Christianity is a message of salvation. What does that mean? Our Protestant friends sometimes ask, “Brother, have you been saved?” They have in mind a private religious experience, a prayer meant to guarantee one’s place in heaven. Is that what salvation means?
In the ancient near east, kings and emperors were described as “saviors” when they liberated a besieged city, or brought peace and harmony to the land. The Old Testament ascribes that task to God. The Hebrews were often besieged by their neighbors and ultimately suffered exile in Babylon and Assyria. They cried out to God for “salvation.” In the book of Chronicles we read, “Save us, God our Savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations.” (1 Chron. 16:35)
The Hebrew prophets looked forward to a time when God would raise up a divine king (the Messiah) to save Israel from the nations. (Isaiah 9) But unlike the kings of the nations, the Messiah would conquer in humility and meekness. “A bruised reed he will not break; a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3) His dominion would extend to the whole world, and not just Israel. (Is. 49:6) He, himself, would suffer, “offering his back to those who beat him.” (Is. 50:6). He would “bear the sin of many,” and make himself “an offering for sin.” (Is. 53:10). In that day, God makes a New Covenant with Israel. He puts his law in their minds and writes it on their hearts. (Jer. 31:31)
When Jesus appeared in Galilee, he declared the arrival of this Messianic kingdom. (Mark 1:15) But unlike the Hebrews, Christ said his kingdom was not of this world. (John 18:36) His enemies were not nations and armies, but the spiritual powers and principalities. (Ephesians 6:12) Christ said, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, know that the Kingdom of God has come among you.” (Matt. 12:28)
Jesus also assumed the role of the suffering servant. He gave his life as a ransom for those held under the power of the devil. (Mark 10:45; Hebrews 2:14). His death was an offering for sin. (Romans 3:25) By his suffering, Christ merited the gift of the Spirit. (Acts 2:32) Because of his humility, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above all names.” (Philippians 2:8)
Before the coming of Christ, Jews and Gentiles were divided by the Mosaic Law. It was “the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) But Christ nailed it to the cross, with its laws and commands. (Col. 2:14) Now, in Christ, those who were far off have come near. The Gentiles are heirs together with Israel. It is not by the Mosaic Law, but by faith that we are incorporated into Christ. All those who believe are now children of Abraham. According to Isaiah’s promise, the light of Israel extends through Christ to all the nations. (Romans 3-4)
Those who believe in Christ are promised forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). God’s love is shed abroad in their hearts. (Rom.5:5) Since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8), those who walk by the Spirit have fully met the law’s demands. (Rom.8:3) The Spirit is a deposit, guaranteeing their resurrection from the dead. (Rom. 8:11)
But the promise of faith comes with a condition. Faith joins us to Christ, to the people of God, but Scripture exhorts us to persevere in faith and obedience. “Those who persevere to the end will be saved,” Christ says. (Matt. 24:13). If we fall away through disobedience, if we neglect such a great salvation, there is no more sacrifice for sins. (Hebrews 10:26). If we walk in the Spirit, we will be saved. But if we return to the deeds of the flesh, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21).
We persevere, we remain in Christ, by fellowship with his body, the Church, and by receiving the sacraments. “Whoever eats my flesh abides in me,” Christ says. (John 6:56) This bread is his flesh, given for the life of the world. (John 6:51)) For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, “writes the second-century St. Justin, “we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word . . . is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66)
Salvation, in Scripture, is a rich concept. Following ancient usage, it suggests the coming of a conquering king who vanquishes his enemies and invites the meek and humble to partake of his reign. It’s more than a private experience. Those redeemed by Christ enter into a society, the Church, and are nourished by Sacramental mysteries. Through faith and obedience, they await the consummation of all things at the end of time.