How God Saves Us

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.

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 matters.

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 are saved.

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 save me."

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 wrong map.

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 wrong.

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 consideration:

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 our plan.

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 the map.

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.