Can We Still Talk about... Salvation? (Part 4 of the Series)

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Can we still talk about sin part 4
Estonian Salvation Committee, 1918.
Public Domain.


If you were to ask Wikimedia Commons or the people of Estonia for an image of "salvation," the one to the right, or something very like it, is what each would return first.

In the case of Estonia in February 1918, "salvation" meant these three men declaring the independence of their nation at a time when the Russians had just left and the Germans were on the way to try to make it their own (which they subsequently did for a time). Salvation for the people of Estonia, as short-lived as it would turn out to be then, meant no longer being under the thumb of any other European or Eurasian super-power.

This use of the terms salvation may seem odd to North American Christians. To be fair, the next dozen or so images returned in Wikimedia Commons all relate to the Salvation Army in some way. That may seem to be a bit more "on target" for many of us who may tend to understand "salvation" primarily in spiritual terms. After all, as Marcus Borg points out in his book, Speaking Christian, "common US Christianity" tends to use the term "salvation" to refer almost exclusively to achieving some spiritual status through some set of beliefs about Jesus (and/or in some combination with works) that guarantees us a place in "heaven" in the afterlife.

If we were more familiar with the biblical languages, and the ways the Bible primarily speaks of salvation, the Estonian example might not seem so odd at all.

At their roots and in their most frequent usage, in both Hebrew and Greek, the words we translate as "salvation" and its cognates mean deliverance or rescue from an oppressive power of some kind. Most often in the Hebrew Bible, that deliverance is explicitly political. God "saved" the descendents of Abraham from Egypt, and again from the pursuing Egyptian army. God "saved" the people time and again in battle after battle that would come, first in occupying the promised land, and then in expanding and maintaining its borders. God "saved" the exiles in Babylon from exile, allowing them to return to their land. And the prophets, especially Micah and Isaiah, looked to the day when God would save not only these people but all peoples from war, and all would live in peace.

Salvation in the Bible is certainly not only political, but it is always about real deliverance from a real threat faced by real people here and now. The Bible also uses the same words to describe God's acts to deliver us from disease, demons, death (typically related to political oppression), evil (in the Lord's prayer) and sin.

One of these usages may be surprising-- deliverance from disease. New Testament Greek uses three different verbs often translated into English as "heal." Two are "therapeuein" (origin of our word, "therapy") and "iatrein" (if you're a science or medical geek, you might recognize the word "iatrogenic," a term applied to illnesses caused by treatments for other illnesses). The third is "sozein"-- the verb most commonly translated "to save." When this verb is used of an instance of healing, it tends to imply that the illness "healed" was overwhelming or threatening the life of its victim, so that healing was nothing less than getting one's life back, or perhaps even getting to have a life for the first time freed from the named disease, disorder, or defect.

Of all of these uses, "salvation" from sin is about the least prevalent in the Bible. That doesn't mean it is any less important or real. But it might give us pause, both about how we think about salvation, and how we think about sin.

During the "great soteriological truncation" that happened in Western liturgies and theologies beginning in the sixth century, Christian praying about the scope of God's salvation in Jesus Christ narrowed dramatically from a wide field (that included extended thanksgiving for salvation in all the senses listed above, including for creation as an act of salvation from primordial chaos!) almost solely to "the forgiveness of sins and all other benefits of Christ's passion" (Book of Common Prayer, 1662). What Jesus saved us from became deeply narrowed as well, to the point that Jesus was Savior primary as the one whose death meant we could experience forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven-- and that was about all.

In more recent times, as of the late 19th century at least, there has been a kind of counter movement to the "great soteriological truncation" that has sought to help Western Christians let go of a sin-and-heaven-fixated vision and return to something like the wider vision earlier held, prayed and taught. Unfortunately, this "counter-truncation" has often pursued its path with an agenda whose effect, and sometimes even intent, has been to eliminate the idea that salvation has anything much to do with sin, or that sin is even a real problem from which most of us need any significant measure of deliverance. (Marcus Borg is a participant in this, as well!). The effect of the "counter-truncation" on our praying has been, among other things, the elimination of prayers of confession, or if not elimination, the attenuation of those prayers to the point that they are more about confessing our "humanness" and asking God to be "okay" with us or help us feel "okay" about it rather than deliver us from it in any real way.

What the counter-truncation ignores then is that sin is real, truly powerful, and always destructive. While its biblical terms mean "missing the mark" (amartia in Greek), "stumbling" (paraptoma in Greek), or "walking astray" (chata in Hebrew), none of these was met either in Judaism, early Christianity or early Methodism as if they were relatively minor defects we might simply get over in time. In every case, sin was understood as something from whose power we all need to be, and by God's grace, our diligent practice and with the help of a community "watching over one another in love" can be set free. (For more on this, see "Can We Still Talk about... Sin?" on this blog).

In short, both the "great soteriological truncation" and the "counter-truncation" have done significant damage to our capacity to appreciate the breadth, height and depth of God's saving love in our lives, corporately and individually.

So perhaps it's time for a true "soteriological reclamation"-- a movement that seeks, embraces, struggles with and rejoices in salvation "in all its parts," neither excluding nor becoming fixated on any one of them, and recognizing that we are all in need of every one of them.

We need nothing less than salvation from systemic oppression, in every form it presents itself-- political, military, economic, and all forms of slavery we have invented or ever may invent.

We need nothing less than salvation from disease that continues to ravage human populations, to keep many of us in poverty in the developing world and to drive some of us into poverty because of health care debt-- the number one driver of bankrupties in the US in recent years.

We need nothing less that salvation from demons-- those forces that trespass into and colonize the bodies and minds of people. The escalation in human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of children, is sign that even the most developed cultures have not entirely "outgrown" the demonic.

We need nothing less than salvation from death, not to escape the fact of our mortality, but rather to free us from the power of fear and anxiety for lives of perfect love and service to God and neighbor in this age and in the new creation to come.

We need salvation from evil itself, with the confidence and capacity to renounce its reign and power in our lives, individually and systemically.

And we need nothing less than salvation from sin so we may walk aright, learning mercy, wisdom and justice as we do.

We need full salvation.

In Christ, we are offered nothing less.

And in Christ, we are being into living witnesses of nothing less.

So may we live, and so may we speak, as those being truly and fully saved.

And so may we pledge to speak of salvation, speak of it often, and speak of it in all its parts.

And more than speak, so may we seek the Spirit's wisdom to be trained and train others to live out the salvation offered in Christ in its fullness.

The soteriological reclamation we need will not come from a few theologicans, bloggers or authors writing about it.

It will come from our speaking of it with the people we know and communicate with regularly.

It will come as we pray, confessing our need for deliverance, including from sin, and interceding boldly for such deliverance to come in our personal and corporate prayers.

It will come as we lean into all that salvation involves, and learn and train others how to live it faithfully.

And it will come as we-- you and I-- speak not simply of salvation as a "thing" or a "process" we need, but rather as the great gift offered by God through Jesus, Savior of the World.

How will you speak of salvation and live the way of the Savior?

Peace in Christ,