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What is "salvation" according to the scriptures?

(Garth D. Wiebe, June 2017)

Both the terms "salvation" and "saved" have become very loaded buzzwords in Christian circles. It is common to hear people talk about a person's "salvation" or speak of someone being "saved" which, in evangelical-speak, means you are a bonafide, heaven-bound Christian. However, that is not what the word itself fundamentally means.

Often I will be asked something to the effect of, "Is so-and-so saved," to which I will respond, "What do you mean by saved? Saved from what?" This often produces a blank stare and silence. More often than not, they really don't know what to say, because they are just using religious jargon that refers to whether a person is "in" or not. Then, often, they stumble around and mumble out some other religious phrase. So, even by the English definition of the word, there is the need for context. You are "saved" from something, not just "saved." If the fire department comes and rescues you from a burning house, then you were "saved" from being burned up with the house and the fireman is the "savior" who effected that "salvation." Context must be looked at to determine what calamity or malady is being referring to, whether "rescued" from judgment and the wrath of God to come (because of having been guilty of sin), or "rescued" from affliction, or etc. In other words, if you say you are "saved," then you must specify what are you "saved" from.

The root word is σως (LSJ #104982, transliterated "sos," no Strong's entry, not found in the New Testament), which means whole, safe, or intact. A verb form of that is σω-ζω (LSJ #104870, Strong's G4982, "so-zo"), where the -ζ ("-z") suffix in the Greek works just like the corresponding English -ize suffix. Hence, the verb σωζω hyper-literally, etymologically, means to whole-ize, safe-ize, intact-ize something. The Greek dictionary entry defines it as to save or preserve, and by implication, rescue or deliver from what was otherwise happening or going to happen to them, so that it doesn't happen to them.

Again, in common evangelical-speak, "salvation" or "saved" really means to be saved from the penalty due to us for our having committed sins, and the consequential judgment and wrath of God to come. We have been justified in the sight of God by our faith that Jesus paid for our sins. In this age of grace, God isn't counting our sins against us, since Jesus paid for them. The issue is not whether or not we have sinned, but whether we believe and have been immersed into forgiveness of sins, the conviction, awareness, and commitment to the one who paid for our sins, which is Jesus. When we believe, we are regenerated newly, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

However, the word in the original Koine Greek New Testament is more general than that. Here are examples of where "saved" doesn't mean "become a born-again Christian and be heaven-bound," even though the verb is σωζω ("sozo") in the original text:

In Matt 8:35, the disciples wake Jesus sleeping in the boat in the middle of a storm and say, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" They wanted him to save them from perishing in the storm.

In Matt 14:30, Peter starts walking on the water toward Jesus, then begins to sink, at which point he cries out, "Lord, save me!" He wanted Jesus to save him from drowning.

The woman with the issue of blood said to herself in Matt 9:21 and Mark 5:28 that if she could just touch the cloak of Jesus, she would be saved, that is, saved from her infirmity. Jesus then said to the woman afterward, "Your faith has saved you," in Matt 9:22, Mark 5:34, and Luke 8:48, that is, saved her from her infirmity.

In Mark 5:23, Jairus asked Jesus to put his hands on his sick daughter, that she would be saved and live, that is, saved from the illness and death. Then, in Luke 8:50, it was later reported to Jairus that his daughter had died, while he and Jesus were on the way to heal her. Jesus tells Jairus, "Fear not, only believe, and she will be saved," meaning saved from physical death.

In Mark 6:56 the sick were brought to Jesus, such that if they would just touch even the tassel of his cloak, and whoever touched it was saved, that is, saved from their sickness.

In Mark 10:52 a blind man receives his sight and Jesus tells him that his faith has saved him, that is, saved him from blindness.

In Luke 18:42 a blind man receives his sight and Jesus tells him that his faith has saved him, that is, saved him from blindness.

In Luke 8:36, the people watching Jesus deliver the man with the "Legion" of demons noted how the demoniac was saved, and reported it in their region. The man was saved from demon possession.

In John 11:12, Jesus told the disciples that Lazarus was asleep and that he was going to wake him up. The disciples responded, thinking that Jesus was referring to natural sleep, that if he sleeps, he will be saved, speaking of being saved from his sickness due to his getting that needed sleep.

In Matt 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, and Luke 17:33, a person who wants to "save his life" will destroy it, but if he destroys his life on account of turning it over to Jesus, he will save it. In the first instance, such a person is urged not to save his life.

Jesus says in Matt 24:22 and Mark 13:20 about the end times that "except those days were cut short, no flesh would be saved." Here he says "flesh" and is talking about people physically dying due to the calamities.

In John 12:27, Jesus rhetorically says, "And what may I be saying? 'Father, save me from this hour?" He was talking about being saved from what he had to soon do.

Jesus was taunted about how he couldn't save himself by coming down from the cross in Matt 27:40-42, Mark 15:30-31, and Luke 23:35-39. "Others he saves, but he cannot save himself!" The two uses of the word are how he saved others from sicknesses, demons, and death, and then that he could not save himself from his own death on the cross by crucifixion. The taunters certainly do not have in mind forgiveness of sins or a heavenly calling! Then, in Matt 27:49, the people watching waited to see if "Elijah" would save him.

In Acts 2:40, Peter tells the crowd to save themselves "from this crooked generation."

In Acts 4:9, Peter tells the Sanhedrin how the crippled man was saved, that is saved from his infirmity.

In Acts 14:9, a lame man crippled in his feet has faith to be saved, that is, saved from his infirmity, after which the apostle Paul tells him to stand up.

In Acts 27:20, the people in the ship Paul was in lost all hope of being saved, that is, saved from perishing in the storm. In Acts 27:31, Paul tells the people in the ship in the storm that if they don't remain in the ship, they won't be saved, that is, saved from perishing in the storm.

In 1 Tim 2:15, the woman (Eve) will be saved through childbearing if they (the people reading Paul's letter) would remain in faith and love and holiness with a sound mind. He was not saying that Eve would be saved from the penalty of her sins by the actions of women four thousand years later!

In James 5:15, the vow of faith of the elders saves the sick person. They are saved from sickness.

In Jude 1:5 it talks about the Lord saving people out of the land of Egypt, that is, from Pharaoh's oppression.

This brings us next to a point, not of word definition, but of grammar. In most cases where we can map the word to being saved from the penalty for sins and the wrath of God to come, it is in the Greek present or future tenses, that is, we are "being saved" or "will be saved." This is still completely by faith, of course, but it is a bit different than the evangelical-speak "saved," which is a property attached to a person, in some instances simply attached to a person because they recited "The Sinner's Prayer," after which then the two camps argue about whether that person can "lose their salvation" which, again, is viewed as a property attached to a person, in this case by reciting "The Sinner's Prayer." (Note: There is no "Sinner's Prayer" in the Bible.)

It is like taking the food you prepared and putting it in the refrigerator, because you want to save that food. The food is "being saved" and it "will be saved" from perishing and getting thrown out. It is not as if the food has this property, "saved," and then people would argue whether the food is once-saved-always-saved or capable of losing its salvation and perishing. We don't talk like that about the food being saved, and we shouldn't talk like that about people being saved.

Having faith or believing (both "faith" and "belief" are from the same Greek word) are written similarly in most scriptures in such a way as to express that "the believing are being saved" or "the believing will be saved."

I went through all the 110 instances of the verb σωζω ("sozo") in the New Testament, examining each case where the verb or verb participle was conjugated in either the Greek aorist or perfect tenses.

The indefinite, Greek aorist tense states a proposition as a "fact," rather than an action on a timeline, and does not have a perfectly corresponding tense in English. If I were to say right now, "I play the piano," that would be, technically, the English simple present tense. But right now I am typing on a computer keyboard, and in context you would understanding that I mean to say that I am a piano player as fact, rather than action on a timeline. I am not saying anything about when I did, am, or will be playing the piano. I described this tense in more detail in this post. Scriptures with "save" in the aorist tense would be one type to search for, which would describe a person as "saved" as a fact, rather than as a process or future happening.

The Greek perfect tense describes an action as having been completed, and corresponds to the English present perfect tense. In this case, that would be simply translated as "I have been saved." We would need to search for "save" in the perfect tense also.

So then, these would be the search criteria: We would search for instances of the verb σωζω ("sozo") that are either in the aorist tense or the perfect tense, and have to do with eternal salvation, rather than some temporary calamity, malady, or dilemma that won't matter anymore after one is dead and buried in the ground.

Now I will quote all those instances, as literally as I can render them and still be easily readable. First, the aorist tense:

"Yet hearing, his disciples were tremendously astonished, saying, 'Who then is able to be saved?'" (Matt 19:25)

"Yet they were exceedingly astonished, saying to themselves, "And who is able to be saved?'" (Mark 10:26)

"Yet the ones hearing say, 'And who is able to be saved?'" (Luke 18:26)

"...thereafter the adversary is coming and is taking away the word from their heart, lest believing, they may be saved." (Luke 8:12)

"For the son of man does not come to destroy men's lives, but to save." (Luke 9:56)

"For the son of man comes to seek and to save the lost [literally, "the having been destroyed/ruined"] Luke 19:10

"For God does not send his son into the world that he should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through him." (John 3:17)

"Yet I am not getting the testimony from man, but these things I am saying that you may be saved." (John 5:34)

"...for I come not that I should be judging the world, but that I should save the world." (John 12:47)

"And there is salvation in no other, for neither is there a different name under the heaven, the having been given among men, in which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)

"And some, coming down from Judea, were teaching the brothers that if ever you should not be circumcised to the custom of Moses you are not able to be saved." (Acts 15:1)

"But through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we are believing to be saved in a manner even as they." (Acts 15:11)

"For to expectation we are saved. Yet, expectation is not observing, for what any is observing, is he also expecting?" (Rom 8:24)

"if somehow I should provoke those of my flesh to jealousy and I should save some out of them" (Rom 11:14)

"For since, in fact, in the wisdom of God the world does not know, through the wisdom of God God delights, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save the believing." (1 Cor 1:21)

"to give such to the adversary into extermination of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (1 Cor 5:5)

"...to all I have become the all, that all-ly some I should save" (1 Cor 9:22)

"...not seeking my own profit, but that of the many, that they may be saved." (1 Cor 10:33)

"forbidding us to speak to the nations, that they may be saved..." (1 Thess 2:15)

"and in every seduction of the injustice in the perishing, in place of which the love of the truth they do not receive into the them to be saved [literally a verb infinitive; "into the them to be saved" is usually translated "for their salvation"] (2 Thess 2:10)

"Faithful the saying, and worthy of all welcome, that Christ Jesus comes into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." (1 Tim 1:15)

"Who wills all men to be saved and to be coming into realization of truth" (1 Tim 2:4)

"of the one saving us and calling us..." (2 Tim 1:9)

"Yet when the kindness and the fondness for humanity of our savior, God, makes its advent, not out of works in righteousness we do, but according to his mercy, he saves us through the washing of renewal of Holy Spirit." (Titus 3:4-5)

"...receive the implanted word, the being able to save your lives." (James 1:21)

"What benefit, my brothers, if ever anyone may be saying faith to be having, yet may not be having works? This 'faith' is not able to save him." (James 2:14)

"One is the lawgiver, the being able to save and to destroy..." (James 4:12)

These are speaking on principle, not making a statement about who is "saved." Notice that we do not see any statements to the effect that "so-and-so is saved," or questions being asked to that effect, such as, "Is he saved?" or "Are you saved?"

Then, there are only two relevant instances using the Greek perfect tense, occurring in the same scripture context which, again, I will render as literally as I can:

"and being us dead to the offenses he makes us alive together to the Christ to grace you are being having been saved." (Eph 2:5)

"for to the grace you are being having been saved through the faith and this not out of you, of God the gift, not out of works, that no one should boast" (Eph 2:8)

Of course, if you have been reading the context since Eph 1, then when you get to Eph 2 you will know that he is addressing as audience the believers, the "chosen" ones, and emphasizing the eternal promises to them:
Eph 1:1 "Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, to the saints, the ones being in Ephesus and to believers in Christ Jesus."
Hence, Eph 2:5,8 both only apply to those believers, the "chosen" ones. There is no appeal to anyone to "get saved," as the evangelical-speak jargon goes.

There is an important additional point of grammar to make here. In English, we have what are known as helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs, and then there are main verbs. The former work with the latter to conjugate the verb tense. For example, "have been saved," in English, is the present perfect passive conjugation of the verb "save," where "have" and "been" are being employed as "helping/auxiliary verbs," the word "have" making it the present perfect tense (along with "been" and the -ed inflection of "save"), and the word "been" making it passive voice (also along with the -ed inflection of "save"). Altogether it is really only one verb, conjugated in a particular way. Greek has no such thing as a "helping/auxiliary verb," since verbs are entirely conjugated by inflection, the spelling of the word itself (like "save/saves/saved/saving" in English, but with many more possible verb endings, like this, for example). It is very tempting to read English grammar into the Greek flow. For that reason, notice how I translated Eph 2:5 and 2:8 as follows:

εστε σεσωσμενοι
"este sesosmenoi"
{you are being} {having been saved}
Since there is no such thing as an (English) helper/auxiliary verb in the Greek, the original text has two main verbs: The verb "is" and the verb "save." The first verb is conjugated in the Greek present tense, something happening in the present time: "you are being." At this point I could substitute any predicate nominative, such as "you are being funny," or "you are being sad."

The second verb is a verb participle, which functions like an adjective (e.g. "funny," "sad," etc.), conjugated in the Greek perfect tense: "having been saved." I could say, "the having been saved tree was not cut down," although we wouldn't say it like that, but instead use the English past verb participle, "the saved tree was not cut down."

Putting the two verbs together is a juxtaposition of something in the present continuous (what "you are being" presently) with that which is completed ("having been saved"). The eternal promises of God, based on his completed work, based on what Jesus did, are being testified to, which we currently are entering into as a result of our current and ongoing choice to believe. In my post, "Predestination vs. Free Will": scripture analysis," I discussed this more thoroughly. Be sure to watch the short video illustration I did in that article, which will save you (pun intended) from digressing into a Calvinist vs. Arminian, or "once-saved-always-saved vs. able to lose one's salvation," debate.

One other scripture deserves mention. In the well-recited case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30), the jailer says, "Masters, what must I be doing that I may be saved?" note two things: First, that these are the words of the distraught jailer merely being quoted; his words are not authoritative. Second, although it is usually assumed that he is making an appeal to Christian conversion, it is more likely, since he was just about to kill himself with his own sword, that he was simply in a state of panic about all the prisoners escaping, which would have resulted in the death penalty for him at the hands of his superiors, for dereliction of duty as a jailer. Hence, he was inquiring about how his life could be saved, to which Paul responds with the spiritual counter-proposal that is higher than that: "Believe upon the Lord Jesus and you will be saved..."

The next word is the noun, "salvation." That is σωτηρια (LSJ #104998, Strong's G4991, "soteria"). Again, context is needed. I examined all 45 instances of the word, and in four cases it does not refer to salvation from the penalty of our sins:

In Luke 1:71, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, speaks of Israel: "Salvation from our enemies."

In Acts 7:25, Stephen, in his speech, talks about how Moses was supposed to give salvation, meaning deliverance, to Israel from Egypt.

In Acts 27:34, the apostle Paul urges the people in the ship in the storm to eat, predicting the salvation of everyone on board, that is, salvation from perishing in the storm at sea.

In Heb 11:7 it talks about Noah building an ark for the salvation of his household. They would not perish in the flood.

In Luke 19:9, Jesus declares to Zaccheus the tax collector that salvation has come to his home, after Zaccheus made his declaration about giving half of his possessions to the poor and giving back fourfold to those he cheated. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Romans and were considered traitors who defected and betrayed their Jewish brethren, using their inside community knowledge to assess and extract the Roman taxes from people in their local communities, considered an act of treason against the Jewish nation. This salvation concerns reconciliation, that now he is to be considered "also a son of Abraham."

In other cases scripture speaks on general principle, as in "this salvation" or how God has provided "salvation" to his people, and does not ever apply the label to a particular, named individual.

Also, again the word coupled with a relevant verb uses the present tense of those various verbs, such as believing, avowing, obeying, and so on.

"For I am not being ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God into salvation for everyone believing..." (Rom 1:16)

"For to heart is being believed into justice/righteousness yet to mouth is being avowed into salvation." (Rom 10:10)

"For the sorrow according to God is producing repentance [change of mind] into salvation..." (2 Cor 7:10)

"...be effecting your salvation with fear and trembling." (Phil 2:12)

"thus the Christ...will be seen a second time, apart from sin, to those awaiting him, into salvation." (Heb 9:28)

"and being perfected, he becomes, to the all obeying him, cause of eternal salvation" (Heb 5:9)

In the above instances "salvation" is contingent on the action verb in the present tense.

Last is the adjective, σωτηριος (LSJ #105002, Strong's G4992, "soterios/soterion"), which occurs 5 times in the New Testament. We don't have a good English equivalent for that, but we could use either "salvation," as in "the salvation message," or a verb participle, such as "the saving message." In any case, an adjective can only describe something else.

In conclusion, we see that the popular evangelical jargon so frequently used in modern times is absent from scripture. Furthermore, the meaning of the word "save" or "salvation" in the scriptures is entirely dependent on context.

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