“Salvation,” in biblical terms, is simply rescue or deliverance. Biblical references to salvation, unlike contemporary presentations of “salvation” in many Christian communities, rarely speak of salvation from sin, as though sin were some sort of internal condition within the subject. In the Scriptures salvation is deliverance or rescue from an outside threat that has seized the subject. A typical reference is the apostle Peter’s appeal to his fellow Jews on the day of Pentecost: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40).
Following the biblical pattern, salvation would be offered as deliverance from an enslaving or oppressing world view that affects a person’s existence and future possibilities within a particular, concrete cultural and historical setting. The individual who responds to the Christian gospel is “saved” not from some internal state of being as such, but from the false paradigm that has hitherto prevented that person from recognizing Jesus Christ as the risen Lord and Authority in life, and which has therefore held the person in a pattern of alienation from the purposes of God as revealed in Scripture.
Today millions are trapped in the bondage of such false paradigms — whether they be imposed by media, the educational establishment, political ideologies, non-Christian religions, dysfunctional behavior patterns or destructive habits. These are the external enemies from which people need to be rescued, or “saved,” so that they can enjoy the life for which God has created them.
In Scripture, salvation is usually mentioned in connection with a person’s rescue from forces or conditions that affect his life in the “here and now” It is rarely presented in a form that could be understood as an action by God that affects the state of a person after death, or his eternal destiny. No single verse or passage relates salvation to “going to heaven,” a phrase not in the Bible. Where “heaven” and words relating to salvation appear in the same context, the reference to heaven is not to the goal of the believer’s salvation but to the abode of God, his particular “space.” The believer’s “heavenly” destiny is an inference from other passages that state the matter quite differently.
The New Testament makes it clear that salvation is salvation by incorporation. The believer has already entered into his or her future destiny through incorporation into the life of the risen Christ (John 3:36; Romans 6:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:1-3; 1 John 3:14, 5:12). Since the believer, in dying to self, has already died the “first death” (a phrase not in Scripture), he has no fear of the “second death” as do those who are not in Christ (Revelation 20:6).
Salvation is an abstract concept, not an entity or state that exists somewhere in and of itself. “Salvation” is only a word that identifies an action that occurs in a relationship between two persons. A savior delivers or rescues another person, so that the other person is “saved” — or, indeed, a person “saves himself” through laying aside a false paradigm or world view that prevents him from recognizing the work of God in his life or that of his cultural context. Salvation is not a trait that describes one person as distinct from other persons, but is a name for the action that has rescued that person from the oppression that affects him or her.
In the New Testament, that rescuing action takes the form of being incorporated into the body of the risen Christ. One who is “in Christ” has been delivered from a corrupted “age” (cultural world) and lives a life that anticipates God’s new, or restored, creation (e.g., Acts 3:19-21; Romans 8:19-21). Thus terms relating to salvation, in Scripture, usually describe a concrete, down-to-earth experience of being set free from threatening or destructive conditions of ordinary human life.
In common Christian parlance “salvation” is a religious-sounding word that has been “spiritualized,” removed from its concrete biblical associations and related to some inward condition in an individual, or in the “soul.” To restore biblical understanding it might be better to speak not of “salvation,” but of rescuing people or helping them break free of dysfunctional relationships, harmful values, false world views, oppressing conditions, or other factors that constrict and diminish life and keep people bound in “sin” (estrangement from God) and away from Christ. On this understanding, people are not “saved” when they assent to certain doctrines or say a prayer, but when their life changes.