What Jesus Means By 'Saved'

Luke 23:32-43

What Jesus Means By ‘Saved’

March 25, 2018


          You drive along the interstate and see it on billboards: JESUS SAVES. Sometimes the sign will have the name of a church or organization, but often just those two words: JESUS SAVES. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner has written that those signs are a little embarrassing to him.1 Embarrassing, he says, because they remind him of old-time religion--pulpit-pounding, hyper-emotional, fundamentalist religion. Or perhaps they’re embarrassing, he confesses, because they remind him that he needs to be saved. Proud, self-sufficient, respectable as we are, there comes a time when all we can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” We don’t like to be reminded of that.

          JESUS SAVES, the billboards say. Personally, I’m not embarrassed by those signs—more uneasy, I’d say. Yes, Jesus saves—but what does that mean? There’s more to ‘Jesus saves’ than can fit on a billboard, more to it than you can take in at 70 miles an hour. As we’ve explored together these past few Sundays, ‘Jesus saves’ means

  • to be restored to community, to be made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized
  • to be accepted for who you are right now and who, by the grace of God, you may become
  • to notice when you’ve been healed, and to come busting back to Jesus like someone in love
  • to be saved, Rev. Michelle taught us, is to be transformed.

Yes, Jesus saves—but I worry those two words will get oversimplified and therefore misused.


          It’s happened before. Three times in the crucifixion story the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ is used to mock Jesus. As people cast lots to divvy up Jesus’ clothing, Luke says, the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” The Roman soldiers taunted him the same way, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals on the cross gets in on the act, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

          ‘Jesus saves’ is reduced to a way of mocking Jesus because they completely misunderstand what it means. ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean that he will rescue us from pain or give us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain; he saves by sharing our suffering.

          The other criminal on the cross gets it right. He accepts his suffering and simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” – with me. The message of the cross is that to be saved is not to be rescued from suffering: to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. Or perhaps better, to be saved is for Jesus to be with you in your suffering and beyond your suffering.


          And then as saved people, as people who are confidently with Jesus, we can in turn enter into others’ suffering. Because we are firmly in Jesus’ presence, we can share the pain of others. Being saved is not about getting our ticket to heaven punched; it’s about caring so powerfully for others that, like Jesus on the cross, we will not let them go.

          Back in December the Columbus Dispatch ran a long article about a group working on the South Side to try to stop the violence that led to last year having a record number of murders in Columbus. This group, led by several black pastors, marches and prays and encourages people and talks to folks on the street. One of the group members said, “These dudes on the street are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with guns. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die. So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. . . You’ve got to be present. Every day.”2

          The newspaper article is called “Saving Souls.” I think that’s exactly right. No, they’re not really preaching. They’re not trying to get people to believe this or that about God. They’re being with people. They’re entering into their neighbors’ suffering and pain. They are being Jesus on the South Side: and what Jesus does is he saves.


          ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean he rescues people from pain or gives us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain, by sharing our suffering. The message of the cross is that to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. And being saved yourself, to be Jesus to others.

          Let the billboards, let the church, let our lives proclaim it: Jesus saves!


1 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 59-69.


2 Holly Zachariah, “Saving Souls,” The Columbus Dispatch (December 22, 2017), F17-21.

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