultimate question of all worldviews: “How do I know God?” While this can never be fully outlined since God is infinite and beyond rational knowledge, the time-tested experience of the historic Church has found the key to personal knowledge of, not just about, God to reside in that mystical beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Knowing God, and therefore eternal life, emerges through a process of purification – not a pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to be better people, but willingly surrendering ourselves to be molded by the Holy Spirit in the unfolding of our life events through volitional cooperation with God’s Grace; not a system override where God forces us to change, nor a “forgiven” status that God stamps on us for a free pass, but a real synergy and working together of the human and Divine wills [e.g. Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Cor. 3:9].
The Sheep and the Goats
What is more, it seems that the reduction of the gospel to the acceptance of one particular regurgitated explanation seems to have caused a glossing over of the way Christ himself explained our salvation on the last day in the parable of the last judgment. In separating the sheep from the goats, Christ never even mentions how well either group fully understood or accepted the most accurate salvation model. He instead points out the fruit produced in their lives that exhibit the condition of their heart, that exhibit true Godliness. This parable does not tell us to reduce everything to a social gospel of humanitarian work with no real spiritual message of eternal hope and redemption in Christ, but rather that our judgment is not contingent merely upon abstract philosophies, how well we understand the gospel, or even if we have made some regrettable doctrinal errors in ignorance. The judgment of our souls is the result of how willing we are to repent; that is, to turn from our condition and reorient ourselves to the image and likeness of God we were designed to be. When Christ speaks of judgment in the Gospel of John he describes it in a way that pictures neither Christ nor the Father making a decision as to whether they are willing to let us into Heaven, but as each person literally judging themselves, as pursuing the resulting reality from what the condition of their heart inherently desires:
“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:18-21)
“You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. And yet if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent Me.” (John 8:15-16)
“I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him – the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” (John 12:46-48)
Sin and evil are more enslavements, burdens, and cancers than they are legal culpabilities, as Saint John Chrysostom states:
“Did you commit sin? Enter the Church, repent for your sin, for here is the physician, not the judge. Here one is not investigated; one receives remission of sins,” [Emphasis mine].
Life Is Hell
In much of Western Christianity, Hell is a place that preserves the justice of God, a place to punish the unrepentant because they did not allow the blood justice that Christ accomplished to cover them and grant them an external status that transfers them to being in God’s favor, granting them access to Heaven. In Eastern Christianity, the fallen human race is in Hell even right now. No, not purgatory. Hell is not so much Divine juridical punishment as it is the natural end, the realization, the “wages” of atheism; of “missing the mark,” and losing sight of what on earth is truly the point of everything. The book of Ecclesiastes effectively captures the realization of the individual that loses sight of God: continual slumping and decaying into the delusion, despair, madness, purposelessness, disillusionment, and futility of all our existence which comprises the world of the mind without God Who is the source and purpose of all Life.
Racing to the Savior
The Good News in this model is that Christ, who as the Son of Man was the first true human being that lived up to the image and likeness of God, has opened up a way out of this pit. Ancient Christian hymns speak of Moses stretching out his arms in the shape of a cross as he parted the Red Sea, thus providing a way for God’s people to traverse in order to be saved from the death, the evil, pursuing them. By passing through the waters, that which cleanses and which destroyed the evil ones (our sins, passions, and demons) that enslaved God’s people, we are baptized and participate in Christ’s death through death to self, and can then continue towards the Promised Land. But baptism is only the beginning, for we then must wander in the wilderness and rely solely on the Bread from Heaven, the nourishment of our Savior Himself, in order to finally cross the boundary of the Jordan into the land we anticipate. None of this happens in an instant by praying a prayer or undergoing a ritual. As Paul explains, rather than just a change of status or new location when we die, it is a long and arduous marathon:
“. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Work Out Your Own Salvation With Fear And Trembling
I think it is difficult especially for my Reformed friends who hold to a total depravity doctrine to hear me out on all of this, and as a former Calvinist I understand their concern against Pelagianism, but ultimately all people as long as they exist retain some fragment of the image of God and thus a small glimmer of the light of Christ. We need his help to fan this back into the blazing glory it was meant to be, but we are in fact capable of letting that spark within us grow by saying no to sin and selfishness; and all peoples are dealing with this in their own unique way for which I cannot judge them, for I am the chief of sinners. So rather than viewing people as “saved or unsaved,” due to their level of understanding, how Godly or mature they seem to be, or even whether they had a distinct conversion event – rather than looking around at our fellow racers, much like the hare thinking he’s got the race in the bag and that there’s no way the tortoise can ever make it on the final sprint, the last and dreadful Judgment Day – let us instead fix our eyes on the Goal of our journey; for until He returns, the race is not yet over for any of us.
There may be a hint of exhaustion in the words of this article, and for that I apologize. But frankly I am tired and drained of the discussions, the concerns, the nitpicking of theological debates over every abstract detail among the more intellectual class of my Protestant and some Orthodox friends, as well as the opposite fundamentalist reduction and oversimplification of the faith by other relationships who desire strict simplicity so that their faith is not “weighed down” by all these “unnecessary” elements. What Christ lays out in the Gospel is indeed simple and needs to be freed from endless academic debate, and I am burned out on this intellectual approach. John 5:39-40 comes to mind:
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”
At the same time, however, God and his Church cannot be placed in a simple, oversimplified, mental box. We are handling an infinitely deep and rich mystery that all our best language fails to capture, that despite all our digging we can never fully delve into, that is always and ever growing and becoming more dynamic and beautiful in the vast rays of the light of Christ.