Saved from What?

“Have you been saved?” The evangelist thunders from the pulpit. “Jesus Christ desires your salvation and if you will repent of your sin and confess Him as Lord and Savior tonight then you will be guaranteed a place in heaven when you die!” The lights in the sanctuary begin to lower and the organist plays a slow-moving hymn. The evangelist calls forward those who “feel the Spirit tugging at their hearts” and people begin making their way down the aisle, kneel in front, and pray a prayer to receive Christ and salvation from eternal misery.

This scenario plays itself out countless times in churches all across the nation and, indeed, the world. It has been an especially important part of evangelical Reformed traditions for centuries. It was a big part of the revivals of the 18th through 20th centuries. One only think of a Billy Graham crusade to envision the hundreds, even thousands, who come forward at the playing of “Just As I Am” to pray the prayer that will ensure them a post-mortem heavenly home. This is the tradition I grew up in and I have many fond memories of the services in which I played a part in seeing people come forward to make a commitment to Christ. The fervency and passion with which people plan these services and outreach events testifies to their love of people who are not Christians, hoping to bring them good news of forgiveness and eternal life.

However, as I have morphed in my Christian journey over the past few years, the issue as to what exactly a person is being saved from has been no minor issue. Many people ask “Are you saved?” The question in response then becomes, “Saved from what?” Oftentimes, it is assumed in American culture that people know what this means, but the truth is that when you ask people what it means to “be saved” you get as many responses as you do people you ask. Typical answers will be that a person is being saved from hell, sin, God’s wrath, the antichrist, poverty, a sad life, a life without meaning, poor self esteem, or demonic possession. By far, the most common understanding is that a person is being saved from going to hell when he or she dies. This is usually the idea evangelists and pastors have in mind when they induce altar calls. Being saved is almost as confusing as the term “born again,” another term for which numerous answered are garnered. With all this attention and theological focus on the idea of being saved, we should come to understand what the Bible means by the term “salvation” and what it means to be saved.

Salvation as Deliverance and Healing

What does the word salvation mean? The Hebrew and Greek words used for “salvation” in the Old and New Testaments means “deliverance.” It is also translated as “heal” in some places, especially in the Gospels where Jesus healed and delivered people from demonic oppression. The salvation or deliverance to which an author is referring is always determined by context. Thus, one can be saved from just about anything. Common salvations or deliverances in the bible are from enemies, troubles, death, fears, diseases, judgment, and demonic activity. Strangely, nowhere in the bible does it literally declare that one is saved or receives salvation from “hell.” This is not strange to me, I should say, being a Christian Universalist, but it is strange that nothing approaching this language is used in scripture given how much preachers talk about it. It makes one wonder how much of these popular doctrines are based on actual scriptural language and how much is based on theological Reformed tradition. The close connection of healing with deliverance shows that in certain contexts, whatever scripture is referring to as salvation is akin to being delivered from a disease or affliction of some sort. We will see as we progress that the concept of healing in Christian salvation is inherent to the concept of what we usually refer to as being saved.

Jesus as Savior and the Atonement

Having answered the question of what the word salvation means, we turn now to the savior Himself. Jesus Christ is proclaimed the savior of the world (John 4:42; 1 Tim 4:10; 1 John 4:14). He is the one who is seen as performing the work of salvation. This is done through what is called the atonement. The atonement or “at-one-ment” is the work in which Jesus brings together two parties who are separated for some particular reason. It is an act that breaches the wall of division between the persons or groups involved. Here’s what we can say with certainty. This is what all Christians in all of history and in all denominations agree on. The parties that need to be reconciled are God and humanity. That much is certain. The reasons for the separation between them and its necessary remedy are the subjects of great debate among theologians, though, in reality, there are only variations of three major views. If we are going to determine that from which we are saved, then we have to briefly review these three theories.

1. Ransom Theory (Christus Victor or Recapitulation) – Irenaeus and the other church fathers talked about how Jesus paid a ransom to deliver (save) mankind from its bondage to the “powers.” These powers included sin, death, and the devil (Aulen, 1933/2003). This salvation was tied directly to the incarnation of Christ. Jesus is seen as recapitulating human nature in his incarnational life, death, and resurrection. All of humanity fell subject to bondage to sin, death, and the devil in the fall of man by Adam’s sin since Adam was mankind’s representative, much like a congressman would be the representative of a particular congressional district. The decision he or she makes affects the whole district. The decision Adam made affected the whole human race. Jesus, however, succeeded where Adam failed. His perfect obedience to come to earth and be subjected to the powers of sin (in his flesh), the devil, and ultimately death recapitulated or summed up what humanity was meant to be originally and reversed the decision of Adam which subjected man to bondage by forging a new humanity that ultimately triumphed over the powers of bondage in the resurrection. Thus, Jesus made atonement between God and man by bringing mankind out of bondage to those things that kept man from God. In this view, man is understood to be reconciled to God, being rescued from those things that have kept him from his Creator. God is not necessarily seen as an offended party, but the one who heals (there’s that word again) the broken relationship between Him and mankind and liberates man from the powers that hold him in bondage and keep him from that relationship. In doing so, he heals man’s soul through the transformation into holiness (health). Without question, this was the predominant, basically universal view of the atonement for the first thousand years of the church. It is the classical or original view of the atonement (Aulen).

2. Satisfaction Theory – Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century is often credited with fully formulating the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, though the seeds were planted in Tertullian, Gregory, and Cyprian in centuries before (Aulen). This theory is based on the Latin system of penance, where a person would earn merit to cancel out offenses against a given party. It is the first appearance of a legal idea in the doctrine of atonement. Again, the two parties involved are God and humanity, except that this time, instead of a loss of familial relationship as in the Ransom Theory, the idea inherent in Anselm is that a legal debt of honor is owed to God because of man’s sin against Him. Jesus performs atonement, the bringing of the two parties together, by offering himself as a sacrifice on the cross to satisfy the demands of God’s offended justice and pay the debt. His perfect life qualified him to give up his life to satisfy the demands of justice. Again, this idea is based more on the Latin penitential system where one does penance to satisfy the offended party. Jesus’ death is an act of penance that brings glory to God and restores the honor that man defrauded Him through sin. Since Christ’s act of sacrifice was more than a normal one, it earned an overflow of merit with God, merit that is transferred to believing Christians and thus earns salvation for them, repaying their personal debts to God (en.wikipedia.org). Fundamentalist and evangelical believers hold to a variation of this theory, the penal-substitutionary atonement theory, where instead of restoring honor to God and earning us the merit needed to repay our debt to God’s honor, Jesus receives the rightful punishment of sin which is death in our place. This latter theory is John Calvin’s and the Reformers’ reshaping of the Anselmian doctrine (en.wikipedia.org).

3. The Moral Influence Theory – Peter Abelard was nearly a contemporary of Anselm and he fashioned his theory in response to the Anselmian doctrine. His belief was that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the greatest act of love the world has ever seen where God gave up his life to demonstrate the depths to which he would go for us. The love that Christ demonstrated through his sacrificial death and, indeed throughout his life, influences us to live a moral life in the same light out of thanksgiving for that love. Abelard eschewed the idea of substitutionary sacrifices and the legal aspect of the atonement. Christ saves us by influencing us by his love to live a life pleasing to God. This theory of atonement is popular among liberals who shun the violence of the substitutionary theories and reject the so-called “mythology” of the Ransom view (Aulen, 1933/2003).

The determination of which of these theories of the atonement is correct will answer our question of what exactly Jesus saves us from. I believe, in weighing the historical, traditional, biblical, and logical arguments, the evidence points most clearly to the Ransom view.

The Second Adam Saves Humanity from Sin, Death, and the Devil

The wonderful thing about the Ransom view is that it tells a dramatic story. It is the story of God’s supreme creation, humanity, as represented by the first man, Adam, being taken captive by the powers of sin, death, and the devil by a willful act of rebellion against God in Eden. Mankind is thus enslaved to these forces, with all those after Adam subjected against their will. Even Adam was himself deceived. This bondage to these evil powers wreaks havoc and destruction among the human race and sickens men’s souls. God’s heart is moved with compassion and His son Jesus offers to pay the price (the ransom – see Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:6; Heb 9:15) by descending to become a man, wrestle with sinful temptations, the devil and his minions, and give up his very life in a sacrificial act of death that obeyed God to the very end. He was the conqueror of these powers by not giving into temptation (Heb 4:15), by casting out and resisting the devil’s attacks, and by triumphing over death through the resurrection. Through this incarnational victory, as man, God in Christ, as the second and last Adam, begins a new human race that lives in victory over the powers of sin (Matt 1:21: 26:28; John 1:29; Acts 5:31; 10:43; Rom 5:19; chap 6; 2 Cor 5:18, 21; Gal 1:4; Col 1:14; 1 Tim 1:15; Heb 2:17; 10:12; 1 Pet 2:24; 3:18; 1 John 3:5; Rev 1:5), death (Acts 2:24; Rom 4:25; 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; Heb 2:14), and the devil (John 10:10; 12:31; Acts 10:38; 1 Cor 15:24-25; Phil 2:10; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8) by participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This salvation results in the healing of our hearts from the scars of our previous bondage and in the healing of our broken relationships with God and others.

So, when someone asks, “Saved from what?” you can reply, “sin, death, and the devil.” When we say a person is saved, we speak eschatologically, or from the perspective of the end of the ages when all is accomplished. Our salvation is accomplished in Christ, but it is being worked out in our individual lives daily (Phil 2:13) and awaits future consummation. Please note that there is no salvation or deliverance mentioned here from hell. The majority of the early church did not envision a place of eternal torments and believed that just as Adam’s one act of disobedience brought death on all mankind, Christ’s one act of obedience brought salvation upon all mankind (Rom 5:18, 19; 1 Cor 15:22). Christ’s atonement was as effective as Adam’s fall. God desires the salvation of all people (1 Tim 2:4) and will work all things out according to this will (Eph 1:11). He will reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:16-20) and heal all of creation.

While the teaching that Jesus died on the cross to “pay the penalty for my sin” gets much approbation in conservative Reformed circles, it is not the historical teaching of the church. As a matter of fact, that particular variation of satisfaction theory is less than five hundred years old. The satisfaction view also engenders the problem of God being a vindictive deity who demands blood before He is willing to forgive (is it really forgiveness if punishment must still be had?). It also disregards the motif of healing as a central part of salvation, being encumbered by juridical views of man’s relationship to God. The moral influence view sees the atonement as purely psychological. There is some justification to this view in the effect it has on the believer (motivation for faithfulness to love God and neighbor). However, it falls short in that it fails to deal with the ontological problems of sin and death and the very real dominion of Satan in earthly affairs and people’s lives. Only the Ransom view provides for a victory by God in man through the incarnational victory of Christ, one that extends to all humanity, especially those that believe (1 Tim 4:10).

When a person commits themselves in faith to following their representative, the Lord Jesus Christ, signifying this faith in baptism, by renouncing the old life (in Adam) and choosing to participate in the new (in Christ) they are baptized by the Holy Spirit into mystical union with Christ in which the Spirit works out within them the very life and victory of Jesus over the powers. It is the life and victory of Jesus being repeated and experienced in the life of individual believers, together forming a community of loving people who seek to serve each other in sacrificial love. This is the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of the new humanity now that Christ has ascended to the Father’s right hand. God’s love defeats the powers of sin, death, and the devil in our lives (see Boyd [n.d]).

I am happy to report that I am saved. I renounced (repented) of the old way of selfishness and bondage to sin, death (both an experience and an event), and the devil and have declared faithfulness to Christ Jesus in order to participate in his life of victory over those things that once held me in bondage, a life filled and driven by the love of God for me. Have you done the same? Have you been saved? I am confident that after reading this article, you can answer that question either way.

References

Aulen, G. (1933/2003). Christus Victor: An historical study of the three main types of the idea of atonement. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Boyd, G. (n.d.). The “christus victor” view of the atonement. Retrieved from http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/essays-jesus/the-christus-victor-view-of-the-atonement/

Satisfaction Theory of Atonement (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 7, 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_theory_of_atonement

16 thoughts on “Saved from What?

  1. I acknowledge myself to be in the Reformed tradition–a Calvinist. But the “satisfaction” view of the atonement did not begin with the Reformation–dare I say it goes back to the Patristic era, and even to the New Testament. I’m not sure how you would interpret the following Scriptures any other way:

    Rom 3:23-25 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

    Heb 2:17 “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

    Heb 9:11-14 “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

    These passages are working with an OT framework for sin and atonement: a sinner incurs guilt, which can only be atoned for by blood. Hebrews is pretty clear: Christ’s blood atones for sins.

    I agree that there are many other dimensions of salvation that have been underemphasized (even neglected) in evangelical circles. But blood atonement is there and is a vital part of the Scriptural picture of salvation.

  2. BTW, these are just a few passages, not an exhaustive list. I forgot one of my faves, Rev 5:9-10: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

    I also could compile a list of passages that speak of sinners incurring the wrath of God–Eph 2:1-3; Rom 1-2, 9; 1 Thess 1:10.

    • Benj, thanks for the reply. I would certainly quibble with your contention that satisfaction theory goes back to the earliest of the church fathers. Gustav Aulen has sufficiently dealtt with that I believe. If anything is going on in the sacrifice of Jesus, it is that, like the other powers, the sacrificial system is defeated by the one who can really take away sins (through forgiveness). Thus, Jesus’ sacrficing himself ends up being the end of that cruel system. He exposes the cruelty of scapegoating and brings it to shame. By dying, he performs a more excellent sacrifice in that His life was a true giving of Himself to God. It is the culmination of a life lived in self-denying love. God did not need Jesus’ blood to satisfy his bloodlust. That is a pagan concept. Admittedly, I am still working out my atonement theology, so I don’t have all my i’s dotted and all my t’s crossed, so I cannot respond with an exegetical analysis to all of your verses. As a psychologist in training I can say this (and hope to write a book on this someday): the human brain is designed to see patterns. Once the brain sees a pattern, it is impossible for it to not see it. The way this neurology plays out in hermeneutics is that once we see a pattern or a theology, verses that seem to be saying something “clearly” may not be saying what we think it’s saying at all. It’s just that our brain has seen that pattern and had it reinforced over and over again that we cannot not see it. It appears “obvious” to us. However, when you start to question your beliefs on the basis of some serious moral objections, you start to search out a new pattern or theology that more coherently holds together your Christian values. It is only then that you can see the Scriptures in a new way and perhaps have your eyes open to a meaning that lay dormant because you were trapped in the old pattern. That is what I have done with a lot of my theology over the past few years. I’ve questioned things philosophically and asked some heart-wrenching, difficult and often uncomfortable questions. Often, I rejected a theology before I had explanations for all the texts simply because it was philosophically untenable. I then learned through reading that there were other ways to look at passages that made them cohere better with what I thought was more consistent with who God is. It is the same here. You have dropped several “proof texts” on the site and wish me to respond to them. At this moment I cannot. I will say, that though they clearly can be seen from my old pattern as teaching satisfaction theory, my moral rejection of God needing to see blood before He can forgive as disgusting and unfitting of a loving and graceful deity causes me to seek out what others have written and said about these things, for I am sure that there is another pattern/context in which to understand the verses you list. Thank you for your challenge. It’s keeping me on my toes with this and I’ll definitely get back to you with any thoughts I start to put together. Blessings brother!

  3. This is something I’ve been researching for quite some time now. I have been convinced that the penal-substitution view is too harsh and takes too many liberties with the text. Where does it ever say Jesus was punished for our sins? Where does it say that God demands blood? I think you have the right idea here sir, though I do like Irenaeus’s thoughts a bit more than the ransom idea. Do you believe God paid a ransom to the devil?

    • Grace, good point. Nowhere does it say Jesus was punished at all. That is theological eisegesis. There is that verse in Hebrews that says that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, but I’d have to go back and study the context. Hebrews is all about how Jesus did away with the sacrificial system and overcame it with a higher priesthood that could actually take away sins. I do not believe God paid a ransom to the devil. Paying a ransom simply means that Christ paid the cost necessary for our freedom. Welcome to the site!

    • 2 Cor 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

      Isa 53:10-11: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
      he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
      the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

      Col 1:19-22: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

      Jn 1:29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”

      Jordan, what is “the cost of our freedom?” What are we being freed from if not the penalty of sin? Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection is about “doing away with the Mosaic priesthood”; and about “victory over enslavement” (below). But that requires the shedding of blood–Christ’s on our behalf, in payment for our sins. (How else can we explain the “Lamb of God” theme in the Johannine literature, for example? It’s not the only theme, but it is present and important.)

      Just because there are other wonderful consequences of salvation–adoption, freedom, sanctification, glorification–doesn’t mean we can do away with forgiveness for Jesus’ sake.

    • synergy, the problem is not that we have to be punished for our sins. It’s that we are enslaved to certain “powers” such as sin, death, the devil, the law, etc. Christ comes and overcomes those powers and creates a new humanity that is free from those powers. As we participate in His life throught the Spirit, we walk in the same victory over those things that formerly enslaved us. Thus, we are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Many conservatives believe that Jesus came only for the cross, but the truth is that His life was just as salvific as his death, but most especially was His resurrection where He overcame death. Welcome to the site!

      • Absolutely, Christ’s life, death and resurrection are all salvific. Since you brought it up earlier, Jordan, let me point out that Reformed theology has affirmed this for 500 years, and it’s in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

  4. Jordan I have to agree with think hard. Jesus paying teh penalty of sin is A PART of the salvation process. yeah it’s not all of it, but it’s part of it.

    • Synergy, just provide me with one verse that unambiguously states the Jesus was punished for our sins. That’s all I ask. I don’t want some verse that has is ambiguous and can only be interpreted that way with a preconceived notion of penal-substitutionary atonement, but a verse that flat out says it.

  5. Another brief historical note: American revivalism began in Methodist and Holiness churches in the 19th century, not Reformed churches. The Reformed are frequently critical of revivalistic meetings such as the one with which you began your original post.

    • Benj, you cite a lot of prooftexts that can be taken from your perspective, but, again, I want to point out that you have to hold to a particular view of penal-substitutionary atonement (PSA) first and then read it into those passages. Many can and do explain those passages differently. Thus, the problem of prooftexting. No one is arguing that Jesus does not take away our sins, but He does so by offering his life (blood) for us to live in so that by walking the journey of Christ He might actually en vivo expiate those sins. Like John said, “The Lamb of God that TAKES away the sin of the world.” There is no divine penalty or debt that has to be paid to God. God can forgive freely of his own initiative. The blood being shed goes back to the rite of the Temple priest sacrificing the goat in place of God to then cleanse the temple with his life-giving blood. Check out this article from James Alison where he offers a great liturgical view of the atonement: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html Again, I maintain that the New Testament does not say Jesus was punished. We are ransomed from death and sin. If you want to say that death is the penalty for sin, then I might be inclined to agree with that, although it’s still questionable as you can’t totally separate the two. You’re right about the revivalism. Although I do know Reformed pastors who give altar calls. I guess it depends on how you view the Spirit’s work in regards to predestination. Good points, friend. Hey, do you want to get together sometime? I’m living in Norristown now. We can duke it out in person LOL!

      • Jordan: I typically dislike prooftexting and I try to avoid it if possible. In these instances, though, I feel the weight of the plainest reading of these several texts is strong enough to make my point, and the burden is on those who take a different position to prove from other Scriptures that the text does not say what it appears to be saying on its face.

        Again, I’m not discounting the exemplary and victorious work of Christ’s death and resurrection as you present it. I’m trying to show that we can’t have all the other benefits without Christ’s penal substitutionary death. What else is the “curse of the Law” in Gal 3? Why else would “the wages of sin be death” in Rom 6? How do you explain that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25)? Or, that he was “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10)? There’s no grace if there’s no punishment deserved.

        Yes, let’s get together soon. How about coffee next week sometime? E-mail me.

  6. Benj, I do believe you accept the other aspects of atonement. I’m not saying those are easy verses to explain. My issue is one that is more philosophical. If Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sin, then God did not forgive me. If I owe you ten dollars and you demand payment, but I can’t pay you, then I’m indebted to you. Let’s say that your wife then comes along and pays the ten dollars for me. I am no longer in your debt, true, but you cannot be said to have forgiven my debt, because it was paid for by someone else. This is why, despite the verses you list, for which I have heard other plausible interpretations, I cannot on philosophical grounds accept the idea of blood atonement. If anything, Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, but the early church seemed to see it more in dramatic imagery of victory over the system of the world. Punishment is deserved and that is death. Grace is that God would become a man, live a life of service and love that forgave sin and freed those oppressed by the devil, died on the cross to expose the powers that be and to destroy the Adamic nature, and was resurrected to defeat death. If you want to say there was any punishment involved, it was that God punished the old Adamic nature in Christ at the cross. But, still, that would not constitute a payment for sins in the PSA view. We’ll hash this out more in person. This week is not good for me because of school, but perhaps next week? I’ll email you.

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