What’s the Word?

What’s the Word?
By Al Murdach

This is the second of a monthly series exploring today’s meanings and significance of some important religious words from the Christian tradition. Today’s word is:

No. 2 Salvation

Non-Christians often resent the claim of some Christians that they are “saved”. The concept of salvation actually goes back to Old Testament times and refers to the idea that God would grant his followers victory over physical distress and military defeat. In the New Testament the idea became more spiritual and came to mean that the followers of Jesus would be taken to heaven at the end of time to live with God for all eternity, free of all trouble and care.
However salvation, as an ideal, can be both present and future-oriented. Both senses are present in many Biblical texts. In Psalm 98, for instance, God is seen as demonstrating his salvation by showing “his kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel”. In contrast to this view of salvation, the New Testament writers often speak of salvation as being “not yet” and coming to pass only through the difficult day to day choices we all must make. Paul, for example, stresses that we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. And Peter, reflecting on the trials and stresses of daily life, concludes that “the just man can be saved only with difficulty”.
The notion of what exactly constitutes salvation also shifts dramatically according to the orientation of the author. Old Testament authors, for instance, emphasize the earthly benefits conferred by God’s salvation: bountiful crops, political security and protection, and the natural wonders of the environment. New Testament writers are less sure of just what “salvation” really is and how it can be obtained, whatever it is. They know that it is somehow tied into being with God in some future state, but exactly what that will mean and just what it will “look like” no one in the New Testament seems to know for sure.
All this indicates that whatever being “saved” means today it cannot really mean that someone has been granted a claim check on heaven, to be redeemed no matter what. No Old Testament writer understood salvation in that sense and the authors of the New Testament would have considered such a view heretical, despite their confusions about the subject. It should be noted, however, that certain Protestant groups, quoting passages from the New Testament out of context, do illogically take this view. However, their position is belied by their actual behavior, which never stops striving after salvation even though they believe it is already guaranteed because they are “saved”.
Most religious thinkers today would agree that salvation can only mean that we have an on-going responsibility, while we draw breath, to try to realize the Kingdom of God (however conceived) on earth as best we can in our day to day lives. According to our Christian forebears it is only in that sense that any of us can claim to be “saved”, even though it is always “not yet”.

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