Many who follow Jesus are able to pinpoint with clarity the moment they realized they were “saved” and the simultaneous relief and joy that surrounded that moment. However, understanding what they were saved from or for—that is less clear. I began following Jesus in April of 2002. Upon realizing my salvation, I began to evangelize those closest to me. With fervor and passion, I would explain the Scriptures to the best of my imperfect ability as well as what I believed God was communicating to me from them. I felt that I was well on my way to a healthy understanding of this new faith until a friend asked a rather simple question. Following my explanation of the Gospel to her and my reception of it she bluntly asked, “But what are you saved from?” Being unsure how to answer I gave a curt reply. “Hell, of course!” At the speed of light, another question followed. “But what are you saved for?” This one stumped me. It was then I realized although I could tell someone when I was saved, I was unable to give clear meaning to what this meant on a practical level for how I lived my life or functioned in the church I had recently joined.
In the many years since becoming a Christian I have learned that salvation is often spoken of in the church and yet rarely understood or even appreciated. I have noticed it becoming the favorite catchphrase between the spiritual “haves” and the “have nots.” Often people will cast judgement on others saying, “That person is definitely not saved.” or “This one over here is saved!” We haphazardly use this word so often that it has lost much of its root system from where it stems. As a result, the theology behind one’s understanding of salvation is often convoluted and rarely straight forward—just as it was for myself all those years ago. This should not come as a surprise since “salvation” (like all theological concepts) is developed from within contexts which possess their own contours. Whether or not those contours shift drastically, or subtlety will be the focus of what is ahead.
For instance, protestant understandings of salvation are mostly born out of the struggle within the Reformation focusing on the tension of justification by faith which has brought about various stereotypes within Christianity. John J. Collins writes
Perhaps the most abiding stereotype of ancient Judaism is that it was a religion of the Law. Christian perceptions on this subject have been shaped to a great degree by the portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels as rigid observers of the letter of the Law. It is now recognized that this portrayal is polemical in nature and cannot be taken as an objective description.
Add to this the subsequent influences of the enlightenment, scholasticism, revivalism, pietism, and many other “-isms,” the theological understanding of salvation moves well beyond faith and includes other imports that cloud a basic meaning of salvation which is tethered to its Judistic roots. Though not mentioned above but possibly the greatest influencer of such (negative?) diversity has been the fundamentalist/ modernist controversy where firm lines have been drawn to the point where biblical interpretation and how one does it can be a deciding factor if one is even “saved” or not. All of these influences (not to mention the radical individualism and consumerism of Western society) has led many to “conceive of salvation in particular ways, shaped by the controversies of the past and the cultures of the present.” We are left asking the question, “Will the real understanding of salvation please stand up?”
New Testament scholar Brenda B. Colijn asks similar questions of salvation while employing a unique method. In her book Images of Salvation in the New Testament she seeks to deepen the reader’s comprehension of salvation and what it encompasses. The goal of her study is not to land on one definition per se but rather appreciate the many ways it is described throughout the Scriptures. She explains
The New Testament does not develop a systematic doctrine of salvation. Instead, it presents us with a variety of pictures taken from different perspectives…. This reliance on images is typical of the Bible: ‘the Bible is much more a book of images and motifs than of abstractions and propositions…. The Bible is a book that images the truth as well as stating it.’
If we want to go deeper in understanding what we are saved from and for or who the agent of salvation even is, the question we should then wrestle with is, “where do these concepts or symbols come from which are used to explain salvation?”Tweet
Being able to answer this question among others surrounding it positions followers of Jesus to better understand the story of salvation they are part of. Failure to do so will result in believers and a church unable to articulate why this message is called “Good News;” a truth about salvation that is not neatly defined; only described.
To aid in our pursuit of understanding salvation it is imperative we remember that the core biblical description on this theme is embedded within a larger story that far expands outside of our individual selves. Joel B. Green states
The ongoing story of God’s relationship to the whole cosmos, and thus to all humanity, and especially to Israel, as this is narrated in the Old and New Testaments…. is grounded in the scriptures of Israel, and comes to expression above all in Jesus Christ, [and] continues into the present, and moves forward to the consummation of God’s purpose and self-revelation in the end.
It is to this end—understanding salvation through the lens of the biblical narrative—that we must strive for. Anything short of a thorough study in what Green communicates above results in a stunted salvific understanding of God that is quickly reduced to the individualism which pervades much of modern Christendom. An individualism which communicates that salvation is simply the absence of judgment and condemnation resulting in heaven being our ticket. Thankfully there is much more to salvation than this tired and worn understanding of salvation.
As N.T. Wright famously writes regarding the importance of the New Heavens and New Earth in contrast to a simple understanding of going to heaven when we die, “There is life after life after death.”Tweet
Much of the church’s thinking and language about salvation (and at times eschatology) is inadequate to reach those following Jesus as well as those who are yet to make the decision to. The only way forward is by going backwards to better understand what salvation meant to Israel, the Gentiles, Jesus, and early church. Will there be large differences? Will there be a linear understanding over time with minor shifting? It is hoped that through this journey of study that we will arrive at a wholistic understanding that better positions the Christian and church alike to give society something it has been longing for: “wholeness and hope.” A pleasant byproduct will also be the ability to answer what we are saved from and what we are saved for with the depth and beauty such a question, not to mention the Gospel of Jesus, deserves.
 Abingdon Press, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 285.
 Brenda B. Colijn, Images of Salvation in the New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2010), 21.
 Colijn, 21.
 “NT” will be used to denote “New Testament” moving forward except when quoted.
 Colijn, Images of Salvation in the New Testament, 13–14.
 Joel B. Green, Salvation, 1st ed, Understanding Biblical Themes (St. Louis, Mo: Chalice Press, 2003), 3.
 This understanding of life after death is built upon N.T. Wright throughout his work on early Christian hope. See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 1st ed (New York: HarperOne, 2008).