Salvation is not a concept Christianity discovered. In a broad sense, salvation means rescue from any danger or adverse situation.
Even the typical Hebrew expression “save my soul!” actually means “save my life!”, or “save me from death!” In the New Testament, salvation can also mean healing from sickness or moral salvation from a damned society (Acts 2:40; 1 Peter 3:20).
Both testaments of the Bible show Yahweh, the God of Israel, as “the only Saviour”. But in a special sense, He became our Saviour through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9; Jude 1:25). The very name given to Jesus expresses His destiny as Saviour (Matthew 1:21, 25; Luke 1:31): “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
As a concept, salvation from sin is only present in the religion of the Bible. It is often called forgiveness of sins; wiping, washing, cleansing of sins; redemption or atonement. Atonement is a more complex notion, which emphasizes in particular that the reparation for sins (payment, punishment) has been accomplished. Sometimes, atonement is related to the notion of redemption, other times it refers to the idea of reconciliation. In many cases it means the ceremonial purification of sins.
The noblest of biographies
In order to become our Saviour, the Lord was first incarnated—He assumed human nature. This means that He not only took on a human body, but the whole human nature, including the limited human consciousness. He experienced His life and death in human consciousness, a consciousness that developed gradually, from childhood (Luke 2:52) to adulthood. He was not a man with a divine conscience or memory. Otherwise, He would have known absolutely everything and would not have needed revelation from God (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32; John 5:20).
Through Mary, God revealed to Jesus that He is the Son of God, the Saviour. At the age of 12, He already knew well His true identity (Luke 2:48-49), and at the age of 30, God Himself had confirmed it during His baptism (Matthew 3:16-17). Jesus was baptized not for His sins, but for ours. Having now known more about His mission than He understood at the age of 12, Jesus would consciously enter the Jordan of death and resurrection, through a covenant with the Father, in favour of the lost.
Jesus made total atonement for our sins when He sacrificed Himself for us. But as we realize that His sufferings were atoning, we must not forget that He often suffered while still alive. He took up His cross every day (Luke 9:23): He suffered temptations, the stiff opposition and emotional pain not for His sins, but for ours. In the Garden of Gethsemane and then on the cross, He continued to bear our sins to their final consequence (Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24).
The pinnacle of our salvation was reached during His passions in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-58), which continued with the humiliations inside the dark court of the Great Sanhedrin, then with mockery and torture in Jerusalem and on Calvary Hill (Matthew 26:59-27:50), where Jesus died, crushed by our sins, not as a martyr who knew that Paradise was waiting for Him.
He willingly accepted the destiny of the true Messiah—that is, a destiny of suffering the atoning death, which was the payment for sin (Romans 6:23; Revelation 20:14; 21:8). This explains why, although He had prophesied about the Resurrection, He was terrified and tortured by the thought of being separated from God. He insisted in prayer that another way be found, if possible (Luke 22:41-43), He sweated blood (Luke 22:44), and, before breathing His final breath, He let out that unexpected cry, whose echo still pierces through eternity: ᶜĒlí, ᶜĒlí, ləmāᵓ šəḇaqtāni!
Crucified people usually died within 1-2 days, but Jesus died inexplicably quickly, in just a few hours (Mark 15:44). This, in addition to the centurion’s legal test (John 19:33-35; Mark 15:45), proves that Jesus’ death was not caused by Pilate’s cross, but by the cross of our sins. His heart was torn between hope and despair, between faith in the Father and the reason of the Law.
What Jesus’s sacrifice changed
Jesus’s salvation is often superficially reduced to the forgiveness for the guilt of sin. Who would not want to be set free from guilt and exempt from eternal punishment? But who wants to be set free from their favourite sin? Here is the essential difference between vivid and authentic Christianity and formal Christianity, which does not want to forsake sin (John 8: 34-36, Romans 6:6, 16-22).
Jesus incarnated and sacrificed Himself to make us beneficiaries not only of His substitutionary death, but also of His life of self-denial and victory over temptation. He is the Initiator, but also the Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). And this salvation by faith which He accomplishes can be carried out only with our participation (Philippians 2:12-13). He works “in us to will and to act”—in us, but not without us. If we had no real role, then the whole world would be saved. But Jesus revealed with sadness that few find this narrow path that leads to eternal life (Matthew 7:14). The Saviour was intent on realising God’s plan to save mankind.
At first, not even the most virtuous of saints understood how Jesus would be the Saviour. Not even the Virgin Mary, in that graceful “Magnificat” exalted to God (Luke 1:46, 52-55), saw beyond what every believing Jew expected: a Messiah—that is, a king from David’s line who would bring about social and political justice. Even the priest Zechariah did not see beyond what any faithful Jew expects from the Messiah today (Luke 1:68-74). But the angel of prophecy, the same one who had revealed to Daniel the time of the public appearance and death of the Messiah (Daniel 9:21-27), announced to Mary and Joseph that His primary role was to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Who would not want salvation from poverty, famine, and drought, disease, social injustice, and political abuse, the threat of the enemy, and all earthly evils? God is not indifferent to our troubles, but He and all who believe themselves to be His people have a priority: salvation from sin.
We are not responsible for Adam’s sin, nor for the hereditary sinful condition, which we pass on. This “sin” of the fallen nature does not disappear through baptism, exorcism, or severe asceticism. Only death saves us from this burden. But the real sin for which we are responsible is that of our conscious attitude toward God and toward others: the alienation that self-love brings and the pursuit of our own interests and pleasures, violating any principle established by God’s law. This is the true sin that we must be saved from today, and every day.