There are several passages in the New Testament that describe Christian salvation in terms of before-and-after. One such text, Titus 3:4–7, was featured in the Common Lectionary reading for Christmas Eve and Day. The contrasts in these texts are perhaps a bit overdrawn, but they are nevertheless real, and they highlight what the early Christians primarily meant when they spoke of God’s salvation.
Christian salvation means, according to these before-and-after texts, that in Christ and through Christ, we Christians are liberated from negative attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to relationships, communities, and our own souls, as we learn new ways of relating to one another in grace, kindness, and love patterned after Christ. This process of transformation is Christian salvation, not just the result of it.
Christian salvation is not something separate from Christian discipleship. It’s all one piece. Incorrectly, Christian discipleship has been understood by many American Christians as the consequence of salvation, or something in addition to salvation. This is usually expressed as: We are first saved, and then we are called to a live a Christian life. No. Such a distinction would have been inconceivable to the early Christians.
God calls us to a life of devotion and service in partnership with the Spirit of Christ, and God enables us to realize this calling by delivering us from all those destructive and alienating attitudes and behaviors that diminish and destroy relationships and community. Our living out this calling through the power of the Holy Spirit is what the New Testament calls salvation. When Christian preachers and teachers make salvation primarily about “going to heaven” they do the church a great disservice.
Christian salvation (this process of transformation) is a gift, but like any gift, to be of any use it must be appropriated. According to the text in Titus 3, it is appropriated through the renewing, regenerating, cleansing power of the Holy Spirit that has been generously given to disciples.
The experience of Christian salvation comes about, then, as we are able to surrender to the wooing, speaking, and leading of the Holy Spirit through courageous trust. It’s largely about letting go of control, and the courage to become what God wants us to be.
Author Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she volunteered at a shelter for abused children. One day she met Billy, a boy with spiky brown hair and pale eyebrows to match his pale face. The only life in him, says Kidd, was a thirsty look in the half-moons of his eyes. He’d been horribly wounded and was reluctant to go beyond the security he’d found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he shrank against the pillow on his bed and refused to leave the room. Kid pleaded, “Aren’t you coming to the party?” He shook his head.
But then the volunteer beside her spoke up: “Sure you are, Billy. All you need to do is put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up. The thirsty look in his eyes, says Kidd, seemed to drink in the possibility. “Okay,” he finally said. The volunteer helped him put on an imaginary suit of “courage skin” and off he went to the party, willing to trust and risk beyond his secure places.
Christian salvation is rooted in surrender to and trust in the Christ Spirit, who beckons us to join his party. Christ is the lure, calling us forward. We needed a witness. We needed to see the love of God embodied in flesh and blood. With the advent of Christ, “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” showing us the way.