What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

Call me ignorant, but I didn’t even know that the Evangelical Alliance existed here in Australia! OK, now that you’ve picked yourself up off the floor after sliding off your chair in laughter, you’ll be pleased to know that, while scanning their website, I stumbled on this article by Aussie Dr Rikki Watts. There are parts of this article that are so simple they are profound. It gave me some answers. I hope you find some too. Enjoy!


What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

I’ve always struggled with what it means to be a Christian. And it’s not because I didn’t think God was real. I was brought up in the Pentecostal church. I knew God was real, but there was some sense of dislocation between my Christian experience and relating that life to the world around me. I realise now that many Christians do not know why they are here.

What does it mean to be saved? I remember when I was working at IBM this was often satirised. A poster in a friend’s cubicle said ‘Jesus saves – at First National’. I remember at first being offended by this, but in time I began to wonder if we haven’t half deserved it. I began to realise how odd the language must sound to a 21st century person.

ImageIt began to dawn on me that we were using a word that really doesn’t mean what it meant in Roman times. ‘Saviour’ was a well-known political term. There’s a famous inscription which speaks of Caesar Augustus – ‘it seemed good to the Greeks of Asia and in the opinion of the High Priest to say the following – Since Providence which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit mankind – sending him a saviour, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things.’

Pay attention to the language here. No one is talking about going to heaven, about sins forgiven. The term ‘saviour’ here has to do with concrete changes in the lives and the world in which people of the first century lived,worked, and sought to bring up their families. This was real life stuff.

There’s nothing here about somewhere beyond the blue. Being saved by a saviour had a well-known economic and political meaning. It was a word from everyday life. Augustus was considered the people’s Saviour because he’d restored peace to the empire. He was their benefactor.

It seems to me we’ve dropped the classical clanger – we’ve made the kind of mistake that no decent missiologist would make today. We’ve hung on to the word and lost the meaning. So what does it mean to be savedLet’s track the imagery that Genesis gives us in order to understand salvation. You can’t really talk about salvation until you talk about creation. There’s a reason for beginning in Genesis.

Setting the Scene

One of the striking things about the Hebrew bible’s concept of creation is its use of the following kind of language – ‘the foundations of the earth… the pillars of the heaven – the beams of God’s upper chambers… stretching out the heavens like a canopy … the windows of the heavens… storehouses…’ This is architectural language. The conception in the Hebrew bible is of creation as some kind of architectural construction. Now what kind of building is this?

Given that nowadays we really do take culture seriously we should pay attention to the way language was used in the surrounding cultures. In the ancient near-eastern traditions the act of creation was seen as the gods building their palaces.The word for palace in Hebrew is the same word that is used for temple. Image

And that’s exactly how Israel sees creation. Isaiah 66:1 – ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool ..’ Where do you find a throne and a footstool? In a palace. What do you call the palace not of the king but of a god? You call it a temple. 

We are quite happy to see heaven as God’s temple – but Isaiah’s point is that the earth is his footstool, the earth is right there in the throne-room as well. He goes on to say ‘what is this house that you build for me,?’ And in language reminiscent of Genesis 2:2-3 ‘where is the place that I can take my rest?’ Exactly the language that’s echoed on the seventh day where Yahweh rests – in his temple palace, in his cosmic pavilion.

This is the first century Jewish perspective as well. Josephus talks about the temple in cosmic terms. And Philo goes on to say ‘the whole universe must be regarded as the holy temple of God’. How do you think about creation? What do you know about a temple? It’s a holy place? When you think of creation do you think of it as a sacred and holy place? Tragically when we say things like this there’s a kneejerk reaction – ‘this is New Age’. Well, whether it is or not, it’s biblical.

This is a tremendous affirmation of the created world. It seems to me that for too long we’ve been living in the Platonic tradition that has denigrated the goodness of the physical world. For example, God gets excited about timber. It’s miraculous. There are some very odd things that happen at the subatomic level. Things are in two places at the same time. They behave in very odd ways. The God of all creation loves this stuff. ‘It was good’ In my tradition we believed the only reason God made this world was to burn it up, and the sooner we were out of here the better. The rapture was the great hope. Bit of a shock to realise later on that while I’m going up I’m passing Jesus on the way down!

Seven times in Genesis 1, God says ‘This is good’ – finally ‘very good’. So John 3:16 – ‘For God so loved…’, not our souls, not even human beings, but the cosmos. Do you love the cosmos? No wonder I was having trouble being a Christian, because I really didn’t understand the way God thought about his world. What about Adam and Eve in all of this?

An Image of the Temple

What’s the last thing you put inside a temple? The image. The image of the deity. What’s the last thing God creates in Genesis 1? His image – ‘let us make humanity – male and female – in our image’. Creation moves towards the formation of the image-bearer and their placement in the Garden of Eden. Several features emerge from this image language.

One is, you can’t get away from physicality. Whatever else image means it involves our physicality. We must understand that images in the ancient world were never intended to depict the deity’s appearance. When Israel makes the golden calf, if that is meant to be the image of Yahweh, it’s not suggesting that Yahweh trots around on all fours lowing in the heavens.The images portray the function and attributes of the deity. They’re pictograms rather than portraits. The reason you choose the young bull is because of the power and virility it symbolises.

Somehow our physicality is essential. It’s saying something about what it means to be the image of God in the temple he has created for us. One of these features is that we have completely opposable thumbs. It is this kind of dexterity that enables us to imitate Yahweh in this small realm of the cosmos he’s given us to carry out his creational work. Imitating him. Far from being inanimate objects, we were indwelt by the very life of the deity and became the very focus of his presence upon the earth. That’s what it means to be human.

Human Beings – God’s VIPs

We are living pictographs of Yahweh the creator – enlivened by his breath, and ultimately his indwelling spirit. Our part is to imitate him – and that’s what Adam and Eve do. They do the work of the garden.They protect it.They guard the sanctuary. Imitating God in their creational activities they were, so to speak, little gods enthroned between the knees of Yahweh the great God.

We do not build temples for Yahweh – he made one for us! It’s called creation. We do not form Yahweh in our image. He makes us in his. We do not open his eyes and ears. He gives us sight and hearing, and ultimately fills us with his breath. Neither do we provide for him – he provides lavishly for us in a garden called Eden – which means ‘delight’.

Abundant joy characterises the Christian life. People made for Eden and a God full of delights.The first thing that Jesus does in John’s gospel is to turn water into wine – 120 gallons of it. Oh that Nietsche had understood that. We might not have had the terrible disasters of our age if the Lutheran church of his day had actually understood creation as Eden and the point of John’s gospel and the opening mighty deed. God is not ‘anti-body’.

He gives us good gifts. No wonder the Psalmist can say,‘Who are we, that you should be so mindful of us, crowning us with glory and honour?’ ‘To be human’ said C.S. Lewis ‘is an extraordinary gift.’

People say, for example,‘I bend the truth, cheat, gossip, etc, – because I’m only human’. A thousand times no! We do these things not because we are human but because we are not human enough. Being human is about being made in the image of God. To be a human being is a glorious and wonderful thing. May God grant us eyes to see this.

Image Genesis 1 is not about how long God took to do anything. The primary point is that this is his palace-temple built for human beings. The problem is what happens in the garden. Adam and Eve taking of the tree of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is basically an assertion of autonomy – a refusal to trust – a desire to take control. And that’s what destroys our marriages and our societies. Autonomous living where the issue is control and we will not trust. We refuse to be vulnerable. But the God we worship is first and foremost a community of persons. He is relational. But you can’t have relationship without vulnerability, trust, and the willingness to give over control.

I think that’s the garden story. And what happens? The moment we deny we’re made in God’s image and we will determine what it means to be human we deny the very thing that we are. If an image-bearer denies the one whose image it bears, what is it? It’s annihilation – ‘in the day that you do this you will surely die.’ And that’s what happens. Creation is bound up in all of this, and it too stumbles into decay. Why? Because the image -bearer is no longer carrying out his job of guarding it and doing his work, because he has no idea who he is. Human beings are designed to know who they are by looking into other people’s faces. And only by looking into the face of God do we know what it is to be human.

Scholars and pastors, that’s our ministry! It’s about helping your congregations and students see the face of God. That’s what will transform them. So Adam and Eve depart the garden. And notice this, they’re clothed as they go out. Adam and Eve go out and what does Yahweh do? Great act of mercy and grace – he clothes them. The Arcadian word for ‘clothe’ means to accede to the throne. As the rebels go out of the garden Yahweh clothes them as a way of affirming,‘I made this place for you – and by hook or by cross I will get you back here. This is where you belong’.

One of the implications of being made in God’s image is that every act of abuse against the image of a king is an act of high treason. Every act of abuse against another human being is an act of high treason against God. Doesn’t matter how often I go to church, how well I recite the catechism or whether I speak in tongues more than you all. The big issue is,‘how do I treat people?’ What are the commandments? The only two that matter are ‘love God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.That is the reason for which we have been saved.

In Isaiah’s time Israel forgot this.. Why? Because they started to love God’s blessing more than people. Israel had a magnificent worship building, no expense spared and a brilliant worship team. They had conferences on prayer and they even fasted. When was the last time you or I did that? They had got it all together, surely, and what did God say? ‘Who invited you into my house to make this racket? I am sick to death of your solemn worship assemblies. I am tired of your conferences.’ Why? Because the building is not made in God’s image. Neither is the worship service. Neither is the prayer meeting, or even fasting.

One thing only is made in God’s image. We want to worship God? Then we clothe, feed, house, take care of his image. That’s what it means to be saved as James says,‘Don’t prattle on about having faith. Let me see it by what do you do.’ No surprise then that Carrol and Schiflett in their book on ‘Christianity on Trial’ mention that one of the key factors in the conversion of the Roman Empire was the Christians’ extraordinary generosity.

Western Idolatry Some of you are saving up sheckles for the wrong thing. You can’t take it with you. Why don’t you invest it in something that will change people’s lives? That new car you were planning to get – do you really need it? Is it more important to you than equipping young people for the work of the kingdom? In Australia, just like in North America, the one great sin we don’t talk about is our greed. And that’s the same as idolatry – because we put stuff ahead of people. Nothing wrong with a nice car – but where’s our heart in terms of the kingdom?

In the fourth century the church in Rome would regularly call for fasts in order that they might feed the hungry, providing one million rations a year. The monastery at Cluny fed 17,000 people a year.This is what salvation is about – because physicality matters. The body matters. It’s part of the bearing of God’s image. The idea that all that needs to be saved is our souls is more Platonic than biblical. It’s amazing how rare the language ‘saving souls’ is. God made embodied beings, he’s going to give us back our bodies, he thinks they’re a great idea. When we’re resurrected they’re going to be pretty special even able to walk through walls and eat at the same time!

Salvation is not about the denigration of our human-ness. It is about its restoration. You and I will never be so human as when we’re truly spiritual. We’ll never be so truly spiritual as when we’re truly human. Jesus is the only true image of the Father – the invisible God, the new Adam, our great high priest. God present among us and in us. God in Christ causes the light to shine in the darkness, transforming us from glory to glory, having the same mind as Jesus. We are in Christ, members of one another and his body. We are in fact in-dwelt by God’s spirit – nothing less than the very presence of God upon the earth!

Talk about a high anthropology! This is the glory to which Paul presses. He understands what we’ve been called for. Gal 3.26 ff – probably the most radical verse written in a good 300 years either side of the first century, in a world where men had all power over women, masters held all the power over slaves, and Jews and Greeks traded insults about who was really the better of the two. And what does Paul say? ‘In Christ, no longer male or female. No longer Jew or Gentile. No longer slave nor free.’ It’s hard to imagine a more radical statement – and that’s the Christian vision. That’s what we’re about. In this country, that’s what you’re about. No special deals for the great ones. No unequal tax systems for the poor people.

Spirit-Led People of Hope

Please understand these things matter. But don’t forget the crucial matter in all this is the in-dwelling of the Spirit. And that’s often our tension. We go to one side or the other, with the emphasis on some sort of private spirituality, or some kind of social action. Both are required. And that’s the purpose of the coming of the Spirit. That’s what the gospel, and the new testament is about.We’re Spirit people. Those who walk by the Spirit are the true children of God, bearing his image. And that’s why in Galatians the fruits of the Spirit are nothing other than the character of God expressed in us, and the gifts of the Spirit are that same God at work doing what? Restoring humanity. Image

Jesus himself did not focus on restoring creation. And that’s not because it doesn’t matter. It’s because Jesus understands that the destiny of creation is its redemption. But the key to that redemption is what? You and me being revealed as the true sons and daughters of God by living in step with the Spirit. (Romans 8) And what does this look like? Look at Jesus the cross-bearer.

That’s what changes the world. And if you study the early Christians that’s exactly what they did – by imitating Jesus. So Revelation 21 has it right – we are not going to heaven. That idea creeps into the church in the second and third century from Platonists who can’t imagine God would ever care about this world. But God says,‘it’s good, very good….’ And he loves it enough to send his son, and come in his son to reconcile this world to himself. According to Revelation 21 – heaven’s coming here. And that’s why it’s the new Jerusalem. But there’s something very odd about this new Jerusalem – there’s no temple. And it’s a cube. What is cube-shaped in the old testament? The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, in the temple. There’s no temple in the new Jerusalem, but not because it’s become the temple,. No, the city is itself the Holy of Holies. And it’s huge.The whole of creation is going to become the Holy of Holies, God is coming here to live with us to be our God, and we will be his people.

And that’s no surprise if you’ve read Genesis 1. He loves this place, and he loves his image-bearers. To be saved is to live that love out concretely with real people in this life. This is your moment. Seize the day!


Dr Rikki Watts was formerly a faculty member of the Bible College of Victoria, in Melbourne. He is now serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Regent College,Vancouver, Canada.

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