“What exactly does ‘salvation’ mean?” – Salvation Pt. 2

Before venturing into the Scriptures with the ins and outs of salvation, it would be helpful to get a basic understanding of both the Hebrew and Greek definitions. Having a good handle on the word and theme will position us to move more efficiently through the primary sources we will encounter. 

The earliest instance of “salvation” in the Hebrew writings is found in Genesis 32:11 with Jacob praying that God would “save” him from the hand of his brother Esau. This common understanding of salvation from calamity from a fellow human is common. However it is in Exodus 14:30 we see a divine component of being introduced where it is God doing the saving. These citations and many others like them explain “salvation” or the act of getting saved in the context of being redeemed or recused from situations taking place around them. The various Hebrew cognates for salvation include 

nāṣal (“deliver”), pālaṭ (“bring to safety”), pādāh (var. pādaʿ, “redeem”) and mālaṭ (“deliver”). Two major salvific terms are gāʾal (“redeem,” “buy back,” “restore,” “vindicate,” or “deliver”) and yāšaʿ (“save,” “help in time of distress,” “rescue,” “deliver,” or “set free”).”[1]

In the New Testament the term “salvation” or the verb “to be saved” does not span as large a range of meaning as we find in the Old Testament. In the NT the core word used to describe salvation is sozo. The Anchor Biblie Dictionary explains 

that within the NT verb sǭzō (“save,” “keep from harm,” “rescue,” “heal,” or “liberate”) 106 times, and its compound diasozō 9 times. The corresponding nouns sōtēria (“salvation”), sōtēr (“savior”) and sōtērion(“salvation”) turn up 45, 24, and 4 times respectively. We find the very ruomai (“rescue”) 15 times in the NT, which also uses many other terms (“freedom,” “justification,” “life,” “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “resurrection,” and “rule of God”) to express salvation.” [2]

The earliest usage of any of these in the NT is found in Matthew 1:21 when the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph speaking about Mary saying, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Like the OT the action of being saved can apply to both interpersonal human dynamics as well as divine. I.H. Marshall communicates well the role salvation often plays in the NT: (1) To rescue from danger and restore to a former state of safety and well-being; (2) To cause someone to become well again after becoming sick; or (3) To cause someone to experience divine salvation –“to save.”[3]

Taking both of these understandings above we can confidently gather an idea of what salvation entails before we look at how it functions so as to arrive at a more nuanced and well-rounded understanding for today’s dialog in the church of the 21st century. In looking at both Testaments and their respective meaning of “salvation,” we can say with confidence that it is the verb or noun (depending on the context) in which an individual or group enacts to bring deliverance, restoration, and/or redemption for another individual or group. When the agent of the action is divine, salvation takes on an entirely new dimension. However, asking the right questions just might help us arrive at a place of solid footing. Questions like those author Adrian Plass asks, albeit humorously, in his book Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation. Questions which I myself was asked in 2004. 

But what is it all about? What does it mean to be saved? Saved from what? Saved for what? Should the whole business of salvation have a significant impact on my present as well as on my future? Speaking of the future, what can we expect from an eternity spent in heaven? How can we possibly make sense of heaven when our feet remain so solidly on Earth? Where is the interface, The meeting point between the flesh and the spirit?? And when all the strange religious terms and voices and patterns and mantras and man-made conventions have faded away, what will be left?[4]

Having observed a birds eye view of the various nuances of what salvation means in different contexts in both Hebrew and Greek, we are now able to explore these kinds of questions to extract the clearest understanding of the divine salvation of God.[5]

Salvation in the Old Testament 

Salvation evokes images of being set free as well as profound redemption emerging from the human experience. It points to the fact that there is a deep inherent need of being redeemed, rescued, and restored. For the Hebrew people these themes wove a beautiful tapestry of salvific language when describing and speaking to and about God. The origin for this is found in Genesis 1:27 where it reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” It may surprise some that this is the origin for salvation but it cannot be denied. The reason this text within the creation narrative is because it points toward the very foundation of salvation: relationship and identity. 

The children of God[6] were created in solidarity with the rest of the created order but He then gave them dominion over all as they were created in the very image of Himself. Man and woman as the divine image bearers is a crucial aspect of their covenant relationship with Yahweh. Joel B. Green communicates that humanity is created uniquely in relationship to God and finds itself as a result of creation in covenant with God. He adds, “Humanity is given the divine mandate to reflect God’s own covenant love in relation with God, within the covenant community of all humanity, and with all that God has created.”[7] As can be seen, covenant language encapsulates the creation story and Man’s relationship to his Creator. But what happens when this divine relationship is harmed or marred by an entity such as Sin? Something needs to happen. Someone needs to act. For the image bearers are now in need of saving in both an earthly manner as well as spiritual. What was pure in its creation has now been opened to destruction and danger. 

Salvation is focused on Yahweh rescuing a people for Himself and his purposes; doing whatever it takes to restore what has been tarnished by the rebellious actions of Adam and Eve.  If this is not kept in tandem with his children as image bearers, the covenantal aspect of God and Israel can be lost. The prescription for encountering his salvation is deeply connected to the covenant made with Israel—through whom we can see the salvific heart of God on display across many pages of the OT. Without the covenant there is no unrelenting bond prompting the saving actions of God. Similar to a partner longing to be loved, adored, and rescued if need be; without a marriage covenant, that one could experience the anguish of being ignored or walked out on. Ideally, a marriage covenant would reinforce every salvific action from one spouse to another. 

Throughout the Pentateuch (especially the Abrahamic and Patriarchal narratives) it is apparent that the groups of people who receive redemptive blessings from the God of Israel do so because of a deep loving relationship—thought at times not reciprocated. The blessings given all vary in context and yet point to one cohesive theme: that Yahweh is the only One they can trust to guide and save them. This is apparent throughout the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 whether it is with Joseph himself or even his father Jacob and other siblings. God is seen bringing earthly salvation by taking care of their physical needs. Before Joseph we see within the Great Flood in Genesis 6:5-9:19 a clear example of God’s desire to save his people following the opposite. Outside of these two in Genesis the most significant salvific act of God for a group of people is none other than Israel itself when they suffered under the tyranny of Pharoah in Egypt in Exodus 1-15. In all three examples above, the groups represented comprise the people Israel, who have been called out to be God’s children.[8] Their stories illustrate that their salvation is stemming from their God Whom they know because of covenant love and allegiance.

Moving outside of the Pentateuch a continued thread on salvation runs through the rest of the OT with variations depending on the genre and era. Throughout 1 Samuel, Judges, Nehemiah, Ruth, and especially the Psalms, salvation coming from Yahweh for the people Israel is a dominant theme that cannot be ignored.  The prophets, more so than any other section of the OT, carry on the theme of salvation attempting to draw Israel back to a place of alignment with the Law. J.C. Moeller, in discussing the priority of salvation coming from the various prophetic oracles writes 

The theme of salvation, expressed in rich and varied language and communicated by the prophet with the oracle, occupies a prominent place in the prophetic books. Only God can save, and he will do so how, when, for whom, and for whatever reason he pleases.[9]

This tone throughout the prophetic books continues to challenge Israel’s faithlessness as well as another angle of salvation which we will explore shortly. But again and again the prophetic writers seek to remind rebellious Israel from where their salvation comes from. Isaiah the prophet in 43:25 of his own book reminds everyone that it is God alone who blots out their transgressions and remembers sin no more. Shortly before in 25:7-8 we can see God’s salvific actions taking center stage. “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” Apart from Isaiah there is Zechariah who declares that on a certain day “a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to clean them from sin and impurity.” (Zechariah 13:1) 

Any individual with a good concordance or bible software could continue for quite some time down this path looking at the vast number of examples of prophets and OT writers longing for God to intervene and bring his redeeming self into their time and space assuming that Israel is seeking to live up to its end of the covenant. As J.C. Hartley observes, “The saving deed then is determinative for the nature of each generation’s relationship with Yahweh and its proclamation inspires the faith to establish to maintain the relationship.”[10] According to much of the OT’s rationale, if there was no covenant faithfulness; there was no salvation to be sought. Each generation needed to reaffirm its faithfulness to Yahweh. A primary way of achieving this was through Torah observance. 

Torah and Salvation

Throughout the OT narrative leading into 2nd Temple Judaism salvation was intended to be a continual enjoyment. It was not meant to be an event they cry out for when disastrous situations arose but rather a perpetual relationship of salvation—if you will. To live in the saving presence of God required covenant faithfulness as the prophets challenged Israel and Judah to. The Torah was meant to be the guide or tutor to enable them to deal with any and all challenges that would arise seeking to compromise Israel’s covenant loyalty resulting in the loss of the blessings for which they were originally created.[11]

The Torah and covenant go hand in hand. The Torah was not a weapon or check list for salvation; it was the life-giving record of God’s covenant with them. Israel was to be his own and they were to remain his through the adoration and obedience of Torah. When this happened, there was firm conviction that many blessings (or curses when disobeyed) would be conferred upon Israel as seen in Deuteronomy 28. This journey between obedience and disobedience regarding the Torah was a tension that, as Chris Wright explains, “included what God had done on the one hand (he had chosen, called and redeemed them), and what Israel was to do in response (to love and worship Yahweh alone, and to obey him fully).”[12] God expected his Law to take center stage setting up a continual salvific presence for Israel. The result being that Yahweh would be known as the God of Israel for all the world to see and be drawn to. This was the covenant relationship the entire OT is built upon which is explained and expanded upon in the Law and later writings as well. 

A core distinguishing factor of Torah that is important to remember is that even though this collection of writings affirms what is said above; it also clarifies and communicates the will of Yahweh for the people on a practical and governance level. And so within it we find numerous types of laws, commands, decrees, and other words used to denote the commands of Yahweh for his children. The intention was to protect them and bring them into a place of existence marked by unity and shalom. The presence of these types of laws for governance does not negate the ultimate and chief aim of the Torah which was to enable Israel to live as Yahweh’s people. Or as Exodus 19:6 puts it, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This kind of state of being for Israel was achieved when like David, they treasured and savored each word and syllable of the Torah itself. as seen throughout Psalm 119. 

In Summary

In summary, the Israelites experienced salvation primarily through the present and the central focus of realizing and living this salvation was through obedience through Torah and what it commands. If adherence to Torah was maintained and participated in; they could expect the saving actions of Yahweh to be present. When it was not, the prophets sought to bring the children of God back to obedience to the Law.

In taking a step back from the common elements of salvation and Torah as explained above we can see other core ideas associated with OT salvation.. Among the many are the prospect of a messianic leader or “servant of the Lord” (Isaiah 42); the restoration of a Davidic monarchy (Isaiah 16:5); the presence of a second or renewed “exodus” back into the land (Ezekiel 37:12); and the knowledge of God reaching the nations outside of Israel (Isaiah 51:4). These ideas and more surrounding national salvation by God was focused on the present side of death.[13] 

However, within the prophetic books there is a new understanding of salvation beginning to subtlety emerge focusing on the hopes for salvation involving a possible afterlife. Isaiah 26:19 is a text often viewed as speaking of salvation in the life to come by the statement, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Similar aspects of salvation can also be observed in Isaiah 53:8-10, Ezekiel 37:1-14; and Daniel 12:2 which will be highlighted in the following section on salvation in 2nd Temple Judaism. David as well as Isaiah and some of the prophets dips his toes into “afterlife” salvation from the depths of Sheol. These are found in Psalm 30:3; 86:13; and 116:3-8. 

If Torah is followed and the children of God continue down a path of loyalty and faithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh, they can expect salvation in their time and space as well as in the life to come. The all of this leads to a reality for Israel where the nations will see that Yahweh is the one true God chiefly because of the continued salvation he is bringing to them as well as promising into the future. M. J. Harris writes, “At that time all the nations will stream into Zion, ‘the city of the Lord’ (Is. 2:2–3; 60:3, 14). In the last days ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance’ (Joel 2:32).”[14] The salvation which is to be observed from Israel for the nations serves as the beginning steps towards a NT understanding of salvation where the Gentiles are involved and the Gospel of Jesus is on display. Understanding how we get to that place requires us to travel through the era leading up to the time of Jesus. More on this in “Salvation Pt. 3.”


[1] David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York London Toronto [etc.]: Doubleday, 1992), 907-908.

[2] Freedman, 5:910.

[3] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 720.

[4] Adrian Plass, Bacon Sandwiches and Salvation: An A-Z of the Christian Life (London: Authentic Media, 2007), 163–64.

[5] While it is of course acknowledged that salvation can refer to many things within the biblical text, the scope of this chapter will highlight how Israel and the early church understood salvation from a sin and present danger issue. 

[6] Throughout this paper the name of God will vary from context to context interchanging between “Yahweh”, “God”, and “Father.” 

[7] Green, Salvation, 19.

[8] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:908.

[9] Mark J. Boda and J. G. McConville, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 700.

[10] Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 416.

[11] T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 856–57.

[12] Christopher J. H Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2008), 58.

[13] Michael D. Morrison, “Salvation,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016)

[14] M. J. Harris, “Salvation,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 764.