Growing up evangelical, one of the primary questions we were taught to ask strangers was: “Are you saved?” Or, better yet: “If you died tonight do you know where you’d go?”
The concept of being saved was pretty simple, really: You’re a sinner headed for hell, Jesus died to take your punishment, and if you “ask him into your heart” you’ll go to heaven instead of hell.
Salvation as understood this way has taken root in much of Americanized Christianity, and even global Christianity thanks in part to the American way of packaging and exporting an Americanized version of the faith. It is a simple, non-costly understanding of salvation that has little biblical precedence even though it is so commonplace.
This truncated version of salvation turns it into something elusive, something secret. Like a membership card tucked into the deepest corner of your wallet, you have no way of knowing who has one, and who does not. This is precisely why and how so many Christians came to see Donald Trump as “saved” and one of us: leaders like James Dobson reported rumors that he “accepted Christ” (as if it’s like accepting an offer for a low interest credit card) and from that moment on, Trump is seen by many to be “saved” and thus one of us.
But that’s not biblical salvation– biblical salvation has little to do with a secret transaction that points you toward heaven or sends you to hell, in the commonly understood sense.
While the NT term salvation can hold a variety of nuance, the ultimate contextual meaning of salvation in the NT is in reference for one who joined God’s Kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus. Joining God’s Kingdom is much like joining any other Kingdom that has one who rules from a throne: you join by pledging your allegiance and obedience to the King– and then living that out.
In Americanized Christianity, salvation often only includes half that equation, or at least offers a footnote to the idea of living out Kingdom principles. They’ll often say things like, “Well, we don’t have to emulate Jesus in this particular area of life because he was unique” or, “Well, the Kingdom of God isn’t fully here yet, so Jesus was just describing how we’ll live one day in a perfect world.”
Readers Digest version: As long as you have the card in your pocket, you’re saved. The second half is nice, but not totally necessary, because there’s a lot of “reasons” why we don’t always do what Jesus did. In this case, the faux version of salvation we grew up with was an easy, individualized transaction that was focused on where you’ll go when you die, not on how you live in the here and now.
However, biblical salvation is directly linked to net-result of actually doing what Jesus said (aka, living the principles of his Kingdom). This is precisely because biblical salvation has little to do with life after death (though it does some), but has a lot to do with life right now. In fact, when Jesus uses the term “eternal life” in the NT, he often uses this term in the present tense.
Since the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed is founded upon very specific principles, a specific culture that must be lived out (see the Sermon on the Mount for his full manifesto), biblical salvation seems to be heavily focused on being saved from an old way of living, and saved into a new way of living– a way of life that Jesus described as “eternal.”
For those who reject Kingdom principles, for those who oppress the poor, for those who reject the immigrant, those who refuse the way of nonviolent enemy love, those who refuse to live out the culture of the Kingdom right now, it would be a stretch to say they are “saved” in the biblical sense, because until they put down their guns, feed the hungry, and welcome the immigrant, they have not yet entered God’s Kingdom and begun living in it. They may have “asked Jesus into their heart” but they have not yet joined the Kingdom- and that’s what salvation is about.
Thus, salvation is not a transaction that is open and shut, taking place in totality within the recesses of one’s heart. It surely begins in the heart, but salvation doesn’t end there– it is not possible to be “saved” in the biblical sense if one is not actively striving to be obedient to the King and the culture of the Kingdom– and Scripture speaks quite forcefully on this point.
This is precisely why Jesus said it is possible to be deeply religious, to be a lover of the Bible, and to still not be saved (Matthew 21:31, John 5:39-40). It is also why he said that many who are thrown into the lake of fire on judgement day will be Christians who did not care for the poor and needy, and thus never actually entered the Kingdom (Matthew 5:31-46). Certainly, other NT writers back up this concept of salvation, such as the author of James who wrote that faith which is not followed up by caring for the poor and hungry cannot save you (James 2:14-17).
Does biblical salvation have anything to do with the afterlife? To a degree, yes. God’s Kingdom will be eternal. However, the bigger issue is this: If one is not willing to live in the Kingdom now, no matter who they ask into their heart, the chances that they’d even want to live in the Kingdom then seem slim. God, of course, sees that– and the Bible warns us in that regard to not think that simply raising our hand at the end of a sermon means we’re headed to paradise when we die.
There’s little point in talking about being saved then, if we aren’t first saved right now– because salvation isn’t as much a distant event, but a present reality.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.