Saving Salvation from Bad Ideas

Saving Salvation from Bad Ideas July 9, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 1.11.13 PMSome are allergic to the term “salvation” because of how they were treated by it in their churches while others glory in the term because how they were treated by it in their churches. But here is one (almost) indisputable claim about salvation: most operate on one side of the term. That is, the spectrum runs from the spiritual notion of salvation (forgiveness, relation with God, eternal life with God) to the social notion of salvation (justice, healing, systemic evil vanquished). Very few hold them together: Jesus did and so too did the Evangelist Luke.

We are back to Justo Gonzalez, The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel, a recent offering by Eerdmans, and a book written so clearly it can be used in home Bible studies, Sunday School classes and classrooms — college and entry level seminary classes (I will be using in our NT 301 Jesus and the Gospels class this Fall at Northern Seminary).

Where to begin? Where the Bible does:

The main saving act of God in the Old Testament is the liberation from the yoke of Egypt, and it is to that liberation that many of the texts which speak of God as Savior refer (62).

Totally right: the archetypal saving event in the Bible is God the Savior saving the children of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh and ushering them into the Sinai peninsula and then across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Salvation for them, what did it mean?

In the Old Testament, therefore, salvation is the action of God and of God’s servants in freeing Israel from slavery and subjection to the Egyptians, Philistines, Syrians, Babylonians, and all the threatening neighboring nations. Salvation is also the divine action protecting Israel in the field of battle, giving it victory over its enemies (62).

Right again. But there is another sense of salvation in the Old Testament, the notion of redemption, or buying back what is rightfully due to one. Thus,

When the prophet Isaiah says that “your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 41:14), this means that Israel properly belongs to God, and that therefore in delivering the people from the yoke of Egyptians, Babylonians, and others, God is simply reclaiming what is God’s possession (63).

With this in the background of the early Christians, the term “salvation” had senses that are largely ignored by those on the spiritual end of the spectrum though at times the other end too ignores the spiritual. But the term “salvation” in the Bible has a strong sense, especially in the Gospels, of healing and health and physical restoration. Hence,

Taking all this into account as we examine first the Gospel of Luke and then the book of Acts, we shall see that when in these books we find the word salvation, it refers not only to what we today understand as “salvation” [spiritual], but may also refer to the restoration of health, to liberation from an enemy or a threat, and to the reclaiming of what properly belongs to God (64).

Which leads Gonzalez to a wonderful set of observations on the famous shepherds at the birth of Jesus scene in Luke 2.

‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11). Today we know that this reference to a savior has eternal dimensions [again, the spiritual end of the spectrum], that Luke is referring to an eternal salvation. But for those shepherds, mention of such a savior would immediately have reminded them of the other saviors of whom the Bible spoke: Moses, Joshua, Samson [in other words, especially the socio-political spectrum end] (65).

So, then, what about the famous statement in Acts 4:12 (italics and bold below)? In context, beginning at 4:8 we see that 4:12 might just have a full-orbed sense of salvation in mind far more than most say when they use this text (to emphasize salvation exclusively in Christ):

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed,  then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is “ ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ 

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Gonzalez offers this possible re-balancing translation to show the context: “there is healing in no one else…” (70).

This leads him to see all healing as the work of Jesus in the world through the power of the Spirit:

There is no health, no well-being, no truth, no existence that is not a gift of this Jesus, apart from whom there is neither salvation nor health (71).

Biblical salvation is an integral salvation. It is a matter that has to do not only with liberation from the power of death, but also with liberation from every oppressive power (73).

On p. 74, then, Gonzalez looks more directly at the church today with four observations:

Those Christians today who emphasize the healing power of God are making an important contribution to the discovery of Luke’ theology as well as of the biblical vision of an integral salvation.

But it does mean that while we proclaim the message of salvation in the sense of eternal life, we also have to proclaim the same message in the sense of liberation from every power of evil.

The truth is that purely material help is incomplete, and that a purely spiritual gospel is also incomplete.

If it is true that there is health in no other name than that of Jesus Christ, then all health is Christian, and therefore all health is part of the mission of the church. 74-75

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