What Do We Mean By "Salvation?"
If the question "What does Salvation mean?" were asked in most Evangelical churches today the most common response would be "forgiveness of sins" or "going to heaven." There is wonderful truth in this answer. Humans are full of sin and Jesus did die on the cross as an atonement for the sins of the world. Likewise, we long for the consummation of eternal life in the presence of God.
This answer, however, falls short of the Biblical vision. It suffers from a subtle neo-Platonism that argues that Christianity is concerned with only the "spiritual." By spiritual is usually meant the non-material and non-physical. When pushed to an extreme this view turns the Christian life lived now into a waiting game. Waiting for either our inevitable death or the return of Jesus. It almost makes the present life unimportant.
The Bible, in both Testaments, understands salvation in a much broader way. The Bible understands God's work in Christ in terms that grant meaning to creation and the life we live now. David Lipscomb had a keen grasp on the wider biblical theology of the mission of Christ. He writes
The object of God's dealing with man, and especially the mission of Christ to the earth, was to rescue the world from the rule and dominion of the evil one, from the ruin into which it had fallen through sin, and to rehabilitate it with the dignity and the glory it had when it came from the hand of God; to restore man--spiritually, mentally and physically--to the likeness of his maker. (David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, p. 114)
If this understanding of the mission of Jesus is accurate then it means "salvation" is God's great restoration project. The Gospel of Luke indicates this is indeed an accurate understanding of the mission of God in Jesus. Luke, reaching back to the Hebrew Bible, paints the ministry of Jesus on the canvas of the great Jubilee motif.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news
to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor [Jubilee]."
(Luke 4.18-19, NRSV)
The use of the word "save" in the Gospels is instructive. Fully one fourth of the term "save/d" in the Gospels refer to Jesus' miracles. Among those "saved" by Jesus include the blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10.52) and the man with the withered hand (Mk 3.4-5). Luke uses the term "salvation" to describe the healing of the Centurion's servant (7.3), the sinful woman (7.50), the restoration of the demoniac (8.36) and the resurrection of a dead girl (8.50).
The story of Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus is demonstrative of the wider view Luke incorporates into the doctrine of salvation. Luke 19 narrates the story. This zealous tax collector had piled up riches through not so ethical means of collecting. But when he encountered Jesus he was radically changed. He returned four times the amount he had taken. He gave half of his goods to the poor. Luke quotes Jesus as saying "Today salvation has come to this house" (19.9). Salvation is painted with distinctive Jubilee colors and hues. Through healing the sick, feeding the poor and releasing the oppressed Jesus proclaims the good news. The good news of salvation which Luke describes as new life, wholeness, forgiveness and healing.
What is "salvation?" In the Bible salvation is the restoration of shalom to God's vandalized creation. Rather than only longing for heaven biblical salvation invests this life with profound meaning . . . our lives have meaning not just our "souls." God wishes to restore wholeness as we have witnessed in the ministry of Jesus. The Gospel is the story of the unerring love of the Creator seeking to reclaim his wonderful creation. So salvation is not just from sin but for the new creation.