And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 16:31).
Salvation, or being saved, represents a major aspect of the identity and message of Christianity. “Salvation” and its associated terms are used so freely and frequently as to become automatic and even trite. Many speak about how they “got saved,” and “Jesus saves” is one of the most common ways people attempt to communicate the Gospel.
“Salvation” is widely known and recognized, but how well and deeply is it properly understood and internalized? Many people think of salvation entirely in past terms, involving initial conversion and little else, and guaranteed without any caveat or possibility of loss; such a view is spoken of as eternal security or “once saved, always saved.” Others think of salvation primarily in future terms, involving the return of Jesus and the day of Judgment, and maintain great trepidation about their prospects of salvation; perhaps we can describe such a view as “if saved, barely saved.” Some presume God is the only Actor in salvation; others seem to presume that God’s salvation is mostly dependent on humans. Therefore, even though most people recognize that “salvation” and “being saved” are important aspects to Christianity, there is a lot of dispute and little agreement on what it means to be saved in Christ.
What is salvation? The basic concept, as expressed by Thayer in his definition of the Greek sozo, is “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction.” You do not participate in this kind of saving at a store; the core idea of salvation is “rescue.” When the New Testament speaks about salvation we do well to think in terms of rescue.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ demands the recognition by all people that they have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and on their own are not capable of regaining their standing before God (Romans 3:1-23, Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). While in the world we are all sinful, weak, ungodly, and hostile toward God; in His love, grace, and mercy, God provided the means of reconciliation back to Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:4-18, Titus 3:4-8). Thus our salvation is really our rescue: we could not save ourselves, so God proved willing to rescue us through Jesus. This good news about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship was proclaimed throughout the known world in the first century.
Many who heard this good news recognized its truth and sought to respond accordingly (Acts 2:37, 16:30). The Apostles expected them to believe that Jesus is the Christ, to confess that belief, to change their hearts and minds so as to follow Jesus in repentance, to be immersed in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of their sins, and to follow Jesus as disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, 16:31, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 2:3-6). Such people responded in faith to God on account of what He did for them (Ephesians 2:8-9); they recognized that they could not save themselves but knew that they needed to entrust themselves to God if they wanted to be saved, and trust demands response and effort (Romans 1:5, 6:14-23, James 2:14-26). We understand this in terms of rescue: if a person is drowning and is tossed a lifesaver, he or she must grab ahold of the lifesaver if s/he will be rescued. No one thinks they have rescued themselves simply by grabbing ahold of that lifesaver; they know their rescue was dependent on the efforts expended to get that lifesaver to them and to bring them to safety. But if they had not grabbed the lifesaver, they would have drowned!
The moment of conversion leads to “initial” salvation; at that point the Christian has been restored in relationship and reconciled back to God through Jesus, and is part of the “saved” (Acts 2:47). Even so there remains a real sense in which salvation is not yet complete. Peter captured this sentiment well in 1 Peter 1:3-9: the Christians of Asia Minor were “born again to a living hope” through Jesus’ resurrection and were being “guarded through faith,” yet “for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time,” standing firm and going through trials of faith so as to obtain the “outcome” of their faith, “the salvation of your souls.” Peter does not deny the reality of what we call “initial” salvation yet clearly is looking forward to the full consummation of salvation when the Lord Jesus returns: our “final” salvation.
We can again make sense of this picture by means of “rescue.” A drowning person who has taken ahold of the lifesaver has, in a sense, been rescued, but remains in great danger while still in the water. Their rescue is not complete until they are taken out of the water and given medical attention. If at any point the person let go of the lifesaver they would be back in the same danger they had been in before and could still perish!
Thus it is in Christianity as well. Despite the smooth words of many preachers the New Testament provides many and clear warnings about the dangers of falling away after receiving “initial” salvation: Matthew 7:21-23, 25:14-30, Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22, among others. This does not mean God does not want to or is not able to save Christians; God wants all to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Instead, as can be seen throughout the history of God’s involvement with mankind, the people of God have frequently rebelled against Him despite His faithfulness and covenant loyalty, and have received the consequences of their disobedience (Romans 11:17-22). Our rescue is not permanent or final until we have reached the end of our race and have obtained the crown of glory from God in Christ; we must persevere to the end (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
God does want us to be saved, and despite our propensity toward rebellion He has gone to great lengths to accomplish salvation for us (Romans 8:31-39). If we seek to follow Him according to His purposes we ought not live in perpetual fear of imminent condemnation; He loves us and is more powerful than the forces working against us (1 John 4:3-4). God is presently accomplishing our rescue in Christ, delivering us from the dangers of the world so that we may conform to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29, 12:1-2). We can know in Christ that we are saved now when we obey Him according to His purposes revealed in the New Testament; but we also must know that our salvation is not yet complete, for we have yet to obtain the glorious inheritance which comes as the outcome of our faith (Romans 6:15-23, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us entrust ourselves to God in Christ and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry