Posted by: michaelhanegan | May 2, 2009

Towards a more Holisitic Understanding of Salvation…

This is the first post in what I hope will become a valuable discussion.

What is salvation?

Some of the responses would be…

  • Forgiveness of Sins
  • Eternal Life
  • Indwelling of the Holy Spirit
  • A Home in Heaven (when we die)
  • Membership in the church

But for the most part we tend to limit our discussions (and maybe this reflects a limited understanding on our part) of salvation to just a couple of metaphors.

James D. G. Dunn in his book, The Theology of the Apostle Paul gives a list of Pauline metaphors for salvation. Keep in mind this list is only from Paul’s writings and not the rest of the New Testament.

  • Justification
  • Redemption
  • Liberation and Freedom
  • Reconciliation
  • Waking Up
  • Night Turning into Day
  • Putting on or Taking off Clothes or Armor
  • Receiving an Invitation
  • Writing a Letter
  • Sowing and Watering
  • Irrigation
  • Grafting
  • Harvest
  • Seal or Stamp
  • Priestly Service (but not the person of “Priest”)
  • Circumcision
  • Washing and Purifying
  • New Creation
  • New Birth

Listen to the concluding thoughts that Dunn offers after this intriguing list…

Two lines of reflection emerge from consideration of such a kaleidoscope of images. One is that these metaphors bring out the reality of the experience of the new beginning for Paul. Evidently they all described something in the experience of his readers with which they could identify. Something had happened in their lives, something of major importance. Underlying all these metaphors was some tremendously significant event, a turning pointof great moment. One does not use images like birth, marriage, and death for everyday occurrences. They only function as images for events which are literally life-changing.

…it means that many of Paul’s first readers experienced the gospel as acceptance, liberation, or rescue, as cleansing and new dedication, as a dying to an old life and beginning of a new. There is little evidence that Paul preached for conviction of sin or to stir up feelings of guilt. Nevertheless, for so many of his converts the gospel was received and experienced as an answer to unresolved riddles, as a solution to their plight. In a word, Paul’s gospel met real and felt needs.

…the very different metaphors Paul drew upon were presumably attempts to express as fully as possible a reality which defied a simple or uniform or unifaceted description. There was something so rich and real in the various experiences of conversion which Paul’s gospel brought about that Paul had to ransack the language available to him to find ways of describing them.

…For the wide variety of metaphors presumably reflects a wide variety of experiences. Given that variety, it would be a mistake to take any one of Paul’s metaphors and to exalt it to some primary or normative status so that all the others must be fitted into this mould. … The danger is that the event of new beginning in faith comes to be conceptualized as of necessity following a particular pattern, the same for everyone.

…To attempt to dispense with metaphors or to reduce their poetry to the prose of clinical analysis would be as great a disservice as any that theology could be guilty of.

(Here he cites Fitzmeyer quoting: [Paul offers us] “not theories but vivid metaphors, which can, if we let them operate in our imagination, make real to us the saving truth of our redemption by Christ’s self-offering on our behalf… It is an unfortunate kind of sophistication which believes that they only thing to do with metaphors is to turn them into theories.”)

So how can we take into to account the “kaleidoscope” of images that we have for salvation to better understand just exactly what God does, is doing, and will do in the event/process that we call “salvation”?



  1. Hey Michael, I like it!

    Fits very well into the “Year of Saint Paul” that I’ve been posting about the last year and there are many deeper things that I believe the Lord is teaching His churches today about what the New Creation in Christ involves NOW.

    I’m reading a very stimulating book by a 34 year old guy in Georgia that has a pretty good start on the larger vision- “Christ In Y’All” (2008). He is giving away the e-book that basically is the same minus a chapter on taking a step back and seeing the big picture-what is the purpose of God in all of this. I recommend especially to Newbigin readers this book.

    John Paul Todd

  2. I’ve pondered this one for awhile. All I can share is my personal metaphor, which I believe God has given me to help my particular brain get a grasp on what he has done.

    Imagine a man at the bottom of a lake. For weeks. Months. Dead. An EMT swims down, pulls the cadaver to shore, and in a matter of moments, the guy is up and around, looking and acting normal. Wow!

    The saved guy thanks the EMT profusely, but in the next few minutes he finds out more and more of his own story – what he was saved from. Thanks turns to awe. Awe turns to following – he now wants the EMT to teach him these skills, so there can be two of them doing this for people on the earth.

    When I hear “salvation”, that’s what I think of. We were dead in sin, unable to even hear the call of God. Salvation is God’s prerogative, part of His story, His plan. There is much to rejoice about, and much to worship about.

  3. One thing that seems lost in the soteriological matrix among Western Christianity is the Eastern understanding of *theosis* which understands redemption as the restoration of what God created us to be and to live as.

    Grace and peace,


  4. Brad: that metaphor is AMAZING.

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