What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few?
The idea of salvation has many religious and non-religious viewpoints. It can be quite simple or extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live and interact with the people around us.
In this article I will attempt to identify the basics and point you to some more detailed articles on the topic. I will also acknowledge from the outset that I am writing about salvation from the perspective of a Christian of the Lutheran confession (tribe, tradition…). For general views of salvation among world religions see one of these pages. For a comparison on views of salvation within Christianity in its broadest sense see this article.
The concept of salvation assumes that people need to be saved from something. Within Christianity, that something is called “sin.” Sin is often defined as “missing the mark” or as any violation against God’s law or will. Sin separates us from God and goes far deeper than some kind of external “badness.”
Christians believe that God made the world, including humanity, as perfect, holy and sinless (Genesis 1-2). However, the first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to disobey God, trusting in their own strength, knowledge, and wisdom (Genesis 3). Consequently, all of their descendants are saddled with what we call “original sin.” This means that all naturally born people are sinful from birth and unable to avoid committing sinful acts. This original sin is the chief sin, a root and fountainhead of all actual sins and separates us from God, since God is holy and just. The consequence of sin is not only temporal death (Romans 6:23), but eternal separation from God (Isaiah 59:2).
God is holy and just, but God is also gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8). God does not seek the death of sinners (Ezekiel 33:11), but desires that all should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
it is God’s mission to save us from sin, death and the power of the devil, but how are we saved?
It is quite common to hear people state that they are “going to heaven” because they are good or at least not bad enough to deserve hell. However, no matter how hard we try to be “good” (holy and perfect – 1 Thessalonians 4:7; James 2:10; Matthew 5:48), we find ourselves continually wallowing in our sin, unable to get away from it. We cannot truly fear, love and trust in God as he requires.
It is for this reason that we need a Saviour and not just a Saviour to deal with original sin, but for all sin – past, present and future.
Since the day Adam and Eve fell to the temptation to be their own gods, God has promised a Saviour (Genesis 3:15), one who would crush Satan, forgive sin and overcome the power of death. This is the Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. This is the servant whom Isaiah (53) records would suffer and die on our behalf.
It is because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world (John 3:16) to be like us, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). This God-man named Jesus fulfilled all that God demanded on our behalf and then took the entirety of our sin upon himself to the cross of his death so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Christ was then raised from the dead as the exclamation mark to God’s victory over sin, death and the power of the devil. Through faith in Christ and what he has done “for you” and for all, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation can be yours.
Salvation is what God has done in Christ for all. That gift of salvation arising from the cross and resurrection of Christ now comes to us through God’s word and the Holy Spirit who draws us to the cross of Christ. It is this same Holy Spirit who then gifts us with faith that both enables us to trust in Christ for our salvation and to repent of our sin.
Salvation is summed up in God’s word (the Bible) by passages like: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16)…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
When does salvation happen? If we understand that faith is God’s gift and that the Holy Spirit is the one who works salvation in us then it can come as any person is baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-5, Titus 3:5) or as a person hears the good news of God’s forgiveness in Christ and believes.
Is salvation permanent? If you’re asking, “Can I do whatever I want and still be saved?” the answer is no. We can fall from our salvation (Hebrews 6:4-6) when we no longer trust in Christ. Our salvation can be placed in jeopardy by a life that is walking away from God’s will. However, God is also faithful and promises to preserve us in faith and to even restore those who have fallen from faith.
Does one choose salvation or is it somehow predestined? Some Christian groups suggest that salvation is chosen. However, this viewpoint represents a slippery slope that pushes aside the radical salvation of God’s grace which he has accomplished in Christ alone. This viewpoint also challenges God’s word which declares that we were dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1). Dead people can’t do anything. John (1:13) also writes that we were “born again” not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
As for being “predestined,” this is an issue that can create more uncertainty than comfort. All we can say with certainty regarding this matter is that God in his infinite wisdom and knowledge has predestined all who trust in Christ for their salvation. Again, it is God’s desire that all should be saved, but at the same time we already know that many have gone to their death not trusting in Christ, the Saviour of the world.
I will end with what St. Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 6:2) as an invitation to you: For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. Christ has died for you, for your forgiveness, for your salvation. This salvation is yours through faith in Christ.