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Date Posted:16/04/2008 10:05 AMCopy HTML


The Mystery of Salvation

Cause, Effect and Consequences 

By Ian Thomason

"Fads in the Christian life come and go, but the basic truths of what it means to be a Christian do  not change."

                                                                                    Dr Millard J. Erickson


Salvation is something of a mystery. The Bible clearly teaches that God created humans, and that our forbears were the crowning act of all Creation. It is our privilege, that among the created order we alone were chosen by God to be his 'image bearer'[1]. Sadly, however, pride and rebellion on the part of Adam caused a rift between humanity and his Creator.  Sin, which might best be defined as simply a state of offence against the righteous law of God, led to a barrier that divided the perfect couple from intimate and constant communion with Yahweh. A human decision led to a breach in relationship (with God and with each other), which led, eventually, to spiritual death.

At its most basic level, therefore, salvation is a relational matter, that is, that it involves a personal relationship between a man or woman and God. Its concepts are not independent, but ones that require a fixed (or unmoving) point of reference. In Christian teaching, this point of reference is God.

Christian theology (a technical expression that refers, more or less, to matters of teaching and doctrine) is often described as organic in nature. In other words, theology is not simply a collection of separate, unconnected topics. Rather, teaching in one area directly impacts on and affects teaching in another area. How we understand the nature of God, for example, will directly influence how we understand the nature of humanity. The aim of Christians should be, therefore, to understand not only the part, but also how the part functions within the context of the whole. The end result of this sort of inquiry should be the development of a sound, and biblical theology.

It is my contention that the various Revivalist groups have misunderstood a number of the key and fundamental components of Christian teaching, with the result being the development and promotion of a loose, ad hoc, and unbiblical theology.  This is no more evident than in these groups' shared teachings on the issue of salvation[2].

The aim of this essay, then, is to present a brief, coherent, systematic and scripturally grounded summary of the Christian Bible's teaching on the topic of salvation. My overarching thesis is that the Bible functions, primarily, as a written record of salvation history, and is, therefore, reliable in its addressing of this theme. Consequently, the ultimate conclusion of the entire biblical message is represented, fulfilled and expressed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Importantly, this essay is written from the critical assumption that its readers already accept the fallen nature of mankind, and our shared need for redemption. Also, the paper is intended to be a summary, one that seeks to draw together the many interrelated themes expressed and developed in the many essays that currently appear at this site. In brief, then, The Mystery of Salvation does not seek to break new ground; rather, it attempts to summarise positions that have already been addressed in some depth elsewhere at 'Please Consider'.

The Problem

The Ultimate Question can be encapsulated by the single interrogative 'why?' Why was I born? Why is life so hard? Why is there so much suffering? Why does God allow evil to go unpunished? The Ultimate Answer, I offer, is to be found in another interrogative, 'whom?' We humans, being finite and basically selfish creatures, are prone to ponder the consequences without giving too much heed to the causes. We have a somewhat unique tendency to look outwards when apportioning blame more than we do inwards in accepting responsibility. This propensity was reflected, very concisely, by Jesus, who said:

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Matthew 7:1-5

The 'selfishness' problem began with the first couple to enjoy a direct covenant relationship with God. It was Adam's disobedience, more than Eve's naivety, which landed we humans in the unnatural condition in which we currently exist[3]. Certainly, it was Eve who was deceived by the serpent, and who first acted contrary to God's commandment, however, it was Adam who made the conscious decision to disobey his Creator. God had invested Adam, the man, with considerable authority, both personal and representational. As Adam served as the 'Federal' head of the human species[4], his actions had consequences for our group as a whole[5]. It is in this way that we understand the concept of Original Sin: Adam sinned, and we corporately inherited both the effects of the first sin (spiritual death that results from separation from God), as well as a propensity to continue in the state that resulted (a fundamentally selfish nature). Sin, therefore, is not an individual action or activity, so much as it is a condition that affects humanity corporately. We are powerless before it, and completely overshadowed by it. Importantly, whilst others can be affected by our wrongdoing, ultimately our sin is directed against God alone. Ultimately, it is his righteous standard that we fail to achieve:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Psalm 51:1-5.

The Solution

In order to restore the broken relationship that existed between himself and his creation, God might have opted to simply 'wipe the slate clean'. Being all-powerful, compassionate and loving, he could have chosen to cancel humans' sin, and treat us as if nothing had ever happened. However, this would have required God to overlook sin. To us, this might seem the ideal solution. The drawback, though, is that such a course of action would not be in keeping with God's essential nature. God is holy, and God is righteous. To allow humans in such a sinful state to enter into his presence, and to have direct fellowship with him, would require a compromise of his own sanctified character. Effectively, to do so would be a denial of what God is.

Another solution would have been for the individual to alter his or her own behaviour to become pleasing before God. However, humans, at best, can only fulfil what is currently required of them. Even if it were possible to live a life of perfect obedience from a given point in time forwards, the human would be doing only what is right and expected. The person would have nothing additional in reserve to 'balance-out' their previous wrongdoings. Death, ultimately, is the penalty required for sin, any sin[6]. Therefore, humans would remain bound to death for all previous sins committed. This option, in any case, is not a realistic one. The problem of human guilt[7], coupled with the problem of a sinful nature or tendency, makes this solution completely untenable. We simply cannot achieve in practice what we may like to wish for in principle.

There remains, then, only one viable alternative solution. If God requires the payment of sin's penalty due to his righteousness, and if humans are unable to fulfil the demands of his laws and standards, then someone else must assume and fulfil those demands. That someone, however, must be a perfect person, with no personal liability towards God, and who is, therefore, capable of doing something meaningful on behalf of others. No naturally conceived person could possibly meet these demands, given that all, ultimately, have Adam has their 'father'. Effectively, then, God solved the problem by retaining the perfect requirements of his law, but by fulfilling them himself. God entered into our world as Jesus of Nazareth, a perfect man (born of woman but not of man), and only the second such a one to have ever existed[8].

As the God-man, Jesus was subject to all the normal conditions of human existence, less one - sin. He lived a perfect life, thereby fulfilling God's laws perfectly. Because he did not sin, he was not under the judgement of death. But by dying, however, he could offer something to God (the Father) that he was not obligated to give. By dying on behalf of others, Jesus could provide atonement (or reparation) for human sin. This he did, and God accepted the payment as being equivalent to the death of all humankind, in the same manner as Adam's sin first brought the penalty of death into the world for all humankind.

The Result

Now human beings potentially have the status of being righteous with God. However, the righteousness accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross does not fulfil its purpose unless the individual freely accepts and embraces it. Being a gift, it is freely offered, but being a gift it is also never forced upon anyone. It may be rejected.

What is Salvation?

It might be fair to suggest that, for many people, the concept of 'salvation' remains at best, a little hazy. Christians have a tendency to ask the (rather bland) question: "...are you saved?" But, without a proper understanding of just what it is that we are 'saved' from, how can we adequately answer 'yes' or 'no'?

A number of specific Hebrew and Greek words and grammatical structures that are used within the Bible, 'flesh-out' the concept of what it means to be saved. I would offer at the outset, that it is reasonable to suggest that in the Old Testament the concept of salvation relates primarily to the 'here-and-now', whilst the New Testament broadens the scope to include images of eternity. In understanding the comprehensiveness of salvation, it is therefore necessary to reflect that biblical revelation itself is progressive. This simply means that different concepts are developed and clarified as the biblical revelation gradually unfolds. The New Testament builds, expands upon and fulfils the promises contained in the Old.

1. The Old Testament concept in brief overview

The most common Hebrew words for salvation derive from the root form yàsha'. This term expresses notions of spaciousness, freedom from constraint and, therefore, deliverance[9]. It is from this root that the name Yeshûa is formed, which is, of course, the Hebrew rendering of the Greek Jesus. In general, the root yàsha' implies the bringing of help or aid to people in the midst of their troubles[10]. The central Old Testament experience of salvation of this sort was, of course, the Exodus. In fact, the Exodus event came to symbolise to the Jews, the pattern of salvation by which all God's future redemptive deeds were to be understood. Lying at the very heart of the Old Testament understanding of salvation, therefore, is the image of undeserved mercy[11].

2. The New Testament concept in brief overview

The Greek root that mirrors the Old Testament use of yàsha' is sózó, its basic meaning involves the preservation from harm, the rescuing, and the saving of one from (eternal) death[12]. From this root form the word sótéria ('salvation') developed. Importantly, sótéria incorporates within its semantic range of meaning the interrelated notions of wholeness, physical soundness and wellbeing. Therefore, the New Testament concept of salvation is built upon the received Hebrew view of the rendering of immediate aid, with impressions of release from sickness, demonic influence and, ultimately, death.

To summarise, salvation can be thought of as the re-establishment of a covenant relationship with God, which was brought about by a release from the penalty of sin (death). The blessings of this relationship incorporate both the temporal and the eternal spheres, with tangible effects being available during this earthly life. These may include spiritual, mental and physical health. However, given the fallen nature of the current world, the ultimate fullness and consummation of the promises will occur at the end of this age, when the results of the original Fall are finally reversed. 

Appropriating the Gift

It is at the point where one discusses how one becomes saved, that disagreements are most likely to occur. Different groups have developed competing theologies over the centuries, many of which are mutually exclusive to those held by other groups. Of course, each would claim that their position best reflects:

(a) What Scripture teaches,

(b) What experience verifies, and quite possibly

(c) What tradition supports.

However, when the varied claims are closely examined, the issue generally relates to a single, underlying determinant. The factor in question is one of authority. Reflecting on the 'a, b, c' considerations listed above, it becomes clear that it is not always a case of 'a+b+c' in that order. Frequently the claims might better be expressed as 'b+a+c', or 'c+a+b', or any one of several possible permutations reflection the order of importance associated by the particular group.

To be strictly biblical, I offer that for any Christian position on salvation, (a) must take priority, with the relative merits of (b) and (c) being determined by how closely they reflect the truth encompassed by (a). In other words, my thesis is that the Bible should form the bedrock of authority upon which all Christian doctrine is built, reviewed, advanced and defended.

We have already established the facts as to why salvation is necessary, and how it has been made available to humanity. The issue that needs addressing at this point is how salvation is appropriated.

The Context of 'Relational' Salvation

During the introduction to this essay, I suggested that salvation is primarily, and fundamentally, a relational matter. Our eternal standing is ultimately determined by the nature of our personal relationship with God. The nature of our relationship with God (the Father) is ultimately determined by the nature of our relationship with Jesus (God, the Son). At the final level, it is Jesus alone who is and remains our Lord and Saviour[13]. God, the Holy Spirit, represents Jesus in his relationship with us, and so he functions as another Comforter, as the source of spiritual empowerment, and as a trustworthy Guide during this life. However, it is important that we do not forget that the Holy Spirit did not die on the cross for us. To regard him as Saviour is to grieve him, and to diminish the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

Although relational salvation extends, primarily, upwards (to God through Jesus); there is also an outwards (to others) trajectory that needs to be considered too. The breach that occurred at the fall was also social. Accordingly, the Bible clearly records that salvation has a very clear social context. In the book of Acts, for example, Luke goes to considerable pains to develop this aspect of salvation as having a clear social framework. In chapters two (the first Jews), eight (the first Samaritans), and ten (the first Gentiles), specific groups of people are saved collectively. Importantly, the salvation that is extended is corporate and sociological in these instances rather than simply and specifically individual. We cannot fail to note the frequency with which Luke describes 'household conversions'[14].

1.         The relevance of social/corporate salvation accounts

What, then, is the importance and relevance of this feature? First, it is vital that we consider the specific contexts that are actually recorded, when seeking to develop a practical theology on salvation. It is very significant, for example, that there is not one single reference, in the entire New Testament writings, that demonstrate an individual 'speaking in/with tongues' when he/she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Every reference to this specific occurrence finds its place squarely within a group context (see the articles on the Book of Acts). The significance of the group experience, then, is to be found in the pattern that was established at the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, itself a corporate event[15]. Second, in each and every case of the 'manifestation of languages' recorded in Acts, repentance is nowhere specifically cited as being a factor in the reception of the people receiving the Holy Spirit[16]. Surely this too is significant? Third, we discover that the requirement for baptism is also never completely certain when reflecting on the 'Acts' occurrences where the miraculous languages were manifested[17]. The point that such a detailed examination of the specific circumstances of each account raises is simple and clear, and that is, before one can accept the Revivalist position on salvation as being the Biblical position, one would need to be assured that the Bible clearly teaches the following very clear theological statements:

(1) Individual repentance, followed by

(2) Individual baptism in water, will automatically lead to

(3) Being filled with the Holy Spirit, with the individual 'sign' of speaking in 'unknown' tongues;

However, and most importantly, such a statement or teaching is nowhere found or supported by any Bible text!  Such a statement is not, therefore, biblical. What it is, however, is a human interpretation that stands contrary to the facts as they are clearly recorded.

2.         The relevance of individual salvation accounts.

Having briefly considered the corporate record of salvation as outlined within the New Testament, we should now turn to the established record concerning the issue of individual salvation. This is most important to the majority of each of us, given that it is likely that we were all saved in an individual, rather than in a group or 'household' context. This being so, seeking to appeal to manifestations derived from group situations is completed unwarranted, given that it is wresting Scripture to fit an unbiblical, denominational perspective.

Is there a clear NT pattern concerning how one is saved as an individual? The answer, of course, is decidedly 'yes.'

Once again the book of Acts principally, although not exclusively, provides us with unequivocal accounts of people being redeemed individually. Importantly, we are again provided with clear contexts in which these salvation events took place (see Salvation Accounts in Acts). 

The first notable and clear reference to an individual being saved, as we understand by the fullness of the term, occurred with the rebel hanging on a cross near to Jesus[18]. This particular rebel, in spite of, or perhaps in light of, his circumstances, recognised in Jesus someone who was more than simply a man. He recognised and believed that Jesus was the anticipated Messiah of Israel. Consequently, this man humbled himself further than the Romans had succeeded in humbling him, and sought the Lord's mercy. Our Lord's response is fundamental, "...Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (see Paradise)

Perhaps the second unequivocal reference to an individual appropriating eternal life, involves the Ethiopian official[19]. We read in Acts 8:35 that Philip preached to him the good news about Jesus. The passage then informs us that the Ethiopian was baptised. He too believed the message concerning just who Jesus was and is, and consequently he placed his faith in him. The end result, we learn, is that he went on his way rejoicing.

Although we are currently considering individuals specifically, we should not discount the incident at Philippi at this point, given that it provides us with a litmus case on the subject[20]. First, it is the only example in the entire New Testament where the words "...what must I do to be saved?" occur. Second, the actual request is framed in the first person, singular ("I"). However, the eternal effects of the one man's believing are stated to be operative in the second person, plural ("your household"). In other words, even when dealing with individuals, God remains fundamentally concerned and focussed with redeeming wider social groups (such as families). God 'champions' human existence as community.

If one takes the trouble to read the approximately twenty accounts of salvation that are outlined in the Book of Acts, one will note that the 'Revivalist' message (a misinterpretation of, and expansion in meaning about, Acts 2:38) nowhere corresponds to the biblical message. The outcome is unavoidable. The 'Revivalist' theology regarding salvation is unbiblical. For an overview of the Acts salvation accounts see the following link.


To summarise, salvation - be it personally or corporately expressed - is principally relational. The relationship itself can be said to exist both vertically (between God and humans), as well as horizontally (between men and women). We are redeemed not only to God, but also to each other. The breach that existed between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel is healed by the death of Christ. The object of the relationship, however, remains firmly fixed. According to New Testament teaching, one's current and eternal standing is determined solely by one's relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Spiritual gifting, whether real or imagined, plays absolutely no part in determining or in identifying one's saved state. Being able, therefore, to cast out demons, prophesy or perform miracles provides no assurance that one has been born again/from above in the first place[21]. The corollary, of course, is that an ability to speak in 'tongues' (whether by natural or supernatural means) is no sure evidence of being saved either.

In closing, I would suggest, again biblically speaking, that should YOUR personal eternity hinge on the claim: "...I'm saved because I have the Holy Spirit and can speak in tongues..." then your position in Christ is very shaky. However, should YOUR eternity be based on the admission: "...I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and I bow to him as my personal Lord, Saviour and King..." then your trust is grounded on the very Rock himself.

What is YOUR personal hope based on? Is it a Person, or is it an experience? Do you have a relationship with a Saviour, or with a 'sign'? Only the one saves.


A concept expressing representation


In systematic theology, the doctrine of salvation is known as soteriology.


See Genesis 3:17


From the Latin foedus, a word with a range of meaning that encompasses concepts relating to authority, covenant, and representation.


See Romans 5:12-15


See Romans 6:23


See Romans 7:15


See Romans 5:17


F. Brown, S.R. Driver and C.A. Briggs: The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB), Eerdmans, 1971, s.v. xcy


W.A. VanGemeren (ed.): New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE), Zondervan, 1997, vol. 2, s.v. xcy


See Deuteronomy 7:6-8.


F.W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), 3rd ed., Chicago University Press, 2000, s.v. Sw/zw


See Acts 4:10-12 and Revelation 3:20, for example.


See Acts 11:14; 16:15; 18:8 for example.


See [Pentecost].


In Acts chapter 2, the call for repentance follows the infilling of the Twelve Apostles and their manifesting the languages of the Diaspora.


There is no biblical record of all the Twelve Apostles being baptised before, during or after the Day of Pentecost. Whilst almost certain, the biblical account does not provide any record.


Luke 23:39-43


Acts 8:26-40.


Acts 16:23-34.


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