Soteriology

To thoroughly examine the doctrine of salvation, we must answer the following questions:

  • Who must be saved, and from what?
  • By what means can one be saved?
  • Who partakes in salvation, and why?
  • What is the impact of salvation in the life of a human?

Each of these questions is answered rather directly by scripture, though with enough ambiguity as to result in a great variety of interpretation and subsequent division among Christians. In this essay, I will not explore every possible interpretation of scripture, nor attempt to draw definitive lines between contentious doctrinal views of soteriology. I will, rather, seek to point out what I view as the most straightforward and inarguable soteriological statements found in scripture.

Who Must Be Saved, and From What?

Salvation is not necessary unless there is something from which one needs saving. I thereby believe it crucial to define that thing before discussing the nature of salvation itself. 

In my experience, and for centuries of Christian tradition, many people would answer “eternal damnation” or simply “hell.” I believe “hell,” while not invalid, is not a helpful answer in this context. “Eternal Damnation” is more to the point, however “damnation” (much like “hell”) generally has no precise meaning to most people in a modern context, and thereby leaves much to be explained. 

“Death” is sometimes offered as the answer. Again, I believe that it is valid, but too ambiguous. The word must be redefined from the normal biological use of the word to achieve contextual accuracy. Furthermore, I do not prefer this term (again, in a modern context) as it implies the total annihilation of one’s existence. I do not think annihilationism is necessarily implied by scripture.

I believe the best and most helpful explanation of our plight from which we need salvation, whether applied to the word “damnation,” “death,” or “hell,” can be described along the lines of the tragic and eternal separation of ourselves from God.

The origin and nature of humans’ separation from God are explored more in Anthropology. For this discussion, it will suffice to say that all humans have inherited a broken relationship with God. Humans have fallen short of their creator’s standard of perfection, primarily through pride, disobedience, and rebellion. We have failed to adequately love God, love each other, and behave accordingly. As a result, we have earned the just punishment of God’s wrath. 

The exact nature of such punishment is not as clear to me as it seems to be to those who routinely portray it in detail. I will say that a great number of modern conceptions of “hell” come from Dante’s Inferno rather than from the Bible. That said, the state of eternal condemnation is certainly presented as the least ideal state of existence. Biblical references tend to be vague and say little more than simply “eternal punishment” or “realm of the dead.” Others are outright mind-boggling (Revelation 20:13-14 for example). Though a few passages do give more detail, those details vary depending on the context. 

The most consistent and prevailing theme I have found is that of separation from God. As far as I am concerned, being separated from the presence and love of God would be so excruciating and miserable that any other forms or sources of agony pale in comparison and matter little. To me, that is the most dreadful thing from which we must be saved. I also believe it is important to recognize that, while external forces can certainly influence us, we are all held accountable for our decisions. The subjects of God’s wrath are considered completely responsible for their own demise.

(Isaiah 59:2, 1 John 1:10, Romans 5:12, 3:10-18, 3:23, 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-3, Revelation 21:8, Matthew 10:29, 24:51, 25:41, 25:46, 13:42, 13:50, Psalm 9:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Acts 2:27, Jude 1:7, Proverbs 15:24, Ezekiel 18:20, Galatians 5:19-21, 6:7-8, Mark 9:43-47) 

By what means can one be saved?

Having established that all have sinned and are headed for certain doom and despair, we can thankfully move on to examining the good news. The short answer is that one can be saved by God’s graceful intervention. We learn from the Old Testament narratives that God is full of love for humanity, relentlessly graceful and forgiving, and that heroic love comes to a climax in the New Testament. 

Old Testament Precedent

Even in the face of man’s initial rebellion, God alluded to an alternative to the earned consequences of sin. He continued to interact with humans, and though they suffered the immediate consequences of their sin, He did not abandon them. They were expelled from the garden, but He allowed them to continue abiding on the earth. (Genesis 1-3)

Humanity’s sin, destruction, and violence only escalated, and though God sent a devastating flood as judgment, He saved Noah’s family as a remnant to repopulate the Earth with a set of basic moral and spiritual guidelines to follow. Knowing fully that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from His youth” He promised never to wipe them out again. (Genesis 8:21, 8-9)

Later, God called out one man, Abraham, and promised to bless his descendants, making them a large nation—a numerous and powerful group of people. More importantly, God promised that somehow Abraham’s descendants would restore God’s blessing to the entire world. This promise was conditional, as Abraham and his family had a set of expectations to participate in God’s promise. They had a part to play. However, God’s selection of Abraham was not based on any merit of righteousness. And even if it were, Abraham exhibited many occasions of unrighteousness. His one redeeming quality was that of faith, which was “counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22) However, he didn’t always hold up his end of the deal, and even his faith seemed to waiver at times. Nevertheless, God did fulfill his promises, and Abraham’s family became the large and powerful nation of Israel. 

(Genesis 12:1-3, 6-7, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14)

An important landmark in Israel’s history was when, in a heroic display of grace and power, God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He then made another conditional promise, that He would dwell among them and they would be a kingdom of priests, representing and revealing God to the rest of the world. Through them, He revealed His standards for perfection and justice. However, humans fell short of that standard by a long shot. So, to allow for unholy humans to enter God’s holy presence, He gracefully provided a system for ritual purification, sacrifices, and priesthood. Israel could enjoy God’s presence and blessing, as long as they followed His ways and trusted Him to meet their needs. 

(Exodus 1-23, 3:7-20, 19:1-6)

Of course, they strayed from God’s ways time after time again. God would often punish them in response but always allowed them to return to His love. Meanwhile, He began revealing through prophets that He planned to rescue them (and the rest of the world) from the bondage of sin in an even bigger way. Specifically, God promised to raise up a descendant of David who would establish a temple and kingdom that would extend across the world and into eternity, bringing God’s justice and peace to the whole earth. 

(2 Samuel 7:10-16, Psalm 72:1-17, 132:11-12, Isaiah 9-11, 54:10, 55:3, 42:1-7, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:22-32)

Each of those Old Testament covenants layered onto each other, and each served to bring people closer to God. Each was an outreach of grace on God’s part (despite human failure) to restore His relationship with humanity and bring His blessing to the whole earth. I bring up the Old Testament history, because I think it is important to recognize that the New Testament does not tell a separate story, nor does it introduce a “new” or “more merciful” God. The New Testament is the extension and climax of the Old Testament story. It shows God following the same pattern of grace and redemption as He did in the Old Testament, taking it yet another step further. Each of those narratives (among many others) reflected and foreshadowed the even larger story that was to come.

New Testament Climax

When Jesus came, he claimed to be the fulfillment of all the Old Testament’s messianic prophesies. God becoming human, He was able to fulfill all of God’s roles and Man’s roles of the old covenants. He explained that His death would be the ultimate propitiation, a perfect sacrifice atoning for the sins of the world and sealing a new covenant for a new people in a new kingdom.

Jesus claimed to be the only viable means of salvation. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and nobody can have a relationship with God apart from Jesus.

Those who follow Jesus become part of the new “family of Abraham” regardless of nationality or bloodlines. Those who are in Christ are not condemned, rather are promised eternal life in a fellowship of peace and love with God and the rest of God’s family. We cannot earn salvation or be “good enough” for God to accept us; just like the Israelites, we will always end up failing at some point. In the Old Testament, salvation was only ever possible through God’s intervention and grace, and that precedent holds true in the New Testament.

Once we have recognized that we have sinned, receiving the gift of salvation requires only acceptance on our part. Acceptance is the wholehearted, inward belief and outward testimony that Jesus is God, that He died for our sin, and was raised from the dead. Such acceptance is a trust in God’s ability and willingness to provide justification and redemption. Such trust acknowledges and submits to God’s will. Submission to God’s will involves repentance and doing good things; that is the purpose for which we are saved. One thing leads to another, and they are inextricably intertwined. However, it is the faith which saves us and enables the rest to occur, not the other way around.

(John 3:14-21, 3:16, 3:36, 6:51, 14:6, Matthew 5-7, Luke 4:14-20, 19:10, 22:19-22, Galatians 2:16, 3:23-29, Acts 4:12, 16:31, 2:21, 2 Timothy 1:9, Romans 5:8-9, 5:18, 10:9-10, 3:24-26, 6:23, Mark 16:16, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 John 1:9, 1:7, 2:2, 4:10, 2 Corinthians 5:9, 5:19-21, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18, Hebrews 9:14, Titus 2:11, 3:5-7, Ephesians 2:8-9, Colossians 1:20, Isaiah 43:25, 53:5)

Who partakes in salvation, and why?

Anyone may partake in salvation. There are no restrictions on who may accept the gift of salvation, regardless of race, sex, age, or history of prior sins. Though salvation was offered first to the Jews, and the rest of the world using the Jews, it was always intended to reach every corner of the earth. (Acts 2:21, Romans 1:16, 9:25-26 Titus 2:11, Ephesians 3:6, 1 John 2:2)

Those who are adopted into God’s family are done so by God’s initiation. This is consistent with the pattern we see throughout scripture of people finding salvation only by the grace of God, not by any power or actions of their own. God alone has the power over death, and no dead man can rise of his own volition. God, out of love, chose to bring all who are saved to Him, and the decision was made before the world began. This does not negate the importance of human response in the process of salvation, nor does it detract from the imperative of evangelism (see Evangelism & Mission).

Scripture is clear that God has chosen those He has saved, by merit of God’s own will, love, and grace. Scripture is also clear that all people are held responsible for their decisions, and that those who are saved have chosen to respond to God’s love with faith, acceptance, and reciprocating love. 

The tension between God’s election/predestination of people and the notion of human free will has long been “discussed,” to put it mildly. The theoretical logistics are seemingly paradoxical, but I do not believe that God’s sovereignty, nor our free will is violated by salvation. An abundance of keystrokes and ink has been spent on this topic, and I think it can be beneficial to explore that tension. However, understanding the metaphysical mechanics of salvation is not necessary to partake in salvation.

I do not find it any more difficult, or less necessary, to accept the transcendentally incomprehensible truth of this soteriological fact than it is to accept the theological doctrine of a triune God. Both topics are difficult to understand in human terms; however I do not find either to be inconsistent, illogical, or self-contradictory. For now, I will have to leave it at that.

(1 John 4:19, Ephesians 1:4-5, 2:8-10, 1:11, Romans 3:20, 8:28-30, 11:5, John 15:16, 17:6, 15:19, 6:44, 2 Timothy 1:9, 1 Peter 1:20, Proverbs 16:4, Acts 13:48, Matthew 22:14, 1 Thessalonians 1:4, James 1:18)

What is the impact of salvation in the life of a human?

Jesus Christ has saved me, is saving me, and will save me. The redemptive spectrum of salvation includes the overlapping but distinct doctrines of justification, sanctification, and glorification.

The first and immediate effect of salvation is that of justification. Being “saved” is to have escaped the judicial verdict of “guilty.” The blood of Christ has paid the penalty of our sin, leaving us declared “just” in the holy eyes of God. Those who are saved therefore have been justified. The justification is final; the case cannot be reopened, the verdict can never be overturned.

(Titus 3:7, Romans 5:1, 3:28, 5:9, 8:1, 8:31-34, 8:38, Galatians 3:24, 2:16-17, Colossians 2:13-14, 2 Corinthians 5:19)

Sanctification is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process in the life of a Christian. It is the continual fight against sin, renewal of our minds, and growth in our relationship with God. The purpose for which we are saved is to do God’s work, to be Christ’s body and to represent God on the earth. God does the work of sanctification in our lives by His own power, but not without means of our participation. We are called to respond to salvation by living fully surrendered to God’s will, dead to sin and alive in Christ. We are called to live, think, and breathe through the lens of the love that has saved us. This is partly a natural and intuitive response, but it is not without internal conflict and resistance. Those who are saved are being sanctified.

(James 2:26, 2 Peter 1:10, Galatians 2:14-21, Romans 6:22, 2 Timothy 2:21, John 17:17, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:6, 6:11, 6:1-2, Ok all of Romans 6, Romans 7:14-25, Ok all of Romans, Hebrews 10:14, 2:11, 12:14, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 4:24, 4:13, 2:10, 1 John 3:9

Though it is a process that does not arrive at perfection in our mortal bodies, it is not a process without progress (see Discipleship and Personal Growth). However, progress is only made possible through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Christ, indwells God’s people. The Spirit can guide and assist in practical matters, bring comfort and healing, discernment, and wisdom. He convicts and protects. By Him, we bear fruit and are filled with His fruit. By Him we are united. By Him, we are sanctified.

(Acts 1:8, 2:38, Galatians 5:16, 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 13:4-8, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 3:17-18, Romans 5:5, 15:13, John 14:16, 14:26, Luke 11:13, Mark 13:11)

The culmination of salvation and redemption is glorification. I hesitate to venture into many details in this realm, as I do for any matters of eschatology or anything yet to come. However, I understand it to mean the final and complete freedom from sin, and capacity to fully worship and fellowship in the presence of God in an immortal and sinless body.

(Philippians 1:6, 3:20-21, Jude 1:20-21, Colossians 3:4, 1 John 3:2, Romans 8:18, 8:23)

Praise God for such an incredible gift!