Salvation is central to our identity as Christians. Every week, we hear of salvation being preached from the pulpit, sung in hymns, and spoken in the liturgy. We often say we have received salvation from God, or we have been saved by God. However, we often conceive of salvation in inadequate terms. For example, one popular Christian website defines salvation as, “The deliverance, by the grace of God, from eternal punishment for sin which is granted to those who accept by faith God’s conditions of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus.” Such a definition may not be wrong per se, but it is deficient and smacks of the individualistic tendencies of our age.
When we think of salvation this way, primarily in terms of what we are saved from, we inevitably make it to be a personal afterlife benefit: what matters most is my own salvation from damnation. As a result, we miss its greater significance. Certainly, we are saved from divine judgement, but we are also saved for something, and this aspect is woefully missing from the way we think about salvation, in part because we no longer pay much attention to the significance of Holy Baptism in our lives. The Sacrament itself has much to inform us about our salvation.
According to St. Paul, “[God] saved us … according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3.5). We are saved through the waters of baptism, but this salvation is not merely a get-out-of-damnation card; it has to do with getting born again and living a renewed life hic et nunc (here and now)—we are saved for a life free from the power of sin and empowered by the Holy Spirit; we are saved for a life away from the shadow of death and in the glory of eternal life. What does this life of salvation look like?
Unfortunately, even here, we can still inadequately conceive of salvation in terms of individual morality, because we are so used to thinking with an individualistic frame. We think of God saving us to be good and moral individuals: in a negative sense, we think of no longer indulging in sinful deeds which are par for the course in the world (1 Cor. 6.9-11); in a positive sense, we think of engaging in acts of charity in the world (Eph. 2.10). No doubt, individual morality is an important aspect of being Christian, but this is still half the picture.
Elsewhere, St. Paul writes concerning Holy Baptism, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12.13). Here, the larger context of salvation comes into sharper focus. We are all baptized into the church, the body of Christ. The life of salvation is not lived out as individuals but with diverse others in the one body of Christ. If each of us have union with Christ through our individual baptisms, then we inevitably have communion with one another by his Holy Spirit. Imagine Christ as an internet server to which we connect via our individual workstations. In connecting to Christ as the nexus, we are also connected to each other. Hence, the context of a reborn and renewed life is a life lived in community. This is ultimately what we are saved for. Yet, even with this, we have not arrived at the full picture of salvation.
In the Gospel according to John, just before his crucifixion, Jesus instructed his disciples to be a people characterized by love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15.12). Love is not an act that can be fulfilled in seclusion as individuals, but it must be fulfilled in relation to another person. So, the only way we can fulfil this great commandment is to form a community in which people relate to one another in love. Of course, to many of us today, the concept of love is abstract and malleable, but Jesus defined it for us in concrete act when he humbled himself, took on the form of a slave, and washed his disciples’ feet (Jn. 13.1-20). A community characterized by such self-abnegating love is what we are saved for.
Such a community was first formed on the Day of Pentecost, when many Jews “who welcomed [St. Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added [to the church]” (Acts 2.41). People were baptized and saved into a community that met to devote themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). It was a community characterized by love, where “[a]ll who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts. 2.43). Australian theologian Benjamin Myers situates the emergence of the church in the larger context of fall and redemption: “The Pentecost story shows the undoing of the fall through the creation of the Christian community. There is now a new human society in which all the old divisions are torn down.”
What we are saved for is to constitute the new humanity, a new society of persons re-birthed and renewed by water and Spirit, and no longer beholden to the old patterns of the world but conformed to the way of Christ. It is the true humanity which God has always intended, were its development not disrupted and its integrity ruptured by our forebears’ fall from grace. Hence, salvation is a re-forming of that true humanity in us, causing us to be no longer trapped by sin to be incurvatus in se (turned in on ourselves), but open to embrace each other in love. Yes, we are saved from the fiery judgement on our sinful self-love, but we are also saved for something glorious—we are saved for each other; we are saved for love.
Pr Png Eng Keat
September 12, 2021