This is the fifth sermon in our series looking at some of the “Dirty Words” of our faith.
SCRIPTURE- Ephesians 2:1-10 – You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#5 – Salvation
Feb. 8, 2015
We continue our sermon series today in which we are looking at some of the less savory words in our faith vocabulary, words that have been co-opted and redefined by the culture. Our hope is to steal back the words and ground them in their biblical definition so that we can put them to use in our lives.
Today’s sermon is a bookend to last week’s sermon on sin. In that sermon, we said that calling someone a sinner wasn’t a judgment but a statement of fact, because that’s a part – but not all – of each one of us. We also said sin wasn’t something to be punished, but something to be healed. So we have to understand sin before we can understand salvation, because salvation only makes sense if we understand what we’re being saved from.
The traditional meaning of “salvation” is that we are saved from our sin and its consequences. Sounds so simple, right? But that understanding is far from universal, because the word “salvation,” and the idea of “being saved” have taken on a life of their own in our culture, especially within some churches. We’ll work on a new definition later, but for now it’s important to acknowledge that, in popular terms, “being saved” has become something like a check of your spiritual I.D. to make sure you’re worthy of being allowed in the club.
When I was young, I remember visiting a church in my hometown that had a reputation for being extremely fundamentalist. I was playing on the playground before church started when a very serious-looking boy came up to me and asked, “Have you been saved?” Now, I had never heard this question before, so I assumed he was referring to some form of danger that lurked on the playground, maybe a pit of quicksand or a charging rhino or something. So I looked around and said, “Saved from what?” And he paused for a second, and said, “I don’t know. I just know it’s important.” Yes it is important to be saved, but it’s just as important to know what we’re being saved from.
We Disciples shy away from this language. We don’t talk about “being saved,” probably because that is associated with more conservative evangelical churches. But it also paints salvation in a very black-white dichotomy, as in you are either saved or not saved with no grey in between. Many people talk about being saved as if it is a one-time event. You’re unsaved, and then – boom! – you’re saved.
There is an example in the Bible that supports this view of a one-time salvation event. Paul, a persecutor of Christians, is converted in an instant into a follower of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The problem is that Paul’s experience has been lifted up as the norm for conversions. You’re unsaved, you accept Jesus and then – boom! – saved. But that is only one example of salvation in the Bible, and we need to look at the whole body of God’s work before defining what salvation means.
The Bible talks about salvation in three ways. The first way is in the past tense. Paul says in our passage today, “By grace you have been saved.” Through Christ’s death on the cross, all those who believe in him were saved. That one event ensures salvation for believers. The danger of this viewpoint, of course, is that if we view salvation only in the past tense, we may think that everything’s already done and we therefore can live our lives however we want. “If I’m already saved, it doesn’t matter what I do Monday through Saturday, because I know God will forgive me on Sunday.” But we know better than that. Salvation in the past tense doesn’t mean we don’t have present responsibilities as believers. Just because you’re saved doesn’t mean you’re free to check your common sense and good judgment at the door. A person whose heart has been changed by salvation will always reflect that salvation in the way they live their lives and the choices they make.
The Bible also talks about salvation in the future tense, pointing toward that time when Christ will come again. Paul says until that moment, we wait eagerly for our adoption as children of God. The process of salvation has started but won’t come to fruition until Jesus returns.
The problem with this view is that if people believe their ultimate salvation is yet to come, they begin to wonder what they need to do to ensure that. It’s the “Jesus is coming – look busy!” syndrome. So much of this understanding of salvation has been dominated by what Marcus Borg labels the “heaven-hell framework.” In that framework, everything in a believer’s life is judged by whether or not it will help them go to Heaven and stay out of Hell. So, in this perspective, salvation is about being saved from Hell.
There was a man in the Bible who fell prey to this way of thinking. He was a rich man who felt he had done everything Jesus wanted him to do. He was a good man, upstanding citizen, solid believer. To ensure his eternal salvation, he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? The downfall of this man was his emphasis is on the word “do.” As soon as we start believing there’s something we can do to earn salvation, we’ve lost sight of Christ’s work on the cross. Salvation is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodness. Salvation is a gift. We are saved by grace.
So the Bible talks about salvation in the past tense – it’s something we already have so we don’t have to worry about it – and in the future tense – it’s something we need to keep working for in order to get to Heaven. The third and most intriguing way the Bible talks about salvation is in the present tense. Paul, who talked a lot about salvation, says this to the church in Corinth: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Are being saved,” he says.
This present tense understanding of salvation is most useful, because it helps us better understand the purpose of being saved. The traditional definition of salvation is that we are saved from the penalty of our sins. Jesus died on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to die as punishment for our sinfulness. So, in the past tense, that means we’ve been cleared to do whatever we want, because we already have our Golden Ticket. And in the future tense, it means we have to keep checking things off our spiritual to-do list in order to get to Heaven, which means the good things we do and the people we serve are only means to the end of keeping us out of Hell.
By focusing on the present tense of salvation, the idea of “being saved,” we redefine the purpose of salvation. As Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland say in their book, If Grace Is True, “Salvation is more than a ticket to Heaven. It is more than a Get Out of Hell Free card. It is more than just eternal life. Salvation is being freed of every obstacle to intimacy with God.” That’s the present tense of salvation. It’s not just the one-and-done deal of forgiving our sins; it’s not just the future hope of getting into Heaven. We are being saved day by day so that we can be in relationship with God. And that requires us every day to die to the sin inside of us and rise as a child of God.
We tend to focus so much on what we are saved from that we forget what we are saved for. Although our culture doesn’t use the word “salvation” much, it uses another word with the same root: “Salvage.” Webster’s defines “salvage” as “to save for further use.” There used to be a show on the Discovery Channel called “Dirty Jobs.” The host, Mike Rowe, went around around doing some of the most disgusting jobs imaginable. On one show, he joined a couple of guys whose went around to local golf courses used scuba gear to retrieve golf balls from the water hazards. I noticed quite a few of the balls had the name “Kory Wilcoxson” written on them. They would then clean off the mud and muck from the golf balls and resell them.
I think it’s safe to say that in working with us, God has a dirty job. God’s work is salvage work. God dips God’s hand into the mess and muck of our lives to salvage us from ourselves and the evil that infects us. God dipped Jesus into this world so he could do salvage work on the cross. If we think we are only saved from something, if we think God did all of that just to make sure we go to Heaven, we’re missing the crux of the salvage work of Christ.
We are also saved for something. We are saved to be God’s children on this earth. We are saved to continue God’s salvage work in the lives of others. We are saved to be God’s witnesses, to be the embodiment of God’s love to others. How do you know if you are saved? I’d say you know if you are less concerned about whether or not you are saved and more concerned with doing God’s work. You know you are saved if you spend less time figuring out who else is and isn’t saved and more time making sure your thoughts and actions reflect the love and grace of God.
We have been saved. We will be saved. And every day we are being saved, saved from the destructiveness of sin and saved for God’s salvage work. Does our salvation mean we’ll never sin again? No. We are still human, and we still have the same vulnerabilities and face the same temptations. But every day, when we wake up, we are saved again, given another chance to live lives worthy of our calling as children of God. I don’t believe God is interested in what we’ve done or how many times we’ve done it. What God cares about is that we acknowledge our sinfulness, that we ask for forgiveness, and that we strive to live as a changed person, no longer defined by our sinfulness, but defined by our faith and by God’s grace at work within us. I’ll close with the way the Bible translation The Message renders the last line of today’s passage: “God creates and saves each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” This world needs saving, and we can do it, one Christ-like act at a time. So let’s get to work!