When is Salvation?

As we drove to the farmer’s market last week my wife broke the silence with, “Are we wasting our time with all this stuff? I mean, we spend so much time and money researching the most ethical and sustainable way to buy things, slowing down the rhythms of our life to include more people in it, supporting local economies, and eating more naturally. Shouldn’t we be spending that time making disciples?”

And in that moment, I realized that we are in transition, about what salvation means, about what disciple means, and what it means for me to be a Christian in 21st century America.

And so my response was, “I suppose it depends on what you think it takes to ‘make a disciple.'”

A recent article articulates this transition and tension quite well. My own understanding of salvation has moved from being 90% about heaven and 10% what I do with the rest of my life on earth to vice versa. It has moved from being 90% about a one-time prayer asking Jesus into your heart and 10% about a process to it being, well, 100% about a process, even when we have amazing one-time experiences.

But there is still a part of me that isn’t sure if that’s okay. After all, it goes against everything I was taught as a kid. And this internal tension is why my wife and I often have the “Is this a waste of time” conversation.

Because in my old way of thinking about salvation, the most important thing you can do is verbally tell someone about Jesus. What they are “saved into” isn’t important, only what they are “saved from.” And so once they are “saved,” they think their life will be different. But why would it? We haven’t deconstructed their systems, behaviors, and habits. We simply gave them another product to integrate into their old way of being in the world. But again, according to my tradition, that doesn’t matter. As long as they go to heaven when they die, you have done your job.

But in the new way of thinking about salvation, I must first do the hard work of creating an alternative story to the dominant story of my culture. I have to discern what it means to follow Jesus right here right now, in 21st century America and then invite people into that story. I no longer believed people are saved into heaven but are saved into a new way of living, a way that must involved being saved into a community of people attempting to live out a Christ-centered alternative to what it means to be human. Or as I believe the New Testament puts it, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in the business of creating the Kingdom of God here through subverting old systems of injustice, oppression, violence, abuse, apathy, etc. and then building up new systems of justice, grace, peace, love, and mercy. And then inviting people into heaven on earth.*

The revivalism emphasis on conversion as a one-time event evidenced by reciting the “sinner’s prayer” that leads to preparing for heaven when you die, is simply becoming foreign to me. And as it becomes more foreign, I recognize more and more the tension between the old me and the new me as well as between the new me and my older brothers and sisters in Christ who still emphasize conversion as the punctiliar experience that gets you into heaven and makes you a better person.

And it’s true. If “disciple-making” is “getting people to make a decision for Christ” then the work that my wife and I put into an alternative lifestyle is a waste of time.

But if “disciple-making” is undoing Empire-systems and replacing them with Kingdom-systems, one that rejects the dominant secular script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism and the dominant religious script of moralistic therapeutic deism and replaces it with stories of “we have enough,” “we find our identity in God and his people,” “we are not interested in progress or purpose but connection,” etc., then we are not wasting our time but perhaps putting it to very good use.

To put it simply, my transition seems to stem from this question: Does a disciple of Jesus only invite people into an already-prepared Kingdom they go to when they die or does a disciple of Jesus participate in a community whose grueling task it is to create that Kingdom on earth (that we believe continues at the return of Christ) in order to invite people into it?

At least for now, my family chooses the latter. And we now know we are not alone.


*Does this mean I don’t believe there is a heaven? No, of course not. Just like those who emphasize heaven don’t think we should ignore the rest of our life. It’s a matter of priority and value. However I do think our belief that heaven is where we live eternally, as a disembodied spirit, is completely unbiblical. For instance, see Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

14 responses to “When is Salvation?

  1. Great post, Jared. I can’t help but think, though, how “The Gospel” seems to change every few decades: 50 years ago our parents understood The Gospel to mean such and such, now 50 years later many Christians are understanding The Gospel to mean a nuanced (or in come cases, completely different) such and such. I wonder how future generations’ understanding of The Gospel will change? Any thoughts on how context shapes our understanding and what sort of implications that has for the future Church?

    • I know this will sound “not quite right,” but bear with me, I’m still processing. But I think you’re right. I think the gospel does change every few decades. Or, better, is constantly changing. It used to be common to hear “the message can’t change but the method must change” or something similar. But I just don’t know if you can parse the two out so easily. It sounds like the best missionaries do “change” the message because linguistic and cultural frameworks require it in order to stay even intelligible.

      For me, that just means we have to continue to tie ourselves to the Spirit and to each other as the people of God and move headlong into figuring out how Jesus is good news for each new generation. Does that make any sense?

  2. I see where youre going and I totally love the trajectory. But isn’t there something to be said for ‘conversion’ even if we re-define it as ‘faithing out of this present age into the age to come?’ I can’t help but think that tho we are all moving on from revivalism (as per the article in CT), the idea of being saved into heaven and being saved into a new life don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but rather can be 2 sides of the same coin. I guess I’m trying to find a way to make room for one without over aggressively minimizing the other.

    • I completely agree Joe. But I also think that it can’t be 50/50 in emphasis because that has practical implications for priorities in everyday activities. If we think that our primary job is to get people to “convert” then we should (rightly so) spend our days getting people to make a decision for Christ. But if our primary job is to invite people into a new way of life then we should (rightly so) spend our days building up this new way of Christ-centered life and then invite people into that process. There is always a need for balance and for the both/and, I am just not sure that balance in this case is “50/50.”

      What do you think?

      • I hate to go all ‘Poythress’ here, but maybe it should all be symphonic in how it fits together. If we can all agree that the gospel entails both, then some are to show missionality by evangelizing. Others emphasize shalom building. for any church to neglect one or the other would be tragic. But just like you said, for individuals trying to practically live out their faith, 50/50 is impossible. choices need to be made.

        But I think the thing I’m most concerned about is missionaries. How do we preserve their role in the church in light this redefining of salvation? I agree with the redefinition. I think i just need to work out some kinks for myself tho.

      • I love how concretely you flesh out these concepts. I love a model that accepts our limitations and forces the body of Christ to supplement its other parts weaknesses.

        As far as missionaries, I think they are actually the one’s that can teach us about this in important ways. They are often the one’s aware what it means to be an “outsider” to the culture’s systems. But also, I think that missiology itself has begun to change from “go in an tell people about Jesus” model to a “go and live life with them, showing them a life of Jesus.”

        Of course, it is always tricky and difficult to determine what is of God and what is of our own bias or agenda in “gospel translation,” but it seems that is the task we must engage and not ignore.

  3. Jason,

    Thank you for sharing these snapshots of your journey. I do truly appreciate your gifts and especially appreciate your obvious efforts to balance your sense of mission with your sense of humility. Keep it up!

    I am not sure that we are called to syncretize the Kingdom anymore than we are to syncretize the Church itself…. so while being totally with you on moving the empahssis of revival to spheres beyond the realm of the emotions associated with the first awareness…I am not sure I am with you on the Kingdom building model.

    To me Salvation is the means by which my eternity meets my calling…and my calling is to experience Christ – and to live that encounter eternally – an encounter best experienced through the activity of sharing of his Cross.

    In my understanding revival is not a past event – we are revived to life -and our every breath and every thought and every effort ought be experienced in celebration of our regeneration…though baptized but once we live always baptized. Our Kingship and our Priesthood never exist apart from our baptism, from our revival.

    I hope you don’t mind if I share the admonition regarding “The Heresy of Action: given by Pope Pius XII in MENTI NOSTRAE:

    For these reasons, while giving due praise to those who in the years which have followed the long and terrible war, urged by the love of God and of doing good to their neighbor under the guidance and following the example of their Bishops, have consecrated their entire strength to the relief of so much misery, We cannot abstain from expressing our pre-occupation and our anxiety for those who on account of the special circumstances of the moment have become so engulfed in the vortex of external activity that they neglect the chief duty of the priest, his own sanctification. We have already stated publicly in writing that those who presume that the world can be saved by what has been rightly called “the heresy of action” must be made to exercise better judgment. The heresy of action is that activity which is not based upon the help of grace and does not make constant use of the means necessary to the pursuit of sanctity given us by Christ. In the same way, nevertheless, We have deemed it timely to stimulate to the activities of the ministry those who, shut up in themselves and almost diffident of the efficacy of divine aid, do not labor to the best of their ability to make the spirit of Christianity penetrate daily life in all those ways demanded by our times


    Garry Mott, OFS

  4. Jared,

    A great piece of writing here. You have the gift of clarity, and articulate so well the disparity of modes my husband and I have felt between evangelical culture and the contemporary christian life.

    My mom read all her children Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps”—a book she confessedly liked. But of course, coming as we were from strictly reformed circles, anything even resembling a “social gospel” was disparaged.

    Do you see this new heaven/new earth living as sharing a (any?) ministry impetus with the social gospel movement? As a literature student, I think of how the church (even writers I love, eg Chesterton) has rejected secular writers like George Bernard Shaw, a dreaded socialist…and yet the care for people in his works and the labor towards a better life is obviously not something we can ignore or dismiss without harm in our own lives.

    My background is hardly in contemporary theology, so my apologies for any and all uninformed aspects of this comment/question.

    Haven’t yet read the CT article, but I will!


    • Yes, I think you’ve picked up on an important historical connection. The evangelical world has absolutely embraced the “social gospel” that they had such disdain for in the mid 20th century. But of course, they have done so cautiously and not everyone has embraced it (as the tension of the article attests). But I think the major difference is that it is not a way to “avoid the supernatural,” as it was often articulated in the past, but is seen as part of what Jesus preached in his language of “Kingdom.”

    • In my mind (which has been very wrong before), the Bible presents heaven as the place from which God reigns. It is his “dominion” and it is that dominion which will be brought to earth at the Resurrection, what Revelation calls the New Heavens and the New Earth.

      I waffle back and forth on whether or not we “go to heaven when we die” (as Paul says, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”) or if we simply await the resurrection of the dead. Either way, I don’t believe it’s the eternal resting place of our souls (which sounds much more Greek than biblical to me).

      But what do you think? What is “heaven” to you?

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