What does it mean to be saved?

By Dr. Steve Oliver

Jesus is salvation.

At its heart, salvation is not an act, a transaction, or a doctrine – it is the Person of Jesus, both who He is and what He’s done. According to 1 Corinthians 1:30, Jesus Christ “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Not just brought us redemption, but became redemption for us. Salvation is ours in Jesus because Jesus is salvation.

This concept is difficult to grasp, especially since it’s not language that we’re used to hearing. Perhaps it would help to think about the statement, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This doesn’t just mean that God is loving, or that God loves us, or that God is the highest example of love, or that God is the origin of love, or that God is the source of love. It means all of that, but it also means that God’s character is love, that His love for us is not just an emotion or an action, it’s His very nature. He loves us because that’s who He is. And therefore (and this is John’s point in 1 John 4) the only way to genuinely experience and show God’s love is to have a personal, direct, vital connection with the One who is love.

Likewise, saying “Jesus is salvation” doesn’t just mean that Jesus purchased salvation, or that He provides salvation, or that He is the source of salvation, or that He brings us salvation. It means all of that, but it also means that salvation is Jesus’ very character, inseparable from who He is. When He accepted death under the curse and was resurrected to new life, He became the Savior. Not just “the one who saves,” but the One who is Himself the bridge between God and man. This is why Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus was “made perfect”: salvation is not just something that Jesus did, it’s who He is. His victory over sin and death is a vital aspect of His identity and nature as God-man. We have salvation, not as a “thing” that Christ gives, but only as the result of a personal, direct, vital connection with the One who is salvation.

The doctrine of union with Christ describes how we receive salvation and all the benefits that Christ brings: in a way which we cannot fully understand, the life of the believer is joined with Christ’s life. We died when He died (Romans 6:6). We were resurrected with Him (Romans 6:5). He lives our life with us (Galatians 2:20). Our spiritual life is found only in Him (Colossians 3:3-4). We are saved only as we are personally joined to the One who is salvation (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Through church history, this understanding of salvation has been ignored, overlooked and attacked. The politicized church of the Middle Ages viewed salvation as a commodity that the church dispensed to those in its favor. The Protestant Reformation restored personal faith in Jesus as the sole requirement of salvation. Soon, many came to hold a primarily judicial understanding of salvation: the sinner enters the divine court guilty of sin and deserving of condemnation, but because Jesus accepted the sinner’s punishment, God declares him or her to be righteous. This is the basic idea behind the famous “Romans Road to Salvation.” While the details of which verses are included vary from presentation to presentation, the Romans Road begins with the assertion that all are sinners (Romans 3:23), points out that the result of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and presents repentance and forgiveness as the answer to the problem (Romans 10:9). Many have been brought to salvation via the Romans Road.

Scripture makes it clear that repentance and forgiveness are essential to the gospel. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), Jesus called sinners to repent (Luke 5:32) and sent the disciples to preach repentance (Mark 6:12), Peter preached forgiveness at Pentecost (Acts 2:38), and Paul proclaimed repentance and forgiveness to both Jew and Gentile (Acts 20:21). This is the judicial aspect of salvation, and without question, it is crucial.

Accurate but incomplete

There is a weakness to this understanding of the gospel, however: while it is accurate, it is not the complete picture of salvation. There are many more images and metaphors for the gospel. In John 7, Jesus offered people water to slake their thirst; in John 6, He offered food for their hunger; in Matthew 11, He offered rest for the weary; and in John 3, He offered rebirth into new life. But most often, He simply told people, “Follow Me” (for example, Matthew 19:21, Mark 2:14, Luke 9:59, John 21:22). In the Epistles, people are called to move from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light as in 1 Peter 2:9 and Colossians 1:13, or to change allegiance from idols to Christ as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9.

The reason that this variety is possible is that salvation is more than a declaration of divine law. Salvation is Jesus. Forgiveness is a result of being united with Him. Colossians 1:13 says that “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” is available only “in Him.” Not just “from Him” or “because of what He’s done,” but directly “in Him.”

When we reduce salvation to a matter of sin and forgiveness rather than a direct connection with Jesus, we open the door to doctrinal and practical errors. One of the most serious of these is viewing salvation as a “legal fiction” by which God sees Christ instead of us: we still live in sin, but God doesn’t see it.

While Wesleyan-Arminians rightly reject this error, there’s another that is harder for us to detect. We understand–rightly–that our sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We understand–rightly–that God has requirements and expectations of His children. But if we lose our focus on the Person of Jesus, if we think of salvation only in terms of sin and forgiveness, then we can fall into the trap of legalism – “Did I do enough to keep God happy?” “Am I living carefully enough that I’m not in danger of falling?” The Christian life can become a grinding, fearful effort rather than the joyful, loving relationship with Christ that He means it to be. And it starts with letting our focus shift off from Jesus Himself as our salvation.

Repent and believe

Throughout Scripture, the most consistent elements of the call to salvation are “repent” and “believe.” These appear repeatedly, in every part of the New Testament: the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles and Revelation. The term “repent” has at its heart the idea of turning, which is why it’s used in Exodus 32:14 (KJV) for God changing His course of action. In the context of salvation, people repent from sin (Acts 8:22), from idols (1 Thessalonians 1:9), or from pagan ideas of God (Acts 17:30). The essence of repentance is not only in what we turn from, but who we turn to, and so Paul speaks of “repentance toward God” in Acts 20:21. When we view repentance only in terms of sin, we weaken the biblical understanding of salvation. Repentance is not forsaking our sins in preparation forfaith: repentance is itself an act of faith, an integral part of turning toward Christ.

This explains why sometimes, in gospel presentations, “repent” is used alone (Matthew 3:2, Acts 3:19, Revelation 2:5), other times just “believe” (John 8:34, Acts 16:31, Galatians 3:22), and occasionally forgiveness is offered without reference to either (Luke 6:37). Repentance, faith and forgiveness are inseparable: a call to repent includes faith and forgiveness; an offer of forgiveness assumes repentance and faith. Peter at Pentecost could preach repentance without mentioning faith, and Paul could tell the Philippian jailer to believe without mentioning repentance, because repentance and faith are inseparable. Each presupposes the other.

Likewise, when Jesus said, “Follow Me,” this call contains within itself the idea of repentance: one had to abandon everything else to follow Him (Matthew 19:21, Luke 9:23-24). His promise of living water, of rest, of food and drink and rebirth all required the one responding to come to Him for these blessings. All of these offers included the implicit requirement of repentance, that is,of turning from sin and turning to Him. But the focus was, and must always be, on coming to Jesus.

A Question of Culture

On deeper examination, we find an intriguing pattern in Scripture: when an initial gospel presentation is made in terms of the forgiveness of sins, it’s usually to people who already understand the basic concepts of sin and forgiveness. The Jews in Acts 3:19 and the God-fearer Cornelius in Acts 10:43 were familiar with biblical doctrine, so they already understood that sin and forgiveness dealt with personal moral responsibility. But the pagans saw sin primarily as offending the gods, not an issue of personal ethics, and this view of sin also led to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of forgiveness. This is why in the writings of Paul, who ministered largely among pagans, the term “forgive” is rare. While Paul did proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sin (Acts 20:21), he did so in terms that his hearers would understand, such as changing one’s allegiance from idols to Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9) or turning from an understanding of God as a silver or gold image (Acts 17:29-30). The idea of turning away from something and to Christ is clearly presented, but in terms with which his hearers were familiar.

As our world moves farther from the basic tenets of Christianity, terms such as “sin” and “repentance” are understood less and less. In many ways, our increasingly pluralistic culture resembles the Greek world of Paul’s day, and we would do well to follow Paul’s approach. He became “all things to all people” in his work for the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22), and this includes the way he presented salvation. Since salvation is a personal encounter with Jesus, Paul’s focus was to bring people to Jesus (Colossians 1:28). If we understand and present the gospel as only about forgiveness of sin, we make it difficult to reach a culture that does not understand the basic ideas of sin and salvation. More importantly, we water down the real gospel. The good news is the Person of Jesus, both what He has done and who He is. He offers Himself, and we find forgiveness, new life, new meaning, reconciliation to God–all of the benefits of the gospel–only in Him!

To the young person struggling with self-worth, we can offer assurance that Jesus valued them so much that He died for them. To the person chasing wealth, we can offer the true riches in Christ. To the addict, we can offer the freedom that Christ purchased. To the one searching for meaning, we can offer a new life in Jesus. To the mentally and emotionally exhausted, we can offer the rest that Jesus provides. To the hurting, we can offer healing in Christ. The challenge is that we need to genuinely listen to people, to understand their perspective and needs, in order to point them to Jesus in a way that they will understand.

Does this seem too positive, too seeker-sensitive, too much like compromise? It is certainly true that many people and churches today present a gospel with no negatives, no reproof, no changed life, no real consequences for sin. But making sin and the need of repentance the centerpiece of the gospel is also wrong, because it shifts the focus of salvation away from Jesus. The fact is that some of the Bible’s calls to salvation are indeed “repent or perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), but many of them are extremely positive: “come and rest,” “come to Me and drink,” “believe without works.” In many cases, the problem is not an overly positive presentation of the gospel but a lack of biblical discipleship.

The place of discipleship

For those of us coming from a thoroughly churched culture, it’s easy to forget how little of Christianity the unchurched understand, and therefore how much must be taught via discipleship after conversion. Paul found it necessary to engage in extensive discipleship of new converts, including explaining some very basic morality: “God wants you to be sexually pure” in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 or “You must not tell lies” in Ephesians 4:25. That’s not to necessarily say that the Thessalonians were actively immoral or that the Ephesians were actively lying to one another, but the fact that Paul had to inform or remind them of these things indicates that, at the least, they did not understand the seriousness of these actions. Over and over we find Paul saying, “Since you are now a Christian, here’s how you must live” (for example, Romans 6:1-2, 1 Corinthians 6:15, Colossians 3:1, Ephesians 5:8). Salvation is a matter of changing allegiance; how to live the Christian life is the subject of discipleship.

Discipleship is far more than just a good idea or an optional process after salvation. It is core to what the church needs to be doing. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus’ final command to the disciples was, “Go make disciples,” not just converts. Much of the New Testament is a record of discipleship: Jesus instructing the disciples, Paul correcting the Corinthians, encouraging the Philippians or teaching the Thessalonians, John reminding his readers of the core realities and practical implications of the gospel. Discipleship is essential!

The gospel is simple: come to Jesus. It always includes repentance, faith, and forgiveness, as well as reconciliation, new life, spiritual fulfillment, divine enablement and so much more. The life of salvation must be nurtured and directed by ongoing discipleship. If we remove any of these components, what is left is something less than biblical salvation. If we have all of these components without Jesus at the center, what is left is an empty shell, not biblical salvation. But if our focus is on Jesus, if the gospel that we proclaim is Jesus, if the repentance that we preach is Jesus-centered, if we are willing to teach what following Jesus really means, if Jesus alone is our hope and center and source of life – that’s genuine, biblical salvation.