Salvation Labels

Why are all our labels for salvation awkward? We say that someone “got saved” or “was born again” or “invited Jesus into their heart” or “crossed the line of faith.” Yesterday, a missionary friend of mine posted on Facebook about someone in his community who “crossed over from death to life.” 

I always feel kind-of funny using the common titles for a salvation experience. The labels seem wonky, incomplete. Like referring to ISIS as “a nonprofit organization” or Gandhi "an activist” or Texas A&M as just “a college.” Not only are the labels incomplete, they are completely out of place in our cultural context. I think there are two reasons. 

First, the salvation experience is a matter of the heart, and we aren’t very good at talking about heart issues. We can talk about sin issues and behavior issues and even psychological issues. But we seem to lose our footing when we dive into the deep waters of the soul. This is true inside and outside the church. Our Western, Platonic, post-Enlightenment minds have trouble giving up control to our primal, eternal, God-thirsty souls. 

Secondly, the labels we use for salvation tend to be much too discrete, as if the experience of trusting Jesus is self-contained. A transaction. We treat salvation like an event that happened across a counter for which we might be able to produce a receipt complete with a time stamp. 

For many this is true. Very often, God seems to create scenes of surrender wherein people are asked to take a first step of faith. It happens in church pews and camp cabins and classrooms and mission trip vans all the time. Jesus himself spoke of redemption in a temporally discrete context. After all, he’s the one who coined the term “born again.” There is a sense in which the journey of faith begins with a step — a moment, immediate and clear, in which we must leave our nets and make that first sandy footprint in Jesus’ direction. 

But not always. Sometimes faith is less like pushing a button and more like discovering a bloom. Yes, sometimes Jesus shatters our false selves on the rock bottom of repentance, but sometimes he woos us with the whisper of rescue. 

Moreover our net-leaving must be understood as the beginning of a transformation more than the completion of a transaction. That first step toward Jesus is the beginning of a pattern of leaving things behind which we will repeat as long as we are disciples. 

Maybe I’ll coin a new term for salvation that captures all this in a less awkward way. Something short and pithy and up-to-date. Something that could go on a t-shirt or bumper sticker or one of those someecards Facebook posts. 

Yeah, that’s what we need.