"Save" is a word we often use. But what does "salvation" mean for Christians?
We don’t often use the word “salvation” in everyday life. More familiar to us is its verb form: to save.
“Thanks for saving me a spot in line.”
“I was able to get out of debt and save some money last year.”
“Saving Private Ryan is a powerful film.”
“The cancer treatment saved my life.”
“The rapid response of the firemen saved the house.”
“Did you save your work before the computer crashed?”
In all of these cases, “to save” means something like “to keep safe or rescue from danger or loss.”1
Salvation in the Bible
The historical narratives of the Bible use the words “save” and “salvation” in similar, nonreligious ways. Consider several passages from the Old Testament, which was originally written in Hebrew:
- “Joseph said to the people, ‘Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.’ ‘You have saved our lives,’ they said. ‘May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.’”2
- “The Gibeonites then sent word to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal: ‘Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us! Help us, because all the Amorite kings from the hill country have joined forces against us.’”3
- “Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, ‘I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.’”4
Or consider several examples from the New Testament, which was first written in Greek:
- “Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. . . . We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.”5
- “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’”6
In these passages and others, the Bible describes people looking for salvation from armies, enemies, famine, slavery, tragedy, illness, and death. The world was a dangerous place to live at that time; it still is in many places today.
But the most prominent and famous biblical references to salvation and being saved have deeper theological overtones. The Bible speaks of a spiritual salvation that all people need.
Salvation and Our Souls
Ancient Hebrew and Christian authors suggest that we need to be saved from sin. Sin is the practical outworking of our selfish choices. This means, ultimately, that we need to be saved from ourselves. If left to my own selfish desires, my pride, greed, self-righteousness, impatience, and a host of other bad attitudes and behaviors would not only make my life miserable, they make everyone else miserable as well. And if everyone else also pursues their selfish desires, suddenly the world becomes a broken and ugly place.
God did not create us to live this way. He created us to flourish: in relationship with him, in relationship with each other, and in relationship with this beautiful creation he made.7 So when we make selfish choices, we not only hurt ourselves, each other, and our environment, we rebel against our own Creator, who intended us to live a different way and still has our best intentions in mind. Sin and selfishness destroy our relationship with God and wreak havoc in our lives.
This is why Jesus came: to rescue—to save—people from themselves, their sin, and the death and destruction it brings. He did this by dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead to defeat sin and death.8 And it’s why so many Christians yearn to share this good news about salvation with others. Christians believe that “if you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”9
To understand fully this holistic sense of salvation, it’s important to note that Christians believe that they are not only saved from something—sin and its consequences—but saved to something. They believe they are saved for a purpose: to be agents of hope, healing, and restoration in the world. The Apostle Paul described it this way: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”10
God saves us so that we can do good works in this world. As author Gabe Lyons summarizes: “God longs to restore his image in [those he has saved], and let them loose, freeing them to pursue his original dreams for the entire world. Here, now, today, tomorrow. They no longer feel bound to wait for heaven or spend all of their time telling people what they should believe. Instead, they are participating with God in his restoration project for the whole world.”11