When we speak of salvation, we often begin by talking about ourselves, and that is our first mistake. It would be better for us to start by considering the One from whom salvation flows: our forever Savior, God Almighty. When we build our understanding of salvation upon our own identity, we can have no assurance, but when we build it upon the character of God, we have every assurance.
The first thing we must say about God is that He is what He is. The One who revealed Himself to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14) does not experience any change in character. All that He is, He was eternally, and all He is now, He will forever be. Our experience of His character may change, but the character itself doesn’t. God cannot become something He previously was not, so as to be created. He cannot improve on what He is now, so as to become better. He is the perfect Creator then, now, and forevermore.
Therefore, when we say that God is Savior, we do not assign to Him a new identity that He did not previously possess. He was a Savior even before there was something to save, and because He has always been a Savior, He always will be. He is a Savior precisely because it is in His nature to save. When Jesus Christ said He came to earth “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), He was describing the eternal character of God as manifested in that portion of redemptive history.
The saving work of the Trinity stretches back before the creation of our universe, and I purposefully use the term Trinity, because all three Persons are equally involved in this endeavor. We most often point to God the Son as our Savior, but please understand that this title is appropriately applied to all three Persons of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have all been full participants in the work of salvation. Their actions in space-time have certainly not been the same: we confess the classic formula that the Father sends, the Son is sent, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (or to use another phrase, is “breathed out”).
The Son became incarnate as a man (Philipppians 2:7), the Spirit raised Him from the dead (Romans 8:11), and the Father exalted Him (Philippians 2:9). Nevertheless, the Son is not the “good cop” who saves us from His “bad cop” Father, nor does the Father force the Son to do things against His will. All three Persons act to save. They are so united that we ought not even speak of Them having separate wills: Their will is united.
In the Old Testament, we see God begin to reveal Himself as Savior. However, references to the salvation of the Lord in that part of scripture are often related to Israel’s physical deliverance. This is not a contradiction in our understanding of God as Savior. Rather, the material salvation that God provided to the Old Testament patriarchs and the nation of Israel was meant to point to that which was spiritual and eternal. The Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah, “Before me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me. I, even I, am the LORD, And there is no savior besides me.” (Isaiah 43:10b-11)
We see numerous occasions when Old Testament figures were urged to look to God for their temporal deliverance. When the Israelites stood on the shore of the Red Sea, terrified of the Egyptians chasing at their heels, Moses declared to them, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:3a). In that case, they were being saved from physical destruction, whereas Hannah linked the Lord’s salvation with her freedom from societal disgrace. “My heart exults in the LORD; My horn is exalted in the LORD, My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, Because I rejoice in Your salvation.” (1 Samuel 1:1b)
However, the existence of so many passages pointing to the temporal deliverance of the Lord does not imply that the Old Testament saints had no awareness of His ability to save them from sins eternally. In the psalm where David makes His most poignant plea for forgiveness from sins, He prays, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation / And sustain me with a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:12) Elsewhere, he writes, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; And deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake.” (Psalm 79:9)
The Old Testament provides us with stories of would-be saviors: men and women who helped to provide physical deliverance for Israel. Some names that come to mind here are Joshua, Gideon, David, and Esther. Yet none of these people were the Savior. They all inherited a sinful nature, were fallible, and only achieved greatness through the power of God. Their actions are somewhat symbolic of the salvation of the Lord, but none of them had the power to defeat the deadliest foe of the human race: sin. The Prophet Isaiah declared that man’s predicament was not due to any flaw in God’s character or abilities, but rather the sin that separates us from our Creator.
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
In order for God to truly save us, He needed to free us from the curse of sin. Though Israel was delivered from its enemies time after time, the people were ultimately forced to reap the penalties for disobedience. They needed a Savior who was stronger than Samson, wiser than Solomon, and more holy than Joshua in order to save them from sin. This is why the Prophet Jeremiah said, “Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved, For You are my praise.” (Jeremiah 17:14) He also revealed God’s promise of a coming perfect ruler who would combine the kingly role of David and the priestly role of the Levites to make His people righteous.
‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man before Me to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to prepare sacrifices continually.’
It was Isaiah who predicted that this ruler (whom he called the Servant) would make the people righteous by taking their iniquities upon Himself and reaping the covenant curse that is our due.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
This is the God who is our Savior: who took on flesh, lived a perfect life, and suffered an agonizing death in order to purchase our redemption. Only the perfect Lamb of God can save us eternally. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) This is why the Psalmist wrote, “Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Psalm 146:3) Those who have committed their own sins cannot take the penalty for the sins of others. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The Savior was first promised in the Old Testament when God pronounced a curse upon the serpent. “And I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Genesis 3:15) We have seen how the prophets spoke of His character and saving work. Finally, the Son of Man became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Her betrothed, Joseph, was told, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
The immediate responses to this miraculous event link together God’s salvation in previous ages with His promises that would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Mary proclaimed, “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46b-47) Zechariah spoke a beautiful word upon the birth of his son, John the Baptist.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us / In the house of David His servant—As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old…And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; To give to His people the knowledge of salvation / By the forgiveness of their sins…”
Luke 1:68-70, 76-77
Jesus’ identity as Savior was also revealed to the shepherds on the day of His birth. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11) When Jesus was presented at the Temple, a godly man named Simeon, who had been given a true prophecy by the Lord, declared, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
While we must certainly consider what it means for us to obtain salvation as individuals, we must first fix our eyes upon our Savior and realize that all good things spring from that fountain. We are but one piece in a greater story, over which the Lord God is entirely sovereign, and in which He is working His will day by day. Scripture tells us that God did not save us on the basis of anything good in ourselves, but on account of His mercy.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Again, this is the character of our God who acts to save. While we look to the Son as Savior, we must never ignore the working of the Spirit, by which we are restored to life after having been dead in sins. The Spirit moves in us to draw us to Christ, who in turn brings us to the Father. We were appointed for this gracious inheritance before the world began.
As Paul tells us, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13) Likewise, he says elsewhere that God intended for us to do good works—that is, to grow in sanctification. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The salvation that we have from our Savior is not only for this life and it is not only for the life to come. We are saved already, and yet the full consummation of the ages is still ahead of us, when we will dwell with Him for all eternity. Yet we need not fear that in receiving one, we shall not receive the other, for though we change every day, the author of our salvation never changes. It is because of that fact that we may have assurance. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9) When God speaks a word, it will come to pass.
As we go forward, we will see that scripture sometimes refers to salvation in different ways. This is because there are multiple components and aspects of salvation. Having said that, scripture does not allow for a firm division between those parts, so that a person may rightly be said to have one and not the other, or to begin their journey and not complete it. Why? Because salvation is not ultimately dependent on the person being saved, but the Savior. As Paul also wrote, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
As we continue on, we will see these dual themes emerge: man’s responsibility and God’s faithfulness. Ultimately, it is the character of God that is responsible for salvation, even though a burden of responsibility is placed on man. Thus we read the seemingly contradictory but ultimately enlightening command, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12)
That is the God whom we serve: the Savior who works in us. He is the author of our salvation, and because He is the Savior, He will save.
All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.