Alas, there is no short definition available for this word. There has been too much misunderstanding over the last 2000 years for anyone to correct it in a page.
Having dealt previously with the common words, faith and grace, it seems that the next word to be defined surely must be salvation, for it joins grace and faith in one of the most basic of Christian principles. It might well be argued that, of all the church jargon words, salvation is the most misused, misunderstood, dangerous, hardest to pin down and most important.
One of the primary tenets of Christianity is that we are “saved by grace through faith.” This was first taught by St. Paul (Ephesians 2:8-9), affirmed by the Council of Orange (529 A.D.), and emphasized with a passion by the Protestant Reformers in one of their five foundational “sola” statements, declaring that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone. There is no doubt that this is an important principle, but to understand the principle, one must first understand what is meant by salvation.
Salvation is the noun form of save, an apparently simple word. We all know what save means….or do we? We may attempt to save money (provide for the future) to buy a more efficient car so that we can save fuel (avoid wasting) in order to save the environment (keep from harm), which will save future generations a good deal of pain (relief from trouble). If we also happened to play certain sports, such as soccer or hockey, we might even be able to save a goal by blocking the scoring shot of an opponent. Do any of these connotations of save have anything to do with the theological act of salvation?
The answer hinges on the rather important choice of the word that follows save: “from” or “for.” Even when neither of these words is used with save, one is implied. In the above example, when we save money, the implication is that we are saving money for new car, to save fuel (from wastage or for future use), in order to save the environment from damage, that future generations will be saved from trouble. The more athletic among us might even save a goal from being scored. Even though the outcome of salvation is always positive, the implied usage of save can be either positive (for) or negative (from).
Unfortunately for our understanding of salvation, we stand at the end of a long history of using save negatively, i.e. salvation from something. In the Hebrew Scriptures God was continuously called upon to save his people from themselves. It seemed that they were always making the wrong choices, usually involving being on the wrong side of this or that commandment. These infractions necessarily incurred God’s wrath, usually in the form of disease, famine, barrenness or an invasion by anyone of a number of belligerent neighbouring states. It was generally agreed that God’s chosen ones simply could not help themselves, due to the fact that they suffered from universally inbred, imperfect moral conditioning; in other words, they suffered from being human. The church later gave it a name: ‘original sin’; a thoroughly detestable and damaging doctrine, as it turned out.
Given what would be later termed our ‘fallen-ness’, it was necessary for people to make up for their flawed nature by continually trying to appease God with worship and sacrifices. In this context, being saved meant relief from punishment. An afterlife was not at stake here, because this belief had not developed; rather, it was all about day-to-day suffering.
Along came Jesus, who tried very hard to teach us that God was not a wrathful boogieman; rather, a deity who loved us all just as we are. Jesus affirmed that we all stand forgiven for our mistakes and impurities. Since all are, like him, loved and loveable children of God, we do not need saving from God’s wrath and punishment; however, our species suffers much as a result of our more-than-occasional poor choices. If we want to be saved from the consequences of such choices, the only solution is for us to change so that we do not make them. Furthermore, no one can do this for us, i.e. there is no saviour (one who saves). Jesus then went on to model what we could become.
Alas, Jesus was entirely too positive for the church and for the average person. Although St. Paul tried to get the message across that salvation came by grace through faith, i.e. salvation is a freely given option, people were still bothered by the sense that ‘you don’t get something for nothing.’ In addition, the church, always looking for ways to control society and keep the peasants in line, was not going to give away something for nothing.
By the early Christian era, two important ideas were gaining popular support:  Zoroastrianism had successfully sold the idea that there was a force of evil in the universe (the devil) that opposed the force of good (God), and  that not only was there an afterlife, but one could go in either of two directions. This suited both the average person and the church to a tee: punishment was back on the agenda, and the threat of punishment could be a powerful motivator.
The result was an understanding of salvation that has been perpetuated to this day. It goes something like this:
- We are all sinners.
- The result of sin is death, (with an option of eternal punishment)
- Being mere humans, we can’t help being less than perfect, so we can’t save ourselves; hence, we are destined for (2) above.
- Help is on the way, because Jesus paid the price for our sinfulness, and so we are now guiltless, thus avoiding (2) above and granted eternal life.
- All that is required is to believe in Jesus in order to be saved from death by our faith.
This view had everything going for it to become a best-seller: it provided relief from what is known in theological circles as ‘existential anxiety’ stemming from our ‘finitude,’ i.e. the human ability to foresee and fear death. If there is one universal human motivator, this is it. It has been said that no religion will succeed unless it can reduce existential anxiety, and this understanding of salvation guaranteed the success of Christianity.
It is interesting to note that this new idea of salvation had little or nothing to do with Jesus’ teachings. Judging from the synoptic gospels, Jesus did not seem very interested in the issue of death; hence, he was not interested in teaching a way out of it. If Jesus did any saving at all, it wasn’t to save people from death or eternal damnation; rather, he saved them for life. Furthermore, he offered a path to life that was neither more-of-the-same-only-better on earth, nor life after death in heaven, but a life on earth that has been termed ‘eternal.’ (Readers will have to wait until the next installment in this glossary for an elaboration on this word, but for now it will suffice to say that this use of ‘eternal’ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘everlasting.’)
Six times the Gospel writers recorded Jesus’ so-called ‘Great Paradox’: that whosoever would save his life will lose it, but whosoever loses his life will gain it. Clearly Jesus was not into the business of extending longevity for himself or anyone else, so what, then, is salvation in Jesus’ teachings?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.” (Mt.7:21) But what is the “will of the Father”?
Jesus also said, “You must become perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt.5:48) At first glance, this appears to support the view that we human beings are in desperate straits, because no one is perfect, and this situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Those who find support in the old time religion will say, ‘See, there is no hope for us sinful beings, unless a saviour comes to our aid in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.’
If one goes back to the Greek in which the New Testament was written, we find that the word translated as ‘perfect’ means complete or whole. In saying you must become perfect, Jesus is saying that you must be whole, i.e. you must bring your whole selves to life; worship God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and all of your strength. Bring to God and to life, not only the parts of you that you find acceptable, but also those that you find despicable. Be the entire person that God created you to be, and embrace all of your being.
In modern terms, Jesus’ advice to seek perfection (the will of God?) is to discover who you are, a lifetime’s task that few even come close to finishing. Chinese Philosopher, Lao-tzu, believed that the one who discovers himself, discovers God (the Tao). Carl Jung, a 20th century psychoanalyst and theologian, agreed, naming the process of self-discovery ‘individuation.’ Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “…no one can know God who has not first known himself.”
Interestingly, the New Testament Greek word for salvation comes from the root sozo, which can mean to heal, to cure, and to make whole. This extends the biblical meaning of save considerably beyond our English connotations. The Eastern Orthodox churches have done a better job of preserving this New Testament sense of salvation. Not only do these churches have different answers about salvation, they ask different questions, generally viewing salvation in less legalistic terms than either the Protestant or Roman Catholic churches (grace, punishment, and so on) and more in medical terms (sickness, healing etc.). Thus salvation is understood along the lines of theosis, a seeking to become holy or drawing closer to God.
Going back to the ‘Great Paradox’ and its directions for gaining life (salvation), the Greek can be translated literally as follows: He who would build a barrier around his psyche will kill it, but he who tears down the barrier around his psyche (thus allowing it to be revealed and become whole) will bring it to living birth.
The path to life, salvation, is about self-revelation in order to promote wholeness. This is a personal journey that no one, not even Jesus, can travel for you. In fact, one of the most damaging effects of the church having designated Jesus as saviour stems from the temptation to project upon Jesus all of the resources that we have been given for life; hence, denying ourselves access to them.
What about an afterlife? It may or may not exist, but to follow Jesus is to not care one way or the other, and this is the point! A whole person doesn’t even ask the question. Salvation is said to come through faith, because all of the fear and anxiety that comes from the spectre of death and the (perhaps greater) anxiety and fear that comes from facing the darker reaches of one’s own psyche, are swept aside by the kind of faith that Jesus ascribes to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. The door to life has indeed been opened to us, and no saviour is needed to drag us through it. This choice is ours and has always been ours.
Rewording St.Paul (and Martin Luther) for today: The quality of being that is found in the journey to wholeness is made possible by an attitude in which concern for one’s own well-being is negated by trust in the basic goodness of life made freely available to all; in other words, salvation by grace through faith.
Just an aside: I find it hard to conceive of the notion of ‘personal’ salvation. Can any person, who has evolved to the degree of self-awareness that makes salvation real, be at peace as long as other human beings suffer? Can anyone who has found the path to salvation be content as long as the earth and its creatures suffer? I think not. With St. Paul I believe, “…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)