I have grown up my entire life in the Evangelical community. It is a tradition that places a lot of emphasis on the moment of conversion. In this tradition, you might commonly be asked questions like, “What is your spiritual birthday?” or “When were you saved?” This proved to be fairly problematic for me growing up because I couldn’t remember my “moment.” My parents have told me the story and I vaguely remember my baptism. I was six years old when I “asked Jesus into my heart” (whatever that means), and I spent the majority of my middle school and high school years wondering if I had done it right.
My testimony wasn’t a tidy well constructed story that had a clear outline of: before—–>conversion experience——> after. In the Evangelical community we are taught to share our testimonies in this way, and I struggled to try and fit this mold with minimal success. I soon came to learn that testimonies are about as diverse as the human population and should not be taught as a formula. It took a while but I finally learned to release my anxiety concerning my status of salvation. Part of the reason I was able to do this was simply because I started to live the Christian life while being surrounded by some amazing Christians. I also started reading spiritual giants of the faith who had much better things to say about salvation than what had previously been presented to me.
I now teach Bible at an Evangelical high school and I must say that not much has changed in this area. We still preach about the moment and stress the importance of making the decision to be all in for Jesus. Now don’t get me wrong, I want more than anything for my students to have a deeper relationship with Jesus. However, what I continue to see in the Evangelical community is an overemphasis on conversion at the expense of any mention of discipleship. And, dare I say it, I think we have misunderstood what salvation really means in the first place. So first let me try to identify the problems involved and then attempt articulate a better definition of salvation.
1) The first problem with an overemphasis on conversion is that it primarily focuses on the individual. The decision is portrayed as one between the individual sinner and God. This seems like a no-brainer in our overly individualistic society, but unfortunately the above statement is just not true. Being a sinner is not something that only effects the individual and salvation is not primarily an individual transaction. In fact, salvation is constantly framed in the Old and New Testaments as becoming a part of God’s family.
2) The second problem with the emphasis on conversion is that salvation then gets placed precariously in our own hands. If its all about the decision, the question often arises, “What do I need to do?” or “Did I do it right?” or “How do I know I am saved?” This is a question that used to plagued me and currently plagues my high school students. We tell them they only need to believe it in their heart, but what horribly vague language! What does it mean to believe something in your heart? If you don’t, does that mean salvation cannot be yours? This usually leads to follow up questions like, “If a person accepts Jesus but lives a completely unchanged life is that person saved?” (Again, what does “accept Jesus” mean?) This kind of question is only possible if we view salvation as a purely intellectual assent to “believe” in Jesus. (Upon reading this paragraph some may be under the impression that I am a Calvinist. I am emphatically not a Calvinist. I am trying to place salvation back into God’s hands, which has been freely offered to all through the invitation of Jesus.)
3) Finally, the emphasis on conversion usually mitigates the effects of salvation to the distant future. You made the decision now, but you won’t feel the effects of it until after death in an eternal other-worldly bliss. Salvation = going to heaven when you die and nothing more. No wonder we have so many youth who don’t feel like they are required to live a Christian lifestyle!
Now, to the heart of the matter. I think one of the ways we can correct this issue is by intentionally changing our language. If there is anything I have leaned through studying theology, it is that what we say and how we say it is infinitely important. Therefore, we must start by crafting a better, more nuanced definition of salvation. For that definition, I humbly supply the words of Stanley Hauerwas here, who has summed up redemption/salvation quite beautifully:
“To be redeemed…is nothing less than to learn to place ourselves in God’s history, to be part of God’s people. To locate ourselves within that history and people does not mean we must have some special experience of personal salvation. Redemption, rather, is a change in which we accept the invitation to become part of God’s kingdom, a kingdom through which we acquire a character befitting one who has heard God’s call.” – Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom
Salvation is not acceptance of Jesus “in your heart”. Salvation is accepting an invitation to be a part of God’s kingdom. It then follows that by becoming a citizen of God’s kingdom, we must reject all other things that demand ultimate loyalty from us. To be a Christian means we have given ultimate allegiance to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now what would happen if we started using this language in our churches and high schools? Framed in this way we communicate that you are saved for a purpose. We have a job to do in this world that continues the kingdom work Jesus started. We must resist the false accusation that this kind of salvation is works-based. Let us not resurrect old debates about free grace vs. lordship salvation. What Hauerwas offers is a robust, Biblical alternative. Salvation means we believe that God’s story, told through the scriptures and creation, is the story that helps us see the world as it truly is. Not only this, but we have been invited to be transformed by that story and participate in the plot!