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Ask a Theologian: Salvation

Dear Theologian,

Someone asked me recently, “Are you saved?” I wasn’t sure what to say in response. Thinking about it later, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what it means to be “saved.” Yet I know that we Christians talk a lot about “salvation” and “being saved.” I need some explanation of what these words really mean. Can you help?

Untaught Believer

Dear Untaught,

“Salvation” is a word that corresponds to the deepest longing of the human heart. What it signifies is in some sense the ultimate concern of all religion.

We know that all is not well with us. Injustice, oppression, and manifold forms of suffering characterize our social world, and each of us struggles against our own tendency toward evil. At the same time, we yearn for wholeness, for complete well-being of body, mind, and spiritboth for ourselves and for all human beings. We yearn for “salvation.” Where is it to be found?

The answer given in the Hebrew Bible is clear and unequivocal. It is God alone (the Lord) who savesfrom all forms of evil. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa 45:22) “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” (Isa 43:11)

The root of the Hebrew words translated by “save” and “salvation” has the basic meaning “to be broad,” “to become spacious,” and from this underlying meaning comes the idea of rescuing or delivering from some confining, threatening situation. For example, “The Lord brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.” (Ps 18:19)

Most references to “salvation” in the Hebrew Bible have to do with being rescued from physical danger in this present life, although we Christians often “spiritualize” the meaning of “salvation” when we encounter the word in the Psalms or the Prophets. Sometimes, of course, the word does refer to the final consummation of God’s reign on “the day of the Lord,” which will include the establishment of righteousness.

In the New Testament, most uses of the Greek word sozo (“to save”) and its derivatives, especially the noun soteria (“salvation”), have a spiritual meaning, referring to the ultimate redemption of human beings in Jesus the Christ. But there are also places in the gospels where the word refers to a physical healing. For example, when Jesus says to people just healed, “Your faith has saved you,” the Greek word could just as well or more correctly be translated “has made you well.” (Mk 5:34, 10:52).

In the New Testament writings as a whole, it is clear that “salvation” for all human beings is achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this “salvation” is the establishment of the right relationship to God. Closely related concepts are “atonement,” “reconciliation,” “redemption,” and “the forgiveness of sins.”

From this perspective, the Reign of God has already been established, in principle, by what has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, “salvation” has been objectively achieved for all human beings. They have, in principle, been “saved” from their sinful estrangement from God.

But there is also a “not yet” dimension to this salvation. We are oriented in hope toward the complete establishment of God’s Reign at the end of time. The consummation of salvation exceeds human ability to grasp it (1 Cor 2:9-10); in the present, the gift of the Spirit is a foretaste of what is promised and hoped for (Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14).

For us who are still in the midst of our “journey,” therefore, there is also a sense in which we are still in the process of being saved as we move toward the ultimate fulfillment of God’s salvation. As St. Paul writes,

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:10-12)

From God’s side, we might say, our salvation is assured, because of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. From our side, though, there is still need of much learning, suffering, and transformation as we keep repenting of our sins and turning again and again to say Yes to God’s holy will.

We encounter here, once again, the paradox of Grace and human freedom. The two sides of the paradox are well expressed by St. Paul:

“Therefore, my beloved ... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13)

“Are you saved?” You can reply with the assurance of faith that you have indeed been saved by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and through your Baptism and profession of faith in him. You can add that you are also still in the process of being saved, as you strive through your faithful choices to appropriate the “objective” salvation achieved in Christ.

The Theologian

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here