Some Thoughts About Salvation

By James L. Morrisson


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"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)


     In preparing this paper I have looked at every passage in the New Testament that uses the Greek word sozo (save) or related words (thank God for computers!) and at many other verses that seem to me to speak of salvation. I have deliberately focussed on what Scripture says rather than on what others have written about it, and I have tried to take account of everything that Scripture says, whether or not I can fit it neatly into a structure built by human logic.

     I have struggled with this material for quite some time. I am not at all sure that I have yet found the right way to express it. I do not claim to have any authoritative answers; I merely seek to raise some questions that I think need to be considered. Some of what I have come up with may seem unorthodox and surprising to some, but I ask my readers to do as the Bereans did and search the Scriptures to see whether these things are true (Acts 17:11). (Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version and any emphasis is mine.)

     The sense I get is that the subject of salvation does not lend itself to easy answers or pat formulas. We should not presume on God (Psalm 19:13 King James Version) with formulas which say, "If I do this, God has to do this." Paul tells us to "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12). For those who are being converted it is helpful to have simply stated principles, but those of us who are trying to "work out" our lives as Christians need more depth.

     I sense also that we sometimes tend to put too limited a meaning on the concept of salvation, and on the concept of faith which underlies it.

     Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor, while imprisoned in a Communist prison in Rumania, received what he felt was a word from God that said that when he got to heaven he would be surprised at some whom he saw there and equally surprised at some whom he did not see there. I think we need to consider this word seriously. God is sovereign. His ways and his thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is not bound to follow the theories and concepts that we have constructed out of his word.

     If what follows seems a bit complex and untidy I make no apology. Scripture is not a theological treatise. It does not fit everything into neat boxes. At times it says things that may seem to rub against each other, and not always to fit together neatly by our human logic. When this happens I think we need to follow everything that Scripture says, and hope that, as we progress in our knowledge of God, who is the author of Scripture, our human understanding of his words will catch up.

     I have tried to develop my ideas in a logical sequence and I ask that you read the entire paper in sequence and not jump to conclusions based on isolated portions of it.


     The Greek word usually translated "save," sozo (Strong's #4982), the intensive diasozo, and the related nouns soter (savior), and soteria (salvation), have a surprisingly broad range of meaning.

     Sozo, from a root meaning "safe", means, according to Strong, "to save, i.e. deliver or protect (literally or figuratively)." In the King James Version it is variously translated "heal, preserve, save (self), do well, be (make) whole."

     Some of the ways in which sozo is used in the New Testament are:

Protection From Physical Hazards and Death

     When Jesus asked if he should say "Father, save me from this hour" (John 12:27), he used sozo in the sense of being saved from arrest, flogging and crucifixion. Luke 1:71 speaks of "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us." When the disciples' boat was in danger of sinking during a storm on Lake Galilee they cried "Lord, save us! We're going to drown" (Matthew 8:25). When Peter tried to walk on the water and started to sink he cried "Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30). The Book of Acts uses the word diasozo in talking about saving the boat's crew from shipwreck while on the way to Rome (Acts 27:20, 31, 34, 43, 44; 28:1, 4), and of saving Paul from the Jews who sought to kill him (Acts 23:24). Scripture also speaks of God saving Noah and his family from the flood (Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20).

     In healing the man with the withered hand Jesus asked, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4).

     Speaking of the Great Tribulation Jesus said "If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive (sozo)" (Matthew 24:22).

     (This is probably the most typical way in which salvation (yesha, Strong's #3468) is used in the Old Testament. A good example is Psalm 18:2-3 - described as a song which David sang "when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies". "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.")

Deliverance From Bondage

     God "delivered (sozo) his people out of Egypt" (Jude 5). Philippians 1:19 uses sozo in the sense of being delivered from prison. When Jesus was nailed to the Cross the onlookers cried, "Save yourself... Come down from the cross" (Matthew 27:40, 42). The thief on the cross beside him said to him "save yourself and us" (Luke 23:39).

Healing, Making Whole

     Jesus said to the woman with the issue of blood, "Thy faith hath made thee whole (sozo)" (Matthew 9:22, King James Version (KJV)). When he healed the ten lepers, Jesus said that the ten were cleansed but to the one who came back, gave thanks and glorified God he said "Thy faith hath made thee whole (sozo)". Other passages using sozo to mean "healed" include Matthew 14:36; Mark 5:23; 6:56, 10:52; Luke 8:48, 50, 17:19, 18:42; John 11:12; Acts 4:9, 14:9; James 5:15.

     In one case sozo is used of the healing (making whole) of a demon-possessed man. In speaking of the Gadarene demoniac, who was delivered of many demons and restored to "his right mind," Luke records that "those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured (sozo)" (Luke 8:36).

Spiritual Salvation

     Most of the New Testament uses of sozo refer to spiritual salvation. In general they do not define what that salvation consists of. It clearly includes the gift of eternal life with God, and freedom from spiritual death and eternal punishment. I shall consider in the next section whether it includes more than this.

     There are many passages in the New Testament which seem to speak of spiritual salvation without using the word sozo or related words. These include passages that speak of eternal punishment, of entering into eternal life, of entering (or being excluded from) the kingdom of God, of being reconciled to God, of facing the wrath of God, of being cast into outer darkness, etc. I believe these passages need to be considered in any discussion of salvation.

     As I look at these passages it seems to me that they speak of spiritual salvation in at least three senses:

A single event - the act of conversion or coming to the Lord. I call this initial salvation.

A continuing process - one's ongoing life as a believer.

A future event - eventual entry into eternal life in heaven with God.

I shall consider each of these aspects of salvation in more detail in what follows.

     Some may object that in using salvation in this broad sense I am confusing separate theological concepts - salvation, sanctification, eternal judgment, etc. My answer is that I find Scripture using the word in each of these senses, and I am more interested in seeing what Scripture says than I am in adhering rigorously to neat conceptual boxes.

The Scope of Salvation

     When we think of salvation we usually think of entering into eternal life with God and being saved from everlasting punishment apart from God. This is tremendously important. But the effect of our salvation is not limited to our future life after physical death. It begins here and now.

     When we are spiritually saved, we are transferred, right away, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God's dear son (Colossians 1:13). We pass from death to life (1 John 3:14). We become children of God (Romans 8:16-17). We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:16). Our citizenship has changed, our family has changed, our allegiance has changed. We become "a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are given "new birth into a living hope" (1 Peter 1:3).

     As children of God we receive his "very great and precious promises" through which we can "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). We receive God's "incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:19) so that, with Paul, we can say "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13). We are "free indeed" (John 8:36).

     One of the meanings of sozo is to be healed, made whole. When we are saved we become able to be healed and made whole spiritually. God is able to present us "holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation" (Colossians 1:22; see Jude 24).

     Our salvation is not just for our benefit. If it were, the whole concept of salvation would be self-centered. We receive the gift of salvation in order that we can minister to others. God "reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18). We are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). We are called to be workers in the harvest (Matthew 9:37-38), to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). We are called to "live a life worthy of the Lord" and to bear "fruit in every good work" (Colossians 1:10). God comforts us so that we can comfort others with the comfort which we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4).


Basic Principle

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8).

     I believe this is the basic principle that underlies everything the New Testament says about spiritual salvation.

"By Grace"

     Grace, charis, (Strong's #5485), has a wide range of meanings. One basic meaning is that of the free, unmerited gift of God. In this sense it is opposed to "works" (actions). "If by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace" (Romans 11:5).

     Our spiritual salvation is a free, unmerited gift of God. "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). "He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5)."All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). We can never earn our salvation or deserve it. We can only give thanks for it. "Who has ever given to God that God should repay him" (Romans 11:35). In the broad sense, we can be saved because, and only because, "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Each individual is saved, not by any merit or effort of his own, but because God drew him. We are "called by grace" (Galatians 1:6). Our election (salvation) "does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy" (Romans 9:16).

     "Grace" has another meaning. Strong defines it as "the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life." In this sense, grace is the power of God which is given us to enable us to fulfill God's purposes for us. Paul declared, "By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace in me was not without effect" (1 Corinthians 15:10). The Lord said to him "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is only by the grace of God that we are able to live according to the Holy Spirit (see Romans 7:24-25, 8:3-4). It is only by the power of God within us that we can stand against the enemy (Ephesians 6:10). All that we do in our Christian walk is done by God's "power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20), his "incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:19). As Paul said "I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10; see also Galatians 2:20). "God is able to make all grace abound in you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work" (2 Corinthians 9:8; see 2 Thessalonians 2:16). Whatever we may accomplish as Christians should be regarded, not as the result of our own effort, but as the result of the power which God has given us by his grace. As Paul puts it, "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7).

     There are many Scriptures that say we are saved by grace. Some additional examples are: Acts 15:11; Romans 5:15-17, 21; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:7.

"Through Faith"

     Faith, pistis (Strong's # 4102), means much more than intellectual assent. We believe with our heart and not just our mind (Romans 10:10). Strong defines faith as "persuasion, i.e. credence, moral conviction... especially reliance on Christ for salvation." He says that the related verb pisteuo means "to entrust (especially one's spiritual well-being to Christ)." (I have written out Strong's abbreviations). In the King James Version pisteuo is translated "believe, commit to trust, put in trust with." Vine says that pisteuo signifies "reliance upon, not mere credence." Biblical faith is not just believing in a set of doctrines or principles; it is believing, and putting one's trust, in the person of Jesus Christ. "Whoever believes in him" is saved (John 3:16). Paul wrote, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). "Whom" (a person) rather than "what" (a set of doctrines). Donald G. Bloesch defines faith as "a radical commitment of the whole man to the living Christ, a commitment that entails knowledge, trust and obedience" ("Essentials of Evangelical Theology", Harper & Row, paperback ed. 1982, Vol 1, p. 224).

     There are a large number of verses which say that we are saved by faith. The question is, what do they mean by "faith". Much of this paper will address that question.

"Not By Works"

     As I have said, salvation can never be earned or deserved. It does not depend on our actions ("works"). The unbeliever who expects to be saved because he has "led a good life" is deeply mistaken. Without faith, no actions can save us. "Whoever does not believe stands condemned already" (John 3:18; see also 2 Thessalonians 1:8).


Relationship Between Faith and Works

     Faith is an internal state of mind and heart. It is evidenced by actions - a changed life, obedience and submission to Christ, the fruit of the spirit, etc. Faith which has no effect on our actions is not genuine faith.

     A simple example will illustrate the point. Suppose, while you are sitting in your living room, someone says to you "Your house is on fire. You say "I believe you" and don't do anything; you just remain sitting there. Do you really believe that your house is on fire?

     The Epistle of James makes the point very clear. "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22). "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). Abraham's faith was "made complete by what he did" (James 2:22). "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26).
I think Paul would not disagree. He said that his calling was to "call people... to the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5), and that all who are saved are "God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). He prayed constantly that believers would "live a life worthy of the Lord... bearing fruit in every good work" (Colossians 1:10).

     When Jesus spoke of faith, it was usually in a context of faith reflected in action. Several times he rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith; each time involved faith in action: In Matthew 8:26, during a storm on Lake Galilee, the disciples came to Jesus in fear saying "Lord, save us" and he replied, "you of little faith, why are you so afraid?" In Matthew 14:31 Peter started to walk on the water, but then became afraid and began to sink; Jesus said "you of little faith... Why did you doubt?" In Matthew 17:20, when the disciples asked why they could not heal a demonized boy, Jesus replied, "because you have so little faith."

Jesus praised the faith of the centurion, saying "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Matthew 8:10). Why? Because the centurion acted on his confidence that Jesus could heal the servant from a distance by a word, and because the centurion understood authority, i.e. obedience (action).

     Jesus praised the faith of people who showed great perseverance in coming to him despite heavy obstacles. Matthew 9:22 (woman with the issue of blood who pressed in through the crowd); Matthew 15:28 (Canaanite woman who persisted despite initial rejection; "great faith"); Mark 2:5 (friends of the paralytic who lowered him through the roof); Mark 10:52 (blind Bartimaeus, who persisted despite many who rebuked him); see Luke 19:1-9 (Zaccheus). He wanted his disciples to have the faith that could move mountains, faith such that "nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).

     A key verse is John 14:12: "Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things..." For Jesus, true faith is something that results in action, that empowers us to do things. Note the parallel structure and thought of John 3:16 and John 14:12:

John 3:16. Whoever believes (pisteuo) in me shall have eternal life.
John 14:12. Whoever has faith (pisteuo) in me will do what I have been doing.

     It would seem that the same faith is needed for each verse. The faith that is needed for eternal life is one that is reflected in actions.

     Another key verse is Matthew 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." If our faith does not result in obedience, in doing the will of the Father, it will not give us eternal life. See also Luke 6:46, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say."

     Hebrews 11:1 says "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Faith means having the boldness to step out in confidence in God's word no matter what the circumstances. The examples given are examples of faith in action, of perfect obedience to God's call, of committing your life in trust to God's word: Noah spending years building a huge vessel in preparation for something (rain) which had never before occurred; Abraham leaving his home in response to God's call and taking his family on a difficult journey of hundreds of miles to live in a place where he had never been; Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice in response to God's call; Moses crossing the Red Sea; Joshua having the walls of Jericho fall; etc. Hebrews 3:12 gives an example of sinful unbelief, when the people of Israel failed to believe God's promise and refused to enter into Canaan. Note that these were people who believed in the God of Abraham and had followed him. Their sinful unbelief consisted in being unwilling to risk their lives by acting on God's promise and entering in to the land of Canaan.

     In short, we are saved by faith. No amount of deeds done without faith will save us, because our reliance would then be on ourselves and our own deeds rather than on God. But faith which is not reflected in one's actions is not real faith. Our actions, our works, are the evidence that our faith is genuine.

     An important caution needs to be made. God's view of things is not necessarily the same as ours. Actions that seem very important to us may be of little consequence to him, and actions that seem of little importance to us may be of great consequence to him. The point is illustrated by Jesus' comment about the widow who put two very small coins into the Temple treasury when others were giving substantial sums. In the world's view the woman gave very little, but Jesus said, "This poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:3-4).

     In the next sections, as we look at the three aspects of spiritual salvation, we shall find that the emphasis on the evidence of our faith changes with time. For initial salvation, a profession of faith is sufficient. For continuing salvation, we are looking increasingly at the actions which evidence our faith. When we come to ultimate salvation, or final judgment, the texts speak entirely of our actions, our works.


Initial Salvation

     "It is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:8; see also 1:13)."Whosoever believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). These and other texts speak of salvation as a completed past event, or a single event that is now occurring or will soon occur. For many, but not all, believers it is possible to identify the day and hour when we "were saved," that is, when we initially came to the Lord. Our salvation was by faith. One important evidence of this faith can be a public profession of faith, such as the answer to an altar call, the saying of a "sinner's prayer," or the like. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord', and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).

     But such a profession of faith, while a useful starting point, is not enough to complete our salvation. God looks at men's hearts, not their outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:6). Jesus never accepted a mere verbal commitment. He said, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). He told a parable about two sons; one said he would work in the field and didn't; the other said he would not work and did; and it was the second who did his father's will (Matthew 21:28-31). He said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). He rejected those who "honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me" (Matthew 15:7-8). He told the Pharisees to concentrate on cleaning what was inside, and then the outside would also be clean (Matthew 23:25-28). He said we will recognize people by their "fruit" (Matthew 7:20). He told us that the one who hears his words and does not put them into practice will fall with a great crash, while the one who puts his words into practice will stand against every storm (Matthew 7:24-27). And he explicitly applied these principles to spiritual salvation when he said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

     That a formal profession of faith is not enough is shown by the number of people who answer altar calls at revival meetings only to backslide and abandon their faith within a short time. Jesus spoke, in his parable of the soil, of those who receive God's word "with joy" but last "only a short time" (Matthew 13:21). What is necessary is a basic change of heart which reflects itself in a lifetime of obedience to God. This brings us to consider salvation as a continuing process.

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Copyrightę 2001 by James L. Morrisson