Some friends gave us a GPS as a Christmas gift last year. I promptly changed the default voice to that of an English gentleman and dubbed him “Nigel.” For an Englishman, Nigel is uncommonly excitable. Whenever we miss a turn, he scolds us: “You’ve left the winning way!” When we arrive at our destination, he exclaims happily, “You’re a winner!”

Some friends gave us a GPS as a Christmas gift last year. I promptly changed the default voice to that of an English gentleman and dubbed him “Nigel.” For an Englishman, Nigel is uncommonly excitable. Whenever we miss a turn, he scolds us: “You’ve left the winning way!” When we arrive at our destination, he exclaims happily, “You’re a winner!”



Nigel has proved helpful, but there is no getting around the fact that he can be annoying. So I usually only turn him on when I am on a trip. Often when I first let Nigel out of his compartment, I find him disoriented. The GPS reads, “No available signal,” and Nigel uncharacteristically has nothing to say. Without a signal, he doesn’t know which way is up.



I’ve been in that place. Out in the woods or on some remote Canadian lake, I have temporarily lost my signal. Then I find myself uncertain about my location and in doubt about which way to go. Since I cannot just stand still, I go with what feels right. Don’t jack pines lean toward the north? Or maybe moss grows on the north side of trees. I can’t remember.



I may not be sure about the direction I want to go, but I usually have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to leave behind. I may not know where camp is, but I am confident about where it isn’t. In other words, I know my departure point, but I don’t know my destination.



Throughout much of my life as a Christian I lived this way. I didn’t know where I was headed, only what I wanted to leave behind. I knew I ought to get away from sin — that is what the church told me, and what I believed — but I rarely thought about where I ought to head.



I knew that sin — which I defined as lusting, smoking, drinking, swearing and lying — was wrong. I didn’t want to go there, but my internal signal was frequently lost and I didn’t really know which direction I ought to be headed. I would start off by moving away from sin, only to find that I had looped back around and was once again bound in its direction.



I had somehow got the idea that it was the things a person did not do that made his or her life “Christian.” This, I believe, grew out of a serious misunderstanding about salvation. I understood salvation in terms of getting into heaven after one dies. The obstacle to salvation — to reaching heaven — was sin. God’s forgiveness cleared away the obstacle, but continued sin (at least some Christians I knew taught this) might barricade heaven all over again.



I soon realized that the last part of this “doctrine of salvation” was hotly debated. Some of the Christians I knew believed that once you were saved, you were saved — nothing could stop you from getting into heaven. Other Christians I knew believed a person could lose salvation by continuing to practice sin. Each side argued passionately and biblically for its position.



It was obvious that both sides could not be right, but it was many years before I realized that both sides could be wrong. They argued about whether salvation — going to heaven when one dies because of Christ’s merits and in spite of one’s sins — was permanent. But both sides took for granted — and here lies the problem — that going to heaven is what salvation is all about.



But “going to heaven when one dies” is a woefully inadequate description of salvation. In biblical terminology, salvation is something we now share and are currently receiving — we are “being saved,” as the biblical writers put it. Salvation begins now and extends beyond death.



From what are we saved? The biblical answer is from sin and corruption, and God’s inevitable response to them. But salvation is not just from something, but for something. That is what I somehow missed. There is a direction to head. We can lock onto a signal.



In salvation God preserves people for the age to come, but he also equips them for the here and now. Heaven (in biblical thought) is the result, not the goal, of salvation. When we lose sight of that basic fact, we’ve “left” (I can hear Nigel say it) “the winning way.” And then no one wins — neither the Christian nor the world he or she is being equipped to bless.



Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at salooper@dmcibb.net.