Salvation, what is it?

Some are nervous about the word. Some want to scrap it and come up with a new one. Others emblazen it in manner that makes us wonder if they know what they are saying … that word is “salvation.” But what is “salvation”?

John Stott, in his classic book, Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP Classics) , examines the word “salvation” as the fourth word in his study of what mission involves: mission, gospel, dialogue, salvation and conversion. This book is vintage Stott in method and content, and may be my favorite of Stott’s books.

As for its relation to health, Stott says salvation is not psychophysical health. This point may be controversial for some, especially for those who seem to equate healing with salvation, but that healing is part of salvation. He’s pushing back more against those who require healing in salvation than against those who believe in holistic salvation. A doctor and a pastor do not attend to the same issues. In his view, the sozo/salvation in the Gospels is an intentional sign of salvation. Otherwise, all salvation would entail healing, and probably even total healing.

Furthermore, Stott denies that salvation means political liberation. Here the problem is shifted to the social and political; so redemption is liberation at the social and political levels. He is responding to Bangkok’s meeting in 1973 where salvation moved from the personal to become humanization and liberation and social justice. [Remember, Stott was well known in his day for compassion and justice, but he does not want to see these as the meaning of salvation.] Gustavo Gutierrez is examined, and while Stott agrees with the importance of justice, he does not agree that salvation is liberation from oppression. One more time for Stott: social action is not evangelism and social liberation is not salvation. Why? Because in the NT salvation is moral and not material. So what is it?

It is personal freedom, freedom from sin and its effects. Thus, a good translation of “salvation” is “liberation.” From what?

1. Liberation from judgment for sonship (past tense). We were guilty; we are no longer guilty before God. Thus it means justification. But not just from wrath but for sonship — to become God’s loved children.

2. Liberation from self for service (present tense). Humans in Christ, those saved, are liberated from selfishness in order to serve others.

3. Liberation from decay into glory (future tense). Death is undone for those who have salvation.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://thevoice403.blogspot.com SeanR.

    Hey Scot, if salvation means needing to be cleared of guilt before a holy Yahweh, why don’t most of us talk about that more in evangelism and at youth camps? It seems like we’re often more about expiation (important part missing from this post) and less about propitiation. To be fair, talking about guilt and wrath kind of bums people out.

  • http://www.iamdeclan.blogspot.com Dec

    That distinction between salvation being “moral” and not “material” is a horrible one. The story of Zacchaeus is an NT example that it is both/and. Jesus can say that “Salvation has come to this house” because Zacchaeus has been transformed into a person who now deals justly (even generously) in the economic/social sphere. His use of material (in this case, his personal wealth) constitutes salvation.

  • Justin

    It seems to me salvation is freedom from the tyranny of self, that is, following God/Jesus frees us from the slavery that is our thinking we know better than God what is good, salvation from thinking were in control of outcomes, salvation from a system that tells us we aren’t good enough, holy enough, to be in relationship with god.

  • http://brianzahnd.com/ Brian Zahnd

    Salvation is the kingdom of God. What Jesus tended to call the kingdom of God/heaven, Paul tended to call salvation; but Jesus and Paul are talking about the same thing. Thus salvation, though personal, is never private. I experience salvation personally as I am incorporated into God’s redemptive community. This salvation community (Israel) was formerly defined by ethnicity, circumcision, and Torah observance, but has now been re-formed and re-defined so that it is defined by faith, baptism, and obedience to Messiah. This alternative society built around the seminal confession of “Jesus is Lord” (the kingdom of God) is, shall we say, “from the future”; i.e. it is characterized by realities belonging to the age to come — the resurrection. In the age to come some things will face abolition while some things will find continuation. As we practice those things that find continuation in the age to come and seek to abolish those things which will have no place in God’s new world, we are a prophetic people, we are from the future. Or as Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson say, we practice resurrection.

    In attempting to answer the question “What is salvation?”, it’s important to keep in mind that the great problem salvation solves is not primarily personal guilt, but death. The forgiveness of sins is included in the salvation of the kingdom of God, but the primary problem being addressed is the tyranny of “Death and all his friends.” (To quote Coldplay.)

  • Susan N.

    No disrespect toward John Stott, or to you Scot, but I’m having trouble with a few key points:

    1. Salvation as justification to “become God’s loved children” — what does that mean, in understanding God’s nature or the way He desires us to view and respond to others, especially those whom we believe are not justified by faith in Christ?

    The implication of “become” is that God does not love those who have not yet experienced justifying grace. This notion of God not loving some is a dangerous doctrine in the minds and hearts of human beings. It allows us to hate the things (people) that God presumably hates. That kind of talk scares me, frankly.

    Currently, I’m reading and studying the Book of Exodus. I’m not sure how the perspective outlined here fits into God, in and through Moses, liberated/delivered the Hebrews out of their oppressed existence in Egypt? Was that only in order to set up the path to Jesus? In light of Jesus having come, died, and risen, is God no longer concerned about earthly, material oppression? I think that I take an approach more along the lines of Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King, Jr., in terms of social action.

    I do not believe, however, that material liberation will substitute for spiritual liberation, or that spiritual liberation will automatically include healing of all bodily, emotional, mental, or social sickness. I think I come down on this issue at a place where I must be actively doing whatever I can to evangelize — with words or actions or both — to reflect Christ, as much as following Him has changed me. During His lifetime, he preached, he taught, he healed. He was a Healing Presence.

    3. “Death is undone” — maybe the power of the fear of death is undone, instead? We’re all going to die, materially-speaking.

    Spiritually- / metaphorically-speaking, in the commission of #2, there are many “little deaths” to self that must take place in order to become more like Christ. Why not, in the process (sanctification?) of #2, BOTH evangelizing with liberating, healing words AND actions of a spiritual and material nature? Why must we pit these two against each other?

    In conversation last week, this topic actually came up. I do acts of compassion because my heart is bursting the seams with grace poured out on me. I don’t keep the fact hush-hush that the reason for any good that comes out of me is Christ. Though, that isn’t usually the starting place of evangelism for me… Loving the person, as I know that they are a beloved child of God, and responding to their needs — material or spiritual, seems the most natural and right thing to do.

    I’m not really confused about what motivates me. Is there such a deep concern that the world will misunderstood the good actions of Christians as being a substitute for Christ, instead of a result of Christ in us?

  • dopderbeck

    What about victory over the powers — which does indeed imply a political dimension? We can learn from liberation theologies without becoming liberationists.

  • http://currentlyprophetic.com Justin Ryan Boyer

    @Susan #5 re: first two paragraphs —

    I have thought about and felt this as well.

    Consider 1 John 3 and that, against popular notion, not all are sons of God just because the are created by Him. As Lewis said somewhere, “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men.” Perhaps God has different loves for His creatures and for His children. And in how are we to respond to others… we are called to love our enemies.

    In my generation (I’m 30) there has been an over-reaction to the “us versus them” mindset: going from that which sought to destroy with pride rather than redeem with humility to a pluralistic misconception of peace. We went from oppressing love to suppressing truth rather than walking in both (I blame our dualistic nature). We like putting on the facade of being everyone’s friend, because it is easier than loving our enemies (or being hated by our enemies).


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