Salvation simply means to be rescued from difficult circumstances. As professor and author Bruce Malina points out”…it was not a specifically God-oriented word…”[i] For most people salvation implies biblical consequences that impact our lives and our culture. People’s acceptance of salvation depends on where they are in their relationship with God and with the world. They may be in a burning house or depressed over financial burdens, going through a divorce or struggling with relationships. Just as the Apostles struggled with many challenges in sharing the gift of salvation, modern Christians still labor with the same issues of who should receive salvation, under what conditions and for what purpose. Salvation is a key element in our relationship with God, we need to concentrate on how to share it rather than with who.
There are three questions to answer for a foundational definition of salvation: From what are we being saved? How are we being saved? Why are we being saved?
John the Baptist told his disciples, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[ii] In his commentary John Wesley defines the nature of this “sin”. “That is, all the sins: of the world – Of all mankind. Sin and the world are of equal extent.”[iii] Wesley contends that since we live in a sinful world then it is the world that needs to be saved not just the humans that inhabit it. God seeks to save us from worldly sin.
Matthew Henry answered the second question this way: “He bore sin for us, and so bears it from us. God could have taken away sin, by taking away the sinner, as he took away the sin of the old world; but here is a way of doing away sin, yet sparing the sinner, by making his Son sin, that is, a sin-offering, for us.” [iv] Jesus, the Paschal Lamb, is the means by which God offers salvation.
The third question is answered in John 13: 16-17. “16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[v] God’s gift of salvation is given because He loves us. This is also the scripture that gives us the best definition for salvation by answering all three questions; He saves us from worldly sin by the blood of Christ because of His love for us.
By defining salvation in John 3:16-17 we have established a benchmark to measure other New Testament writings with. It also allows us to assess whether these scriptures lead to and bear the fruit of salvation.
The crowd implored the Apostles “Brothers, what should we do? 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[vi] Peter defined two things that needed to be done for salvation: repentance and baptism. These two acts do not bestow salvation but are the way to receive it through Jesus. And the results of accepting salvation through Christ are manifested in the Holy Spirit, which compelled us to learn, teach, pray, share fellowship and break bread.
Peter was addressing a skeptical crowd and needed to give a quick concise answer. He was also taking the first steps in making disciples. He assured the crowd that salvation was not only for today or for those gathered there; “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”[vii] In his book, “A Critical Introduction to the New Testament”, Carl Holladay states: “In one sense, Acts tells the story of how this “people for God’s name “takes shape-or, to put it in Luke’s terms, how God calls this people into existence (2:39).” [viii] Peter successfully argued that salvation was an act of God’s love given through Jesus.
What Paul was able to expand on was the idea that salvation, rather than obedience to the law, is the result of faith through Christ. According to Holladay: “This in turn produces another level of blindness: failure to see that God brought the era of law to an end. Christ is the “end of the law” both in the sense he brings God’s promise to fulfillment and terminates the “old written code.”[ix]
By placing the emphasis on faith rather than law Paul argued that salvation was meant for everyone. Those who lived by faith had been empowered to offer salvation with all people. In Acts the focus was on bringing salvation through Christ to the people gathered in the temple. In Romans, Paul’s focus was on sharing the fruit of salvation with all people, fulfilling John’s promise of taking away the “sin of the World.”
Before chapter 13 in Acts most of the work of the Apostles was done close to Jerusalem. Paul would take his ministry beyond the borders of Israel and began preaching throughout the eastern Mediterranean. He must have felt it was important to convert Jews to Christ since scripture called for his people to be “… a light for the gentiles.”[x] So it was his practice to preach first in the synagogues and bring the news of Christ to his own people. In Antioch, as in most places he visited, he had a mixture of acceptance and distrust. Facing denunciation Paul declared “Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.”[xi]
Carl Holladay asserts that ”Paul is an observant Jew, which means that he not only respect Torah, speaks approvingly of it, and constantly appeals to it, but also lives by it.”[xii] Understanding Paul’s devotion to his Jewish faith helps us understand the depth of his commitment to Christ. He willingly forsook the Hebrew tradition of salvation by the law for salvation by faith through Jesus. It was important for Paul to save his people through Christ first. But if they rejected Jesus then Paul would not hesitate to preach to the pagans.
Some 14 years passed between Paul’s journey to Antioch and his letter to the church in Rome. (43CE to 57CE) He is still struggling with his people’s rejection of salvation through Christ and has concluded deliverance will not come to Israel till salvation has been given to the gentiles. “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”[xiii] Paul begins to realize that the path to salvation for all people lies through the Gentiles and not through Israel. According to Holladay, “At this juncture in Paul’s ministry, the Gentiles’ enthusiastic response to the gospel and Israel’s tepid response have created a genuine dilemma requiring an extended explanation.”[xiv]
If worldly sin can only be overthrown by faith in Jesus Christ then the Gentiles were the people by which God’s “irrevocable” resolve shall be accomplished. Again from Holladay; “That Gentiles have recognized the truly revelatory character of the gospel is not surprising, since Scripture itself anticipated their response (10:18–20); but neither should Israel’sgeneral failure to respond to God’s initiative be surprising, given the testimony of Scripture (10:21). Yet, since God’s call is irrevocable, Israel will eventually respond,however dim the prospects look at the moment.”[xv]
Paul realizes that it is Israel’s commitment to the ‘Law” that prevents them from accepting a salvation of faith through Jesus. He came to believe that just as Gentiles “… were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,” then the Jews “… have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.”[xvi]
As a zealous Pharisee Paul had been determined to destroy the followers of Jesus and defended his faith in the Mosaic laws as a means of salvation. After his conversion, he understood that if sin was universal and all people were enslaved to it, then faith in the risen Christ led to salvation and that salvation overcame sin. Since sin was universal then a universal faith in Jesus was greater than an ethic faith in Jewish laws. “4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”[xvii]
For a minster, or any teacher of God’s word, understanding where others encounter the presence of God’s grace impacts the strength of their relationship. Salvation is offered at all times but it is only received where there is a genuine need.
Perhaps it was less difficult to offer salvation to a people who shared a common faith, culture and heritage than to reach out to others. As resistance among the Hebrews grew, the Apostles had two choices: to become an enclave of believers within their culture, or to extend the ministry beyond their people. Even then they debated if converts needed to become Jewish or could remain outside the traditional faith of Judaism. It was Paul who took this first step and set an example for salvation through evangelism.
In the modern church we are often faced with this same struggle. Should we continue to nourish those within our church who have received salvation but need to be led toward sanctification? Or should we place our energy on offering salvation to those outside the church? Eventually the early church moved beyond their Jewish community and embraced the gentiles. They did so with a fervor and passion that we should emulate.
The initial goal of the Apostles was to offer salvation first to the Jews then to the gentiles. By whatever means or opportunities available to them offering salvation was their priority. It seems the goal of modern churches is to get people to join our church, to sit in our pews. We should be looking for opportunities to offer salvation, not increase membership.
We need to remember that salvation is not the church’s gift to give and we should not determine who to give it too. It is God’s gift and God chooses to give it to everyone. Modern Christians, like the Apostles, should concentrate on how to share salvation. What are the needs of our people, what do they need to see or hear or experience to know salvation? What is happening in their lives that block them from receiving God’s Grace and how can Christians overcome these obstacles against salvation?
What we need is a clear and simple definition of salvation based on scripture. By focusing on what God is doing through Christ we can offer salvation for all God’s children, not just for our church.
 My emphasis
 My emphasis
[i] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World, Insight from Cultural Anthropology, Westminster John Knox Press 2001, pg 94
[ii] John 1:29 The New Interpreters Study Bible, NRSV (Abingdon Press, 2003) pg 1909
[v] John 3: 16-17 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[vi] Acts 3:37-38 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[vii] Acts 3:39 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[viii] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 242
[ix] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 359
[x] Acts 13:47 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[xi] Acts 13:46 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[xii] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 253
[xiii] Romans 11:25 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[xiii] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 359
[xiv] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 359
[xv] Carl Holladay , A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, Abingdon Press 2005, Pg 359
[xvi] Romans 11: 31-32 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003
[xvii] Romans 10:4 32 NRSV, Abingdon Press copyright 2003