Jesus Saves April 1997

How does Jesus save us?

Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson, who is Professor of New Testament at the Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, Georgia, USA, examines the New Testament to see how Jesus saves us. 'Not by freeing our souls from our bodies, or by adjusting the arrangements of society, but by transforming human freedom so that we can be in right relationship with God and each other'.

Christians have never had a hard time calling Jesus Saviour, but they have had a hard time agreeing on what that designation means. They have debated not only how Jesus saves but also whom he saves, and from what. The understanding of Jesus as Saviour, in other words, involves a more comprehensive construal of the human situation. One understanding of salvation is deeply rooted in the New Testament and in the Catholic tradition. That understanding, however, has faced severe challenge from two fronts, one ancient and one modern. Each claims a basis in the New Testament, but each is actually driven by an understanding of the human situation at odds with that found in the Bible.

Salvation in Gnosticism

In the second century, the version of Christianity called Gnosticism focused on the salvation of the individual soul from the body. The soul needed saving since it had fallen into the body by mistake or malevolence. In this system, only spirit is good. Materiality is evil. The spirit within humans, in fact, was a spark of the divine being that had become imprisoned in the flesh. It could be saved by being awakened, brought to knowledge of its true being, and liberated from the shackles of the flesh. Gnostics saw Christ as another spark of the divine light who came to proclaim the good news of individual liberation, which was that those who were already from the light could return through true knowledge back to the light - no surprise that the Gnostics liked the Gospel of John best, even if they did not read all of it carefully! Necessarily, then, the Christ was divine spirit, no less than the divine spirits he was sent to gather back to the light. But the role of Jesus in this system was ambiguous. The Christ-Aeon could be conceived of as using the human Jesus, but not as being incarnated, for the divine goodness could not be associated with evil materiality. Gnosticism had little good to say about ordinary human life or about social institutions. It was entirely individualistic. The point of salvation was the return of the divine soul to its source. A community could only impede, not help, such salvation. And the human Jesus is no more than a cipher for the revelation by which the sparks of light could fly back to their source.

Gnosticism was explicitly rejected in the second century, but it lived on within the tradition in such heretical strains as Monophysitism, which so emphasised the divine nature of Christ as almost to negate his humanity altogether. And the spirit of Gnosticism continues in those forms of Christian spirituality that concern themselves only with the salvation of the individual, with no care for the wider world at all.

Salvation in Liberation Theology

A second version of salvation is offered by contemporary Liberation Theologies. Now the human predicament is located not in the individual but in society. Sinful and alienating social structures keep humans from realising their full potential. Patriarchalism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, ageism, speciesism - these are the systemic patterns of oppression and marginalisation that engender and perpetuate the spiritual diseases of envy, competition, rage, violence and murder. Salvation will be accomplished when the social order reflects 'the rule of God' preached by Jesus and exemplified by his style of life, when people live together in an egalitarian, classless, inclusive, multicultural and harmonious society. In this understanding of salvation, it is not quite clear how God saves, except through the efforts of humans who work for such a social agenda; nor is it clear how Jesus is Saviour, except as his proclamation of the good news in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-32) and his beatitudes (Luke 6:20-24) sketch the agenda, while his embrace of the outcast among his people suggested how it might be fulfilled.

If the Gnostic understanding focused completely on the salvation of the individual and had no regard for the social order, the Liberation understanding gives little attention to the transformation of the individual person. Hope for a future life with God, indeed, distracts from the essential work of establishing the rule of God here and now in visible fashion. Just as the Gnostic movement in the second century so appealed to the dualistic mood of the age that it seriously challenged the orthodox position, so in the late twentieth century Liberation Theology has made very substantial inroads into Christian consciousness, at least partly because the orthodox understanding of salvation has been viewed (to some extent correctly) as perpetuating an individualistic and socially irresponsible spirituality. The popularity of the Liberation perspective can be seen in many of the recent publications devoted to 'the Historical Jesus'. Jesus appears in these books primarily as the reformer of the social order and the good news amounts to the vision of a society freed from every form of distinction and discrimination.

Oversimplifying salvation

The fundamental problem with both these understandings of salvation is that they oversimplify. First, they oversimplify the situation humans need saving from. Escaping our bodies or changing our social structures will not address the real issue, which is disease of the human heart, that distortion of human freedom that we call sin. Second, they oversimplify the witness of scripture. Rather than deal with the complex witness of all the writings, each understanding begins with an ideological standpoint and selects the passages and themes that can be fitted to it. Third, they oversimplify the story of salvation by taking away its relational character. In Gnosticism, human freedom is denied from the start, for the soul is fated to be imprisoned in the body or liberated from it. In its purest form, indeed, Gnostic salvation is really God saving God, since the scattered spirits/sparks are essentially fallen from the source to which they are to return. In Liberation Theologies human freedom again appears diminished by the central image of societal alienation and enslavement through systems of status and suppression: we are all victims of a social order that governs our existence. The role of God in salvation is likewise difficult to discern, appearing to be almost identified with the cutting edge of human social reform.

Salvation in the New Testament

To try to summarise the roots in the New Testament of the understanding of salvation that has been traditional in Christianity is also to risk considerable oversimplification. But some few points can be made by way of contrast to the alternative views sketched above. The first point is the most important, namely that the traditional understanding really does derive not from a philosophical analysis of the human condition or an ideological critique of society, but from the complex stories in the Bible itself. For this, Christians are indebted to Irenaeus of Lyons (late second century), who, in response to the speculations of the Gnostics, grounded orthodoxy in the narratives of the Old and New Testaments, showing that salvation was rooted in the history of a long relationship between humans and the God who created, called, chastised and finally graced them fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

The second point is that salvation involves the healing of a relationship between God and humans that only God can accomplish. God alone saves. The implication of this is that both God and humans are persons, that is, they have the freedom to direct their knowing and love towards others. But declaring that God alone can save, that is, heal this relationship, implies also that human freedom is so enslaved by sin that it cannot direct itself properly. Sin is not a matter of the spirit being polluted by the body, nor is it a matter of people being enslaved by an unjust social order. It is a disease of freedom itself that is so profound, so complex, so entrenched, so enslaved, that only God - who has created us as free creatures - has power enough of knowledge and love to redirect that freedom rightly. Salvation is not about getting right knowledge of the self, nor about creating the right political order: it is about being in right relationship with God. And only God can make that relationship right.

Jesus as Saviour

If God above all is Saviour (Luke 1:47; 1 Tim 1:1; 2:3; 4:10; Tit 1:3; 3:4; Jude 25) and salvation comes from God (Luke 1:69, 71, 77; 3:6; Acts 28:28; Rom 1:16; 10:1; 1 Thess 5:9; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1 :5; Rev 12: 10), then the designation of Jesus in the New Testament as Saviour (soter) is of tremendous significance (see Luke 2:11; John 4:42; Acts 5:31; Eph 5:23; Phil 3:10; Tit 1:4; 2:13; 2 Pet 1:11; 2:10; 1 John 4: 14). It means that God saves us through Jesus' agency. The New Testament has multiple ways of expressing this agency: Jesus is God's prophet (Luke 24:19; John 6:14), apostle (John 3: 16), Word (John 1: 1, 14) and, most frequently and intimately, God's Son (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:35; John 1:49; Rom 1:3; 1 Cor l :9; Heb 7:3; I John 1:3). Although the designation 'son' has obvious allusion to the relation of Israel with Yahweh (see Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15), when applied to Jesus it bears far deeper significance. It signifies not only that Jesus is the sort of human God desired, but also — and perhaps most of all — that Jesus was the very human face of God. The texts struggle to express this, saying variously that 'God sent his son' (Gal 4:4) or 'God was with him' (Acts 10:38) or that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor 5: 19) or that the Word 'that was God' (John 1:1) also 'became flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1:14). It is on statements such as these that the dogma of the incarnation is grounded, a confession that orthodoxy has defended against all diminutions, for if God has not entered into the fabric of human freedom to heal it, then it remains unhealed.

But that same conviction also led to the insistence on the full humanity of Jesus, for if human freedom is not touched by God neither can the relationship between God and humans be healed. Jesus was not simply the 'human appearance' of the divine, as the docetists would have it, or simply a fleshly vehicle for the divine word, as the Monophysites would have it. Jesus was 'born of a woman, born under the law' (Gal 4:4). He lived a true human existence from the cradle to the grave. As Hebrews says, 'Since, therefore, the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage ... because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted' (Heb 2:14-15, 18). The implication is that precisely through the disposition of his human freedom, precisely through the way in which he was human, Jesus was Saviour. If the alienation of sin is spelled out in the disease of freedom that distorts the relationship with God and thus all other relationships as well in an ever widening pattern that infects communities and societies so that they institutionalise the idolatrous impulses of the human heart (see Rom 1:18-32), then the saving presence of Jesus must begin with the way in which his human freedom expressed the right relationship with God and thus all other relationships as well in an ever-widening pattern of healing and reconciliation reaching even to the structures of human society. Hebrews, again: 'When he came into the world he said, "Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body thou hast prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou has taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God'..." 'And by that will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all' (Heb 10:5-10; see Rom 3:21-26).

For the writings of the New Testament, the words of Jesus do not by themselves save, even though 'no man ever spoke as this man' (John 8:48) and he had 'words of eternal life' (John 6:68). Nor do the deeds of Jesus by themselves save, even though they were deeds of healing and reconciliation, unless they were received in faith (see Luke 7:50; 8:50; 17:19 and Mark 6:5-6). More fundamental than words and deeds was the heart of the Saviour, his deepest orientation in the world, his most fundamental attitudes, in a word, the disposition of his freedom. Or, to put it another way, it was the character of Jesus the human person through which God brought salvation to all humans.

Despite the diversity of images for Jesus found in the New Testament compositions, they are remarkably consonant on their understanding of this character, Jesus' identity. He is understood as 'the righteous one' who lived by faith (see Luke 23:47; Acts 3:14; 7:52; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38; 1 John 1:9; 2:1), and who found the right directing of human freedom in the most radical obedience to the living God (Rom 5:12-21). That faithful obedience, in turn, was expressed by his faithful self-donation to his fellow humans. He is, simply, the one 'who gave himself' (Mark 10:45; Gal 1:4; 2:20; Eph 5:1, 25: Tit 2:14). The identity of Jesus was given its perfect and final expression by his death, which was not only the ultimate act of obedience to God (Mark 14:36; Phil 2:5-11), but also the ultimate expression of love towards others, 'for the son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45). By thus becoming 'the pioneer and perfecter of faith' (Heb 12:2), Jesus was himself perfected as the human Son of God, and 'became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him' (Heb 5:9; see Acts 4: 12).

For us and for our salvation

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as 'mediator' (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24) because in him God's offer of salvation and the human acceptance of salvation are joined. Paul says, 'The Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God' (2 Cor 1: 19-20). Through the resurrection, the power of God at work in Jesus during his human life, 'reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor 5:19), was poured out abundantly on others, enabling them to have the same 'faith that saves' that was distinctive to Jesus, for 'God has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit as a guarantee' (2 Cor 1:22). Those who live by this Spirit of Jesus, also walk by this Spirit (Gal 5: ] 6, 25), which means living according to the character revealed by Jesus: 'Bear one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ' (Gal 6:2).

How does Jesus save us according to the New Testament? Not by freeing our souls from our bodies, or by adjusting the arrangements of society, but by transforming human freedom so that we can be in right relationship with God and with each other. Since salvation in this tradition is relational, it cannot remain private; to be in right relationship with God demands also to be in right relationship with the world, beginning in communities that live by 'the mind of Christ' (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5), which means that 'each one looks not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others' (Phil 2:4) The classic Christian tradition has understood this to mean living out the identity of Jesus within a church that takes seriously 'walking in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us' (Eph 5:2).

In short, the Catholic understanding of salvation does not see it in oversimplified terms as either a flight from the world or a restructuring of the world, but in terms of the patient living through of complex life together in the world. Just as Jesus shows us a God who saves all humans by entering fully into the fabric of a highly particular human existence, defined and constrained by a specific time and place, and just as Jesus shows us a brother whose faith in God and love for others reveals the right direction of human freedom played out in the tangled web of difficult and intractable social realities, so are those who live 'by the faith of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us' (Gal 2:20) convinced by Paul's words that 'with fear and trembling you are working out your salvation, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure' (Phil 2:13).

And by so living, we dwell in hope of a future salvation as well (Rom 8:24): 'Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself' (Phil 3:20). As we now say 'Amen' to the Father through him in the assembly (2 Cor 1:20), we also long for the day when, as he came to be with us in our sorrow, we will be with him in God's joy (see 1 Thess 4: 13-18).

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