World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study V: The Experience of Salvation

The study guide My Neighbour's Faith and Mine: Theological discoveries through interfaith dialogue, was published by the WCC in 1986. Since then it has been translated into numerous languages and used widely.

01 January 1986

A. Biblical understandings of salvation

1. Texts
What do we mean when we use the term "salvation"? What do our neighbours of other faiths mean when they speak of salvation, or liberation? Do they use such terms at all? This question of salvation is perhaps one of the most difficult areas for inter-religious understanding and dialogue. The difficulty arises in part from the fact that definitive spiritual experience, which some may call "salvation" or "liberation", often is intensely personal and may not lend itself to verbal communication. In addition, such experience is so decisive that those whose lives have been transformed make exclusive claims to their way of or experience of salvation. We find that there are different ways of understanding salvation in the Bible itself. Consider the following passages:

a) And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honour your father and mother'. " And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth." And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. " And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."
Mark 10.17-27

b) The jailer called for a light, rushed in, and fell trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas. Then he led them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your family. " Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.
Acts 16.29-32

c) He (Jesus) stood up to read the scriptures and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty
to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to set free the oppressed
and to announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.

Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And all the people in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him, as he said to them, "This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read."
Luke 4.16-21

d) I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,... for the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies. For we have been saved in hope. . . For I am sure that neither death, nor life,... will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8.18-24, 38-39

2. Comment
The Bible speaks of salvation in many ways. Consider, in its own context, each of the texts given above. What does each say about the nature of salvation, the way of salvation?

In the conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler there are references to "eternal life", "salvation", and "belonging to the kingdom of God". Do these refer to the same reality? What does each of these terms suggest?

As for the way of salvation, Jesus invites people to "follow him". Both obedience and renunciation seem to be required. And yet Jesus insists that salvation is something that God alone offers, even when it may seem impossible to us.

In the story of Paul and Silas with the jailer, however, we see a different emphasis. There is an invitation to "believe in the Lord Jesus" as a way of salvation.

In Jesus' sermon at Nazareth, the concept of salvation was given yet another dimension. Here salvation is spoken of in terms of "liberty to the captives", "the recovery of sight to the blind", and "setting the oppressed free". This broader dimension of the Christian understanding of salvation has certainly influenced many of the social and political movements in history.

In the last passage, St Paul speaks of salvation in cosmic terms. He related the longing of the individual to become a child of God with the groaning of the whole creation to be set free from its bondage. Here the individual's salvation is linked to the redemption of the whole created order.

In actual experience, Christians speak of salvation through Christ in many ways. To some it is the personal assurance that "my sins are forgiven". Others see salvation as evidenced in a transformed quality of life and values. Many Christians understand salvation in terms of a "heaven" beyond this life. Others insist that whatever may lie beyond this life, salvation certainly has to do with the establishment of God's kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace here on earth. Christians have also differed in expressing their understanding of the way to salvation. In answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" we are told "observe the commandments", "follow me", "give away all you have to the poor", "believe in the Lord Jesus", "set free the oppressed".

3. Discussion and questions
Return to some of the questions raised in the first paragraph of this study, and discuss them in the light of the above readings on salvation. As you discuss the understandings of salvation presented here, add other images or notions of what salvation means from your own experience.

a) How do you understand the term "salvation"'? Which of the above understandings is most meaningful to you?

b) What understanding of salvation will help us as we attempt to appreciate the spiritual experience of people of other faiths?

B. Other testimonies of salvation

1. Texts
Having discussed some Christian understandings of salvation, let us listen to a few testimonies of persons of other faiths. The first is an account by a Hindu of how God's love and grace overwhelmed him. This is taken from the much-loved poetry of the Tiruvachakam, which plays a central role in the prayers and devotions of the South Indian Shaiva Siddhanta tradition.

a) I was an insignificant being, worth nothing, attaching myself from birth to birth to the grass, worm, tree, to bird, beast, demon, man, asura, sage, and deva. Embedded fearfully in ignorance and falsehood, ensnared by deluding values that intensified my suffering and travail, I played on the sands of time, a puppet under the sway of the deceptive senses. Life's "partings and meetings", its change and decay within and without confused me, till I grew weary and oppressed. It was then He endowed me with unquenchable yearning for "release" from the myriad perils of human existence, and enlightened me in the stupor of darkness. My God-Guru, peerless Gem of lustrous light, impregnated me with divine Love and cut asunder all earthly ties and made me "His own, His very own!" and led me to the Rock of Grace, from whence, I contacted directly the Sun of my Soul!

From Ratna Navaratnam, Tiruvachakam, the Hindu Testament of Love, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1963, pp. 63-64.

b) In the following passage, a contemporary Buddhist writer gives a different perception on "salvation", or the spiritual goal of life, and how it may be achieved.

Soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha exclaimed: "Like a man lost in dense forest suddenly coming upon a track, a path, an ancient, forgotten path that led him to a city long lost to view, so have 1, O monks, discovered a Way, a path. It is the Way revealed by the Buddhas, long lost to man in the wilderness of his thoughts... "

With the discovery comes light; with light comes clarity; and with clarity knowledge beyond doubt, uncertainty and fear. "Unshakeable is my mind, " declared the Buddha to Subhuti, for he has penetrated beyond speculation and conjecture. "The Tathagatha has no theories, O Vaccha! He has penetrated the nature of perception. He sees forms, the arising of forms and cessation of forms...

The Buddha had no use for belief in his preaching during his ministry - which lasted for about 45 years. He never called upon a hearer to believe. In this dispensation one does not have to accept a set of beliefs to begin with... The goal of Buddhist meditation is insight; that is, to penetrate through the appearance and at the reality of every phenomenon that comes within the field of attention. There is nothing secondhand in this process; no passed-over truth; no handed-down belief. One has to work for oneself - it is your own adventure...

In Buddhism sanctity is not hidden in a book, in a person, in a temple, or in a mantram or phrase. But one comes to that which has true sanctitude by cleansing the mind of impurities, by refining it through right views and then making it subtle by right meditation. The mind made pure, refined and subtle leads to saintliness, bliss and blessedness.

Ven. M. Sumedha Thera, "An Analytical Aspect of the Buddha Dharma", in The Young Buddhist, 1977, pp. 30-32.

c) The notion that God seeks out and embraces those who follow Him is made clear in the famous and oft-quoted Muslim Hadith, which is ascribed to God: "If my servant draws nearer to Me by a handsbreadth, I draw nearer to him by an armslength, and if he draws nearer to Me by an armslength, I draw nearer to him by twice that distance. And if he comes walking to meet Me, I come running to meet him" (al-Bukhari, Sahih, Book 97, Section 50, Hadith 1). The experience of having been met, touched, and transformed by God is told by many of the Sufis, such as the tenth century al-Junayd:

Now I have known, O Lord, what lies within my heart; In secret, from the world apartmy tongue hath talked with my Adored.

So in a manner we
united are, and One;
Yet otherwise disunion is our state eternally.

Though from my gaze profound
deep awe hath hid Thy face,
In wondrous and ecstatic Grace
I feel Thee touch my inmost ground.

A.J. Arberry, Sufism: an Account of the Mystics of Islam, London, Allen & Unwin, 1950, p. 59.

d) In the Passover seder, Jews affirm that the Holy One, blessed be He, not only redeemed the children of Israel long ago, but redeems us in every generation:

Therefore, we are bound to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honour, bless, extol, and adore Him who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He has brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to holiday, from darkness to great light, and from bondage to redemption. Let us then recite before him a new song: Hallelujah!

The Passover Haggadah, N.H. Glatzer, ed., New York, Schoeken Books, 1953, p. 51.

2. Comment
Testimony to the experience of God's grace, love, and saving power is not unique to Christians. The texts presented here show different aspects of the issues faced when we think theologically about salvation in the context of other faiths.

The Muslim texts attest not only the human experience of being touched by God's grace, but the divine intention to seek out the soul that inclines in the slightest towards God. The Passover Haggadah attests to the experience of every generation of Jews of having been brought "from slavery to freedom", "from bondage to redemption".

3. Discussion and questions
Discuss these texts together, adding to them the experiences and insights that those in your group are able to bring to the understanding of them.

a) What questions and insights do we gain as we listen to the testimonies of salvation, liberation, or redemption from people of other faiths?

b) In your experience, how do friends of other faiths speak about such decisive spiritual experiences as salvation or liberation in their tradition?

c) How can we deal theologically with the experience of salvation, liberation, redemption, etc. to which persons of other faiths hear testimony? Christians maintain various attitudes towards the salvation of people of other faiths, i.e.:

* Some maintain the position that only the confessing community of Christ is saved. It used to be said that "outside the church there is no salvation". As one such theologian put it, "If they die without knowledge of Jesus Christ, they perish."

* Others have taken the position that because of God's providence and goodness, God's saving designs must extend to all people. People of other faiths may indeed be saved, but in this view they are saved by Christ, whose grace is the constitutive cause of salvation. Christ is the Way that includes all other ways.

* Still other Christians are critical of such an inclusivist insistence that our neighbours are saved by Christ, whether they know it or not. This, they feel, is spiritually patronizing and does violence to our neighbours' self-understanding. They may also disagree with the exclusivist claim. As one group of the United Church of Canada put it: "If there is no salvation outside the church, we reject such a salvation for ourselves. We come to this notion of the salvation of others through being loved by Christ. We would be diminished without the others as others."

What do you think about the various attitudes sketched above? Do people in your group recognize one or another of these attitudes as their own'? Can you state these attitudes more fully in your own situation? Are there other attitudes that people in your group hold?

d) Other faith traditions also make claims to the uniqueness of their spiritual path, their relation to God, or their experience of redemption. How do we respond to these many claims to uniqueness? Can each be unique in its own way? How can religious people live together with these claims?