Salvation is a central concept within the Christian faith. Within the Evangelical tradition, people talk about it a lot: they ask, "Have you been saved?" and tell you the date on which they themselves were saved.
But for all the talk and the importance given to it, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what salvation is, and how you gain it.
Are you saved through believing a set of doctrines (which ones?), praying a certain prayer (what do you have to say?), putting your trust in God, inviting Jesus into your heart, some combination of the above, or something else entirely?
Is this salvation a one-off event or an ongoing process? Are you only forgiven your sins if you forgive everyone who sins against you?
The questions go on. Most Christian teachers will give you the answers. The trouble is, those teachers can't agree on the answers they give. So you can't just quote some famous person and think you have finished the discussion. Okay, you think they have the right answers... so why do you think those answers are right? Why not believe some other famous person instead?
I don't claim to have all the answers. What I have to offer is not so much an answer as a perspective, a way of approaching this subject that makes sense to me, and seems to allow me to make sense of and take seriously all the different (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) passages of Scripture that touch on these things.
Let me know what you think.
If you want a one-line summary, I would say that salvation is all about a relationship with God.
It is not about believing certain doctrines or praying certain prayers, although doctrines and prayers are both important. It is not even about your eternal destiny, although that too is affected. It is about something deeper, and much more fundamental than any of those things.
The basic question facing each of of us is this: do you want to live in relationship with God, or in isolation from Him?
Everything else flows from this basic choice.
I believe that we each have a fundamental life position. We either want to be in relationship with God and are moving towards Him, or we want to go our own way and are moving away from Him.
Our eternal destiny is simply an outworking of this choice. Do you want to be in relationship with God, to be with Him? Then you choose Heaven, the place where He is present. Do you want to be isolated from God, to be away from Him? Then you choose Hell, the place where He is absent. You choose. The dreadful truth is: you get what you choose.
The story of the garden of Eden is all about this choice.
Adam and Eve are in relationship with God. They are offered the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) In other words, you will no longer depend on God, be in relationship with Him, but you will know good and evil for yourself, independently of God.
The basic choice for them, as for us, is: do you choose relationship, or do you choose independence?
Of course, independence comes with a price.
God is, and is the source of, life, truth and reality. If you reject God, you are rejecting life, truth and reality: you are choosing lies, fantasy and death.
You cannot reject God and continue to enjoy the blessings that flow from a relationship with Him - at least, you can't do it indefinitely. He continues to bless those who reject Him. He continues to give life, and insights into His character and truth. For a while. He gives us the chance to turn back to Him, to choose relationship, and the life, truth and reality that come with it.
Adam and Eve did die, as God promised. You cannot live outside of a relationship with God, not in the long term. If you cut yourself off from the source of life, there is only one possible outcome. God, in His grace, delays the outcome. But, in the end, you get what you choose.
One of the two thieves being crucified with Jesus acknowledges that Jesus has done "nothing wrong" - probably not a statement of his belief in Jesus' sinless perfection, but of His innocence of the crime for which He was being killed. He goes on to say, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." Jesus replies: "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise."
It certainly sounds like the dying thief was saved. We may make all kinds of assumptions about the thief and what he must have believed. But what are we actually told?
We are not told that the thief prayed 'the' prayer - whatever version of the prayer you happen to believe in. He did not ask Jesus into his heart, or his life, he did not repent of his sins, he did not ask for forgiveness. As far as we know, he did not believe in Jesus' divinity, or that Jesus was dying in his place - a somewhat improbable belief, given the circumstances!
He simply asked to be remembered.
He expected to die. He had no hope or expectation for his own future. But he expected Jesus to live on in some way, and he wanted Jesus to remember him. To paraphrase him, "I don't have much of a relationship with you, and I don't deserve anything, but we are sharing this fleeting moment with each other, and that is some sort of basic connection I have with you. I don't want to totally lose this connection when I am gone, so please remember me, and keep this connection, keep this brief relationship alive in some way. Don't forget me."
It doesn't matter how little you know of Jesus, or how brief your encounter with Him. If you desire an ongoing relationship with Jesus, that is all it takes. "Today, you will be with Me in paradise."
Many people dislike the idea of 'deathbed' conversions.
The idea is that you can live a life of sin, selfishness and cruelty, then, when you know you only have a short while to live, you simply say a prayer and - hey presto! - God welcomes you into Heaven. Many Christians find that their theology allows this to happen, even if the possibility leaves a nasty taste in their mouths.
But if salvation is not about saying the right words or praying the right prayer - if you can see that it is actually about a relationship - then it becomes clear that there is no problem here after all.
A person may wish to get into Heaven. That is understandable: the prospect of eternal happiness, as opposed to damnation, is an attractive one. But if you plan to undergo a deathbed conversion, that rather suggests that you don't really want a relationship with God, you simply want the benefits that derive from such a relationship. As with the pretty young girl marrying the old and decrepit millionaire, we have to suspect that the motivation may well have more to do with greed than with love.
But if salvation is all about a relationship, you simply cannot plan to undergo a deathbed conversion. Or - perhaps I should say - you might plan a deathbed conversion, but that doesn't make it possible! You cannot plan to start to want a relationship with God at some point in the future. You can plan your wedding; you can plan when you intend to 'pop the question' to your beloved; but you cannot plan to fall in love.
However, this does not rule out the possibilty of a deathbed conversion, only the possibility of planning one. You are never beyond the scope of God's love. Even on their deathbed, there is the possibility that someone who has rejected God all their life may come to their senses, regret all the wasted years, and realise that the one thing they want more than anything else is to get to know the God who has been loving them all this time. Pretty young girls do occasionally fall in love with old millionaires, so I'm told. It's possible.
If salvation is about a relationship with God, this also helps us understand the familiar problem of the relationship between sin and salvation.
If salvation is about a ticket to Heaven, then there is very little incentive to be good. After all, if you know you are bound for Heaven, and that Jesus has paid the price for your sins, past, present and future, then why not simply enjoy yourself all you can while you are down here on the Earth? There's time enough to be good once you get to Heaven.
If salvation is about a relationship, then certain things follow. If you want a relationship with me, then you will not want to do things that hurt, upset or offend me. If you are continually acting in a nasty, spiteful, malicious, callous and cruel way, our relationship is not going to get very far.
If you love someone, if you want a relationship with them, then you will want to become the sort of person they like. If you want a relationship with God, then you will want to become good, kind, gentle and generous.
You not only want to become like Him, you will become like Him. Your character is formed from your habits, from the way you behave. And the way you behave is formed mainly from the people you spend time with - especially the people you spend time with who you look up to and want to be like. If you spend time with God, His character will rub off on you.
God is love. The only way to have a relationship with Him is to love Him. You can't keep your distance and write letters. You can't be distant friends - with God, it is all or nothing. That is part of the price, part of the cost we have to count before we go all-in.
And this God, Who invites us to enter into a relationship with Himself, is the all-powerful creator of the universe. Going out for the occasional curry with Pete from next door to the Newsagent may not change your life very much, but a relationship with God will change your life completely. Just watch Notting Hill, if you don't believe me.
It's important to remember the reason why He wants you to be good. He does not give you the ten commandments (and all the rest!) because He is mean and wants to spoil all your fun. He wants you to be good because he is loving, and He wants you to enjoy life to the full. He wants us to tell the truth because we need heathly relationships with the people around us to be happy, and we cannot have heathly relationships with people if we are lying to them.
If we want a relationship with God, then we will want to be good in order to make Him happy, and we will want to be good in order to become like Him. Of course, we still want to be cruel and selfish at times, but we also want to be and to become better than that. And so does He.
Almost every week, I hear someone talking about a struggle that comes back to the old problem of the relationship between Law and Grace.
Of course, nobody suggests that we are saved through keeping the law - through being good enough to qualify for Heaven. But if you only focus on Grace, you encounter some real difficulties.
If you only talk about Grace, then you rightly affirm that salvation is a gift from God, freely given, and not earned or deserved by us. But then the question arises: what part do we play? Do we even have a part to play in this, or are we just the passive recipients of God's Grace?
Some people talk about the 'law' and some about 'works'. I'm not too concerned about the terminology. The question is about the role we have to play in our salvation - what work are we required to do? Because if a work is required of us, then there is some law in place which requires us to do that work in order to be saved.
In the old formulation, we are saved 'through grace alone' - but this does not mean that we play no part, because we are also saved 'through faith alone'. But does this mean that faith is a 'work' - something we have to do in order to be saved?
The traditional answer is that faith is not a work. It is not something we do, but a response to something God has done. This is partly true: faith is certainly a response to God. But it must be something that we do. Even a response is an action, a choice, something we do.
If we only keep this debate at an abstract level, there is no answer. Either we play no active part in our salvation, or we do play an active part.
But when we see salvation as a relationship, then this problem simply evaporates. You cannot be the passive recipient of a relationship! You have to take part, to engage in dialogue and other activity. A relationship is something you do, as well as something you have. And, on the other hand, you cannot 'do' a relationship all by yourself: you totally depend on having someone else, willing and available, to be a party to the relationship.
One of the big questions people keep coming back to is this: is salvation an event or a process?
The simple - and misleading - answer is: both.
I believe the old summary is essentially right: salvation has a past, a present and a future. You have been justified, you are being sanctified, and you will be glorified. It is good theology, but it rather misses the point.
Yes, sanctification is a process. Yes, one day we will be glorified. But what about the justification bit? Was that an event, or a process? Is it always the case that we moved from death to life in an instant?
A lot of the language used in the Bible to talk about salvation sounds very binary - very black and white. You are part of God's family or you are not: there is no in-between. You are a new creation - no hint of ever being semi-new or partly regenerated.
But other aspects of Christian truth make it clear that it is not that simple. This justification event - is it reversible? You can be born again, but can you be un-born? Christians disagree. But if you can be, then in what sense is salvation an event? That surely makes it an ongoing process. And, if you cannot lose your salvation, why are we commanded to 'make your calling sure'? Personally, I do not think you can ever be un-saved, but this and various other passages do make it sound like there is, at least, an in-between state in which the salvation-event is not yet fully complete.
Or take the images of salvation from the Old Testament. Noah and the ark: it was a process. Or the children of Israel escaping from slavery in Egypt: that was a process, too.
Every process, from a distance, can be seen as an event. Every event, if you look closely enough, is a process. Birth and death, the two ultimate events, both take time.
If you think of salvation as a contract, then it can take place in an instant. There must be a moment in which a contract comes into effect.
But if salvation is a relationship, or the desire for a relationship, then it can happen in the twinkling of an eye, or it can be so slow you never notice anything has happened until you look back.
And this is what you find when you talk with people. Some folk can tell you the day - some, the minute - when they became a Christian. Others are just as saved now, but cannot point to an event. They just know that over a period of weeks or months or years, it happened. It is like falling in love: for some people, you see a stranger across a crowded room and your life is changed in an instant; for some, you wake up one day and realise that an old friend has been the most special person in the world for you for... how long?
Some people are very clear that salvation is always an event, linked with the Holy Spirit. If you have the Holy Spirit within you, you are born again. It's that simple. But, again, it is only this simple if you ignore half the Bible. After all, the Holy Spirit works within unbelievers as well as believers. Who inspired and guided the Wise Men? And how were you drawn to Christ, unless it was the Holy Spirit working within you before you believed? If God is love, then He is in some way present in everyone who truly loves. This does not mean that everyone who truly loves is saved and on the road to Heaven, but it does mean that the Holy Spirit is alive and active within many people who are, right now, not born-again Christians.
There are many images of salvation in the Bible, and they all have something to teach us. Salvation is a new start, a new life, a new love, a new world. But, whatever else it is, it is a relationship with the creator of the universe. Every relationship is a precious and myserious thing, so it is not surprising that we struggle to understand it.
Fortunately, we are not required to understand it. We are called to experience it, to discover it, to enjoy it, and to celebrate it. It is a dance, and the only way to begin to understand is by joining in. You don't know where a relationship will take you. All you know is, you want to go there together.