By John B. Cobb, Jr.
What did Jesus mean by salvation?
I have always found it difficult to answer the question, “Are you saved?” Indeed, the only answer I can give is another question: “What do you mean by ‘saved’?”
Believers who ask whether one is saved often find that kind of response offensive. For some of them, “saved” has a perfectly clear meaning, one they suppose is established by the Bible. For me to respond with a question seems to them an academic dodge.
However, my response is quite sincere. I really want to know. There is no one fixed meaning of “saved” in the Bible as a whole. On the contrary, if you spend an hour with your concordance, you will find that the word is used in many different contexts. Much the same diversity is present in contemporary English. A swimmer may be saved from drowning. A businessman may be saved from bankruptcy. A woman may be saved from an abusive husband. A church may be saved from the threat of schism. An army may be saved from defeat in battle. A nation may be saved from invasion. The great majority of the uses of “saved” and related words in the Bible are of this “secular” kind. Actually, the Bible does not make the sharp distinction between the secular and the religious that many today try to make.
I know, of course, that when Christian believers ask me whether I am saved, they do not have these kinds of salvation in mind. They mean something more final, more ultimate. They draw on the biblical passages in which this family of words is used in this ultimate way. One such use occurs in the text I have selected from the gospel of John (3:17). These terms appear with this sense of finality more often in Paul. But if one follows Paul closely, one must answer that one is not saved. According to Paul, believers are justified and reconciled, perhaps even sanctified, but we are not now saved. We hope for salvation.
Just how Paul understood salvation is still debated among scholars of his writings. My own view is that his understanding derived from his vision of Jesus on the Road to Damascus. He saw and heard the glorified Jesus. He believed that if we participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, his suffering, and his death, we will participate also in his resurrection to glory. My reading of Romans 8 indicates that Paul believed that through the glorification of believers the whole creation will participate in this salvation.
Hence, if I follow Paul, my answer must be that I live in hope of a salvation that will transform the whole universe. But certainly that has not yet happened. I am not now saved. In my current life, I try to participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, even if that means that I participate also in his suffering and death. There can be peace and joy in that participation, but it is not salvation.
John gives us a different picture. He does not use the words “save” or “salvation” often, but in our text, 3:17, he does use “save.” Jesus came in order to save the world. In this respect the goal seems to be much like that of Paul–a universal salvation.
But to study John’s view of salvation, we do better not to focus on this word. In this rare case where it is used, it is clearly equivalent to the “eternal life” referred to in the two previous verses. “Eternal life” is John’s regular term for the ultimate goal.
Paul could use “eternal life” to refer to that glorified state to which he looked forward at the end of history. But John does not seem to have this apocalyptic view. For him eternal life is a way of being that already, here and now, characterizes the Christian life. It is the immediate result of being “born of the Spirit.”
Probably, this focus on the spiritual condition of the believer here and now is what has made John’s gospel so popular. John emphasizes the continuity between our lives here and now and our lives after physical death. Since most of those who ask whether one is saved are shaped by John’s vision, and especially by this chapter in his gospel, I would like to answer, “Yes, I am saved.” I believe that God’s Spirit works transformatively in me here and now.
Yet I hesitate. If one reads not only John but also Paul, one recognizes that even those within whom the Spirit works remain also under the influence of sin. When we study the history of the church, we see how powerful and effective that influence has been even among the church’s leaders. Again and again we are forced to realize that even those Christians we most admire were deeply affected by sin. Many of the saints did great harm as well as much good. When one looks at our present churches, we must acknowledge that acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior does not free believers from the power of sin. We have eternal life. But if we simply say, “Yes, we are saved,” there is great danger of expecting too much of our present condition. Luther’s adage, simultaneously justified and sinful seems to fit the facts better.
John Wesley, however, was not satisfied with Luther’s formulation. He thought that it was not adequate to either Paul or John. He also thought it tended to let believers be complacent about the continuing role of sin in their lives. Accordingly, he worked out an understanding of the nature of the Christian life that acknowledged more clearly than John the continuing power of sin among Christians but also emphasized the real transformation effected by the Spirit.
Wesley associated justification and regeneration. When the work of the Spirit brings us to repentance and faith, we re justified and we enter into a new life. In that life we act as the Spirit directs us. But this new life is one of relaxed virtue. The power of sin remains present. To live from the Spirit rather than from sin requires a continual effort, even a struggle.
The call of the Spirit is to love our neighbors as ourselves. As believers we act as such love requires. But only gradually do our actual feelings toward our neighbors become such that this kind of action is spontaneous. However, as we follow the Spirit and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit, we do grow into the sort of persons who truly love others and want to act for their benefit. Then the struggle with sin fades away. The goal of this process of sanctification is to attain to perfect love. As we move along this path, physical death does not constitute a great break. In that respect Wesley is close to John.
If we turn now to Synoptic gospels and ask how Jesus understood salvation, we find again that this is not his preferred terminology. He does not avoid it altogether, and in the few instances when Jesus is quoted as speaking of salvation in the ultimate sense, it is in the future tense. It is something hoped for and promised. It could be understood in much the same way as we understand Paul.
However, the term that is far more central to Jesus is the basileia theou. This Greek term is usually translated into English as the “Kingdom of God.” That is not wrong, but it assumes the masculinity of God, which the Greek does not. Better is the “Realm of God.” However that term also emphasizes the hierarchical relation between God and the world, whereas Jesus’ own teachings about the basileia theou do not. He stresses that an inclusive table fellowship is a foretaste of the basileia theou. Among the many possible translations, I suggest that the connotations of the “Commonwealth of God” may be best. I will use that translation in this sermon.
All three synoptic gospels indicate that Jesus’ message centered on the Commonwealth of God. Mark writes: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Commonwealth of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news'” (1:14-15).
For Jesus the good news was that the Commonwealth of God was near at hand, and he called on people to believe this and live accordingly. That response involved repentance, which means a redirecting of their lives. If we, today, ask whether we are saved according to Jesus’ understanding, the answer will be, “No,” although we can participate in the coming salvation when we live in terms of our anticipation of its coming.
Jesus’ view of salvation has similarities and differences with both Paul and John. Like Paul, it is a future toward which we live. But unlike Paul, it is a new order of life in this world. Like John, it is a mode of being that belongs to this world as well as any other, but unlike John it is conceived more as new patterns of social relationships than as an interior state of the believer.
These differences are not radical. We can find ways to interpret one theology in terms of the others. But to move too quickly toward harmonization of Paul’s apocalyptic vision, John’s view of eternal life, and Jesus’ understanding of the commonwealth of God impoverishes the Christian faith. It tends to rule out from the community of faith diverse emphases that are all important in the New Testament.
My own choice is to begin with Jesus. He stood firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who called for justice and righteousness in human relations and the ordering of the state. He taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We cannot pray in that way without doing what we can to actualize a different situation in our world, beginning in our own neighborhoods and countries, but extending to the whole planet.
Jesus provided few details about the nature of the Commonwealth of God. Many of his parables emphasize its ultimate importance and unexpected arrival. We learn that it is a world in which social or political rank counts for nothing and in which the norms of this world are reversed. All are accepted and included in a rich human fellowship. All are fed and clothed and loved. Religious barriers and boundaries disappear. Even family ties merge into those of the larger community. Rules of behavior exist only to serve real human need. People do not judge one another.
If this is salvation, are we now saved? The answer is, No, since the world in which we live is quite different from this. The commonwealth of God is still future. Yet we can already live, in some measure, in terms of these new values. We can even form communities that to some extent embody them. To whatever extent we now participate in the Commonwealth of God, Yes, we are already participating in God’s salvation.
If we begin with Jesus, what can we say about Paul and John? Some scholars emphasize the differences and criticize them for their distortion of Jesus. But we can also appreciate them in light of Jesus. Paul brought into being communities of faithful people whose lives together were in marked contrast with the structures and values of the Roman Empire. He did not speak of them as participating in the coming Commonwealth of God, but he did see the working of the Spirit within them as an anticipation of the glory that was to come. John emphasized the quality of life in the community of which he was a part, that is, among those who had been born of the Spirit, as already worthy to be called eternal. For both Paul and John, mutual love was the quality of life in community, and such love is also what Jesus envisioned.
What shall we say then of ourselves? Are we saved? Perhaps we can say that we participate in the salvation for which we hope and long. We participate to whatever extent we find ourselves loving others and being loved by them. This love is emotional, but it is authentic only as it expresses itself practically in mutual care. It is a love that does not condemn or judge us whatever we do. It does not impose rules upon us. Instead it makes us truly free.
This love extends beyond the immediate community to others and ultimately to the whole of God’s creation. It does not seek the gain of some at the expense of others. It condemns no one. It strives to overcome barriers and to heal wounds. It is directed especially to those whom the world excludes or marginalizes. It expresses itself in intercessory prayer, but, when possible, it expresses itself in action as well. That may be direct service to those in need. It may also involve efforts to change unjust laws and unjust economic structures.
To whatever extent we love like this and are loved by others like this, we are already saved, even though the society as a whole continues to live by the norms of the old eon. Yet we continue to long for the fullness of salvation, for a world here on this planet, and also in whatever lies beyond this life altogether, that truly embodies this kind of love. We believe this human love occurs only because of God’s love of the world, and. that means, of each one of us. We believe that nothing can ever overcome that love. However remote its triumph in the world may seem, we can live here and now in the confidence that we are totally loved by God. That faith is our present salvation.