How does Salvation Work?
Here’s how salvation works in Christianity.
In Christianity, love is what saves. When Jesus is asked how to inherit eternal life, the answer is the the greatest commands:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
“Do this and you will live”, Jesus affirms. According to him, this is the summation of the Law and the Prophets, and the thing that makes one a child of God. It is all that has ever really been required.
But love is far harder than it seems. To love everyone—to embrace God’s concerns as one’s own—in the face of intense fear and violence and pain, is almost impossible.
This impossibility is what we see on the cross. Intense love persisting in spite of everything against it. Intense love persisting in spite of pain, fear, violence, and injustice. Intense love still concerned for those around it, still loving its enemies, still refusing to give in to hate.
To love like that requires faith.
This is why Paul can constantly talk about salvation by faith, despite insisting that love is the most important thing of all. Faith is what enables us to love, in spite of everything that tells us love is foolishness.
Faith is often expressed in concrete action.
The faith of Abraham was the willingness to leave his home and venture into the wilderness, in pursuit of God’s promises.
The faith of the Israelites was the willingness to cross the Red Sea, and leave their lives in Egypt behind.
The faith of the early Christians was the choice to embrace a crucified Messiah, and publicly identify with him.
The reason these concrete actions are important is that once we declare something, it tends to get heavily reinforced over time. To cross the Red Sea meant you were all in—there was no going back to Egypt. To identify with a crucified Messiah meant there was no going back to your old social life.
These kinds of concrete actions and declarations are how we establish our faith, our commitment to a certain path and a certain future. Having gone all in, we are able to do things we wouldn’t otherwise, we are drawn in certain directions, and immune to certain kinds of persuasion.
In the first century, this was played out in a concrete and dramatic way, as Jewish Christians remained immune to the nationalistic fervor that overtook the nation of Israel, leading to its horrifying destruction.
Christians were saved from that destruction by faith, as lived out in their public identification with a Messiah who warned against just such a path.
Perhaps this is what Peter had in mind when he evoked the story of Noah’s flood—the New Testament’s most pervasive metaphor for salvation. Noah was saved by choosing to build the ark, and then letting himself be sealed inside it, sealing his fate both figuratively and literally. Once the ark was closed, there was no going back.
This, Peter says,
“…symbolizes baptism, that now saves you…not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” (1 Peter 3:21)
As Peter explains, baptism did not save by doing something to the body, but by doing something to the mind. By pledging themselves to God in a public way, they were cutting themselves off from the life they knew, sealing themselves to a fate that could lead in only one direction.
This was an extreme and concrete expression of faith. If Jesus was wrong, they were history’s greatest fools—if Jesus was right, they would be history’s greatest victors.
But once the decision was irrevocably made, their resolve and their commitment to that direction would become stronger and stronger over time.
And then, in the moment of greatest tribulation, they would be able to stand their ground, hold on to their faith, and love like God himself loved. And that would be salvation.