It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. EPHESIANS 2:8-10
“I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved.”
So begins Langston Hughes’s brief, poignant essay “Salvation.” He describes being deposited on the mourners’ bench at the front row of his auntie Reed’s church during a series of revival services.
My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.
The preacher preached a sermon of moans and shouts, of dire pictures of hell and plaintive cries for lost lambs: “Won’t you come? Won’t you come to Jesus? Young lambs, won’t you come?”
And Langston waited.
Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder’s son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper . . . “I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.” So he got up and was saved.
Langston was left all alone on the mourners’ bench, waiting for a Jesus who did not come. The minister pleaded. His aunt sobbed for him. The congregation prayed. Finally, out of shame and embarrassment and fear, Langston decided he’d better lie too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up, and get saved.
The church loudly rejoiced. But inside, Langston quietly died.
That night, for the last time in my life but one—for I was a big boy twelve years old—I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.
Langston is not alone. Many people who seek God or hunger for the spiritual may find themselves, like Langston, frustrated with what they’ve heard about “how to be saved.” In some traditions people may be told that if they pray a particular “salvation prayer,” it should put their soul concerns to rest, but they are troubled when that doesn’t happen. The satirical website the Babylon Bee posted an article headlined “Bible Lacking Sinner’s Prayer Returned for Full Refund.” In it, a fictional disgruntled customer says, “I searched that Bible through and through and couldn’t find anything about a magic prayer I could lead people to say in order to instantly get them into the Kingdom and have them be forevermore secure in their eternal salvation no matter what their life looks like afterward.”
Many find that, like Langston, once they pray the magic prayer, they don’t feel the dramatic inner change they expected to experience. They wonder if they did it right. So they pray the prayer again the next night, the next week, the next year. They’re troubled that perhaps they’re not really “in.”
The problem is not that they said the prayer incorrectly. The problem is that their definition of salvation is too small. The problem is that they’re defining salvation as having their entrance application to heaven accepted rather than receiving life from Jesus from one moment to the next.
It is certainly and wonderfully true that many people find that their life with God starts through responding to an altar call, or praying a prayer of forgiveness, or crying out for mercy in a rescue mission. It is certainly and wonderfully true that God’s capacity to save us is not dependent on our ability to correctly define salvation.
It is also certainly and wonderfully true that the message of Jesus and his early followers is not just the forgiveness of sins that allows us to escape the bad place and go to the good place. It is newness of life. To be sure, this new life includes forgiveness, but it includes so much more. This is why the primary word used as a synonym for salvation in the New Testament is life:
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. JOHN 10:10
Whoever has the Son has life. 1 JOHN 5:12
Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. EPHESIANS 2:4-5
In the New Testament, the terms salvation and eternal life and Kingdom of God all speak to this same life-altering reality that we grasp by becoming disciples of Jesus.
Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.