What is Salvation, Anyway?

A friend asked this question during a recent Bible study, and it was so fundamental that it took me aback for a moment – because it’s not something that my church ever directly addressed, perhaps assuming it was well-understood already. But when I thought about it for a moment, I realized it’s a question with widely varying answers across the Christian faith. Since our Bible study group has been delving deeply into “what do we really believe,” it seemed like a really good question which deserves a solid answer.

Since it’s such a widely varying subject, and since thousands upon thousands of pages have been written on the subject, I’m going to simply present a variety of data from existing content. At the end, I’ll discuss my own personal beliefs.

So, below are some snippets from varying web pages. I think the second link (bible.org) is probably the most thorough, and tries to cover the topic across the major orthodox Christian denominations. Thus it’s a long discussion, but probably worth reading.

Varying Positions on Major Aspects of Salvation

Some typical disagreements between denominational positions include:

  • Salvation by faith alone (sola fide), works alone, or a combination
  • Preordination/predestination (Reformed), versus purely by a human decision which God honors (Arminian)
  • Baptism required versus not (ritualistic or not)
  • Universalism versus only those who claim Jesus’ name
  • Original sin / utter depravity (Augustinian), or not (Pelagianism)
  • Eternal security (saved no matter what else you do) or the possible loss of salvation


Differing Definitions


According to the broadest meaning as used in Scripture, the term salvation encompasses the total work of God by which He seeks to rescue man from the ruin, doom, and power of sin and bestows upon him the wealth of His grace encompassing eternal life, provision for abundant life now, and eternal glory (Eph. 1:3-8; 2:4-10; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; John 3:16, 36; 10:10).

The word “salvation” is the translation of the Greek word soteria which is derived from the word soter meaning “savior.” The word “salvation” communicates the thought of deliverance, safety, preservation, soundness, restoration, and healing. In theology, however, its major use is to denote a work of God on behalf of men, and as such it is a major doctrine of the Bible which includes redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, conviction, repentance, faith, regeneration, forgiveness, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. On the one hand, salvation is described as the work of God rescuing man from his lost estate. On the other hand salvation describes the estate of a man who has been saved and who is vitally renewed and made a partaker of the inheritance of the saints.

Salvation in Christ, which begins in eternity past according to the predetermined plan of God and extends into the eternal future, has three observable phases in the Bible:
Phase I. This is the past tense of salvation—saved from sin’s penalty.
Phase II. This is the present tense of salvation and has to do with present deliverance over the reigning power of sin or the carnal nature’s power in the lives of believers.
Phase III. This is the future tense of salvation which refers to the future deliverance all believers in Christ will experience through a glorified resurrected body.


For the individual, salvation means being rescued by God from the consequences of our wrongdoing.

However, salvation is not just something that operates at the individual level, but something that God is doing for the whole universe.

‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’(Colossians 1 v.19-20)


The simplest definition of salvation is to be delivered (or rescued) from peril.

The most common meaning of salvation is to be saved by God from the consequences of our sin. But the Bible speaks of our salvation in a bit fuller terms than simply being rescued from hell.

When thinking about salvation it’s helpful to think about what we are saved from, what we are saved to, who we are saved by. It’s also helpful to think about our salvation as a past, present, and future happening.


Salvation simply means to be saved, or delivered, from the result of sin—eternal death. Salvation is possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is the conclusion of the conversion process.

  • Being delivered from the penalty of sin, which is eternal death (Romans 6:23).
  • Being delivered from mortality and given the gift of eternal life (John 3:15).

In the New Testament, the term salvation describes two essential components of a Christian’s life:

Salvation is a process that begins when we accept Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. We are saved, or delivered, from our past sins and their penalty (death). We must then begin a life of change and growth—becoming more like our Savior, Jesus Christ.

If we continue to repent and change and remain faithful for our whole life, we will then receive salvation in its fullest sense—be given eternal life at the return of Jesus Christ. We will be saved from ever having to face death again.


Of the many Hebrew words used to signify salvation, yasa (to save, help in distress, rescue, deliver, set free) appears most frequently in the Old Testament. Commonly, the deliverance of which the Old Testament speaks is material in nature, though there are important exceptions. In contrast, the employment of soteria in the New Testament, though it may include material preservation, usually signifies a deliverance with special spiritual significance. In addition to the notion of deliverance the Bible also uses salvation to denote health, well-being, and healing.

Some Specific Denominational Positions

https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#iv (the Southern Baptist position)

Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.

Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.

B. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.

C. Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.

D. Glorification is the culmination of salvation and is the final blessed and abiding state of the redeemed.

https://classroom.synonym.com/elca-lutheran-beliefs-regarding-salvation-12086063.html (Methodists)

Doctrine of Grace: The United Methodist Church believes that people are saved by grace through faith. The Church interprets the expression that salvation is achieved by “grace through faith” to mean that humans are made whole and reconciled by the love of God as they receive it and trust in it. Methodists believe that salvation cannot be earned; rather, it is the gift of a loving God that humans need only to accept.

Justification: Justification, or conversion, is the moment when people stop trying to justify themselves to God and instead accept Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for their sins. Justification entails admitting and repenting of sin and embracing God’s justifying grace. The United Methodist Church teaches that this moment of conversion is the start of a person’s new life in Christ. Methodists believe that as soon as a person experiences justification, he is assured of salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification: While justification is the moment at which a person’s salvation is assured, sanctification is the process by which a Christian is “perfected in love, to experience the pure love of God and others,” according to the United Methodist Church website, umc.org. The United Methodist Church holds that conversion is merely the beginning of an individual’s new life in Christ. The Methodist doctrine, “The Confessions of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church,” explains that “sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin … to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Holy Scriptures: The United Methodist Church holds the Bible in the highest esteem, believing it to be the holy, infallible word of God and containing all the information necessary for salvation. Importantly, Methodists believe that not only does God’s word contain everything necessary for salvation, but anything that is not in the Bible is not required for a person to be saved. The Church believes, for example, that good works are a natural effect of justification, but that they lack any biblical power to blot out sin or earn salvation.

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/presbyterian-theology/ (Presbyterians)

Faith entails the understanding and assenting to the basic facts revealed in the Bible about God, man, Christ, and salvation, and then resting on Christ alone for justification (John 1:12; Rom. 3:21–26).

Those who embrace Christ as he is offered in the gospel are justified: their sins are forgiven, and they are legally constituted righteous in God’s sight (Rom. 4:6–8). Justification is received only through faith; a sinner contributes nothing to his acceptance with God. God adopts those whom he justifies, bringing them into his family and granting them all the rights and privileges of the children of God (Gal. 4:4–7; Rom. 8:16–17). Furthermore, God sanctifies all who come to Christ so that, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, they are enabled to die to sin and grow in conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 6:4–6; Heb. 12:14; 2 Thess. 2:13).

Because salvation is a work of sovereign grace, all those whom God chose, Christ redeemed, and the Spirit converts will never lose their salvation. Rather, by the grace of God, they will endure and persevere to the end. Therefore, it is possible for Christians to have full assurance of their salvation, although not all possess it equally at all times (2 Tim. 2:19; 1:8–12).

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/glossary/salvation/ (Episcopals)

Eternal life in the fullness of God’s love. Salvation is deliverance from anything that threatens to prevent fulfillment and enjoyment of our relationship with God. In the OT, God was experienced as the savior who delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt (Ex 14-15; See Canticle 8, The Song of Moses, BCP, p. 85; Dt 6:21-23). Salvation history is the ongoing story of God’s activity and initiative for salvation. The OT records how God reached out to save the people of Israel through the law and the prophets.

Christians affirm that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitute the climax of salvation history. Jesus is our savior who redeems us from sin and death. As we share Christ’s life, we are restored to right relationship with God and one another. Despite our sins and insufficiency, we are made righteous and justified in Christ. We share the saving benefits of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Without God’s help for our salvation, we die with Adam. But we live in Christ as we share his life by faith (1 Cor 15:22). Christ has “brought us out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life” (BCP, p. 368).

Salvation in Christ is made available to us through the Spirit, especially in the life and sacraments of the church. By the water of baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death and share his resurrection (BCP, p. 306; see Rom 6:3-4). The consecrated elements of the eucharist are for God’s people “the bread of life and the cup of salvation,” by which we share the body and blood of Christ (BCP, pp. 363, 375; see Jn 6:53-56; 1 Cor 10:16-17).
The gospel proclaims the good news of salvation in Christ (see Jn 3:16-17). We may participate in a saving process of sanctification by which the saving life of Christ is increasingly the reality of our own lives. This process is completed and revealed in Christ, and it is begun in us through faith in him. Completed union with God is the end of this saving process. In Christ, we come to be at one with God. This union with God is not yet completed, and the eschatological Kingdom of God is not yet fulfilled. But the coming of the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Christ. The Kingdom of God was revealed in Jesus, who ate with outcasts, forgave sinners, healed the sick, and raised the dead (see Lk 5:17-32; Jn 11:1-44).

The gospel proclaims the good news of salvation in Christ (see Jn 3:16-17). We may participate in a saving process of sanctification by which the saving life of Christ is increasingly the reality of our own lives. This process is completed and revealed in Christ, and it is begun in us through faith in him. Completed union with God is the end of this saving process. In Christ, we come to be at one with God. This union with God is not yet completed, and the eschatological Kingdom of God is not yet fulfilled. But the coming of the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Christ. The Kingdom of God was revealed in Jesus, who ate with outcasts, forgave sinners, healed the sick, and raised the dead (see Lk 5:17-32; Jn 11:1-44).

https://www.catholic.com/qa/what-is-the-catholic-understanding-of-the-biblical-plan-of-salvation (Catholics)

The Church understands that we are all sinners in need of a savior (Rom 5:12-21). We are inheritors of original sin and all its consequences, and by actual sin we distance ourselves from God. We can’t save ourselves, but we don’t need to: Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation comes through Jesus alone (Acts 4:12), since he is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tm 2:5-6).

The saving grace won by Jesus is offered as a free gift to us, accessible through repentance, faith, and baptism. We turn away from our sins, we are sorry for them, and we believe in Jesus Christ and the gospel. Repentance shows our willingness to turn from things that keep us from God, and baptism renews us, filling us with the grace necessary to have faith and to live it. This belief is more than just “head knowledge.” Even the demons have that (Jas 2:19). It’s more than just believing you’re saved. Even the Pharisees had that (Jn 5:39). True, saving faith is one lived and exhibited daily: It is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6, cf. Jas 2:1-26).

Sometimes the Church is accused of teaching “salvation by works,” but this is an empty accusation. This idea has been consistently condemned by the Church. Good works are required by God because he requires obedience to his commands (Mt 6:1-21, 1 Cor 3:8, 13-15) and promises to reward us with eternal life if we obey (Mt 25:34-40, Rom 2:6-7, Gal 6:6-10, Jas 1:12). But even our obedience is impossible without God’s grace; even our good works are God’s gift (Rom 5:5, Phil 2:13). This is the real biblical plan of salvation.

My Personal Thoughts

I’m increasingly comfortable with mystery – the idea that we cannot be certain of many things, because the Scriptures can legitimately be interpreted many different ways. This is evidenced by the fact that each denomination or major Christian group in America has either subtly or widely varying positions on salvation. From my perspective, a key tenet of intellectual humility is that if legions of intelligent, diligent, careful scholars of the Bible can reasonably arrive at differing conclusions, it’s probably foolish of me to stake out a solid position as The Truth. So while I have the following beliefs, I won’t be dying on any hill to defend them.

I base these beliefs largely on my understanding of the very nature and character of God Himself, as revealed in the Bible. I believe the Bible to be infallible – completely trustworthy for God’s purpose of revealing Himself to humankind. But I don’t subscribe to Biblical inerrancy, the idea that every single aspect of the Bible is fully without error and literally true.

  • I believe in salvation by faith, but evidenced by works. Thus I do not strictly believe in “sola fide.” Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats, and telling those “depart from Me, I never knew you” as well as a well-known passage in James 2 strongly implies that works are an essential part of salvation. Works cannot save us – but faith without works is dead.
  • I do believe in the Christianity-unique requirement of faith in a literal Jesus Christ for reconciliation with God (“sola Christus”). I think the Bible is sufficiently clear and repetitive on this topic.
  • However, I believe that God in His inconceivable grace and love has a way of redeeming those who never encounter the name or gospel of Jesus. A human who dies with no opportunity to “say the sinner’s prayer” or otherwise make a conscious choice to trust in the God of the Bible is not automatically destined to eternal torment; this would violate the character that God reveals throughout the scriptures. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that man is without excuse, because nature itself reveals God to us. I don’t think that “sola Christus” applies in this case, because no choice was made against Christ.
  • I do believe in “sola gratia,” salvation only by grace. I believe the Bible is clear that we are unable to meet God’s requirements for purity by our own efforts. And I feel that there is plenty of obvious evidence from human culture proving the truth of that idea.
  • I don’t believe that physical baptism is necessary for salvation. It is a vital way to show the world the change in our hearts, but I cannot believe that a God determined to be in relationship with us will reject someone based on their failure to be dunked in water. This would violate the principle of His infinite grace.
  • I am undecided between Reformed and Armenian, although I believe I lean more Armenian. I believe that God certainly knows who will eventually turn to Him, and in that sense they are predestined. But I do not believe that God has a prearranged list of those who He will save; this clashes with the numerous statements that He desires that all would be saved, and that the whole earth will worship Him.
  • I do not believe in the Augustinian doctrine of utter depravity. I believe that humanity was separated from God by Adam’s sin, but I don’t believe for example that infants automatically go to hell because they were never able to voice “the sinner’s prayer.”
  • I am frankly uncertain about universalism or the eventual salvation of those who die without Jesus. There are some compelling scriptures that describe God’s determination to redeem the entire world. However, I am unsure how to handle those who actively choose against Him, balanced against that redemption idea. The Catholics and some other orthodox faiths have interesting ideas of purgatory, and some Bible verses do support the concept. This is an area I am currently studying.
  • On the opposite end of the discussion from salvation, yet intimately tied to it, I am frankly unsure what I believe about the pit of fire and eternal torment and hell. I have read several compelling articles that demonstrate that the typical evangelical understanding of “eternal conscious torment” is not strongly scripturally supported, and is based on extra-Biblical ideas and poor interpretation or translation of the original texts. This is an area I am currently studying.

I hope this has been helpful. I welcome your own comments, although as I said I certainly won’t die on any hill over these perspectives.

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