Since writing about the contrast between ‘pilgrim’ Christian and conservative Christian I have been pondering about this tension that runs through the heart of the Christian faith. I suggested then that conservative Christians were often ‘stuck’ with their understanding of what they believed. It was presented to them in such a way that they could neither go forward nor develop what they believed. Logically that which is perfect, in this case the conversion experience, is incapable of improvement. Pilgrim Christians on the other hand saw the gradual discovery of truth as a never-ending journey or an adventure.
In thinking about this contrast I have come back to thinking about the slippery word in Christian vocabulary, ‘salvation’. Salvation has of course a long history. It is biblical and appears in both testaments. I cannot, being away from home, look up the words in any commentaries or concordance so what I will say will be general but reasonably accurate, I trust. The word at its most basic level of meaning has the idea of rescue. Someone needs saving from exile, from drowning and they need to be put back on dry land. ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth’ is a quotation that comes to mind. ‘Save me or I perish’ is another quote that comes to me from the New Testament. In both these quotations there is the idea of salvation being taking someone out of a situation of danger or crisis and making them safe. This kind of salvation is the first part of a process. We could, as conservative Christians do, see this stage of salvation as being the moment when they pass from darkness to light, when they pass from a life of despair to one of meaning. The moment of conversion is identified with that moment of salvation. ‘Once I was blind, now I can see.’ But as I pointed out in the earlier blog post on this topic, the individual who has this moment of conversion sees it very much in the past and typically has very little to say about what happens after that moment. To use the language of salvation, the Christian is able to talk at length about what he/she was saved from but not a lot about what might have happened after that event. Salvation/conversion is ‘the’ moment in the Christian life.
If we go back to our picture of salvation being equivalent to a rescue we can see that the person so rescued is lying gasping at the bottom of the boat but desperately grateful for being saved from drowning. Nevertheless the process is somewhat incomplete. Being rescued is important, whether from exile, drowning or from a life of sin but the state of being rescued needs to be followed up in some way. The person so rescued needs at some point to decide what he is going to do with the life that has been given back or set on a new path. This salvation from a terrible threat needs to be followed up with another question. What is the life so rescued going to be for in the future? The Christian has been saved from something but he now needs to decide what he has been saved for.
The pilgrim Christian, whether or not he/she has been through the classic conversion experience of salvation, will have a lot to say about this second stage of salvation, ‘salvation for’. Typically the pilgrim Christian will want to talk about all the insights and new understanding of what life is for when lived in the Christian way. My own language would want to include an ever deeper understanding of the particular pattern of life that God reveals me to follow. God wants me to discover my gifts, talents and uniqueness and live them out in such a way that I discover myself fully. Being ‘saved for’ is, to quote John’s gospel, to ‘live life in all its fullness’.
There is an old story told about Bishop Wescott of Durham in the 19th century. He was asked on a train by an earnest student as to whether he had been saved. His answer was to quote back to the student the various words in Greek that could be translated as ‘saved’. They represented the past, the future and the present tenses of the verb ‘sozo’ which is the Greek word for save. I won’t complete the anecdote in case I get it wrong, but suffice to say one answer to the student from what I have said above, might be this. ‘Do you mean what has God saved you from?’ or ‘do you mean what has God saved you for?’. I suspect that the second part of the answer is in the long term far more vital than the first.
A complete presentation of the Christian faith should always include some idea of what is to be expected of the individual after the moment of conversion. Many practising Christians have not in fact had the conversion moment of light and change but their faith is arguably equally strong and committed, having been imbibed gradually over a lifetime. For various reasons some Christian groups will not recognise an individual as having a proper faith without the classic marks of a ‘proper’ conversion. This is an attack on the integrity of faithful people and the problem is not easily resolved. Perhaps, if conditions make it possible, a discussion might be had about the topic of salvation. The non-conservative might point out, as I have tried to in the post, that there is more than one stage in the process of salvation. Within the discussion, we might legitimately ask, are they speaking about ‘salvation from’ or ‘salvation for’? Both surely have a crucial part to play in the crucial process of bringing an individual from darkness into the presence of God who wants us to flourish and live life to the full.