In 2001, I attended seminary for one semester. Yes, I really did. This was my introductory essay for Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), assigned so the professor would get an idea of our background on the subject. My grade was “C”.
When Christians consider the idea of salvation, our first thought is usually of the supernatural rescue of our immortal souls from eternal separation from God. It’s useful to consider the practical applications of the words save and salvation throughout the Bible, to gain a better appreciation of the entirety of God’s gift to us – by considering the words in context, it’s possible to strip away the theology surrounding the concept, and examine it anew.
Psalms 18:3 is typical of the Old Testament in its use of the word saved: “I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.” (NIV) This is a deliverance from villains – a physical rescue from oppressors. Throughout the books of history, and the Psalms, we see God’s people asking Him for liberation from their enemies. Exodus 1:22 specifies a more individual application: “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.” (KJV) In this case, save refers to the preservation of individual baby girls – it is less the deliverance of a people from evil than it is the immediate, practical action that rescues life. Proverbs 28:18 introduces a “preservation” angle: “He whose walk is blameless is kept safe, but he whose ways are perverse will suddenly fall.” (NIV) From the second part of the sentence, we know the threat (a sudden fall.) Therefore, the one who is blameless is kept from that fate – they are preserved. Finally, in Zechariah 9:9, we have an example of the supernatural salvation we associate with Christ: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The New Testament continues to use the word save in a practical sense of rescue: “The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’” (Matthew 8:25 NIV) There are also a number of NT examples of salvation as healing (e.g. Mark 5:23b – “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” (NIV)) 1 Timothy 2:15a describes a salvation that is restorative, and very close to the spiritual salvation we’re familiar with: “But women will be saved through childbearing…” There are also numerous examples of salvation referring to Christ’s rescue of believers from judgment (e.g. John 3:17 – “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (NIV))
As we consider the various categories of salvation acts in the Bible, it’s instructive to compare the ways in which the words are used. Whether the implication is for deliverance, rescue, preservation, restoration, or spiritual salvation, there is always a consequence that is being relieved or avoided through being saved. We can then compare these consequences and their remedies as we consider the theological tradition of “salvation” – the theology suddenly comes into focus! Our souls are indeed coveted by an enemy we need deliverance from. We do stand on a spiritual precipice that we need to be rescued from. Our spiritual lives tend to stagnate and wither under own power – we need constant affirmation and preservation from God Himself to keep us strong. God’s plan of salvation for His people is an all-encompassing solution to an all-encompassing need. By examining the many uses of salvation in the Bible, we gain new angles from which to appreciate God’s provision for us.