I heard a gospel presentation the other day and
found myself getting a little uncomfortable with the pitch. I have
felt this way before, but dismissed it on the basis that this is the
one thing you don’t mess with. You can disagree with just about
anything in evangelicalism, but you can’t disagree with the plan of
salvation. If there is one thing that is sacrosanct, it is the
message of the Four Spiritual Laws. Don’t mess with that. You don’t
want to go there.
How God Saves Us
Still, I couldn’t deny this uncomfortable feeling. Being saved
sounded a little too much like setting up a reservation for heaven.
It sounded like making a deal, conducting a transaction, buying an
insurance policy, signing a contract. “Getting saved” sounded a
little like a legal-spiritual transaction that, if you did it, all
was well. If you didn’t do this legal-spiritual transaction, you
were in trouble. The legal-spiritual transaction was all that
I get the idea from some that if we get saved, then all is well. If
you are not saved you are in trouble. The main thing is getting
saved. Not too much else matters. And, what we mean by getting saved
is this kind of legal-spiritual transaction where you repent of your
sins and God forgives, setting up a reservation in heaven for you.
Setting up that legal-spiritual transaction is the main point. This
legal-spiritual transaction is somewhat separate from the rest of
real life. It should have an effect on your day to day life, in an
ideal world. But, we know that in the real world, sometimes it
doesn’t. Sometimes, some people get saved, and it doesn’t seem to
show very much. That is not ideal, but, still, they are saved and
that is forever and that is the main thing. It would be better, of
course, if they really lived the life, but the key thing is, they
What does it mean to be saved?
I think the key to understanding many of the
concepts of the Bible is realizing that although many of the words
we use in church are church words to us, to them, they were just
normal words. Reconciled is a church word to us. We might
occasionally use the word as a financial word (reconcile your bank
statement) and occasionally in other contexts, but when I hear the
word reconciled, it is pretty much a church word to me. But, when
the word was used in the first century, it was not a church word, it
was just a normal word.
Same thing with redeemed. To us, redeemed is the name of a great old
hymn. It is very much a church word. We have to really think about
it to picture how it was ever used in its non-religious context.
But, again, in the first century it was not a church word; just a
normal word. We used to talk about redeeming Green Stamps. We would
go to the Redemption Center to do the redeming. But, redemption is
pretty much a church word to us.
The number of words that are church words to us, but were normal
words to the people living in the first century is almost endless.
Saved is very much a church word to us. We speak about getting saved and
being saved. We debate about whether or not you can lose your
salvation or become unsaved once you get saved. These are all
theological categories. I want you to think about how we use the
word in normal life.
If someone struggled with staying on a budget and managing their
money, then, they discovered a computer program like Microsoft Money
or Intuit’s Quicken and it really, really helped them, they might
say, “Quicken saved me.” What they mean is, “Quicken helped me.”
But, that is not strong enough. What they mean is, “Quicken helped
me a lot. It really, really helped me.”
Suppose someone struggled with an addiction to alcohol. It was
ruining their life. They were about to lose their career and their
family. Just in time, they discovered Alcoholics Anonymous and
through its help, they were able to beat their addiction. They might
say that Alcoholics Anonymous saved them. What this man would mean
is that Alcoholics Anonymous made a huge difference in his life. It
rescued him. It helped him a lot. It saved him.
This is roughly the sense of the word in Matthew 14. The context is
the story of Peter walking on the water. He takes his eyes off
Jesus, sees the waves and begins to sink. In a moment of panic he
cries out, “Lord, save me.” (Matthew 14.30) What do you think he
means in this context? Can you imagine that Peter is thinking, “I
need to take care of that spiritual-legal transaction where I repent
of my sins and You forgive my sins and set up a reservation for me
in heaven”? I don’t think so. I think what he means is, “I am in
desperate need of immediate help.” But, that is too wordy. The
situation is too desperate and the need too immediate for that many
words so he shortens it the least possible number of words: "Lord
I think this is the sense of the word to the original listeners in
the first century. “Lord, save me,” meant, “Help me. Help me a lot.
I am in deep weeds and in desperate need of immediate help. Help me,
please. Help me now. Save me!” To suggest that being saved was
taking care of a kind of legal-spiritual transaction where we
confess our sins, our sins are forgiven and we set up a room in
heaven, and this whole transaction is pretty much separate from real
life seems to be, in the words of Brian McClaren, an “adventure in
missing the point.”
How God saves us
In what sense, then, does God save us? What
mess are we in, and how does God get us out of it? To be true to the
New Testament, we need to answer this question in a way that
touches real life in a real way. It must be connected to now,
something we feel right now.
The fundamental question of the human soul is, “What about me? Am I
OK? Am I loved? Am I acceptable? Do I make the cut? Am I in?” The
ache of the human heart is the fear that I am not in, I don’t make
the cut, I am not acceptable.
This preoccupation with me creates a kind of mental map of our
world. It provides an internal compass on which we base our lives.
It makes for a grid into which we sort all the components of our
life. Every conversation is judged by this internal compass. Every
relationship is evaluated on the basis of the internal compass.
Every deal is evaluated on the basis of “how does this work for me?”
This tendency can seem to us either innocent and obvious, or
completely invisible. What it almost never appears to be, with one
notable exception, is problematic. It is like gravity, always
pulling us in a particular direction, but we are rarely consciously
aware of it. The only exception–the time we are profoundly aware is
when we see it in someone else. It may seem odd why we are attuned
to seeing selfishness in others but rarely notice it in ourselves. I
am just being normal; she is being plain selfish. You can bet she
sees it precisely the other way. We rarely have any awareness that
our mental map is all wrong.
Imagine that someone calls you to give you directions. You pull out
the map provided by the rental car company. A few of the street
names are familiar. You can find I-10 and he mentions I-10. You see
Martin Luther King Blvd. when your friend points it out. From there,
you try to work out where to go. But nothing makes any sense. The
lefts seem right and the rights seem all wrong. You can’t find most
of the names your friend mentions and there are others that it seems
he should have mentioned and doesn’t. You set out any way. You
assume it will all work out. It will all become clear as you work
your way along. But, it doesn’t. It just gets more muddled. You call
your friend back. Now he is getting a little exasperated. He starts
to talk more loudly, but you still can’t find half the streets he
mentions. You can find a few–Main Street and Broadmoor, but can’t
see to find the rest. The problem is, the rental car company gave
you a map of Atlanta instead of Dallas. You have been looking at the
I have experienced a high-tech version of the scenario above a
number of times. I carry a hand-held G.P.S. with me when I travel.
Most of the time it works really, really well. In fact, often it is
flawless. But, every now and then, it gets royally confused. This
happens when they have installed a whole slew of new roads that are
not on the G.P.S.’s internal map. The map does not match the
territory. In this case, it will still sputter directions. It is
just that, because the map is all wrong, the directions are all
wrong. They are not just wrong, they don’t make any sense. They ask
me to turn where there is no place to turn, exit where there is no
exit, or other non-sense. Because the map is wrong, everything is
I have sometimes tried to imagine what would happen if I tried to
use the G.P.S. on some other continent, say Australia, where the map
was completely wrong. Not only would the map be wrong, but the
expected placement of the satellites on which the G.P.S. makes its
calculations would be all wrong as well. They wouldn’t fit any known
location for anywhere in North America. When the map is wrong,
everything is wrong. But, I know my G.P.S. It would still spit out
instructions on how to find the way. It would keep muttering, turn
left, go straight, turn right. It is just that the instructions
would not make any sense.
You and I have the wrong map installed in the software of our mind.
We have a map that has a big ME in the center of town. To make
matters worse, we are either unaware of this map, or we think it is
normal. When we look at the map, we think we are looking at reality.
But we are not. We are looking at a map–and the wrong map, at that.
When the map is wrong, everything is wrong. Nothing works and we
don’t know why. We need a new map. We need to be saved.
And that is what being saved is. It is installing a new map. A map
that corresponds with reality. Life starts to work, we can find our
way around, we aren’t lost any more because we have the right map.
The right map replaces ME in the middle of town with God in the
middle of town. Note, I am not merely saying that God prefers to be
considered central and it is right to consider Him central because
that is the way He likes it and we should listen. I am saying that
He is the center, and as soon as we install this map, life will
start working a whole lot better because we have the right map.
Accepting God as the center installs a new map–a map that
corresponds with reality and saves us from our confusion. But, this
is not all it means to be saved. I made a list of a few other things
and, without a lot of explanation will present them for your
1. Accepting God’s love saves us from insecurity. We are all
wondering, “Am I O.K.? Am I accepted? Am I in?” Accepting the fact
that God accepts me saves me from my fragile insecurity.
2. Receiving God’s forgiveness saves us from guilt. We all know we
are not O.K. We have all disappointed ourselves and have an internal
sense of justice that says when there is a wrong, “Someone has to
pay!” Receiving God’s forgiveness saves me from the crushing weight
of my guilt.
3. Following God’s Word saves us from confusion. So often I don’t
know the way. God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my
path. It saves me from confusion.
4. Humbling ourselves before God saves us from our vanity. We are
all a little too pre-occupied with self. That is not exactly right.
We are all way too pre-occupied with self. We can see it easily in
others. Humbling ourselves saves us from the blindness that prevents
us from seeing our vanity.
5. Participating in the community of God saves us from loneliness.
We desperately need a vertical relationship with God. It puts our
souls at peace. But, it is not all that we need. We need people. We
need people who will listen to us, laugh with us, be with us.
Participating in God’s community saves us from isolation.
6. Inviting the Comforter, who is God, saves us from our broken-heartedness. Amy Grant has a line in a song that reads, “Life
is hard, and it might not get easier.” Sooner or later we discover
how true it is. Sooner or later the storms come to us. Sooner or
later the storms come and the illusion that this is a garden
evaporates. We realize it is a most inhospitable planet. It hurts
living on planet earth. It hurts badly. In a world like that, we
need to be saved from our broken heart. Hallelujah! We have that
kind of Savior.
7. Embracing the mission of God saves us from boredom. We all want
two things in this world: something to do and someone to do it with.
God has given us His presence and the church to be with us. He has
also given us something to do: a cause to pursue, a mountain to
climb, a race to run. Following His mission saves us from our
boredom and dissipation.
8. Submitting to God saves us from our foolish decision-making. When
all else fails, read the directions. The Bible provides ample
instructions about managing money, raising kids, winning over worry
and on and on. Following God’s plan saves us from the stupidity of
9. Worshiping God saves us from our trivial pursuits. Everybody
wants something to get excited about, something to treasure,
something to cheer for. We cheer for the home team because we need
to cheer. We admire art and mountains because we have a need to
admire. God gives us something to admire, something to cheer for. He
saves us from cheering for and admiring lesser things.
10. Loving God saves me from my preoccupation with ME. It changes
Being saved is not about a theoretical, legal-spiritual transaction
that is disconnected with life. Relating to God, loving God,
accepting God’s love, submitting to God, following God saves us.
Right here, right now, it saves us.
And, oh yes, I almost forgot, replacing the map leads us to the
center, to heaven, where God is.