“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.
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