The saved and the unsaved

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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The saved and the unsaved

  1. Kathy Campbell

    This is my first time! I love this topic so could not resist! To me to be saved is to have the freedom to stand before God accepted and beloved because I have believed in the one He has sent: Jesus Christ. It is to live in God’s grace. It is to know that I have eternal life: the opportunity to know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. To be saved goes way beyone me. It is God’s good work which I gratefully receive. And I have learned that this is not to be taken for granted.

  2. I guess Kathy’s comment is an example of the sort of view that worries me with this concept, depending of course on what exactly the words mean. For instance, what does it mean to “have eternal life”? Some sort of heaven/afterlife? That those who aren’t saved don’t get to enjoy? And who are the unsaved? Everyone in every other religion that isn’t Christian, as many would say? I would find that concept repulsive.

    • John Sherk

      The idea of receiving a fresh start is expressed in a variety of ways in the Bible and among Christians. It is connected to the not uncommon human experience of having severely “messed up” in our lives, and being willing to acknowledge that we ourselves have significantly contributed to our situation. We may have done something rashly or deliberately, but we have been our own worst enemy, and we would like to begin again in some way. We may quite possibly want some intervention from God to set us on a new track.

      The language that is used to describe this process of going from despair to hope includes being redeemed (as in a slave or a person greatly in debt being freed of their constraint), forgiven (as when we have done a great harm or committed a great offense), or saved (as when we have been afflicted with life-threatening illness, or in mortal physical danger).

      But these are just analogies to having a deep sense before God that we are in need of a deep internal “make-over”, and are willing to ask for it, and to cooperate in the process by doing whatever we are able, including acknowledging the errors of our ways.

      Christians understand that this is not just a psychological process involving nothing but our own mind, emotions and will, though these are surely important. The presence and power of the Spirit of God in the process is what assures a real change. Understanding that the process is important to God too (given that Jesus was God sent by God to experience human life, even to the point of being totally misunderstood, falsely accused, and painfully executed, and to become the Saviour) means that not only am I changed so that I can see my life differently, but God regards me differently, as in the parable of the prodigal son welcomed home by the father.

      Being “saved”, then, means being in a state in my own mind, before God, and in the loving presence of Jesus, that I am willing to do things the best way I know, to acknowledge mistakes on an on-going basis, to listen to the guidance of God and to expect active interaction with God on a daily basis. I am no longer the centre of my life, but am focussed on the presence and intentions of God.

      I am especially fond of Jesus’ gentle jesting with Nicodemus, when he protested that Nicodemus, as a Jewish leader must understand that a person must be born of the Spirit- a second birth, being “born again”. The analogy is to the first birth, and the total celebration of the new life and its potential to be wonderful, long, and productive. How many times have I seen women bathe a new baby in this sense of the wonder of his or her new life! My imagination, then, is that God, the heavenly parent, gushes over us with the same utter conviction of the wonder of all that can lie before us, when we have chosen to abandon the mistakes of the past and their justifications, and choose instead the open-ended path of the living goodness of God.

      I am deeply grateful for the gospel that has made it possible for me to take a position in life that gives me some confidence that I can do more good than harm, and to believe the more people understand the gospel and choose to take advantage of it in their own lives, the better off the world will be. And that it is already the source of much goodness already evident in the world.

      How and why other people arrive at some similar state of being, apart from the gospel, can perhaps only be answered by inviting them to describe their own process.

      Who then are the “unsaved”!?!

  3. Thanks John. Your entry is a keeper.
    In thinking on the question of who are the saved, I say anyone who looks to God for help.
    ‘Look to me and live’, wrote Isaiah on God’s behalf.
    ‘They who hear my voice shall live’, said Jesus.
    ‘The person who does my Father’s will’, said Jesus.
    ‘Blessed are the poor’ said Jesus, which presumably means they’re saved.
    ‘Woe to the rich’, said Jesus, which should at least make the wealthy shudder.
    The answer that resonates with me the most is: ‘all those who love his appearing’ (2 Tim 4:8b).
    Among those who love his appearing are those who long for the justice, mercy and grace that he brings. They may, on the occasion of his appearing, not know until that moment his name, but in that he comes with the justice and truth they have longed for, they will welcome him as gladly as any who know his name to be Jesus.
    For those of us who do believe in Jesus this imperative remains: ‘Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your heart’.
    For if there is one attribute which thwarts the saving work of God, it lies in the admission ‘we’re okay without you.’

  4. Julie MacLean

    For the kingdom of God is not in word,but in power
    1 Corr.4:20

    The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed,a refuge in times of trouble,
    Those who know your name trust in you-
    for you, O Lord, have never abandoned anyone who searches for you
    Psalm 9:10

    Keep on asking and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking and you will find. Keep on knocking and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is open to everyone who knocks. You parents-if your children ask for a loaf of bread,do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish do you give them a snake/ Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children,how much more will your heavenly Father/Mother give good gifts to thosewho ask Him
    Matthew 7:7-11

  5. elizabeth sherk

    http://thedifferenceisjesus.com/?gclid=COC48OWn0qACFQk65Qod2ylo0A

    I have continued to think about Joy’s big questions, as we all are in this blogosphere. I do not think it is true that we do not know poor people in our circle of friends, God worshipers & colleagues. But our poor friends who know Jesus do not project their material poverty as the main aspect of their life, because it isn’t, & therefore we, who carry knapsacks of wealth & privilege “forget” that our friends are poor, relishing instead in their personal confidence & the witness they give us that God meets all their needs & will meet ours too. For all of us, both rich & poor, have needs that only God can meet. This website came to my attention this afternoon as I was looking up something to share with Jeanine Mathys, as she & her whole family grieve the death of her new baby grandson, Jeremiah. Maybe it will help some of the rest of you as we continue to think/pray/read/talk/write together.

  6. The only thing I have to add to this is that I know from experience that atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths can all know the difference between doing good in the world, and not doing so, and can and do choose to do good in the world. This is in no way restricted to Christians, or even to people of faith! And many who claim faith in the different religions (including Christianity) do not do such a good job of that.

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