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Article Info:
published: 3/31/13
updated: 2/27/14

Salvation in Christianity



Need for Salvation: Sin and Death

crown and cross

In Christianity, salvation is made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion 2,000 years ago. The word atonement, one of the few theological words of English origin, is used to describe this concept. The verb "atone" derives from the adverb "at one," and therefore means "to reconcile."

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines "atonement" as "the Satisfaction of Christ, whereby God and the world are reconciled or made to be at one." Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes it as "man's reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ." The death of Christ on the cross, then, is seen not just as a historical tragedy but as the basis for salvation from sin.

The atonement has been understood in various ways in Christianity, which are often grouped into four (sometimes six) "theories" of how the death of Christ results in the salvation of humanity. These theories are not generally regarded as mutually exclusive. In the words of Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, "it can be argued that the views of most writers on this subject cannot be reduced to or confined within a single category, without doing serious violence to their ideas." On the other hand, some conservative sources argue that not all are biblical or correct.


Sacrificial Theory of the Atonement

In Judaism, before the Temple was replaced by the synagogue, a central part of Jewish practice was animal sacrifice. As in many other ancient religions, Jews believed that the blood of the sacrificed animal paid the penalty for human sins. Old Testament prophets often pointed out, however, that such sacrifice was worthless without true repentance (see, e.g., Isaiah 1:10-17, Hosea 6:6).

This existing idea of sacrifice was then applied to Christ's death in the New Testament, which, it will remembered, was written almost exclusively by Jews. Thus Romans 3:25 declares that "God presented him [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement" and 1 John 2:2 states, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins." In the Gospel of John, Jesus is specifically likened to the Passover lamb (see John 19:14,36). The idea is that Christ, being innocent, was a perfect blood sacrifice that took away the sins not just of one person or one congregation, but the whole world.

The sacrificial theory of the atonement was further developed by such important theologians as Augustine and Athanasius. It has lost some popularity since the Enlightenment, but continues to be important especially to Roman Catholic theology.

Ransom Theory of the Atonement (or Christus victor)

Like the sacrificial theory, the ransom theory of the atonement also has its basis in the New Testament. In Mark 10:45, Jesus explains, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many," and 1 Timothy 2:6 declares that "the man Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all men."

A ransom, of course, is some form of payment made to attain the freedom of someone held in captivity. Kidnappers demand a ransom of money for the safe return of their victim, for instance. Thus the idea is that Christ's death released sinners from their captivity.

However, extended contemplation of this theory leads to complications. Origen of Alexandria, for example, pointed out that a ransom must be paid to someone. But it could not have been paid to God, since he does not hold sinners captive, it must have been paid to the devil. Gregory the Great and later writers developed this idea further, suggesting that Christ tricked or trapped the devil. This rested on the assumption that the devil had aquired rights over sinful humanity that God had to recognize, and that if he exceeded the limits of his authority, he would have to forfeit his rights. As Rufinus of Aquileia explained, around 400 AD:

[The purpose of the Incarnation] was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be like a kind of hook hidden beneath the form of human flesh... to lure on the prince of this world [the devil] to a contest; that the Son might offer him his human flesh as a bait and that the divinity which lay underneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook...Having swallowed it, he was immediately caught. {1}

This view of the atonement was closely associated with the victory of Christ over sin, death and hell, and was very popular in the Middle Ages. In more modern times, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich offered existentialist understandings of Christus victor, interpreting it as a victory over inauthentic experience and unbelief. However it is understood, the idea that something cosmically dramatic happened at the cross continues to be an important part of Christian belief.

Meaning of Salvation

Christian theology and evangelism centers on the "good news" that Christ's death and resurrection opened up the way for salvation. The last article explored what Christians are saved from - sin, suffering, death and hell. We now turn to the next logical question: "What are Christians saved to?" In other words, what does salvation mean and what difference does it make in this life and the next?

The nature of salvation has been understood in various ways throughout Christian history. Certain interpretations have held more appeal for certain cultures or Christian traditions, but few Christians would argue that there is a single, "true" understanding of the nature of salvation. This article explores four major perspectives on the meaning of Christian salvation: deification, righteousness, authentic human existence, and liberation.

Salvation as Deification (Theosis)

The idea of salvation as deification may be summed up in the phrase, "God became human so that humans might become God." This does not mean that humans can be another god or equal to God, but rather that they can hope to participate in the divine nature.

The notion of deification (Theosis in Greek) is based on the perspective that when Christ was incarnate in the man Jesus, he did take on just one human nature, but all of human nature. He thus made it possible for the reverse to occur – for humans to participate in the divine nature. "The Son of God, as the one through whom the process of creation was fulfilled, came down from heaven into the world and became fully man, i.e. assumed human nature in its integrity and led it to the fulfillment of its God-given destiny, deification." (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

The understanding of salvation as deification has had considerable appeal in eastern Christianity, both in the early patristic fathers and in modern Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. Instances of this doctrine in the early Greek fathers include for example:

We are not made gods from the beginning; first we are mere humans, then we become gods. --St. Irenaeus, Adv Haer III IV:38:4

Let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods --St. Maximus the Confessor On Theology, 7.73

For the Son of God became man, that we might become God. --St. Athanasius, De inc.

He has called men gods that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance.--St. Augustine

The Word became flesh and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God --St. Irenaeus, Adv Haer III

Let us applaud and give thanks that we have become not only Christians but Christ himself. Do you understand, my brothers, the grace that God our head has given us? Be filled with wonder and joy--we have become veritable Christs! --St. Augustine of Hippo

The Only-begotten Son of God, wanting us to be partakers of his divinity, assumed our human nature so that, having become man, he might make men gods. --St. Thomas Aquinas

The highest of all things desired is to become God. --St Basil the Great

Means of Salvation

This article seeks to answer the question asked by a prison guard in the New Testament book of Acts: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" The answer the apostles gave to that man was fairly straightforward: "Repent and believe." However, the many biblical passages that touch on the question of "how to be saved," along with various other influences, have led to more complex thought on the subject.

For instance, the New Testament seems to teach the importance of both faith and works for salvation, so the further questions arise: Are faith, good works, or both necessary for salvation? Faith in what or whom? How do faith and works relate to each other?

In addition, New Testament authors and other Christian theologians have taught that individuals must repent, believe, and otherwise work for their own salvation, but also that salvation is not entirely a human enterprise - God takes an active role, helping humans to be saved through his grace. Some Christians have even taught that humans are so helpless in their state of sin that God most do all the work, or at least take the first step. This raises the complicated issue of how human free will and effort relates to God's grace and predestination.

The following article attempts to summarize the ways in which these issues have been addressed in Christianity and how they relate to the simple question, "What must I do to be saved?"

Salvation by Faith

Since the time of the apostles, Christians have preached the importance of faith in such things as the true God, the work of Christ on the cross, and Christ's resurrection, and this faith has often been connected with salvation. Important Christian leaders and theologians who lived after New Testament times continued this theme.

Salvation by Works

At the same time, however, good works and the development of virtues has also been emphasized as essential to the Christian life and to salvation.

And do ye, each and all, form yourselves into a chorus, that being harmonious in concord and taking the key note of God ye may in unison sing with one voice through Jesus Christ unto the Father, that He may both hear you and acknowledge you by your good deeds to be members of His Son. It is therefore profitable for you to be in blameless unity, that ye may also be partakers of God always. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 4:2)

No man professing faith sinneth, and no man possessing love hateth. The tree is manifest from its fruit; so they that profess to be Christ's shall be seen through their actions. For the Work is not a thing of profession now, but is seen then when one is found in the power of faith unto the end. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 14:2)

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References

  1. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd. ed., pp. 386-422.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
  3. The Catholic Encyclopedia.
General Resources Atonement Meaning and Process of Salvation