Tucked in Hamish’s meaty comment on last week’s blog is a statement I have been pondering all week.
Hamish said, “the gulf in the Bible is not between the rich and the poor but between the saved and the unsaved. The kind and the wicked.” My first thought was, “Exactly right, Hamish. But in our society the rich and the poor are entirely segregated, and I can usually tell on sight whether someone is rich or poor. But I do not know whether my best friends are saved or unsaved. And as for “the kind and the wicked,” they not only live together in every neighbourhood, they live together in my own person.”
However, the phrase “the saved and the unsaved” stuck with me, because it’s among the concepts my non-Christian friends find either offensive or ridiculous. It’s offensive because it suggests God runs an exclusive club, where some are in and some are not. And although Christians don’t agree on the membership criteria, they all seem smugly confident that they, at least, are in. It’s ridiculous because the non-Christians I know don’t want to be saved. Saved from what? From a wrathful God, who throws people into eternal fire? Even if such a God existed, who would want to join His club?
The concept of “the saved and the unsaved” bothers me too. I didn’t become a Christian to be saved. I became a Christian because Christianity seemed the most truthful explanation for why things are the way they are, and because I met someone (that’s you, Jill!) who showed me the power and beauty of a life dedicated to God.
No unsaved here
So this week, I decided to search the Bible to look freshly at the saved and the unsaved – and discovered that in the Bible there are no unsaved – at least in my translation. My word searches for “unsaved” or, more dramatically, “damned” yielded no results. (The word “condemned” did yield results, as did “wailing and gnashing,” and I’ll talk more about these in a minute.)
The word “saved,” on the other hand, could be found from one end of the Bible to the other. The early chapters are filled with stories of God saving his people from famine, from plague, from enslavement, from occupation and military defeat. The psalmist cries, “save me, God,” from “the clutches of the powerful,” from “wicked men,” from “lying lips and deceitful tongues,” from death, from disease, and from enemies of all kinds.
I pray these sorts of prayers too: that God will save my children from danger and my friends from miscarriage, disappointment, disease, pain and death. Sometimes I see these prayers answered, sometimes not. But I never regret these prayers, and the opportunity they offer for me to participate, even in a minute way, in the lives of my friends and the work of God.
But the psalmist also recognizes that it is not only external enemies that endanger him. The other danger is the enemy within. It’s a theme the Old Testament prophets pick up too, warning entire nations of the natural consequences of their own actions.
A wide embrace
It is this “saving us from ourselves” that Jesus speaks to most. And He clearly is out to save everyone: outcasts like prostitutes and adultresses; rich crooks like Zacheus; religious minorities like the woman by the well; sell-outs like the Jews who collect taxes for the Roman occupiers; ordinary people and rulers; men, women and children. As John 3 explains, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
And what is our part? According to the Bible, it’s to follow Jesus’ example. To love our neighbour. To care for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. To turn away from our dark side. To make amends for our own wrong-doing, and forgive others when they wrong us. And to trust God for the rest. In fact, if you can do nothing else, just trust (or as my translation says, “believe”) in God and that alone will be enough.
I am trusting in God for the rest, because Jesus doesn’t let us feel smug or settled “members of the club.” He tells us the last will be first. He says whoever tries to save his life will lose it, and vice versa. He tells us that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but then says all things are possible with God.
He tells us to go through the narrow door, because many who ate and drank with Him will not get in, and in the next breath says “people will come from the east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13) And in the famous Mark 16, He says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” – which seems definitive enough, until you read that the sign of a believer is one that can pick up snakes and drink deadly poison unscathed – a definition that excludes me and every Christian I have ever met.
I realize I have given short shrift to a very complex subject, and one that I don’t understand well myself. I know every one of the passages I’ve cited could be a blog entry unto itself. But for the moment, let me turn this topic over to you.
Friends, tell me what this word “saved” means to you, and how it has played out in your own life.