Soteriology, or the study of salvation, is perhaps one of the most extensively discussed and debated subjects within the varied traditions of the Christian faith. The complexity of salvation theology emerges because of its dependence on the definition of other ideas like sin, justification, atonement, human nature and free will. The principle of salvation, when distilled to its basic definition, pertains to the saving or rescuing of humanity. This is why the term redemption is often used in conjunction with salvation. Christians, in a multitude of manners, express salvation as the basic act of God in Christ “saving” humanity from sin, death, ourselves and the Accuser (Satan). While the mechanics and specifics behind the nature of salvation differ across the spectrum of Christian thought, there is basic unity around the core. The dogma of salvation is that humanity has fallen into sin and out of perfect relationship with God and is therefore in need to be restored and brought out of this state of sin and bondage, which is accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate (both fully man and fully divine). It is through Christ that salvation is initiated and extended to all humanity.
This story, as explicated in Scripture, is often called “salvation history,” and we find that the details of this grand narrative begin in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), before reaching their climax in the New Testament. Let’s begin by examining a few instances where salvation appears in the Bible.
In the twelfth chapter of Isaiah, the author interjects a short word of thanksgiving to the Lord between discussions of judgment/righteousness and oracles of warning. This particular chapter emphasizes gratitude for the Lord’s protection of Israel from her enemies:
“Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; For the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. Therefore, you will joyously draw water from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12:2-3, NASB).
This excerpt comes from a portion of the book generally understood to be addressed to the Jewish people of Jerusalem before the time of the Babylonian Exile, whereas other parts of Isaiah address the Jews in exile (Isa. 40-55) and finally those living in the post-exilic period (56-66). When read in light of the Babylonian captivity that would come (a judgment that the prophet warned Israel incessantly about), the reader can see how the word salvation takes on an even greater significance. All throughout the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet decries the injustices of Israel and her neighbors, while calling the nation and her people to justice and righteousness. In spite of the pitfalls of Israel, particularly her kings, Isaiah remains content in the justice and salvation provided by the Lord. While speaking of present salvation (i.e. deliverance, protection), Isaiah also anticipates a future one where a “prince of peace” shall reign, establishing a kingdom of justice and peace without end.
For Christians, the Hebrew idea of salvation carries a powerful sense of continuity from the times of the old covenant to the new. We often sing or speak about Jesus with words from the ninth chapter of Isaiah, where the unidentified future prince of peace is called “Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace.” Both elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and in Isaiah 12, the word for salvation is “Yeshua,” meaning “deliverance, prosperity, security or help.” We know that this was the very name by which Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) would have gone by. And so, Jesus’s name (Yeshua) was always immediately connected with salvation and deliverance (Jesus – Iesous – is the anglicized Greek equivalent for Yeshua).
You may think to yourself that this is all well and good, but what exactly is salvation. Equally important, why and how are we saved?
The phrase “Jesus saves” is a common mantra in church culture and it reflects a truth that we Christians embrace as revealed to us in Scripture and in Christ’s life. But how often do we think about it and what it actually means? What does it mean to declare that “Jesus saves?”
For starters, salvation entails God’s rescue and redemption of humanity, as mentioned at the onset of this monograph. Salvation therefore, is the process by which God delivers and rescues human beings. Salvation is both a definitive act of God in the world and and ongoing process in our lives that involves the past, the present and the future of those being saved. An expression of the results of salvation is found in the classic passage from John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.“
We see here that God’s salvation plan (through the Son) involves saving humanity from death. This provides part of the answer to the why of salvation. In other words, what are we saved from? Death!
Those who follow Christ, know that Jesus is the center of this salvation story. We also acknowledge that Jesus Christ saves us from bondage, from the Enemy, from ourselves and from the decaying ways of the world. Ultimately, it is sin, in all its forms, that we are saved from (Romans 6:23). This is powerfully illustrated in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel when an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream to foretell of Mary’s conception and the coming birth of Jesus Christ:
“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NASB).
Throughout the Scriptures, we see again and again that humanity falls far short of God’s glory (Romans 3). Following the pattern set by Adam and Eve in the Fall, humanity drifts through history unanchored and aimless, without a point of divine reference. Whether through ignorance or rebellion, human beings have found themselves caught in destructive patterns of sin that harm ourselves, each other and creation. Thus, when Scripture declares that the wages of sin result in death, it is both spiritually and literally true. This is why the doctrines surrounding original sin, our broken human nature and the Fall are actually quite pragmatic. Sin can seem like an abstract and judicial term, but simply speaking, it is about our brokenness, our selfishness and our need to break free from a state of individual and collective iniquity. Furthermore, the universality of sin indicates the fundamental need to be saved, rescued and redeemed from ourselves and the captivity that the Enemy has entrapped us in.
To summarize then, salvation history incorporates the story of God, Creation and Humanity and Christ’s work to restore this interrelationship.
Romans 8:19-22 beautiful illustrates the longing for salvation, for liberation and for redemption that both creation and humanity have:
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (NIV).
A secular outlook on the nature of humanity is averse to the proposition that we are indeed filled with a longing that we cannot quite explain. But what accounts for the universality of our individual and collective searches for belonging, community and recognition? What accounts for the broken ways in which we seek for these needs to be met? These thoroughly human dispositions anticipate a spiritual dilemma that modern society is just beginning to identify. The religious impulse when divested from its root, which is Christ, quickly deteriorates into some form of imitation, whether political or theological. This is the experiential characteristic that Augustine identified to be part of the human condition, which is, “…inextricably linked with the fundamental issue of what it is to be a creature animated by desire, whose characteristic marks are lack and hunger, who is made to be this kind of creature by a central and unforgettable absence…” (Rowan Williams, On Augustine, Bloomsbury Publishing Place: London, UK. 126).
This is the uncertain ground upon which we stand. Yet, the foundation Christ offers, is the firm and eternal solution to that existential hunger; a hunger and a thirst which he offers to quench with his body, his blood and the living waters that flow from a life in him.
Williams, Rowan. On Augustine. Bloomsbury Publication Place: London, United Kingdom.