News & Messages

Ask a Theologian: Salvation

Dear Theologian,

Someone asked me recently, “Are you saved?” I wasn’t sure what to say in response. Thinking about it later, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what it means to be “saved.” Yet I know that we Christians talk a lot about “salvation” and “being saved.” I need some explanation of what these words really mean. Can you help?

Untaught Believer

Dear Untaught,

“Salvation” is a word that corresponds to the deepest longing of the human heart. What it signifies is in some sense the ultimate concern of all religion.

We know that all is not well with us. Injustice, oppression, and manifold forms of suffering characterize our social world, and each of us struggles against our own tendency toward evil. At the same time, we yearn for wholeness, for complete well-being of body, mind, and spiritboth for ourselves and for all human beings. We yearn for “salvation.” Where is it to be found?

The answer given in the Hebrew Bible is clear and unequivocal. It is God alone (the Lord) who savesfrom all forms of evil. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa 45:22) “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” (Isa 43:11)

The root of the Hebrew words translated by “save” and “salvation” has the basic meaning “to be broad,” “to become spacious,” and from this underlying meaning comes the idea of rescuing or delivering from some confining, threatening situation. For example, “The Lord brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.” (Ps 18:19)

Most references to “salvation” in the Hebrew Bible have to do with being rescued from physical danger in this present life, although we Christians often “spiritualize” the meaning of “salvation” when we encounter the word in the Psalms or the Prophets. Sometimes, of course, the word does refer to the final consummation of God’s reign on “the day of the Lord,” which will include the establishment of righteousness.

In the New Testament, most uses of the Greek word sozo (“to save”) and its derivatives, especially the noun soteria (“salvation”), have a spiritual meaning, referring to the ultimate redemption of human beings in Jesus the Christ. But there are also places in the gospels where the word refers to a physical healing. For example, when Jesus says to people just healed, “Your faith has saved you,” the Greek word could just as well or more correctly be translated “has made you well.” (Mk 5:34, 10:52).

In the New Testament writings as a whole, it is clear that “salvation” for all human beings is achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this “salvation” is the establishment of the right relationship to God. Closely related concepts are “atonement,” “reconciliation,” “redemption,” and “the forgiveness of sins.”

From this perspective, the Reign of God has already been established, in principle, by what has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, “salvation” has been objectively achieved for all human beings. They have, in principle, been “saved” from their sinful estrangement from God.

But there is also a “not yet” dimension to this salvation. We are oriented in hope toward the complete establishment of God’s Reign at the end of time. The consummation of salvation exceeds human ability to grasp it (1 Cor 2:9-10); in the present, the gift of the Spirit is a foretaste of what is promised and hoped for (Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14).

For us who are still in the midst of our “journey,” therefore, there is also a sense in which we are still in the process of being saved as we move toward the ultimate fulfillment of God’s salvation. As St. Paul writes,

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:10-12)

From God’s side, we might say, our salvation is assured, because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. From our side, though, there is still need of much learning, suffering, and transformation as we keep repenting of our sins and turning again and again to say Yes to God’s holy will.

We encounter here, once again, the paradox of Grace and human freedom. The two sides of the paradox are well expressed by St. Paul:

“Therefore, my beloved ... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13)

“Are you saved?” You can reply with the assurance of faith that you have indeed been saved by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and through your Baptism and profession of faith in him. You can add that you are also still in the process of being saved, as you strive through your faithful choices to appropriate the “objective” salvation achieved in Christ.

The Theologian

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here

Easter Greeting from Canon Scott Leannah

Grace, Madison 2023

Dear friends in Christ,
A blessed and happy Easter to you! During Holy Week and at Easter, we celebrate in a profound way the central tenet of our faith: in the Paschal Mystery, Jesus conquered evil, sin, and even death itself. By his holy cross, Jesus Christ has redeemed the world.  
This is the story of God’s power at work in this world. We celebrate the unique event of Christ’s resurrection and the many ways that, through God’s grace, the dynamic of resurrection brings hope and new life. While all has been redeemed, all is not yet restored. Yet even as we acknowledge the realities of division, violence, and the brokenness that marks our shared journey on this “fragile island home,” we are witnesses to so much grace, wonder, and beauty! In times of uncertainty, fear, and unanswered questions, people of faith, trusting in the message of Easter, continue to offer praise, service, solidarity, and hope. This praise, service, solidarity, and hope are lived abundantly and experienced in varied ways within the congregations that make up our shared life.
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s final judgment. With St. Paul, we can say, “Death, where is your sting?  Death, where is your victory?” The power of sin is defeated.  Easter is the very powerful message to us that nothing we can do can separate us from God’s reconciling love—nothing! In embracing the cross, Jesus shows us that we never walk alone; we never face anything in life without his presence and love. 
Each of us is called to embody the love, new life, and hope of Easter every day. Let us do this by word and example, sharing with others to the Good News of Easter Day: Alleluia! The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Rev. Canon Scott Leannah
Canon to the Ordinary

Ask a Theologian: Why History

Dear Theologian,

I often find the Bible readings at the Sunday Eucharist hard to understand, especially those from the Old Testament. There seems to be an awful lot of specialized historical knowledge needed in order to make sense out of these ancient texts. My question is this: Why is there so much complicated history involved in our religion? Can’t we just worship God in the here and now, without having to learn so much about the past?

Don’t Know Much About History

Dear Don’t Know Much,

Your question touches upon an area of crucial importance for the life of the Church. We read aloud from the Sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament at every Sunday celebration. But what effect upon the spiritual life of our people does this have?

The fact is that many (or even most) of the people in our congregations really do not know very much about the origin, context, and nature of the readings that are proclaimed in the liturgy. Since most of the time no introduction to these texts is given before they are read aloud, the readings can “go by” almost meaninglessly. On the other hand, if there is a proper introduction before a reading that does give the information needed to understand the text, it can sometimes seem like a history lesson.

Then why do we keep reading and trying to understand these texts from the past? To answer this question, we have to consider the fundamental, paradoxical nature of Christian faith. This way of being religious is oriented permanently to certain unique events of the past, and particularly to the life, death, and resurrection of one particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Historical reality is intrinsic to Christian faith.

Jesus is not a myth, nor is he a merely legendary figure. He really lived in the region now called “Palestine” at a period about which a great deal is known. The oral traditions about his life found a permanent written form not more than about forty years after his death (Mark). Scholars today are agreed that Mark is the earliest of the four “gospels.” Other accounts were written some twenty to thirty years later (Luke, Matthew, John). It is from these gospels that we read every Sunday because we need always to orient ourselves toward Jesus’ unique human reality.

But Jesus did not appear out of a vacuum, nor did he come from some other world. He was born into a people with a long history, and we cannot begin to understand him without viewing him in the context of his people Israel. This is why we always take as our first reading each Sunday a selection from the sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible. We reverence these writings as the inspired record of God’s action in history, creating and choosing a people to bear witness to God throughout the centuries. We attend not only to the original meaning of these texts for Israel but also to the ways in which they point forward toward Christ.

In addition to the four gospels, the New Testament also contains a number of letters written by St. Paul and others to the early Christian communities around the eastern Mediterranean and to Rome. We take as our second reading each Sunday a selection from this material. Paul’s letters, written earlier than the gospels, are a precious witness to the essential themes of Christian faith and contain valuable teaching on how to live the Christian life.

As you point out, many if not all of these biblical readings are very hard to understand without some specialized historical knowledge. This is why serious study of the Bible is needed, as a major part of Christian formation. But it is sadly lacking in the lives of many of our people.

We do, of course, often use the term “Bible Study” to refer to any kind of gathering to read and talk about biblical passages, with a view to discovering their relevance for the people gathered. But this kind of sharing, valuable as it may be, is really not true “study” of the Bible unless it is guided by some serious intellectual effort of the participants.

As Peter Gomes observes,

“Bible study actually involves the study of the Bible. That involves a certain amount of work, a certain exchange of informed intelligence, a certain amount of discipline. Bible study is certainly not just the response of the uninformed reader to the uninterpreted text, but Bible study in most of the Churches has become just that—the blind leading the blind...” [1]

Attention to the past is inescapable for Christian believers, especially in their efforts to understand and live by the Sacred Scriptures. But it would be a mistake to think that Christian faith is oriented merely to the past.

In attending to the past, Christians are looking at the earlier stages of a great process of creation and redemption that still continues in the present. It began unimaginably long ago, took shape in the history of Israel, and culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now it goes forward into the future. Each new generation is touched and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, in order to participate in the further unfolding of God’s purposes (the coming of the Kingdom of God).

When we gather for worship we read from the ancient Scriptures in order to learn about the great “salvation history” that is continuing in our own lives of faith. We study the Scriptures that bear witness to what God has done, so that we can be conscious participants in what God is doing now. Remembering what has been enables us to be attentive to the grace of God in our own “here and now.”

The Theologian

[1] Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1996), pp. 11-12.)

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here

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