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Saving Souls: Mission and Salvation

In Acts of the Apostles, Ellen White writes,

The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has been God’s plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory. The church is the repository of the riches of the grace of Christ; and through the church will eventually be made manifest, even to ‘the principalities and powers in heavenly places,’ the final and full display of the love of God. Ephesians 3:10. (Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, 9)

The church is a place where the message of salvation is proclaimed. But what does it mean to be saved?

I have for a very long time pondered the meaning of salvation and asked myself, What does it mean to be saved? Many of the people I have the privilege of getting to know through my work as a researcher and therapist seem to have the need to redefine salvation. I wondered what does the term “being saved” mean for these various populations? What does it means for sex workers to be saved? What is salvation to victims of human trafficking? What does it mean to experience the gospel for those in the deepest moments of depression? How about the people of Darfur?

According to the Associated Press, six hundred million children in Asia live in poverty and are deprived of such basic necessities as food, safe drinking water, health care, or shelter. Approximately three hundred million children below the age of eighteen lack more then one of these basic needs. What about them? What do we tell them about salvation? What will it look like for them to be saved?

These are hard questions but they are essential for us to ponder. Pondering the lives of these individuals makes me think about an often-cited quote: “Religion is for those who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for those who have been through hell.” A sex worker who traded her body for shelter and food so that her new born baby could have a place to stay and milk to sustain her body was not longing for the next life with streets of gold, voices of angels, the tree of life, or precious stones. She just wanted to survive, to be able to take care of her child, to offer her child a better future than trading her body for a room to sleep in and food on the table.

What do we say about salvation to a mother whose daughter has been trafficked to other countries? How do we tell a suicidal man that he needs to be saved when heaven is the furthest from the mind and he knows nothing but existential despair?

Meeting these people in real life makes me rethink the meaning of salvation. I have come to believe that to be saved is to be loved. God is love. And since sin is alienation from God, regaining love is realigning oneself with God, being discovered by God. It is being saved. The taste of salvation comes to us when we have the experiential, existential glimpse of that unconditional love.

I have been going through some rather difficult times in my life. The pain is deep and convoluted. There were many agonizing nights I spent on my knees begging God simply to say anything. But through this period there were people whose compassionate words and kind deeds gave me strength to move on. There are pockets of time where love becomes real through gentleness, kindness, compassion, and encouragement.

Love sustains. It gives meaning where the senselessness of life circumstances permeates our days. It saves especially in the depths of despair when one yearns for simple sanity and not the promise of the glorious paradise. Love makes life possible. To be loved is to be saved. Perhaps to many, this is salvation.

How is this understanding of salvation related to the call to mission? I think it has everything to do with mission. One of the most commonly cited texts pertaining to mission is John 14:6. When Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This passage is often referred to as the ultimate foundation for Christian mission because there is no other way to salvation except through believing in Jesus Christ. I have had numerous conversations with students struggling with this text within the context of religious diversity. What makes this text more complicated for me is the remark that I heard from my late professor, Brian de Alwis, while I did my graduate work in India: “Before any missionary ever brought the gospel to India, God has already been here.”

His comment makes me aware that God is present with all his people all around the world at all times. And he has chosen many possible means to communicate compassion and care in ways that may not even appear acceptable to us. Because of this perspective regarding God’s continual work in every part and every culture of the world, I have come to see John 14:6 differently.

Consistent with the view that to be saved is to be loved, I believe that when Jesus said, “I’m the way,” he was speaking about methodology. If anyone wished to come to God, they have to pursue Jesus’ way. This Way is the life that he lived, the life of compassion and care. The life of simplicity and sacrifices. The life driven by love and defined by love. When we actually are able to LIVE this life, we will slowly get a glimpse of God, of who God truly is.

It is not only professing or believing. The way to God is the Way of Jesus. It is the Way we live our lives committed to compassion. It is in the experience of compassion and the pursuit of the expression of the unconditional in our lives that we may come to know existentially who God really is. To me, this is an invitation to live and not only to tell. The mission here is the call to compassion because to be loved just may be the ultimate deliverance.

Viewing mission from this perspective helps me see more clearly what message we need to bring to the world. We become that bread to a hungry child, an advocate to victims of human trafficking, a resource to sex workers desiring a better life, the presence of comfort to a dying person, a listening ear to grieving parents, a cup of cold water to those who are thirsting. The gospel is in the act itself because it is love that saves.

Siroj Sorajjakool is professor of religion and psychological counseling in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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