"I thank God for the day he saved me from a life of sin and degradation, when I was five years old."
A little funny, right? My mother, however, with seven boys, might not have seen the humor. In fact, it's the actual testimony of a young man, given at a church.
While it's admittedly a little extreme - degradation at age five? - it reflects something of a concept of "salvation" that's very common in American churches. It's the "when I die I'm going to heaven but meanwhile just live like everyone else and hope heaven doesn't come too soon" syndrome. It's the idea that the focus of the gospel and our salvation is that some day we will go to "heaven," wherever and whatever that is. And there, we will ... do what? No idea. Our thinking doesn't go that far.
Some would suggest we will spend eternity praising God. That sure beats sitting around on a cloud, playing a harp. And in a sense, that would be right, but it won't be what most of us think.
One of the best pictures of "heaven" (what we call God's dwelling place) is in Revelation 4 and 5. There is a wonderful description there of the "throne room" of God. And in that room - which is set in the present, not some vague future time - are angels, people, and even animals, all engaged in worship before the throne of God.
The chapters are wonderful and fascinating. They tell us something about the reality of heaven, the realm of God, as opposed to the heaven that's a product of our imaginations.
But since we're speaking of now, of our present, we might ask, if the traditional concept of heaven is not biblical, then what about salvation? Just what does it mean to be "saved?
Salvation is not a point-in-time event, but rather is a restoration process. That is, it's a process to bring us back to the state for which we were intended. To understand that better, let's look at some scriptures, beginning in the beginning: Genesis. We'll focus on our purpose, or reason for being.
God created Adam, who was created in God's own image. Then God planted a garden or an orchard, and put Adam in it, to care for it. Here it is (Genesis 1:26-28):
Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
The part that interests us most here is in verse 28: "fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over ... every living thing." God created human beings - people like us - with a purpose. They/we were to represent God on this earth, caring for it, maintaining it, and exercising his delegated authority over the rest of creation. We were intended to be God's agents.
But that was then, Old Testament stuff, so let's look at the New Testament, to see if it was a universal responsibility, or one only for Adam and Eve.
First, John 20:19-23:
...Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." ...The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."
Notice three statements. First, as the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sends us. Pretty heavy stuff. But then notice that Jesus breathed on his followers and told them to receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the will of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. We fulfill the will of Jesus by that same Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we cannot be and do what the Father intends for us. Then note, last, the final statement: forgiving and retaining sins.
This is very important. Jesus got in trouble when he forgave people's sins. Why? Because only God can do that. Nobody else. And so God is in effect telling us that we have the authority and responsibility to act on his behalf, using authority that he delegates to us.
Second, II Corinthians 5:17-20:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
So now, we have seen the Genesis charge to care for that portion of creation we encounter on this earth, acting as God's agents in his creation. And we have seen Jesus saying he was sending his followers as the Father sent him, and telling them they would act in the place of and with the authority of God.
Then, through Paul, we see again that we represent God on this earth - ambassadors for Jesus - and that the message, the word of reconciliation, has been given to us, as though God were making his appeal through us.
This is a far larger picture than "someday, when I die, I'll go to heaven." Salvation is not only a "some day," future event. Salvation is also, even more, a here and now event, doing the work with which we have been entrusted, which is making Jesus alive and present in our world, and bringing to a greater fullness the kingdom of God.
And that's living the life for which we were intended. Hallelujah!