What does the Bible say about salvation?
In this final post on the topic of Salvation within Christianity I take a look at the language and imagery that the Bible uses to describe how God saves us.
In the first post on this topic of salvation I mentioned that in Christianity salvation means being connected and united to God and that the language the Bible uses to describe this union is “in Christ.” It is primarily referring to a spiritual location, which is Christ, where people are placed once they become a Christian. If that sounds a little abstract and hard to grasp that’s ok, just don’t worry about it and keep reading.
When it comes to salvation there are 5 primary aspects related to being in Christ: Justification, Redemption, Reconciliation, Sanctification, and Perseverance. These will all be discussed in the remainder of this post.
Before getting into these aspects though let me just comment briefly on slavery in the Roman empire because some of these words are used in relation to that context. Slavery in the Roman empire was not like slavery in the American south. There was no one single group that was singled out and mistreated like there was in the American south. The Romans were EoEs, that is, Equal Opportunity Enslavers. For many people at the time it was not a question of if you were a slave, but who you were a slave of. This is of course not to say that Roman slavery was better than American slavery, just that it was different and far more widespread than American slavery. It is just to say that for many people living at the time of the New Testament it was imagery that was familiar and that could be understood.
Anyway, on with the discussion of the aforementioned 5 aspects…
Justification and Redemption
Justification (δικαιόω, dikaioō) refers to being found free of charges. Or, in other words, it is concerned with a person’s legal status before God. It does not denote any change in a person’s condition or refer to any sort of moral transformation. It just clears the charges that were incurred for disobeying God. It is important, I think, to understand that Christians believe that everyone has sinned and is thus guilty of disobeying God, and is therefore in need of being put in right standing. This is Paul’s argument in the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans. Briefly his argument in those chapters is: Humanity is without an excuse for not glorifying, worshiping, and giving thanks to God because His divine nature and attributes are seen in what is created. However, humanity still chose to serve the creation instead of God. So God gave humanity over to every sort of sin and unrighteousness (Rom 1.20-32). Those who do these unrighteous acts will incur the wrath and judgment of God (Rom 2.8-9), but everyone who does good will receive glory, honor, peace, and eternal life from God (Rom 2.7, 10). However, all humanity is under sin, and so there is no one who does good (Rom 3.9-18) and thus everyone falls short of the rewards for doing good (Rom 3.23).
Following this rather bleak view of the state of humanity Paul says in Rom 3.24: “being justified (dikaioō) freely though the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. So, even though Christians have sinned and continue to sin, we are also in right standing before God. This verse also illustrates why redemption is closely related to justification and is being discussed along with it: redemption is the instrument by which our justification is achieved.
The word for redemption here (ἀπολύτρωσις, apolytrōsis) originally referred to the buying back of a slave or captive. The use in this verse is a figurative extension of that original meaning. This of course raises the question: who, or what, was our former master that we were redeemed from? In Romans 6.2, Paul says that we have died to sin, and that this death occurred through union with Christ and that we were crucified with Him in order that our body of sin might be done away with so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Therefore, since we have been redeemed from sin we should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Rom 6.11). And since we are no longer enslaved to sin (Rom 6.20), but are instead enslaved to God (Rom 6.22) we have eternal life in Christ (Rom 6.23). This union with Christ, who is our new master, is what makes us bear fruit for God (Rom 7.4) instead of death (Rom 7.5). So, by redeeming us God freed us from our old master, sin, and so we now serve our new master, Christ.
So, to summarize then, humanity was enslaved to sin and had no choice but to recognize and serve sin as our master. This made us guilty before God and liable to his wrath and judgment. However, God redeemed us from sin and united us to Christ, who became our new master. This results not only in eternal life for us, but also justifies us and clears the charges that were against us as well as their consequences.
There is still more needed though for salvation. So far the situation that I have described is basically one where someone had some “slaves” and someone else bought those “slaves.” The only thing that has changed with slaves is their master; it says nothing of their feelings towards their new master. What we need now is to be reconciled to God. We need our previously hostile relationship with him restored to one of friendship.
Reconciliation refers to exchanging hostility for a friendly relationship. In 2Cor 5.19 the word used to refer to this exchange is καταλλάσσω (katallassō). It is important to note that God reconciles things to himself, but he himself is not reconciled to anything. The reconciliation that occurs is not reciprocal in the sense that God and humanity equally became friends because God and humanity are not on equal terms; God is superior to humanity in every respect.
But how does this change occur? It occurs through the love of God. We can see this if we look at the greater context of 2Cor 5.19, which was discussed above. We find that in verses 2Cor 5.14-15 Paul says, “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” Since therefore the love of Christ controls us who are in Christ we no longer live for ourselves, but for God, that is why we should, and Paul did, proclaim this reconciliation to others. Or in other words, by reconciliation our sinful self-seeking is overcome and the fellowship with God is created in which it is replaced by living for Christ.
Reconciliation then is what changes the heart of a person so that they seek after God and desire to follow his ways rather than their own. This is what allows us to serve God willingly out of love rather than compulsion.
However, we still need more than what we have already received. We not only needed our legal status cleared up and to be reconciled to God, but we also need to be made useful to serve God. This “being made useful to serve God” is more commonly known as sanctification.
There are two aspects to sanctification. First, we are placed in a state where we serve as conduits for God’s grace to others. This is referred to as the “state of sanctification.” The word ἁγιάζω (hagiazō , sanctified) refers to a divinely effected state where a believer is set apart for service for God. That sanctification is a state is a concept which is made clear in 1Cor 7.14 where an unbelieving spouse and the children are sanctified (hagiazō , sanctified) by a believing spouse. This does not mean that the unbelieving spouse is thereby saved as a result of the faith of the believing spouse, but rather the point is that they are sanctified in the sense that they have come into contact with the grace of God through the believing spouse and may one day be saved as a result (1Cor 7.16). Or in other words, the believing spouse is placed in a divinely effected state of sanctification and the unbelieving spouse and children experience the grace and love of God through the believing spouse, hopefully leading them to also place their faith in Christ.
Second, we live out the sanctified state which is made possible in Christ. This aspect is only possible once the first has happened, that is, once we have been placed in a state of sanctification. This is referred to as the “process of sanctification.” It is this second aspect that is really the goal of the Christian life. It is the aspect that unites you more and more to God and results in eternal life. There is a growth process to this second aspect of sanctification.
One image that the Bible uses to describe this growth process is by contrasting mature people who are capable of eating solid food, with infants who can only handle milk. One of the places where this imagery shows up is 1 Corinthians 3.1-2 where Paul tells the Corinthians that they are not “spiritual people,” but “people of the flesh,” “infants in Christ” who had to be fed with milk because they could not handle solid food. It also shows up again in Hebrews 5.13-14. John Chrysostom (d. 407) comments on this passage in Hebrews:
He is not speaking now concerning life (conduct), when he says “to discern good and evil,” for this is possible and easy for every man to know, but concerning doctrines that are wholesome and sublime, and those that are corrupted and low. The babe knows not how to distinguish bad and good food. Oftentimes at least it even puts dirt into its mouth, and takes what is hurtful; and it does all things without judgment; but not (so) the full grown man. Such (babes) are they who lightly listen to everything, and give up their ears indiscriminately: which seems to me to blame these (Hebrews) also, as being lightly “carried about,” and now giving themselves to these, now to those. Which he also hinted near the end (of the Epistle), saying, “Be not carried aside by divers and strange doctrines.”
– Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 8.7
The point of the metaphor then is that we are to be firm in the elementary doctrines of Christ so that we can grow and become mature. If we are not firmly grounded in these basics then we will be easily deceived by deceitful men and every “new” teaching that comes along and makes us feel good. We will be subject to the whims of our emotions and imaginations and will never reach maturity in Christ.
So, to summarize then, sanctification is a state in which God places us who are in Christ. Sanctification is also a process of growth that comes from being placed in the state of sanctification. The state of sanctification must precede the process of sanctification. Growth is only possible if one is first in Christ. Once they are in Christ then they are placed in a state of sanctification and able to engage in the process of sanctification. So even the growth that we experience in the Christian life is not our own doing, it also is the work of God who has placed us in a state of sanctification that enables to grow and undergo the process of sanctification. It is in this state and process of sanctification that we are made useful for service to God and how those who are not in Christ come to experience the grace of God. It is in and by sanctification that God makes himself known to others and if it were excluded no one would come to know him. It is an essential component in the salvation process because it is what brings others to Christ.
I will tell you right now this final aspect is controversial and there is disagreement among Christians as to which view is the “correct” view. Some will say that is possible for Christians who were once in Christ to no longer be in Christ. Others will say that this not possible. My view is that once you are in Christ it is impossible for you to be removed from being in Christ. If you don’t see things that way that’s fine, but that is the view I am taking for this section.
Like the other aspects we have discussed so far this also is something God does for us, not something that we do ourselves. In Rom 8.38-39 Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Before proceeding it should be remembered that I said above that we were reconciled by the love of God. If this love were removed then the hostility that previously existed between a believer and God would come back. Serving God would then be impossible, or at least very difficult, without these good relations. So, in my view then, to remove someone from the love of God is also to remove them from being in Christ. And if we can be removed from Christ by something or someone more powerful than him why bother serving Christ? Why not serve the power or being that is more powerful than him? Perseverance is therefore an essential part of salvation in my view because if someone or something can separate us from Christ our faith is in vain and useless.
Rom 8.38-39 then is, I think, a fairly emphatic statement that nothing will be able to separate us from Christ and much could be written about each of the things Paul mentions in these verses as to how they will not be able to do so. For the purposes of this post however I will focus on the first thing mentioned, death. This particular power is particularly significant because it is the curse that was placed upon humanity after the Fall. In Gen 3.19 God says to Adam,
“By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread
Till you return to the ground
Because from it you were taken
For you are dust
And to dust you shall return.”
If humanity was going to be saved in any sense this enemy, what Paul calls the final enemy in 1Cor 15.26, had to be overcome. And it was not just for humanity’s sake that death needed to be overcome, but for God not to overcome it would prove to be incompatible with his character. Athanasius comments on this as follows:
For it were monstrous that God, having spoken, should lie—so that, when He had imposed the law that man if he transgressed the commandment should die in death, after the transgression man should not die, but His word be broken. For God would not be true if, having said he should die, man did not die.
And again, it were unfitting that beings once made rational (λογικά), and partakers of His Word (Λόγος) should perish, and turn back again to non-existence through corruption. For it were unworthy the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should utterly waste away through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil.
But especially were it most unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear either through their own carelessness, or through the deceit of dæmons.
As, then, the rational creatures were wasting away and such noble works perishing, what was God who is good to do? Permit the corruption to prevail against them, and death to hold the mastery over them? In that case, where were the use of their being made in the beginning? For it had been better not to have been made than, having been made, to be neglected and perish…
It was impossible, therefore, to leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of God’s goodness.
– On the Incarnation of the Word, 6.3-10
In 1Cor 15.18-22 Paul explicates how death will not separate us from Christ. In the surrounding verses Paul is showing the necessity of the resurrection. It is necessary because if Christ has not been raised our faith is worthless and we are still in our sins (v.17), and if we are still in our sins then “those who have fallen asleep (physically died) in Christ have perished.
Without the physical death and physical resurrection of Christ our faith is said to be worthless (ματαία, mataia, 1Cor 15.17). Something that may, perhaps, have the appearance of having power, but in reality it would be worthless. For example, things like beauty, human reasoning, and false prophecies have the appearance of spiritual power, but in reality they are devoid of any spiritual power because they come from people who not in Christ and ignorant of God. Without the resurrection Christianity would also be worthless because there would be no power in it; it would just be humanity trusting in itself. Jesus would be just another man who was a popular teacher, but who was perceived as threatening to religious leaders of his day, and so they hatched a successful plot to have him executed. There is no real power without the resurrection, and if this situation were true then those who have fallen asleep (physically died) in Christ have perished because Jesus also perished.
However, Christ has been raised, and so those who have died in Christ have not perished, but will be made alive (1Cor 15.22). So death will not separate us from Christ because Christ overcame and defeated death, and so if we are in Christ it will not separate us from him either and we will be resurrected at his second coming to judge the world, just as he has already been resurrected.
This post has attempted to show in detail how the Bible describes how God saves us through union with Christ. The first aspect we discussed was justification. Justification refers simply to clearing the charges against us that we incurred as a result of our sin; it is concerned with our legal status before God and not any sort of moral transformation. If we are not justified we are still guilty before God and still stand under his wrath.
Justification alone however is not enough, because if God would have simply cleared the charges against us we would have gone on sinning because we would still be enslaved to sin. Fortunately God did more than clear the charges against us, he also redeemed us from our old master, sin, through Christ. As a result of this redemption we became enslaved to God instead of sin. This change in masters is a vital part of God’s saving work.
However, if God had stopped at redemption we would have served him ungratefully because we are still enemies if all God did was justify and redeem us. Fortunately, God also reconciled us, that is he removed the hostility that previously existed between us and him by pouring his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So, we now serve God with joyful and willing hearts, not from obligation.
God did not stop with reconciliation though, he also sanctified us, that is, he put us in a state where we can be of service to him. We not only demonstrate his grace to others, but we ourselves also grow spiritually as we serve him throughout our lives. Sanctification is a result of reconciliation because we cannot serve as instruments of God’s grace and grow to spiritual maturity if we are serving him ungratefully or out of compulsion.
Finally, we saw that nothing, not even death, will be able to separate us from Christ. If death could separate us from Christ our faith would be worthless because we would still be in our sins. Death cannot separate us from Christ because Christ overcame death. Thus, those who die before Christ returns will be resurrected at his returning, just as Christ has been resurrected already.
While it is convenient for the sake of discussion to separate these different aspects out and show their logical relation to one another, in reality this is impossible. When someone places their faith in Christ they are at that moment in Christ and are all at once justified, redeemed, reconciled, sanctified, and will persevere. It is through union with Christ that we are saved, and once we are united with him it is a done deal and nothing, not even death, will be able to sever that union. So, when it comes to salvation the only thing matters is whether or not we are in Christ. If we are in Christ then we are “saved,” are being “saved,” and will be “saved.” But if we are not in Christ then we are not “saved,” never have been “saved,” and never will be “saved.”