What Do Christians Mean by ‘Salvation’?

What is salvation? This teacher went back to his grad school notes when one of his students asked an interesting question.

“Mr. Tenney, you said, ‘Jesus died for our sins.’ What does that mean?”

The question-asker, Danny, had arrived in my class from China only a few weeks before. Unlike his American classmates who all had some level of familiarity with Christianity, Danny knew almost nothing about any organized religion. 

I had been teaching ninth grade “Introduction to Catholic Christianity” for more than 10 years, but Danny was the first student to ask me this exact question. The phrase “died for our sins” is such a cliché in Christian-speak, I hadn’t stopped to think about how bizarre it would sound to someone like Danny.

The other students went still, sensing the depth of the question. Tyler spoke up: “Yeah, Mr. Tenney. What does that mean?” 

I said something like: “Well, whenever we do something that hurts someone, that’s called a sin. And it hurts us and pushes us away from God, and we need to be forgiven. When Jesus came to earth, he never sinned — but he was willing to love people even when they sinned against him, even when they killed him. He showed us a better way to live.”

Danny nodded and said “Thank you, Mr. Tenney,” and wrote something in his notes, but I don’t think he, nor Tyler, nor I, nor any of the students there were really satisfied with my answer.

That night, I scrapped my next day’s lesson plan and dove back into my old grad school notes on soteriology (the study of salvation) to parse together something that authentically captured Christian teaching but also would make sense to 14-year-olds. The next day, we discussed three things.

God the Father did not “take it out” on Jesus

I started by asking the students how they would explain the phrase “Jesus died for our sins.” It quickly became apparent that many students held a very harsh view of God. Many described God as some mix of Santa Claus and a law enforcement officer. In short, many explained that God was watching for you to screw up, and waiting to punish you when you did. But in the case of Jesus, God decided to punish Jesus instead. 

I asked, “What would you think of me as a father, if every time one of you made a mistake, I gave detention or a bad grade to my own child instead?” 

“That would be messed up, Mr. Tenney.”

And we unpacked how a lot of us grew up with an image of a cold God obsessed with rules and punishment, and that if the Christian story of a loving Father God is true, then something more must be going on. 

The ancient idols

Next, I pulled on their knowledge of ancient cultures from their world history class — Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Aztecs, etc — and how those people offered religious sacrifices of crops, livestock, and sometimes even other people. We unpacked how human sacrifice — which seems so barbaric and foreign to us — would have been a common and powerfully symbolic action to those of the ancient world. 

Next we dove into the Bible and saw how the God of Israel — though he asked for sacrifices as well — was different in two ways. First, he forbade human sacrifice outright. Second, physical sacrifices were symbolic of and secondary to spiritual sacrifices. Above all, the God of Israel asked for a contrite heart, justice in the community, and fidelity to Him alone.

The Bible tells us the Lord is a loving father. Where the gods of the nations were often callous, vindictive, petty, and barely aware of the lives of humans, the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Humans offered sacrifices to placate the gods, to sway their wrath or gain their favor. The God of Israel rather taught them how to live authentically human lives.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus Christ reveals a God who sacrifices for us — who does not ask us to kill and sacrifice our children like the gods of the nations, but is willing to accept onto himself all of the evil and awfulness the world could muster for our sake. This is a God we don’t have to beg for favor, but rather a loving Father who walks with us at every step. More than that, He came down as one of us and experienced the sufferings and trials that each one of us do.

At this point, I had their attention. I was in full preach mode and they were eating it up. That was until Marcus broke my vibe and said, “Mr.Tenney, I don’t really get it. We don’t have those gods anymore. What does this have to do with us? We don’t do those sacrifices and stuff.”

And in one of my proudest teaching moments, I didn’t have to say a thing because Jasmine chimed in.

Modern idols

“Oh, you don’t?” she said. Then she paused to make sure everyone was paying attention. “You didn’t just spend $200 on new Jordans thinking they would make you happy?”

Marcus’ friends snickered, “Damn boy, she came for your life.” 

“That’s different,” Marcus said.

“Is it?” I asked. “Jasmine, thank you for making that point. And Marcus, I’m not picking on you here because I’ve done the same thing. So thank you for your question, because it’s easy for us to feel like all this stuff from thousands of years ago doesn’t matter today. But if I’m honest, I still sacrifice for all sorts of ‘gods,’ hoping it will satisfy something in me.

“We all do it. Even Jasmine, I’m sure,” I said with a smile. She did her best “who me?” face. Marcus laughed.

“So the question for us Christians today is: When I’m feeling lonely, or down, or worthless, or restless, or envious, or bored, what do I turn to most of the time? Is it God? Or do I seek out something else?

“We may not have a shrine to the sun god in our closet, but I guarantee everyone in this room has something in your life that tempts you to worship it.” 

We went on to discuss the various false “gods” we still sacrifice for and pay homage to: money, other people’s opinions, various pleasures and experiences, celebrities, our technology, our education, power over our situation, control over other people. Not that all of these things are bad, but none of them can be our God. 

But if we daily place our hope and trust in Jesus and the victory he won for us on the cross, it sets us free from the gods of this world. Just like he set the ancients free from their idols and their sins, he sets us free from ours.

With five minutes left in class, I could see I had struck a chord with them. So I ended with a short prayer and asked them to do something that I’m also going to ask you, the reader of this article, to do as well:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Take out a scrap of paper and a pen, and write down an idol: 
    • something in your in life that tempts you to worship it;
    • something that promises you happiness if you get it, and emptiness if you don’t;
    • something you pour your energy, time, effort, hopes, and dreams into in an unhealthy way.

No one will read this but you. I’m not going to check it. You can throw it out as soon as you’re done if you want. You don’t even have to do it if you don’t want to.

When you’ve written down an idol, take another breath and write above it these words:

“Jesus came, and lived, and died, and rose again to free me from this.”

We can look to Jesus on the cross and know that if he can rise and conquer death, then by his grace, I too can conquer the idols that kill me. It proves the victory of God over the gods of this world. 

Even when I sin and give myself over to those idols, Christ’s victory on the cross proves the mercy of God in response to the worst human evils. If God, while hanging bloodied on a cross, forgives those who are torturing and murdering him, so too does he forgive us for the big and small ways we torture and murder ourselves and one another by following false gods. 

Lord Jesus, give me the grace to believe this and live it.

Author’s note: The names of students in this article have been changed. Also, a few years after this, Danny decided to get baptized in the Church.

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