“How does salvation work?” This was the question I put to my father. He was a Seventh-day Adventist minister, he should know, right? I was ten years old and had just been baptized a few months before. I don’t remember the exact answer, but I know that it didn’t answer the question on my mind. Perhaps, as most young people, I wasn’t articulate enough to get across what I was really asking. But here’s what I was wondering: There are two “Christians,” they both go to church on Sabbath, they both give their tithe, they say the right things and do the right things, yet when Jesus comes one is “saved” and the other is “lost” – what makes the difference? Why does one go to heaven and the other dies the eternal death?
This question stayed in the back of my head for years. It wasn’t an obsession, but I always knew that my understanding of salvation didn’t make sense. Yes, there was an intellectual nod to the concept of salvation by faith and grace. But in reality, by word and especially by action, the message I received growing up was clear – your performance is the major deciding factor. If you did “bad” things, you wouldn’t be saved. But then on the other hand you could never be good enough to be saved either. I couldn’t see how anyone could make it.
One of the great things about teaching Sabbath School was that I could ask these kinds of questions of my class and get serious, thoughtful answers. Every so often this topic would come up and those who “get it” would try to explain it to those of us who didn’t get it. They laid the foundation for a great discovery that resulted from my involvement with a small group ministry that met during the week. Our small group had just finished a study and was looking for new material. One of our members suggested we go through the book, “Outrageous Grace: Finding a Forever Friendship With God” by Dwight K. Nelson. As we read through this book together I began to realize that I had been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “How does salvation work,” I should be asking “What is salvation?!”
It’s assumed that everyone wants salvation but we rarely stop to define it. When we think about salvation we usually think of it as living forever, having a pet lion, walking on streets of gold, and talking with interesting Bible characters. But through the input of my Sabbath School class and what our small group read in “Outrageous Grace” I was carried back to Eden. In my mind’s eye I imagined how the relationship between God and Man – Adam and Eve – played out. I could see them excitedly running to met God at the end of the day, sharing with Him what they had experienced and asking questions about what they had seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. I saw the pure pleasure on God’s face as He explained many of the wonders of His creation to them and how He guided their explorations. I came to realize just how valuable this relationship was to God; when sin shattered our relationship with Him, He was willing to do anything and everything to get it back. He would even die a cruel death if only that relationship could be restored. And then it hit me – that’s what salvation is: the restoration of our relationship with God! (See Romans 5:10 & 11 and 2 Corinthians 5:18 – 20.)
Once we understand what salvation is, all the questions about how it works fall into place. We can perform all the right deeds, say the right things, and look good doing it – but if we refuse to have a love relationship with God it means nothing. Our whole purpose, the reason God created us, was for us to be a companion with Him. We weren’t created to do tricks – to perform. God wants a real, forever friendship with us; He wants to share in our happiness, our curiosity, our enthusiasm, and yes, while we are here on earth, our heartaches and struggles. That’s what salvation is and how it works, and it starts right now – the moment you decide you want that friendship too.
Doug Drake’s father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Doug is a web developer in San Antonio, TX and developed the Laurel Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church website. He also co-leads a Sabbath School discussion group with Zvonka Jakopovic.