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What is Salvation?

What does the Bible mean when it talks about salvation? Scholar Jon Ruthven shares some “hasty, preliminary notes” as he works through this important question and asks for your feedback.

In response to a query from a friend, I am working through what “salvation” means. Certainly, in traditional Christian theology, “salvation” means being forgiven of sins, regenerated and being good, then in a position to go to heaven. I just attended a church service where I heard exactly that.

In the Synoptics, however, “salvation” pretty much always means “healing” or “rescue.” Even in Mt 1:21 and Hb 9:28 Jesus’ “saving” from sins may have had a primary referent to the broken covenant penalties of Dt 28, not simply going to hell, hence, the emphasis on healing in the New Testament “gospel.”

Since the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) were written, mostly later, as summaries and “big picture” correctives to a Christianity that immediately began to drift off course in so many ways, we ought to take these Gospels (and John) as our prime source, and not dismiss them as “historical prologue” to the “real stuff”—”justification by faith” in Paul, as Luther and Calvin taught. (Paul was more amenable to Protestant “demythologizing” of the Gospel than the Gospels themselves).

The Gospels, then, were attempts to reset and recenter Jesus’ original mission and message. Based on the direction church doctrine took after the introduction of the Gospels, it seems that this “reset” didn’t really succeed. Maybe that success would come far in the future, but certainly not from the 2nd century and thereafter, where Christianity increasingly became an exercise in human/demonic speculation and pontificating (creeds and apologetics), not revelation and power. In the New Testament, demons always “knew” perfect “theology”; they did not “know” God in the way of knowing that God requires.

Salvation is defined in the New Testament as entering the New Covenant.

In my view, we can’t persist in the charismatic tweaking of the Protestant ordo salutis (Latin, “order of salvation”): get “saved,” then filled with the Spirit. The New Testament seems to promote John the Baptist’s program of “repent and be baptized and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It seems to me that “repent” means to move from a basic epistemology of the “wrong tree” to the tree of life: moving from the Serpent’s words to the Spirit’s. The immediate goal here is “obedience.” (Paul’s mission was “obedience from the Gentiles”). You can’t “obey” God until you, in some sense, hear his voice telling us what to obey.

There was a man who said he couldn’t become a Christian until he gave up his cigarettes. Normally, I would respond that he needed a “salvation” experience which would then empower him to give up the habit. But I wonder if this man and his cigarettes may have been God’s test to show if he was really going to obey God’s revelation: was he going to hear and obey God in this defining test or not? The cigarettes, by themselves, are trivial, the test of obedience is everything—the first step toward “salvation” that is, life in the revealing, empowering Spirit/presence of God. “Repent” means “turning in the opposite direction”—away from one way of living to another: it involves a basic decision, and action, for total change.

Salvation is defined in the New Testament as entering the New Covenant. Defined in Acts 2:39, citing Isa 59:21, and 2 Cor 3, describing Jer 31:33 (also Heb 12:18-25), receiving the New Covenant Spirit of prophecy and power. This is the mission of Jesus defined in all four Gospels: “He will baptize in the Holy Spirit.”

This is the mission of Jesus defined in all four Gospels: “He will baptize in the Holy Spirit.”

I think, therefore, that the defining pattern for becoming a “Christian” is Acts 2:38-39, and its citation of Isa 59:21—a citation that traditional theology has denied: it is a single package of repentance, baptism, to the goal of receiving the Spirit (the charismatic Spirit of prophecy and power).

“This is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Jon M. Ruthven, Ph.D., spent his entire adult life in ministry, starting with David Wilkerson in Boston and New York City in the mid-60s. After spending a dozen years pastoring, a couple a years as a missionary in Africa as the head of Bible school, he ended up teaching theology in seminary for 18 years. Always interested in training and discipleship, Jon is developing a radically biblical approach to ministry training that seeks to replicate the discipling mission of Jesus in both content and method. Jon has written numerous scholarly papers and books including On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (1993 and 2009) and What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis (2013). He continues to emphasize the biblical grounding for a practical ministry of healing, signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit. Facebook.

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