In classical Greek thought, there was strong sense of dualism — that the material world is corrupt and worthless, and only the spiritual world was worthwhile. In contrast, the Bible was written from a Hebraic perspective that believed that God’s creation is good, and that human life on earth is meaningful. Our Greek background still makes Christians somewhat dualistic. We sing songs with lyrics like
This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through,
my treasures are laid up a-way beyond the blue,
the angels beckon me from heaven’s distant shore,
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
While it is good to look forward to heaven and Christ’s return, we tend to disparage the life we have here on earth as unimportant. We often think of our activity on earth simply as waiting—waiting for Christ to come again, or waiting to die and go to heaven. Re-examining the Bible’s Hebraic picture of salvation may give us a different perspective.
Salvation as a Relationship with God
Most Christians would define salvation as being allowed to enter heaven after death, which of course is focused on the afterlife. It is true that we will be saved from judgment, but the Bible also uses another picture of salvation that we rarely emphasize: salvation as a restored relationship with God, in this life. An unsaved person lives a life separated from God, because sin alienates him or her from God. As Paul says,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:21-22)
Through the new covenant of forgiveness that Jesus established, we can come into a relationship with God. Christians often think of that only in terms of being pardoned from the judgment to come.
Each time we take communion, however, we are celebrating the fact that under this new covenant of forgiveness by Christ’s blood, we can “sit down to dinner” with God, something that wasn’t possible before. In biblical times, partaking of a meal together was only done if people had a close relationship with each other. If there was a conflict between two people, after it was resolved, the parties would eat a meal together to celebrate their reconciliation. We also see this picture in Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.
The picture is that a person who is saved is restored to fellowship with God in this life, as well as the next. We also see this in Jesus’ parables. He describes an unsaved person as being like a sheep lost from the flock, or like a rebellious prodigal son who has left his family. Salvation comes when the shepherd finds the sheep and brings it home, or when the prodigal son is received back into the family.
This idea of salvation in this life allows us to understand some texts that otherwise don’t make sense. Paul says “by grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. Even more importantly, Paul says,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
If we think in terms of salvation as a future reward, this passage sounds like we should be in a perpetual state of worry. However, if we see salvation as something that we already have, he is talking about having awe and reverence for God who is helping us bring every part of our lives into relationship with him.
A related idea is that eternal life starts in this world. John seems to think of this when he says:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Many verses like these are ones we should read in terms of salvation in its present sense. Many others do speak of salvation in its future aspect as well. We should keep both in mind as we read the Bible.
What are the implications?
One thing is that our picture of God changes. If we only think of salvation as escaping hell, our idea of God is mainly that of an angry judge. In contrast, Jesus portrays God as a loving shepherd who searches for his sheep, or a loving father eager to see his son come home. This picture is of a God that actively wants to seek out his lost children, and bring them back into relationship with him. He loves us and wants us near him, he doesn’t just want to pardon us from our sins.
We are also forced to ask ourselves, if we are already living in eternity, in a relationship with God, does our life show it? If we think of ourselves as just waiting for a future promise, we can easily fall into wasting our life here.
Should a life in relationship with God be filled with mindless entertainment or materialism? Our priorities change when we don’t see our life as disposable. The world around us is filled with people who see no meaning in life. Perhaps the gospel would go forth more boldly if we took hold of our salvation and started living it here, rather than waiting for it in the future.