What is salvation in Christianity?

12 min read
Featured Image

What is salvation?

Salvation is perhaps best thought of as the goal of Christianity. It has suffered, I think, in recent times from being boiled down to a one time decision or moment when it is fact a process that a Christian works out over the course of their entire life.

Yes, there is a moment when one does start this process, but that moment is just that: the starting point. Salvation itself takes place gradually over the course of a lifetime, and in some cases when exactly it started might indistinguishable.

There are a lot of specifics related to this doctrine and there have been arguments and disagreements about them throughout the ages. In fact, I have a book on my shelf that gets into all these specifics and it is over 500 pages long, with small print no less! Now, I do intend to get into some of these specifics over the next few posts (e.g. atonement, justification, regeneration, election, etc.), but for now I think it is important to reorient the conversation to the bigger picture so that when we do get into the specifics we don’t miss the forest for the trees.

So, getting back on topic… Perhaps one of the most well known Bible verses is John 3.16: “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” This is also one of the most succinct statements about salvation in the Bible: If you believe in Jesus you will have eternal life, if you do not then you will perish. What is not well understood, I think, is what is meant by “eternal life” and “perishing.”

In Christian thought there is not a separation of the physical world and the spiritual world; they are both united. So in Christianity “life” and “death” (i.e. “perishing,” the Greek word here can refer to death also) are more than just physical concepts. To be alive is not just having a heartbeat, brain activity, and being able to take in air. Similarly to be dead is not simply to have the absence of those things. There are also spiritual dimensions to “life” and “death.” An example of this is in Genesis 2.17 where God says to Adam that he will die if he eats of the of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but later when Adam and Eve do eat of this tree they do not physically die, but are instead driven out of Eden. What was meant by “death” here was not the cessation of breathing, but being cut off from the source of life (i.e. God). “Life” then is being connected to God and in communion with him and participating in his nature and energies. There is much more that can be said about this, but for now I believe this simple explanation is enough to understand the rest of this post: death and life have both a physical and spiritual dimension to them and salvation is concerned with both of those dimensions.

So, if being spiritually alive means to be participating in and partaking of God’s nature and energies, salvation then is essentially restoring this connection to God’s nature and energies so that you can become and remain both physically and spiritually alive. In the New Testament the phrase “in Christ” is frequently used to refer to this connection to God and partaking. By being connected to God, the source of life, we are saved from death, which is the danger Christianity saves people from. Death, both physical and spiritual, is the enemy. Death is the force that seeks to take us away from God, away from the source of life itself.

Sin is not the danger that Christianity claims to save people from. Sin is the agent by which death entered the world. Paul says this exact thing in Romans 5.12:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned

Later on in Romans 5.17 Paul will say:

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Now, to be sure, I do not intend to characterize sin as being insignificant, because it certainly is (e.g. Matt 26.28; Eph 1.7; Col 1.14, 2.13). The point I am making is that in Christianity forgiveness of sins is not the goal of salvation. All forgiveness does is just cancel whatever was owed. When forgiveness is applied to sin it then cancels whatever debt we owed to God because of our sin. What forgiveness of sins does not do is stop you from sinning. Consider, for example, if you take out a loan you are obligated to pay it back. However, if someone forgives the loan, then you are no longer obligated to pay back what you borrowed; you are free from the debt. That does not stop you from then taking out another loan which you will then be obligated to repay; the forgiveness of the previous loan does not apply to the new loan. So if all God did was forgive our sins we would just continue to sin and require more forgiveness. What we really need then is a way to stop sinning; a change in our hearts so that we want to be closer and more connected with God. A way to move from being ruled over by death to reigning in life.

This way was provided by Jesus. By becoming incarnate and uniting a fully human nature to his fully divine nature and dying by crucifixion and rising again on the 3rd day he destroyed the power of death in both its physical and spiritual dimensions. This complete set of actions bridged the gap that was created between humanity and God at the Fall and made communion with God possible once again. This is why the early Church was so insistent on the language it used to describe Jesus: they knew it was linked to salvation. If Jesus had not united a full human nature to his full divine nature in himself there would be no bridge for humanity back to God. There would be no way to move to eternal life.

In Christianity salvation means being connected and united to God and participating in his nature and energies so that your heart does change and you value God more than anything else. Then you do what God has commanded out of love and a desire to be more connected to him instead of out of fear of being punished. This union was severed at The Fall and was restored by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Only God could have restored this union; it was impossible for us to do this in our own efforts and by our own power.

This union is what saves someone; not living a sinless life. God is the source of life, both physical and spiritual. If you remain connected to him and partake of his nature and energies the inevitable outcome is eternal life, both physically and spiritually. If you do not the inevitable outcome is eternal death, both physically and spiritually.

Partaking of the divine nature

The language regarding participating in God’s nature is found in 2Peter 1.3-4:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

There are a couple of things that I would like to point out here. First is that it is only through God’s power that salvation (life) is possible. It is not something that we can achieve on our own. The primary source of this power is the Holy Spirit who Christians believe indwells every Christian and guides them in their life. Second, which is a logical consequence of the first, is that since a Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is one of the members of the Trinity, which means he is fully God, we are then partakers of the divine nature (i.e. God’s nature) and have escaped the corruption (i.e. death) that is in the world because of sin. By partaking of the divine nature we become more and more holy (i.e. like Christ).

Additionally, some Christians believe that participating in the sacraments (e.g. baptism, the eucharist) is also a way in which we partake of the divine nature. Others do not believe this (the debate is too long to get into here and explain). Most Christians would say that prayer is also another way in which we partake of the divine nature.

Now to be sure, this is not a passive thing; you cannot just sit back in your easy chair relaxing and drinking beer all day and partake of the divine nature. The Holy Spirit will lead you and prompt you to do certain things and not do other things. You must listen to him and be obedient to his commands. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes partaking of the divine nature possible, it does not make it automatic and brainless.

What things will the Holy Spirit prompt you to do? Some of them will be personal and specific to your own circumstances. Others however will be more general and applicable beyond your personal circumstances. Some of these latter ones have been categorized into what is known as the Way of Life.

The Way of Life and the Way of Death

A fairly clear articulation of the Way of Life and the Way of death is found in Ephesians 4.20-24:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

The basic thought here is: stop doing the sinful and evil things you did before becoming a Christian and start doing the things that will make you holy like Christ. In the early period of the Church there was a document known today as The Didache which uses the terms “Way of Death” and “Way of Life” to refer to the various things you should either do or not do. If you do the things on the Way of Life you progress closer and closer to being holy and perfect. If you do the things on the Way of Death you progress further and further away from holiness and perfection.

In fact, you can see this sort of dualism of things you should stop doing and things you start doing in the New Testament also. These passages are referred to as vice-virtue lists. Some examples of this are:

  • Ephesians 4.25-5.21
  • Galatians 5.16-6.10
  • Colossians 3.1-17

Now, it should be noted, again, that the point of doing certain things and not doing others is to become more holy, to become more like Christ. It is not about modifying your behavior so that God will bless you with wealth or whatever. The goal of Christianity is holiness, not material blessings or wealth. You do the things of the “Way of Life” in order to be closer and more connected to God because you love him.

Past, present, and future aspects to salvation

Finally, there are past, present, and future aspects to this process of becoming more and more holy that I have just described. The terminology used to refer to these various aspects is not consistent and varies from person to person. Sometimes the terminology “have been saved,” “am being saved,” “will be saved” is used. Other times the terminology “salvation,” “sanctification,” “glorification” is used to refer to the past, present, and future aspects of salvation respectfully. And there are still many more sets of terminology that might be used to refer to these various aspects.

In any case, regardless of the terminology being employed the past aspect of salvation refers to the moment when someone becomes a Christian. Some will place this moment with baptism, even if it is an infant. Others will place it with a conversion experience or whatever moment a person finally accepts as true the essential teachings of the faith. Whenever it is placed there is a moment when you do become a Christian and the Holy Spirit comes and dwells inside you; this is the past aspect of salvation.

The present aspect of salvation refers to the life we are currently living (and assumes of course that you have become a Christian). Primarily this involves doing certain things and not doing other things which has just been discussed above. It is a constant process of becoming more and more holy by weeding out all your sinful and evil thoughts, habits, and actions.

The future aspect of salvation refers to what we will be in the future (and assumes that you never gave up the faith during your life). Most of the time this refers to what happens to us after we die and/or when Christ returns. A good part of this depends on what you believe about end times. Generally speaking though the belief is that we will be perfect in both body and soul and no longer be subject to sinful or evil desires.


This article has attempted to give a brief overview of the basics of what Christians believe about salvation. There is much more that can be said about this subject, and some of that will be the topic of the next couple of posts. However, the intent of this post was just to give a broad outline, which is:

The enemy of humanity is death in both the physical and spiritual sense. In Christianity salvation refers to becoming alive and staying alive in both the physical and spiritual sense. This is accomplished through partaking of the divine nature and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God has made it possible for us to do this through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, but we must actually take responsibility for it ourselves and takhe advantage of the opportunity.

Photo ByMaria van Schoor on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary