Word Study #5 –“Salvation:” past? present? future?

The time was many years ago, when we were still sufficiently inexperienced at the discipline of Word Study that we expected it to be able to answer most, if not all, of our questions. (It can’t.)
We were leading a group in the study of Philippians, and stopped short at Philippians 1:19, where Paul comments, (KJV) “For I know that this will turn out for my salvation…”
“Whoa! Wait a minute!” one student exclaimed. “Wasn’t Paul already ‘saved’?” Well, we all thought so, having at that time subscribed to the definition that equated the term with one’s initial “commitment to Christ.” But then, what was Paul saying? The curious among us needed to find out.

Out came the concordances, grammars, and lexicons.   Out did NOT come total clarity with which to clobber any and all dissent.   “What does the text SAY?”

Let’s start with the historical uses of the words. The compilers of the Oxford lexicon list for the verb form, sozo:
–to save from death, keep alive, preserve
–to escape destruction
–to be healed, to recover from sickness
–to save or recover an opportunity
–to observe or maintain laws or customs
–to keep in mind, to remember
–to bring one safely to a place
–to rescue from captivity or danger

and for the noun form, soteria (or soterion):
–deliverance or preservation
–a way or means of safety
–safe return, or keeping safe
–security, or a guarantee of safety
–bodily health, well-being
–an offering in thanks for deliverance
–a physician’s fee!

Both are frustratingly broad, very like the widely trumpeted teachings about the Hebrew “shalom”.  All, strangely, have the flavor of practical, tangible experience: there is historically no hint of any reference to one’s “eternal destiny,” although that may be deduced from a few (by no means all) of the New Testament references.

This appears to be one of the cases where the New Testament writers took a commonly used and understood word, and poured into it additional meaning that did not originally exist. Please note that they did not abrogate the original intent; it still referred to physical healings, rescue from storms and shipwrecks, deliverance from enemies and persecutors.   But a new dimension was added, when any of these included or resulted from one’s relatedness to Jesus.

The tenses of verbs used add considerable light to the subject. The vast majority of active voice references occur in purpose constructions, and are cast in the aorist tense, whether subjunctive, imperative, or infinitive forms are used. (Please see the appendix to the Translation Notes for further explanation.) They speak of the Lord’s intentions, his purpose, in coming to rescue his people from their wanderings, or, as he put it, “to save men’s lives, not to destroy them” (Lk.9:56 and parallels). Jesus himself uses it in reference to many of his healings.

Nearly an equal number of uses are in the passive voice, focusing on the receiver, rather than the doer, of the action. Among these, the predominant tenses are present (continuous action) and future. People “will be” or “are in the process of being” saved or rescued, except for a few purpose constructions that retain the aorist (implying, I think, the completion of the process.)

When attention shifts to the noun form, soteria, the accompanying verbs shift markedly to the present and future, except for two very interesting exceptions: Jesus’ comment (Lk.19:9) upon Zacchaeus’ announcement of his change of purpose and intention, that “Soteria has happened” on that day, and the song of praise in Rev.12:10, that it “has arrived” when the Accuser has finally been “cast down.” All the rest refer clearly to a work in progress, especially when Paul urges the Philippian brethren (2:12) to “keep on working” at it, or reminds those in Rome (13:11) that it is now “nearer” than at the beginning of their/our faithfulness.

With the linguistic prevalence of references to rescue or deliverance, it is also interesting to compare what folks are urged to be “saved from” with common “understandings.” Very seldom are the NT writers specific about that (except in the case of healings), unlike their modern counterparts, who would not even consider it to be a question. (Everyone needs to be saved from hell, right? “Just sign up for this guaranteed fire-insurance policy!”) As a matter of fact, that warning does not appear even once in the New Testament! Neither does “Where will you be if you die tonight?”  New Testament “salvation” is about living, not dying! In fact, the word only occurs one single time paired with aionion, the word usually translated “eternal” (which needs its own study.) This would lead one to believe that at least it is not the primary emphasis.

In Zachariah’s prophecy when John the Baptist was born, he spoke of “deliverance from our enemies, and from all who hate us,” (Lk.1:71), and in 74-75 “the privilege to worship him (God) in purity and justice without fear!”  Only secondarily does he refer to the “taking away of their hamartia” which has mistakenly been associated with paraptoma (deliberate transgressions) under the label of “sins.”  This also requires its own study, but hamartia basically refers to failure to attain a goal or standard.    Zachariah focuses wholly on the gracious mercy of God.

In Peter’s evangelistic sermon at Pentecost, he urged his listeners to (Ac.2:40) “be rescued (saved) from this crooked generation!”  He also notes the result: (41) those who responded were “added”  to the brotherhood (see also Ac.2:42-47.)
Paul does mention in Rom.5:9 being “saved from wrath,” but he does not specify whether that “wrath” is God’s, or simply the constant state of those who ignore him.
James refers to “saving from death” the life (psuche is another good study) of a person who is headed in the wrong direction.

SO — back to the question that started all of this:  Wasn’t Paul already “saved?” Are we? Is anyone?
What does the text SAY?
Jesus has already protected and rescued us many times, from many perils (some of our own making, some not.) He has healed and restored many of us, both physically and in terms of broken relationships. He has already (Col.1:13) “delivered us from the power of darkness, and transported us into his Kingdom” (the word used here is not sozo, but a much stronger errusato).

Still, there is much that is yet to be realized, if we consider all those future tenses, as well as the present progressives, and the beautiful goals he has outlined for the life of his people.  There had to be a beginning, of course:  but, in the vernacular of centuries later, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

So, “Brother, are you saved?”

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