Salvation: An Overview
“Salvation,” as the term implies, is “rescue” – rescue from hell but also from sin itself, its power and ultimately its very presence.
Salvation is a widely-encompassing theme in Scripture presented from a variety of perspectives and entailing a variety of benefits. What follows is a rather “birds-eye view” of the biblical presentation, serving as an introduction to this larger section on soteriology.
The theme of God’s gracious rescue of sinners for his own glory dominates in Scripture both in its comprehensive story from creation to consummation and in the various ways this salvation is presented and described by the biblical writers. It is a work of God from beginning to end, stemming from his heart of love for the ill-deserving (grace) and issuing in his own self-sacrifice and the redemption and restoration of his chosen people.
Salvation in the Bible’s Story
The Bible’s story of salvation begins in the first pages of Scripture. God created man to image God’s rule over the earth, but man rebelled and fell under divine judgment. The way back to God now is impossible from the human side, for man is the guilty party rendered helpless by sin and with no right of approach. But in grace God promised a champion (Gen 3:15) who would defeat the tempter and bring restoration. This promise unfolds throughout biblical history, and the hope broadens as God adds promise to promise. In successive covenants God pledged himself to bless the world through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) who will reign in righteousness on David’s throne (2Sam 7) universally and forever. The triune God will himself effect the forgiveness of his people’s sin and consequent acceptance by the Son’s self-offering in substitutional sacrifice (Isa 53) and by his gracious gift of righteousness (Jer 23:6, 16; Zech 3; Rom 3:21-31). By the bestowal of his Spirit God will enable his people to live in obedience (Jer 31:31-34; Rom 8:1-14), and in the end “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14; cf. Isa 11:9), and God’s redeemed people will at last dwell safely in his blessed presence in the new heaven and the new earth.
This story that lies on the surface of the biblical narrative is also carried by means of a number of varied yet inter-connected themes – below we mention just a few:
- Adam and the new Adam
- God’s faithful son
- Creation to new creation
- Temple & the presence of God
- Defeat of the Tempter
- Exodus-new Exodus
Throughout the biblical story God’s promise of salvation (Gen 3:15) unfolds via promise and fulfillment culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ who in his first coming secured salvation for his people and in his return will bring that salvation to consummation (Heb 9:28).
Perspectives of Salvation
Salvation may helpfully be viewed from various perspectives. A trinitarian perspective (Eph 1:3-14) focuses on the respective works of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Salvation is generally spoken of as originating in the divine decree and the Father’s choice (election) of those whom he would save and his “giving” of these beloved people to his Son (John 6:39). The Son, in turn, is sent and willingly comes on this mission of rescue (John 17:1-4) and in place of his people offers himself in sacrifice to God (John 17:9; Eph 5:2, 25; cf. Rom 3:21-25). The Father and the Son, in turn, send the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26) who bears witness of Christ (John 15:26-27), convicts (John 16:8-11), unites us in faith to Christ to receive the salvation he embodies (Rom 8:1-17), brings to life (John 3:1-8), gives faith (1Cor 12:3), and seals us as his forever (Eph 1:13-14).
Salvation in christological perspective focuses on the works of Christ in accomplishing salvation. In his incarnation he joined himself to us in order to become our mediator (John 1:14; 1Tim 2:5). In his sinless life he established the righteous record God’s law demands (Gal 4:4-5). In his death he took our place, bearing our curse and rendering satisfaction to God (Gal 3:13). In his resurrection he entered the age to come and takes us with him to newness of life (Eph 2:5), sharing in his vindication (Rom 4:25; 1Tim 3:16) in glory (Eph 2:5-6). In his ascension he was exalted to his mediatorial glory at the right hand of God (Acts 2:36) from which he poured out his Spirit on his people (Acts 2, Pentecost) and makes intercession (Heb 7:25). And in his return he will bring our salvation to its decreed consummation (1Jn 3:2).
This christological perspective also focuses on the offices of Christ: prophet, priest, and king. As prophet he reveals, by the Word and the Spirit, the will of God for salvation. As priest he offered himself a sacrifice for us in satisfaction of divine justice and makes intercession for us. And as king he rules and defends us, and he restrains and conquers all his and our enemies.1
This christological perspective also focuses on Christ as the last Adam, our new representative head who wins back for us all that was lost in the first Adam (Rom 5:12-21). And it focuses on Christ as the covenant for his people (Isa 42:6; 49:8; cf. Luke 22:20) who in his death secures all covenant-promised blessings (Jer 31:31-34).
Salvation in individual and cosmic perspective focuses on the experiential dimensions of salvation individually and personally (conversion, assurance, renewal, etc.) and in the larger created order. Sin has distorted humanity, and the created order itself was caught up in its fallenness and judgment (Gen 3; Rom 8:17-25). Salvation in the end encompasses this cosmic perspective: the created order itself will be restored in the day of our resurrection.
Salvation in chronological perspective focuses on the outworking of salvation from its source in God’s elective decree (redemption planned), to its accomplishment in the work of Christ (redemption accomplished), to our experience of it in union with Christ (redemption applied). Salvation is an eschatological concept in that its promised benefits will be realized fully only in the final state; Scripture, however, describes it as experienced in stages – initially upon faith (Eph 2:8), continually in the outworking of God’s purpose in us (Phil 1:6), and climactically when Jesus returns for us (Heb 9:28; 1Jn 3:1-3). In this sense we may say that we have been saved (Eph 2:5, 8; 2Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5, etc.), we are being saved (Phil 1:6; 1Pet 1:5), and we shall be saved (Heb 9:28; 1Pet 1:5; cf. Rom 13:11). Each of these “stages” of salvation entail corresponding benefits (see below) and in their completeness perfectly overcome the problem of our sinful alienation, enmity, guilt, and corruption.
God’s choosing of those whom he would save is everywhere in Scripture described as an act of grace. It is a choice grounded solely in God himself without reference to anything in us. From eternity he set his love on us and determined to bring us to glory (Eph 1:3-6).
In his death the Lord Jesus redeemed us from the curse of God’s broken law (Gal 3:13) by offering himself in our place and bearing our curse, thereby satisfying God’s just wrath (propitiation; Rom 3:21-25), and providing for us the righteousness God requires of us (1Cor 1:30; 2Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). In his substitutionary death our Lord secured every saving blessing (Rom 8:32).
“Salvation” (rescue) is the broad term, but this salvation that Christ purchased for us in his death has multiple dimensions, answering our multi-dimensional need.
- In redemption we are liberated by the payment of the ransom price of Christ’s blood.
- In forgiveness our debt is cancelled, the debt having been paid in full in Christ’s redeeming death.
- In justification we are declared righteous before God the judge by virtue of Christ’s substitutionary death and gift of righteousness.
- In reconciliation we are brought from enmity into fellowship with God.
- In adoption we, in union with Christ the Son, become God’s children.
The NT presents a certain “logic” to these various aspects and benefits of the work of Christ. Most famously, in Rom 3:21-25 Paul explains that we are justified through Christ’s redemptive work that, in turn, was secured by means of his propitiatory death. Similarly, in 2Cor 5:19-21 he explains that our justification stems from Christ’s substitutionary death and results in reconciliation. In Eph 1:7 he tells us that Christ’s substitutionary death constitutes the ransom price by which we are forgiven (cf. Gal 3:10-13); that is, we are not forgiven by mere divine fiat but by a substitutional payment of the debt that freed us from it. The NT insists that all saving blessings come to us as a consequence of Christ’s death (Rom 8:32; cf. 1Cor 15:3; 2Cor 5:14ff); among all the various metaphors employed to describe Christ’s death, and among all the dimensions of its varied import and significance, propitiation via penal substitution is basic and central.
Our experience of salvation hinges in its entirety the Spirit’s uniting us with the risen Savior to participate in his resurrected life. Christ accomplished redemption for us, and in him all saving blessing is found.
Calvin’s famous statement here bears repeating:
First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:27]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him (Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1).
This experiential dimension of our salvation begins with divine calling (1Cor 1:9) and culminates in glorification (Rom 8:30). God’s life-giving call unites us with his Son by his Spirit so that we may experience in union with him the salvation he accomplished and embodies – it is in union with him that we share in the experience of his resurrection, life, and exalted glory (Col 3:1-4). Concepts such as conversion, assurance, renewal, sanctification, perseverance, resurrection, and glorification, express this multi-dimensional experience of salvation in Christ from beginning to end. “Salvation,” as the term implies, is “rescue” – rescue from hell but also from sin itself, its power and ultimately its very presence.
We are brought into the experience of salvation now, in this life, although it is not yet in its fullness. Our experience of salvation in its fullness awaits our Lord’s return (Heb 9:28), when we shall at last be with him and be made like him (1Jn 3:2).
- Matthew Barrett, 40 Questions about Salvation
- John MacArthur, “The Big Picture of Salvation”
- Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied
- John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ
- Bruce Ware, “The Doctrine of Salvation”
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