What is salvation anyways?

Does salvation really mean going to heaven rather than hell after you die? A lot of Christians believe that. But one of the first things I noticed when I started reading scripture many years ago was that this notion is almost completely absent from the bible. As widely accepted as “salvation means being saved from hell” is, one would expect that there would be a verse – probably a lot of verses – that actually said that. But there’s not even one!

The strange thing about the use of the word salvation in scriptures is that it is used as if its meaning were understood. Like when we say “turn left” we know exactly what “turn left” means. But all that salvation really means is “saved”. From what? Over time, I’ve come to embrace the understanding of salvation that was most common among the ancient church fathers and which is still the teaching of Eastern Orthodox theology: theosis.

Before I get into exactly what theosis is, let’s go back to the beginning. What are we being saved from? Why do we need salvation to begin with? In the beginning, we were made in the image of God. It means being made in the likeness of God. Elsewhere in scripture the word “image” is used to describe a son being the image of his father or an idol shaped to look like something else. With the fall, that image becomes obscured. And that, I would argue, is what we are being saved from: the corrosive effects of sin – ours and others. (BTW, you should read this earlier Upside Down World discussion of original sin that probably makes more sense than other things you’ve been taught about it.)

The problem of sin as it is often explained is that it is evil and separates us from God. But dig a little deeper. The Hebrew word for sin comes from an archery term which means “to miss”. To miss what? God’s perfection. The image of God that we carry within us. The life we are meant to live and the person we are meant to be. Sin is a distortion that we take part in. It can be our own sin or the sin that another commits against us, but the end result is that we reflect something other than the image of God that we were created to be – it misses. And sin separates us from God as surely as it separates us from ourselves and each other. Because we’re looking and pointing in all the wrong directions.

In scripture sin is usually spoken of in terms of being unclean, dirty, filthy. Sin obscures that core of who we were created to be. But it can’t change it or take it away. Think of it like a diamond that gets left in a tide pool and becomes encrusted with mud, bits of shells, plant materials, maybe even eaten and crapped back out. The diamond is still there, unchanged. But it has been completely encrusted with filth until there is no remaining visible sign of it’s existence.  There are many verses in scripture which speak of our sins being washed away. We are washed in the blood of Christ. And once those sins are washed away, what is revealed? Who we really are – images of the God who created us. This is what salvation is. Being redeemed from the effects of sin – our own and other’s – and restored to the very image of God.

This restoration to the “image of God” is the teaching of theosis. When this restoration of a person to who they were created to be occurs, there is no longer any impediment to union with God. That is salvation. Theosis is union with God. It is being saved, restored, redeemed. It means becoming the person we were created to be and the person each of us has been created to be is an image of God. (Here’s a discussion of theosis that I think it quite good. And here’s the wiki entry on it.)

Now, the reality is that as humans we will always have what we see as flaws. We don’t know everything. We make mistakes. We think dumb things. We do things with good intentions that turn out horribly. We fart and pick our noses and yawn while someone else is talking to us. And this is true of the greatest saint as much so as it is true of a drug addled gutter dweller. So, what does it mean to be restored to the image of God? If theosis were real, wouldn’t we expect to see at least some Christians who never slip up, never misjudge or make mistakes? Well, no. We think that because we misunderstand what perfection means in God’s world. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, how is our heavenly Father perfect? If we go back a couple of verses to Matthew 5:45 we find the answer: “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God is perfect because his love is perfect. His love is perfect because it comes out of who he is. It is not a reaction to other people, other events, other circumstances.

God’s love comes from who he is – nothing more, nothing less. Jesus is telling us to be perfect like that; loving no matter whether the object of your love deserves it or not. In favorable or unfavorable circumstances, our love must remain the same. When our salvation is complete and the essence of who we have been created to be is revealed without the obscuring effects of sins (again – our own as well as other’s), we too will love because it is the essence of who we are. This is God’s perfection. Not having a great personality or always making excellent choices or having impeccable taste or always knowing the right things to say. Just that in all circumstances our behavior, attitude and choices would be motivated by love. When we can do that, we have truly been saved. As we allow God to work in us and learn to love as He loves, that is the “working out our salvation” that Paul refers to.

Which leads us to the final truth about theosis and salvation: it requires God. Only God knows just what He looks like. Only God knows just who he has created you to be. And only God can point you back in the right direction and clear away the muck and polish you until you truly do “shine like the stars in the heavens”. For all of our attempts to be better people or “find ourselves” or become enlightened, only God really knows the way. But salvation is an arduous task. There’s a lot to be cleared away. We tend to look everywhere by to God for directions. When God tries to take away the accumulated crud that we’ve all been stained with, we whine and cry and hang onto it as if it were a precious friend. For salvation to take place we need to allow God to do that work on us. We need that cleaning and polishing and emptying of everything else we carry. We need God to point us to the true mark – this way not that. Perhaps this is why so many people like the new fangled version of salvation as a “get out of hellfires free” card. That’s easy. Salvation – real salvation – means being willing to walk through those hellfires on your way to purity. It means carrying your cross and selling everything you own and counting your suffering as joy. And that is hard. That takes God.

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” ~ Matthew 7:14

29 thoughts on “What is salvation anyways?

  1. I just wanted to leave you a note to tell you that I stumbled across one of your old articles on giftedness and felt for the first time in my life like IT’S NOT JUST ME… I am NOT the only “different”, “strange” one for being the way I am, and it’s not only NOT my fault, but it’s NOT a bad thing either!

    Well since then I signed up for your blog and I haven’t been disappointed! I find your articles to be well written, humorous, well thought out, and touching. So I just wanted to share this with you and congratulate you on a job well done, and well doing!

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with the world. The World… well MY world, really appreciates it!


    1. Susanna, Thank you! God must have sent you my way – I need all the encouragement I can get these days! 😉

  2. From reading your post, some may have gotten the idea that you were saying the concept of “hell” does not appear anywhere in the Bible. I don’t think that was what you were saying. I hope not at least as this would be a misrepresentation. There are many texts that relate the concept of hell. I would direct your readers to Matthew 3:12; 8:12; 13:50; 2 Peter 2:4-9; Revelation 21:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; and Jude 7. In fact, it was our loving Savior Christ Jesus who spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Scriptures. An honest assessment would have to admit at the least that there is evidence on the side of those who believe that, when asking the question “salvation from?” “hell” is a legitimate answer, though it may not be the only answer as we are also saved from our own self-destructive tendencies, isolation, and hollowness of soul.

    1. I think the author is only trying to accentuate the “better parts” of salvation. “Seek ye first the Kingdom and all other things shall be added to you”

      Salvation is having the “springs of living water flow from your belly”

      Its not something we have to wait for till we die, it starts now, and increases ever so brighter till we see Christ.

    2. I think that my full answer for what are we being saved from is the corruption of sin. And yes, this would include hell – or more specifically geehenna or tartarus or sheol. But I think the focus on hell has been a problem for how we understand the gospel of salvation.

      1. Thanks Rebecca for responding back. I agree with you completely that salvation is so much more than a future rescue. It has profound implications not only for the individual but for our social responsibilities as well. In that I’m with you. It was the statement, “almost completely absent from the Bible,” that threw me. That’s just not the case. Also, I’m wondering where you see so much emphasis on Hell. I don’t see it anywhere. Today the popular religious topics seem to be self-improvement, love, and relationships. All great topics, mind you, but I wonder if we are being honest with all that the Lord Jesus taught. ~Peace

  3. Awesome!

    Well if THIS is what you call upside down thinking; I’d better turn my screen 360degs.

    May the Holy Spirit give you still better insights. Amen.

  4. Thank you so much for your insight, I’ve been constantly stuck on why salvation as commonly known isn’t the full picture of what the bible depicts! And the way you put it helps me to understand that a key part of salvation is that we need to work it out NOW. So thank you for your words of wisdom, God bless!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that it helps make sense. I was confused for a long time too!

  5. Great question and thoughts here. I’ve been on a similar question path for a while now. I agree that the “image of God” plays a huge part in our understanding of salvation. We are not being morally reformed into good people; we are learning how to live as whole, not cracked, unbent, eikons of God. This salvation is an assured hope, because we do not yet see the fullness of our salvation… but that’s for a different comment thread. 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment, Aaron!
      I’m sure not there yet, but I keep saying with the Psalmist:
      Yet I am confident I will see the LORD’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.
      God doesn’t seem very inclined to heap cash and cars on me so that’s my own “name it and claim it!” ;p

  6. William Stringfellow ~ Redemption doesn’t change what God built into us; it realigns our “bad” traits to serve God’s purposes.
    Robert Aitkin: “Zen is the perfection of character. It is not someone else’s character.”
    Sufi Sam Lewis (via a disciple): ~Once when the Murshid was keenly aware of his faults, he asked God about them… and was told:
    “Your faults are My perfections!”

    1. I find it helpful to keep in mind that sin means “missing the mark”. What mark? The mark of God’s perfection. The mark of who we were created to be. Our ideas of perfection aren’t God’s. He created a world that relies on mutations, “accidents” and “mistakes” to unfold and progress. Nature is messy. I’m not sure why it bothers us so much that we are too. Probably a by-product of the whole fall thing.

      1. ‘Being bothered so much’ is another helpful imperfection.

        But I’ve having trouble taking this further:

        When somebody “beats up on you” it doesn’t help. (Everyone who’s experienced this knows how downright non-helpful it can be. It’s not the same thing as criticism. Somebody with shaky confidence is likely to reject criticism as if it were an attack on their very self– a fact which makes criticism a bad approach to helping most people– but a good thing to be able to consider nondefensively when it comes your way. Considering it nondefensively is easier if you aren’t getting pounded upon. But our typical first response when someone does something annoying is to huff ourselves up and loom at them, snap and growl. They might not want to have this happen again, but they will certainly be thinking about how bad you are, and how utterly right and natural they were to do whatever it was.)

        When you see that your botherment is actually ‘you beating up on yourself’, you want to keep the underlying with to to do things right– but not this ridiculous self-abuse. You don’t want to beat yourself up about beating yourself up– but why were you trying to make yourself feel bad?

        Gabor Mate talks about “long-term goals” and “short-term goals” in parenting. If you get a kid to do as you want right now– but the way you do this ruins things between you, that’s short term thinking. God does long-term parenting. Isn’t done with us. Lets people try wrong ways long enough to thoroughly know better, alas.

        I had an ex wife who didn’t make mistakes. She’s a nurse, now, and probably very appropriate in that job. But this quality made it very hard for her to see the big mistakes. and you can stop this immediately by getting harsh– and then

  7. Excellent piece, Rebecca! (And you’re right about hell. While it may appear here and there, escape from an afterlife in hell is not the main motivation for discipleship in the New Testament. Neither is the concept of hell as eternal conscious torment.)

  8. Great post! Have you hear Nichole Nordeman’s song “Anyway”? It addresses this same theme, and I think you’d enjoy it.

  9. Rebecca, I know this is article is a littel dated now but the concept certainly is not; it remains fresh as a flower. It was beautifully and senstively written and cast God’s love in a new light. Imagine my disgust then when the very first comment I read is by a person who does not believe God can deal with the imperfection in his children without roasting them alive over flames for eternity! His eagerness to counteract any impression that your article gave to give rise to that thought, I found quite disturbing. But then we are not all perfect are we? LOL.

  10. I sent this essay to a religious leader I know who happens to live in your general area. I told him I enjoyed your writing but that the theology was just beyond me even though I do a lot of casual reading about theology. I told him that he might enjoy it but for all I knew it was heresy. That said, it suddenly made important stuff like theosis understandable for the first time ever. I just found it very thoughtful. He pronounced it brilliant.

    I hope it makes you feel good about your writing. I also read your essay on being your own cheerleader today. Besides reminding me that my perceived problems need to be quickly put in perspective, it reminded me that faith says, carry on. Again, thank you.

    I have already told you in another reply how valuable I have found your writing about giftedness. I felt like a different friend felt about it–she said essentially, I have a 160 IQ and I never saw this, this. is. great.

    I was sad to read how much trouble you were having when you wrote the cheerleading post. I hope you found someone to at least metaphorically hold you and tell you you were loved. That is much more important than being told to have faith, have trust, look on the bright side and all that. And I hope you are feeling that still.

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for this. Are you Eastern Orthodox? Most people.have never heard of theosis.
      Interestingly it has been people like yourself commenting on my writing who are helping me recover a sense of myself as valuable. So thank you. 🙂

    2. Wow. Thank you so much for this. Are you Eastern Orthodox? Most people.have never heard of theosis.
      Interestingly it has been people like yourself commenting on my writing who are helping me recover a sense of myself as valuable. So thank you. 🙂

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