When I was a teenager I had this nagging fear that I was not “saved.” I constantly thought that I wasn’t good enough to call salvation mine, so I was constantly begging God to let me experience salvation. I was convinced that I would know I was saved because there would be this switch inside me–a light that would flip on and make things entirely different.
Then I stumbled upon grace. Afterward, I was convinced that I would remain “saved” no matter what I did or thought. That brought me deep comfort and allowed me to approach God in new and different ways than I ever had before.
The tension that I experienced over those few years was between an understanding of salvation that demanded my perfection and an understanding of salvation that made room for and accepted my imperfection.
I’ve since diverged and unlearned the understandings of salvation I was raised to believe and taught well on through my youth and early adult life so marvelously illustrated by this lovely image beside these words. In fact, I think we need to scrap the idea of salvation altogether. What if we were to remove the concept of salvation from our vocabulary and theology? Before I go on, let me share some things I do appreciate and value about traditional salvation theology:
1. It is easy. I think this speaks to a wide grace that I find so beautiful, attractive and inclusive.
2. It accepts us where we are at, which is most often broken and messed up and hurting ourselves and others because of our condition.
Those are indeed great qualities of the salvation theology that dominates Evangelicalism. However, I do not think these concepts would disappear if we were to erase salvation language. I’ll get to that, though. I shared the pros, so now I’ll offer two cons to traditional salvation theology.
1. It is escapist. Salvation is often understood as a move away from the earth or one’s body and toward heaven or a spiritual life.
2. It does not necessarily embody or demand an ethic. Salvation as an event does not require or demand significant life change. This is a really important critique against our individualistic notions of salvation.
So if we can’t speak of salvation any longer, how do we speak of the experience by which we come into communion and relationship with God? I believe there is tremendous value in speaking in terms of conversion rather than salvation. We already find an example of this in Eastern Orthodox theology, a well which I think we Evangelicals need to draw deeply from. Orthodox theologian Elizabeth Theokritoff writes about this experience of entering into relationship with God as a “comprehensive process rather than an individual attainment.” Rather than an event, it is a continuous, life-shaping process. This is a process that closely parallels our concept of friendship. We engage God in a way that seeks to know as we also allow ourselves to be known, bearing ourselves and our vulnerability before God. The metaphor of friendship is deeply relational and intimate, therefore quite appropriate. The process of conversion is one in which we are deeply engaged in friendship with God that bonds us together and transforms us toward becoming more like God. To quote Irenaeus, “He became as we are that we might become as he is.”
One of my favorite scenes in all the stories of Jesus takes place in Mark 8, and I think that it embodies the idea of conversion quite well. The NIV tells it this way:
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
This is a beautiful picture of the kind of conversion that has the potential to replace our moment-in-time, singular event salvation language. Allow me to make a few observations.
The blind man is brought before Jesus by his friends, but not dragged against his will. Healing and conversion happens within the context of a community that recognizes our needs and inability to always save ourselves, but also within our willingness to risk being known by God. Conversion, for this man, took place within the context of friendship and coming into contact with people who could see. In my own journey, my beliefs and convictions have often been shaped the most by relationships, the human experience, and the wisdom and insight of people with differing perspectives who help me to see things in fresh ways that resonate with the heart of God.
When Jesus spit in his hands and rubbed them on the eyes of the blind man, he could only see partially. “I see people; they look like trees walking.” The Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians come to mind: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Cor 13:12). Our initial steps in the process of conversion is an unveiling, beginning to see people, ourselves, and the earth with new eyes. Jesus spat into his hands and rubbed them across the man’s eyes a second time, and the man could now see. The blind man received sight, but it was not instantaneous. How did the blind man who has never seen a thing know that he was not seeing clearly and experiencing the gift of sight after Jesus touched him the first time?
In this way, salvation, or conversion is not something we attain ourselves, but something that we engage in co-operatively with God. As I mentioned earlier in favor of salvation theology, in this nuanced understanding we are still met by Jesus where we are at without being required to earn God’s favor or prove ourselves. That is a beautiful reality that must remain in any revision of grace and conversion.
Ultimately, this is about allowing Jesus to spit in his hands and rub our eyes so that we may see clearly, with greater love, with more grace, and with a heart for justice and peace. This changes us tremendously. Jesus may come in many different forms: our atheist coworkers who used to be Christians, a Muslim neighbor, a song or poem, an undocumented immigrant, or even a vegetable garden. When we let go of the concept of salvation we lose the power to say who is in and who is out, saved or unsaved. Rather, we all become persons relating to God and allowing God to give us new vision, to see clearly.
1. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “Salvation of the World and Saving Earth,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 14 (2012), 142.