Salvation is deeply personal, but there is no personal salvation.
I wasn’t trying to be funny. It just dawned on me to search for “personal savior” in my bible, both the NIV and NRSV. And, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s probably because it’s not there.
It freaks me out that Christians boil Jesus down to “my personal savior.” Using Jesus to get yourself into heaven just isn’t a biblical idea. In fact, if personal salvation shows up anywhere, it shows up as something that really couldn’t be anything but self-righteous. Consider Matthew 25:31-40. The King doesn’t recognize those crying “Lord, Lord.” He doesn’t know them. Why? It wasn’t because they didn’t “accept him as their personal savior.” Rather, they never met feeding, clothing, or visiting someone in need. Eternal life with Jesus just can’t be found on its own!
Also, consider Luke 18:9-14. In this parable, the Pharisee is praying in church. He’s praising God, grateful that he is not like that tax-collector. Of course, the tax-collector is crying out to God. He is a sinner. In their world, the Pharisee is righteous while the tax collector is not. The Pharisee keeps the law. He’s religious. He’s “saved.” We can all talk all we want about how we’re all sinners. But, it means nothing if our relationship with Jesus drifts toward self-righteousness. Today, neo-pharisees are secure about their place in heaven, separating themselves from others who are not.
But, what about eternal life!?
Eternal life is the inheritance of a life of faith in Christ Jesus. This is certainly biblical. But, seeking eternal life for yourself – for its own sake – is misguided, at best. At worst, it’s idolatry. In my experience, motivation to save your own soul from hell is a sneaky motivator. It takes the world’s self-interest and projects it into the eternal realm. Jesus slowly disappears from the center. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, faith in Jesus gets distorted. It becomes rationale for an undercover self-centered faith.
Here, reading the bible (and not just quoting from it) comes to our rescue.
The Gospels and Paul’s letters are constantly either quoting or dealing with giant themes of the Old Testament. Without the Old Testament, Jesus makes no sense. (Neither does Paul.) The Old testament provides the background to understand salvation. Without the Old Testament, it is near impossible to understand Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ministry. Moreover, the Old Testament is the testimony of God’s covenant walk with a people.
So, here’s my point: Salvation through Jesus Christ is about the salvation of the world, of people. It is about life together, not just about individuals. In short, salvation is deeply personal, but there is no personal salvation.
Our walk with Jesus, as personal as it is, is never separate from our walk with others. If you read Luke 4:16-20 (Jesus’ ‘mission statement’) or Matthew 5-7 (Jesus’ sermon on the mount), it is easy to see that everything “personal” about following Christ is inevitably entangled in our lives with others.
It’s true. At some point, we meet Jesus on our own. Many have a spiritual encounter. Some desparately seek God during a moment of bad decision, guilt, or when they face death. These are decisive moments. They are deeply personal. I believe God’s grace covers them all.
But, Christian faith isn’t about personal salvation. The point of Christian faith is not getting “saved,” if getting saved means getting a little piece of heaven for myself. If we take time to actually read the bible, a whole other story begins to unfold. God seems on a desparate mission: to bind up the broken-hearted, to bring good news to the poor and oppressed, to release prisoners, to bring to earth what is in heaven. This isn’t a self-centered or heaven-centered faith, but an earth-bound faith for life together.
Faith is a movement that brings God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s Kingdom into the world. This is salvation. Old Testament prophets call it Zion. In the New Testament, his name is Jesus. Either way, we’re all in it together. No body goes it alone.