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The Importance of Defining Salvation

by Bill Hull

Salvation is a big word that covers a great deal of territory. We talk about the need to be saved, or we ask people, are you saved? But what does that mean? What do we need to be saved from? Why do we need to be saved? While we inherently know that humankind is in a complex conundrum of trouble, the great minds of the world have been unable to come up with an answer.


God has provided an answer for us, but our churches also struggle with some of these basic questions. What we are saved from? What we are saved for? The popular understanding of salvation that dominates evangelical churches today has little connection with discipleship or life transformation. Dallas Willard once concluded, “Simply put, as now generally understood, being ‘saved’—and hence being a Christian—has no conceptual or practical connection with such a transformation.”[1]

This is a serious problem. 

Our understanding of salvation has been divorced from a commitment to following Jesus. Discipleship is relegated to the status of optional, an add-on to the normal Christian life. Many Christians today believe that if we would like to live closer to Christ, we should be more godly people and live a life of peace, joy, and goodness. That’s great. But in fact, people believe it is one of several options for those who are safe in the security of salvation. It is certainly not something for all Christians.

What is the motivation for becoming like Christ when doing so is no longer seen as a requirement for heaven? People believe that getting into heaven is simply a transaction based on acceptance of a doctrine, irrespective of any behavior change. Being saved is being delivered from the consequences of sin. But all too often being saved does not lead one to become the type of person who actually wants to be in heaven, let alone someone who would enjoy it.[2]

More on Defining Salvation

The truth is that if we are saved by acknowledging belief in a specific doctrine, and yet spend most of our life ignoring God’s will and using him for our own purposes, we are unlikely to want to be in heaven. If a taste of God and a God-centered life is too much for us now, what will we do with a full dose of God forever? If we don’t like God nor agree with him in the here and now, why do we think our desires will change with a change of scenery? If we think that God will someday change us to like him and want to be with him, we beg the question—isn’t loving him now a large part of being a follower of Jesus? And why should we do now what in the end God will do for us in an instant?

God wants willing disciples who love him and are eager to follow him. The notion that we can be saved without loving him is a plain falsehood (See Eph. 2:10). Yet this notion is the central problem we face in contemporary Christianity. Many Christians claim to be saved but have no interest in the ways of God.


[1] Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation,” transcript of a talk given at Wheaton College, 2008, 19.

[2] This is another way of agreeing with what Paul saw to be his task, “So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Col. 1:28–29 NLT).

This is an excerpt. Continue to follow this blog to learn more of Bill Hull's understanding of the meaning of salvation.


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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

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