Nonreligious uses of the verb “to save” are easy to comprehend. A relief pitcher saves a baseball game. A medic saves the life of a heart attack victim. When we turn to religious uses of the same word, the picture gets more complicated.

The Bible offers many meanings of the verb “to save.” This variety hasn’t deterred some believers from settling into a narrow definition. In fact, if someone were to ask you if you have been saved, you can pretty much assume that individual is connecting salvation with a destination more than with present reality. Listening to more follow-up questions, you will probably get the distinct impression that salvation has to do with gaining access to heaven. Some people receive an entry ticket while others do not. If the whole conversation leaves you confused or uncomfortable, it may be because you detect more threat than promise behind your friend’s interpretation of salvation.

According to the biblical record, salvation isn’t something reserved for a heavenly realm, accessible through death. Salvation is about being fully and vitally in the company of God, beginning now. “Surely God is my salvation,” the prophet Isaiah announces (Isaiah 12:2). If we were to grab a concordance and look up “heaven” or “eternal life,” we would find little connection with death, and much more language about knowing God and living in the fullness of Jesus Christ whom God sent (John 17:3).

The most common Hebrew word in the Old Testament for salvation is yasha. The original meaning of this root implies space and breath. Think of realities opposite those of living under the duress of poverty, suffering the discomfort of a friend who won’t speak with you, or being confined to an IV pole that drips a chemo drug into your vein. Yasha is to be at ease or in a spacious environment that is liberating. Not surprisingly, God is usually the subject of sentences where yasha appears.

Proper names derived from this same root (Isaiah, Hosea, Joshua and Jesus) all indicate “God saves.” The biblical expression hosanna, which has a variant of yasha tucked inside, means “Save us, we pray.”

We are wise to think of salvation in more expansive terms than some spiritual status we achieve through reciting John 3:16. To be saved by God is to emerge safely from a perilous circumstance where one risks defeat, disaster or death. In the Old Testament, salvation can mean deliverance from moral or physical anguish (Psalm 6), a reversal of economic circumstance (Isaiah 55) or an entire people being freed from enslavement (Exodus 12). The majority of biblical references to salvation involve a redeemed earth where just rulers, fair prosecution and equitable economies transform human life.

In the New Testament, salvation is connected most frequently with a sense of health and wholeness. We find Jesus speaking the word salvation only twice. He seems more interested in announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near. In the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus doesn’t ask people to believe in him. His concern is with making people well—wanting them to trust God for their wholeness and peace. “Your faith has made you well [or whole],” he says any number of times.

Only John, who lives in a later period when gnosticism is flourishing, turns his gospel message to a more Jesus-centered than kingdom-centered salvation. Jesus announces plainly that to know him is to know God.

In our modern culture’s denial of a need for salvation, where self-improvement strategies leave little room for God to work, we should remember that salvation is not about us; it is about God. It is not a decision we make; it is a free gift God has already made, “who for us and our salvation came down from heaven,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.

Christians rejoice that our best encounters with salvation, where “steadfast love and faithfulness meet,” and where “righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10), are wonderfully known in Jesus Christ.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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