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The earthly good aspect of salvation overlooked

Paul Graves

When I began full-time ministry 45 years ago, one preacher-centered cliché I heard on occasion was that preachers were “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good.” I believed just enough of its truth that I determined to be more earthly good than heavenly minded. Eventually, my understanding of Jesus confirmed this.

Yes, friends, as reported in all four Gospels, Jesus spent much more time and energy preaching and living the kingdom of God as an earthly effort than as an afterlife. Yet the historical church – especially today – seems so obsessed with heaven that we, too, often forget our job as Jesus-followers is to nurture God’s kingdom right here … now.

So, what if there’s more to “salvation” than we usually settle for? Well, there is more, a great deal more.

First of all, salvation is not just a code word for getting our tickets punched for the heaven-bound train. Yes, it’s true that many Jews in Jesus’ time believed in an afterlife. Their earthly lives were filled with oppression and persecution.

Like countless people today, they dreamed of a time when they could escape their horrid daily lives.

While Jesus believed in an afterlife, he didn’t emphasize it like he did living whole, healed lives now. Salvation is a here-and-now word that comes from its root meanings: “healing,” “wholeness.”

Secondly, biblical salvation was not just a personal concept. Salvation was about community, a life of full peace and justice together with other people. Social healing takes incredible work on everyone’s part.

Jesus lived against the grain of society. His call to his followers, then and now, is to live the same way. It seems to be the only way God’s kingdom of healing and wholeness (salvation) will be experienced by all.

Many years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted St. Augustine: “God without us will not, as we without God cannot.” He then spoke of both the personal and social dimensions of salvation.

In his reflection on Tutu’s speech in “The Heart of Christianity,” Marcus Borg wrote this: “Without us, without our response, God will not transform us or rescue us, either as individuals or societies. We without God cannot bring about transformation. But God without our response will not bring about transformation.”

In the same book, Borg also says something else of great importance about how we trivialize salvation by emphasizing “individuals ‘going to heaven’ because they have believed or done what is necessary. In the richer sense … the Christian life leads from sin (brokenness) to salvation (wholeness) – from living within our predicament to living in a transforming relationship with God.”

Here’s an exercise you might find revealing. Look at some of the specific images of Jesus you find in the Gospels: Jesus as “light of the world,” as “bread of life,” as “living water.” You get the idea? These and other images point to a type of salvation for living here-and-now, on Earth. You might also reflect on when those images save/heal us from something in order that we are healed to do something for someone else.

Each speaks, even if indirectly, to the healing and new wholeness of a person, of a relationship between persons or between persons and God. Those relationships are of a social nature. They are relationships whose impact can radiate out into the community to bring healing and wholeness to large social issues.

There is so much more life that lives within the word “salvation” than we settle for. Embrace the earthly work God calls you to recognize, internalize, and then do! Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at
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