"Second Thoughts on the term “Salvation”
A family Conversation by John, David & Keith Drury
tended to use the term "salvation" as an umbrella term for all three tenses
of Christ's work (past, present, and future). In other words, salvation is
"the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till
it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of
Although I still agree with the implications of this broad use, I no longer
consider “salvation” to be the best all-encompassing term.
Why? Because of the way Paul uses the term salvation generally in his letters and specifically in Romans 5. In verse 8 he utters that classic insight that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. That’s in the past tense. Then he goes on to say in verse 9 that all the more now we have been justified. That’s a perfect tense, which always has a present effect. Plus there’s the “now”. Finally, Paul goes on to say in verse 9 that we will be saved through Christ from the wrath. There’s the third tense: future.
Will be saved? What? I thought you are supposed to get saved (past tense) or be saved (present tense). Salvation isn’t something we wait for, Paul. Or if it is, that is certainly just one aspect, just one tense of the whole work of God from past through the present into the future, right? It looks like Paul uses the term "salvation" in the narrow sense I’ve been trying to flee: being saved from the wrath of God at the end of time. And he and the rest of the NT authors seem to use it in this sense consistently.
What’s the alternative? The idea that Christ’s work includes all three tenses is a good idea. I think it is worth keeping. And it seems to be a biblical pattern as the above notes suggest. But if “salvation” is not the big umbrella term for the whole of Christ’s work, what is? I submit that we simply follow Paul’s pattern here too. Throughout this very passage, as well as in the rest of his letters, Paul repeatedly uses a term that is not temporal specified: reconciliation. Reconciliation. Now that’s a term that can hold the weight of “the whole work of God”: atonement, justification, salvation. Reconciliation. That’s a word that can naturally be formed into all three tenses: past, present, future. Reconciliation. That’s Paul’s “big word” for the whole work of God from beginning through the middle to the end.
May I dare suggest we use it too? Are there reasons not to? Has it fallen out of common usage for a reason? Are there reasons I missed for retain the broad sense of “salvation”? If neither is good as an umbrella term, what other terms could be used?
Here are my three questions...
1. What role does “the Fall” play in the use of the term reconciliation? Are the effects of the fall that God is attempting to reverse alienation and estrangement then?
2. If "Reconciliation" is the master term for God’s work in what sense is it a broader-than-a-human preoccupation of God? That is, in what sense is God working to reconcile creation too? And is creation alienated from God or just the parts of creation from each other?
3. Does the term reconciliation go far enough? Both salvation and reconciliation are completable tasks—does this mean that God will some day be finished with this work? What will God’s work be then? Is there a term that encompasses God’s work that is post-[completed] reconciliation/salvation too?
I really like the questions Dad raises and would love to see you address them, John.
For my part, I think there's something more God-Centered about balancing our salvi-speak with the reconciliation language. It indeed IS broader than the term salvation which always seems to "start with me."
Now, I'm not suggesting that every person only using the term salvation is Pelagian... just that I think the current Me-Centric culture of salvation could use some adjustment in the direction of God's action.
Certainly Paul's “big word” and your suggestion of Reconciliation as an umbrella term move that direction. And for more practical reasons, I wonder if salvation is a word in this age that has TV-evangelist preacher attached to it. Sadly.
Q1. What role does “the Fall” play in the use of the term reconciliation?
"The Fall" still has its place by (1) establishing the universal solidarity of unreconciled humanity, (2) setting the movement from sinful separation to reconciliation in a narrative key, and (3) indicating that the culprit of this separation is not God but us, however mysterious that may be.
Q2. If "Reconciliation" is the master term for God’s work in what sense is it a broader-than-a-human preoccupation of God? And is creation alienated from God or just the parts of creation from each other?
In contemporary theology this is referred to as the problem of the relationship between creation and redemption. Obviously the term reconciliation can include the non-human much better than salvation, and this is played out by Paul in Romans 8 ("all of creation groans"). And, yes, reconciliation is both between God and creation and within creation (see this combination of horizontal and vertical in 2 Cor. 5). One might note that I did not refer to reconciliation as the term for God's work in toto, but rather the work of Christ. Nevertheless, I believe that the cosmos was created in Christ and for Christ (cf. Col. 1). Hence reconciliation and creation as works of God are internally related. How they are so is the million dollar question. I personally believe it has something to with the relation of God's time and ours, so that Christ's history really is the center of time because it is where God has anchored his eternal identity in time. So everything spirals out from there, both forward to the eschaton and back to the creation of the world. So yes, reconciliation is an inclusive term with reference to creation, but not without a little reflection.
Q3. Does the term reconciliation go far enough? Both salvation and reconciliation are completable tasks—does this mean that God will some day be finished with this work? What will God’s work be then? Is there a term that encompasses God’s work that is post-[completed] reconciliation/salvation too?
What a great question! I think that reconciliation can in a sense persist into eternity, at least better than the term "salvation" allows. How? Salvation is always "from" something, which means that at the end when the "from" is defeated and gone "begin saved" won't mean so much. Reconciliation focuses on the "to" (though without neglecting the "from"). We are reconciled "to" God. So throughout eternity we will be worshipfully reconciled to God. Which brings us back to Mandy's mention of the relational connotations of the word. Also, note that in Romans 5:2,11 reconciliation is linked with our "boasting" (aka honoring, worshipping) in God. So when reconciliation is "completed" it is not left behind but fulfilled or "filled-out" dynamically throughout eternity.
outlined well how salvation language when used exclusively easily leads to
external relations between God and us. God is the external agent who gets us
the goods of salvation so we can enjoy them ourselves. God, the benefits of
salvation, and we its recipients are essentially separate points that are
connected by lines forming a triangle.
Reconciliation tells the same basic story but renders the relations internally. God by his own action reconciles the world to himself for the purpose of communion between himself and the world. The agent, the means, and the end are all internally related. Instead of a triangle, they form a series of concentric circles: distinguishable, but internal to one another.
Since Dave brought up the Pelagian phobia, let me ask this question: In what sense is it theologically permissible to speak of our participating in our's and the world's reconciliation that is not allowed with regard to "salvation"?
Part of the “in the trench” church issue here is that we rarely talk about the process of “salvation” much at all anymore. The “salvation is a moment in your life” trend has faded towards the “salvation is a process or a journey you are on” type talk. So in the local church, I find that we’re emphasizing programs or involvements that encourage the salvation journey rather than really talking about what salvation is. What I like about the word reconciliation is that it is a bit unfamiliar but still a biblical term. People like to learn more about biblical terms and these days it seems like people are into the obscure but important biblical fact. It’s nearly “seeker sensitive” to go into some strange Jewish feature from the time of Christ (see: Rob Bell).
MY STUDY ON RECONCILIATION:
The term “reconciliation” (katallassw) appears to come from the idea of an “exchange” that happens (The Baker Bible Dictionary calls it the “allasso” family of Greek words.) It comes from the idea of “exchanging coins” like you have to do at the border of a new country or an airport—or, as you did in Jesus’ day—as you entered the temple so you’d not be using “worldly money.” It’s like “our money is no good here” when it comes to our relationship with God. Jesus has to “change our coins” (reconcile them). As we already intuitively know, we cannot buy our way into heaven… we’ve got to use Christ’s “money.”
In Romans Paul uses this technical term twice I believe, The
first in chapter 5:11… “And not only this, but we also exult in
God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the
reconciliation.” I like the “reception” component
of this that I mentioned earlier in this Conversation is often missing in our
conception of salvation. Reconciliation is something “done to
us” that we participate in. But we are sort of “end
users” in a way. Here I’m thinking that theologically
we’re much like Hosea’s wife (or
Paul also uses it in chapter of Romans… “For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” This verse and its context are more complicated to me. Perhaps one of you guys can comment on it. I love the concept here of “reconciling of the world” (katallagh kosmou)…a real sense of the whole world being a part of this deal – as you’ve intimated Dad & John. Of course this specific passage is talking about Paul’s hopes to see the salvation/reconciliation of his own “countrymen” (the Jews). And I think some have drawn some end times implications from this verse (or read them into it) regarding the salvation of the Jews prior to Christ’s return.
Perhaps the key Reconciliation text is in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians:
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
Wow, what an amazing and classic Pauline paragraph! I wonder if the “holiness” implications of a fuller “reconciliation theology” might be the most exciting for us. Here are the steps: God reconciles, through Christ, we are made new in Christ, old things are exchanged for new, he gives then all those reconciled the “ministry of reconciliation” at the same time as not counting our sins against us, so we become a part of the reconciliation process in preparing the Bride for the end. As far as the “word of reconciliation”—I need to study that more but what a great verse to encourage us to again study the “word of reconciliation” J.
I’d sure agree that “salvation journey” is the dominant emerging (not to be confused with emergent church) motif. And biblically I think one can support (at least with Paul) the notion that there is an awful cataclysmic event looming that we all need to be saved from (in the future) and that this salvation can begin now. But increasingly even evangelicals have turned a moment of conversion into an “hour of decision” and now through pulling the taffy more it is becoming a life-long process that begins… when? At birth? At the age of accountability? The first time one takes a first move toward God? Indeed the notion of instantaneous conversion is following the rarity of instantaneous sanctification. I ask many of my students if there ever was a moment in their life when they technically would have gone to hell if they had died and discover the vast majority say “No.” So perhaps you could argue that “salvation” term has already been redefined-to a journey of salvation and it is time to replace it. But I’m not so ready to do so. (see next post)
Before we run off and dump the term “salvation” and its bath water lets look into the bath water and see what might go with it. Like most young ‘ens you see all the advantages of the new without the disadvantages of the old. Lets ask the critical question: “What could be lost by displacing the term Salvation?” So I ask that practical question here—if “reconciliation” displaces “salvation” as the key term what goes with it immediately… and eventually? What nuances and emphases leak out with the loss of salvation (no theological pun intended). Here’s the puzzle: look into the future and see what tiny shifts in degree occur if indeed the term “salvation” diminishes and disappears and “reconciliation” moves to center stage. We’ve seen the advantages of reconciliation but not examined the subtle shifts that the diminished term Salvation might produce—what do you see?
To directly answer your challenge, Dad, if salvation-speak declines we lose or see fade…
- Clarification of earlier question: Christians are generally barred from saying they helped God save them or that they helped God save any other part of the world. Salvation is God’s business. Even Wesleyans assume this, otherwise we wouldn’t talk about prevenient grace all the time to ensure for the purpose of answering to the charge that we are Pelagian. Salvation as the cataclysmic end time event is definitely God’s business, and we are not going to be able to help him out with that (especially since we do not belong in the judgment seat). But the “reconciliation” as the larger term includes other aspects of God’s work that are soteriological in focus yet not reserved for God alone. It may permit the language of Christians working toward their reconciliation and even working out other’s reconciliation. Clearly 2 Cor 5 has this language of our ministry and message of reconciliation. Would you agree that “reconciliation” has this valence?
- Response to Dave’s word study and exegesis of 2 Cor 5: Great research and right on the head. It helps to show how the term is used both “soteriologically” in Romans 5 and “sociologically” in Romans 11 – making the point that “reconciliation” actually includes both these aspects and doesn’t splice Christian mission into “salfivic” activities” and “social justice” or “community” activities as if they are two different things. My reply to your question about the “word of reconciliation” in 2 Cor 5 would be to point out the distinction between word and work, message and ministry, kerygma and diakonia. God’s action in Christ is a unity of word and work: Jesus is the Word of God reconciling the world to himself. His life speaks. We too join in this word and work, yet our word and work are more distinct (and that’s okay). We speak the word of reconciliation, announcing the good news that God has spoken and acted. And we do the work of reconciliation, crossing and removing boundaries in order to unite peoples to one another and to God. The two together form our mission of reconciliation in the world. And by this whole process we fulfill the righteousness (covenant-faithfulness) of God (2 Cor ).
- Response to Keith on Process/Crisis: I do not intend to take away the cataclysmic element of salvation one bit. Actually, my reordering of the terms and their relations lets salvation be MORE cataclysmic without that being the only word on the matter. Reconciliation includes all three tenses; salvation is focused on the future. Salvation is thoroughly eschatological in the NT, and I am in close theological agreement with that notion and take it as the starting point of my theology (as has been the case for 5 years now since I “discovered” extreme eschatology with help from exegetes [who dismiss it], theologians [who embrace it] and philosophers of science [who talk about time]. Contemporary theologies of both liberal and evangelical persuasions are insufficiently eschatological in my estimation. Here is place were I am strangely aligned with fundamentalists at least in their focus on the future (though not their dispensationalist formulations of it). All of this points to the fact that I have little patience for the new talk of “easing into” Christianity. This way of thinking presumes we are living in some sort of residual Christendom were people are Christian enough and need a little help on their “journey,” whether by God / church / sacraments / friendship evangelism / religious experiences, etc. I am more and more inclined to look for crisis events in people’s lives. I understand these less in terms of baptist “decision” and more in terms of pentecostal “outpouring of the spirit.” But the basic apocalyptic form is the same. This crisis element must never be lost. Why? Not because we or God need dates, but because distinct crises stand as signs that salvation is the work of God. It is a miracle. It is not the human search for God but God’s forgiveness of humanity that is running away from him. We need crises to say that God exists, God is at work, God is our savior, God will judge the world in a moment at the end of history so you better be ready. Of course, this is a different view of crises that traditionally held (I am seeing them as signs of grace more than means of grace, so to speak). But I do not want to chuck salvation language in general or crisis encounters in particular. I just want to locate them within a larger theocentric covenant history of reconciliation. So my original intent was to add, expand, and reorganize. It was never to diminish, separate, or set aside. I only wanted to say “hey, we always buy just green grapes; can we get some purple grapes too?”
- The List: I concur with Dave’s list, adding only that “salvation” as a term is indispensable as a repeated biblical and theological term with multi-dimensional meanings. It really is not an option to drop it. So the baby in the salvation bathwater is Scripture itself.
John Drury is a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary who is married
to Amanda, a recent Master of Divinity graduate of Princeton Theological
Seminary and staff Pastor at Doylestown
United Methodist Church. John combines a passion for historical
theology and practical ecclesiology and has presented papers to the Wesleyan Theological Society and an
upcoming article in Theology Today.
He is currently an Adjunct Professor of Bible and Theology at
David Drury is a pastor & writer living in
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before coming to Indiana Wesleyan University where he specializes in teaching practical ministry courses. He has more than a dozen books and manuals published. Some of his more widely circulated books include Holiness for Ordinary People, Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, Money, Sex, & Spiritual Power, and So, What Do You Think? He has published more than 500 other articles and writes a weekly column on the Internet at www.drurywriting.com/keith.