What Does Christianity Say About Salvation? Six Big Questions

What Does Christianity Say About SalvationEvery theistic worldview eventually asks a series of important questions: “What are God’s plans for us, His created children? Does God have a plan to reunite us to Himself? Is there a way we could someday meet God and exist with Him?” All theistic systems describe the manner in which its adherents are eventually “enlightened”, “saved” or “united” with God. The study of salvation is called “Soteriology,” a term derived two Greek words: “soter” (meaning “savior,” “deliverer,” or “preserver”) and “logos” (meaning “word,” “reason,” or “principle”). Soteriology, therefore, is simply the study of how we are “saved”. It is the reasoned examination of the principles defining salvation and describing how God will eventually unite us with Himself. So, let’s begin our study in a rather evidential way, asking six important questions and allowing the answers to these questions to define an orthodox Christian view of Salvation.

1. So, What’s the Problem to Begin With?
Before we can begin to address the issue of how we are saved, we have to be clear about what we need to be saved from. “What needs to be fixed?” Over the centuries, the answer to this first questions has varied depending on the group or theologian being asked. The range of responses can be divided into three broad categories:

It’s a Horizontal Problem (“Liberation Theology”)
We have separated ourselves from each other by failing to treat each other as we should. Salvation repairs the relationship between individuals and the larger society.

It’s an Internal Problem (“Existential Theology”)
We have internal feelings of guilt and lack of self-esteem. Salvation eliminates these feelings and provides self-understanding and self-acceptance as we discover all we can be.

It’s a Vertical Problem (“Evangelical Theology”)
We are separated from God by our disobedience and failure to follow his moral laws. Salvation restores the broken relationship between man and the God who created us.

The New Testament speaks to which of these three descriptions accurately describes our problem and our standing before God. The Bible declares we have a sin problem and our sin has separated us from a Holy and Perfect God:

Romans 3:23
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

Romans 6:23
“For the wages of sin is death…”

Romans 8:5-8
“For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Our first question helps us define the initial problem: our illness is wrapped up in our sin nature and our free choice (and natural disposition) to commit sin separates us from God. Sin is the foundational problem causing our “horizontal” and “internal” problems to begin with. Because we have a vertical problem foundationally, we also find ourselves treating others poorly and suffering from the guilt and internal problems plaguing us. Let’s move on now and ask another question.

2. OK, So What (Therefore) is God’s Focus?
If sin against God is the problem God is addressing in His offer of Salvation, we might next ask: “What (or who) is God focused on as He seeks to save His creation?” This is an important question because many theologians have divided on this issue. What is God’s focus? There are two possibilities:

Human Beings (“Human Restoration”)
God’s work of Salvation is intended primarily for human beings. We are the crown of God’s creation; all other aspects of the creation are merely a stage on which the human drama is acted.

All Creation (“Universal Restoration”)
God’s work of Salvation has a cosmic, universal dimension. Humans are not the primary objects of his concern; He desires to save every aspect of His creation equally, as all have been impacted and affected by sin.

Some have argued there is Biblical warrant to believe God wants to restore all of creation uniformly (rather than target humans specifically) based on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Romans 8:16-25
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”

This verse certainly affirms God’s concern for creation and describes creation as waiting for God’s redemptive activity. But does this passage lessen God’s focus on humans in particular? Paul seems to be arguing humans and the rest of creation are waiting for redemption. We are groaning in anticipation, and the rest of creation is groaning right alongside us. But what is described in the last part of the verse as the mechanism by which this salvation will eventually come?

“For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” (Verses 24 and 25)

This sounds amazingly similar to another verse in the Bible:

Hebrews 11:1
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith (“hope”) saves us. Can all creation have “hope”? Doesn’t “hope” (faith) require sentient assent and submission? Can a tree, for example, have “hope”? If “hope” is what is required, how can the focus of God’s redemptive work be anything other than creatures who can choose to have such hope? While we recognize the mystery existing between God’s Sovereignty and man’s apparent will, the latter part of this verse in Romans 8 does seem to mandate humans, as sentient creatures, are the focus of God’s offer of Salvation.

3. OK, So What (Therefore) is God’s Direction?
If humans are the focus of God’s redemptive work, we might find ourselves asking, “How does God move to restore humanity? Does he begin at the level of the individual or at the level of the group?” There are two possibilities as we consider the direction in which God moves to restore us as humans:

Inside – Out Movement (“Evangelical Gospel”)
People are inherently fallen and our own personal sinfulness must be addressed before the larger society can be impacted.

Outside – In Movement (“Social Gospel”)
People are basically good, but are corrupted by the fallen society. The ills of society must be addressed before individuals can be impacted.

While it is true God wants us to impact our world for good, how exactly might we be able to do this? We’ve already discovered the problem we are trying to solve is a sin problem. Sin is all about choosing to do what offends God in order to satisfy our own selfish desires. To address sin, we must first understand where sin begins. Before we can impact the world around us, we have to know where the problem begins. The Scriptures tell us what we already instinctively know to be true:

Jeremiah 17:9-10
“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.”

The Bible confirms what we already know. Sin begins in the heart of each individual. As a detective I also understand this reality. I’ve investigated a number of conspiracy cases. All conspiracies have a “ring-leader”; a person who first conceives of the evil idea and chooses to do something wrong. Eventually the entire group agrees to do the crime together, but sin began in the heart of an individual and spread to the group like wildfire. Like many other human movements (both good and bad), if you can eliminate the “ring leader”, you can go a long way toward stopping the movement.

The Bible says our individual hearts are sick and capable of tremendous sin. The Scripture also says God searches the heart of each individual. God’s redemptive work is an “inside – out” process because this is the way sin manifests itself to us. Sin begins in the heart of an individual, so it makes sense it would need to be addressed here first, before any possible personal transformation might have an impact on the nature of the larger group.

4. OK, So What (Therefore) is God’s Number?
If this is the way God works (from individual hearts to the larger group), we might find ourselves asking the next questions: “How many will be saved by God? How many individuals does He have in mind? How large is the group?” These questions have also divided theologians, as there appear to be two possible answers:

A Specific Group (“Particularism”)
Salvation will not ultimately be applied to everyone. Some will be lost, while others will be saved. Not everyone will go to heaven.

Everyone (“Universalism”)
Salvation will ultimately be applied to everyone. God will restore all of us to the relationship we originally had with Him

How are we to determine which of these positions is true? We already know that the problem is our decision to sin. It makes sense, then, God would require another decision in order to address our sin problem (more on that later). But, if humans have the opportunity to choose God, it makes sense not everyone will make this kind of choice. Some will choose to repent, and others will not:

John 3:18
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

If some are going to be judged, they are not going to be saved. This means not everyone will enter into the realm of God:

Matthew 7:21
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Without looking specifically at what it is saves us, it is clear God has a particular offer He is making to mankind, and this offer won’t be accepted by everyone. As a result, some will come home to Him, and some will not.

5. OK, So What (Therefore) Are God’s Means?
Now we come to the biggest question of all, and we didn’t get here until we first asked four important foundational questions. But once we recognize our individual predisposition to choose sin is the problem, and we know God wants to offer us a solution at the level of the individual heart, we now can ask about the means by which He would make that effort. We’ve already built the foundation for the important question: “How does God save us?” The answer historically has fallen into one of three camps. God saves individuals in one of three possible ways:

A Physical Activity (“Sacramental Theologies”)
Salvation is transferred to the individual by way of some physical object or physical process.

A Moral Effort (“Social or Liberation Theologies”)
Salvation is achieved by changing the way things are through some effort on the part of the individual.

A Faith Placement (“Evangelical Theologies”)
Salvation is the result of placing our faith in the work already done by God through Jesus.

Now let’s evaluate these three possibilities in light of what we already know from the questions we have asked. We agree our problem is a sin problem coming from conscious choice to do what we know we should not. When we rely on our biased and self-serving judgment, we end up in sin. So it makes sense the solution to the problem would not involve anything we could do, but would instead rely on something God would do. We are the problem, God is the solution.

If God is the solution to our problem, why would embrace a material, physical object as the means by which this Salvation should be transferred? God, after all, is not a physical, natural being. He is a supernatural, spiritual being:

John 4:24-25
“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

God is spirit, and as such, when we assume any aspect of His power can be transferred to a physical object, we give that object the status of God Himself. This is clearly a form of idolatry. When we ascribe God’s power, authority and identity to things we craft with our own hands (and even to physical processes we design with our own minds), we anger the God who wants to be at the center of our worship:

Leviticus 19:4
“Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods; I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 32:21
“They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols.”

For these reasons, any sacramental system is inconsistent with the evidence of Scripture. But couldn’t Salvation be achieved if we simply exchanged our sinful desires for God’s righteous desires? Couldn’t we just obey God and earn our Salvation? No. The problem is us in the first place. When we claim our efforts might help to solve our problem (even though we are the problem to begin with), we foolishly trust the illness to cure itself. The Bible is clear in describing the fallen nature of humans:

Romans 3:10-18
“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Clear enough? Do we really think that we are capable of doing anything that impresses God and could be credited to us as righteousness? When compared to the greatness of God, our works don’t seem to be all that great:

Isaiah 64:6
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Given our condition, any system which maintains our moral effort can contribute to our salvation is hopelessly optimistic. The third possibility seems most consistent with the four foundational questions we first asked. Our inability to do what we ought to do is the problem. It makes sense the solution would not be more of the same. The solution is not to add more of us to the equation. The solution is a God solution. Choosing is the mechanism, but God’s power is all we can trust. This makes sense philosophically (given the nature of the problem), and it is also the clear teaching of the Bible:

Romans 3:21-28
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law…

Paul tells us our Salvation is not dependant on anything we do or ever could do. It is built on our faith in Christ apart from the works of the law. Faith apart from works (faith alone) saves us. This is the means by which God imparts His righteousness to us. Salvation is not a physical activity or a moral effort; Salvation is a faith placement.

6. OK, So What (Therefore) Is God’s Timing?
Now for the final question. If faith saves us, we can probably deduce the timing required for this to happen. Here is the question: “When can someone conclude they are saved? Does it happen immediately? Does it take a lifetime? Does it even happen at all in this lifetime?” These are important questions and many answers have been offered. The answers typically fall into one of three categories:

A Process of Time (“We are being saved”)
Salvation is a slow process of transformation occurring over the lifetime of the individual. One can, therefore, never be sure if he or she is saved while in this life.

A Future Time (“We will be saved”)
Salvation is a future event and a decision made by God in the next life. For this reason, one can never be sure if he or she is saved while in this life.

A Moment In Time (“We have been saved”)
Salvation takes place as a single occurrence at the decision point of the Christian life. For this reason, one can have certainty he or she is saved while in this life.

If Salvation is something we earn as we obey God’s moral rules, we might never know for sure if we are truly saved. We could never assume we have done enough to please God. We would have to wait and find out at the final judgment of God. In a similar way, if God determines our Salvation in the next life, we would also have to wait until then to know for sure if we are saved. But what if Salvation is truly a “faith placement” issue as we have already described? If this is the case, wouldn’t we know we are saved at the moment we place our faith in Christ? If faith alone saves us, then it seems reasonable we would know if we are saved even in this life, long before we are reunited with God. This is the clear teaching of Scripture:

1 John 5:9-13
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for the witness of God is this, that He has borne witness concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.

John tells us we are saved when we place our faith in Jesus, and because this is a decision point in time, we, as Christians, have the true blessing of knowing now we are saved. The word “know” as it is used in the last verse of this passage is telling us that we can have certainty now. This could only be true if Salvation is not a “process of time” and does not occur at a “future time” but is instead something happening at a “moment in time”.

OK, So What Have We Learned?
We’ve asked and answered six important questions, reasoning through the answers and exploring their interconnectedness. We’ve been studying the reasonable principles of salvation (“Soteriology”). What have we learned so far?

1 – Our problem is a vertical problem
We are separated from God by our disobedience and failure to follow his moral laws. Salvation restores the broken relationship between man and the God who created us.

2 – Human beings are the focus of God’s redemptive activity
God’s work of Salvation is intended for human beings. We are the crown of God’s creation; all other aspects of the creation are merely a stage on which the human drama is acted.

3 – God’s work of Salvation moves from the individual to the group
People are inherently fallen and our own personal sinfulness must be addressed before the larger society can be impacted.

4 – God’s offer of Salvation is intended for a specific group
Salvation will not ultimately be applied to everyone. Some will be lost, while others will be saved. Not everyone will go to heaven.

5 – Salvation is based on a “placement of faith” (not our “good works”)
Salvation is the result of our placing our faith in the work already been done by God through Jesus

6 – Salvation takes place at a moment in time
Salvation takes place as a single occurrence at the decision point of the Christian life. For this reason, one can have certainty that he or she is saved while in this life.

These six answers to six important questions about Salvation summarize the orthodox Christian belief related to “salvation by faith alone”. We’ve reasoned through the answers and seen how they connect with one another. We’ve examined many alternative possibilities. But possibilities won’t always lead us to the truth. As I often say (and have written about in Cold-Case Christianity) anything is possible. We’re not interested in the possible answers; we’re concerned about what’s reasonable in light of the evidence. As these six questions (and answers) demonstrate, the orthodox view of “salvation by faith alone” is the most reasonable inference from the evidence.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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