What We Believe About … Salvation
A series on the AG Statement of Fundamental Truths
There is a story about a highly educated man who attempted to gather the collective wisdom of the world in one massive volume to make it more accessible to others.
Seeing the book was too large, the man condensed it to one-tenth its original size. After some time, he abridged humanity’s collective wisdom to one page. Years later, he condensed that page into one sentence. Shortly before his death, the man finally summarized that sentence in one word. In his learned opinion, the summary of all human wisdom boiled down to a single command: “Survive.”
This story reportedly appeared in an unpublished manuscript by L. Ron Hubbard, titled The One Command or Excalibur. Hubbard stressed this “one command” to survive as the basis for a philosophy that later developed into Scientology. Many religions and worldviews share his assumption that our ultimate survival — our salvation — depends on us.
In 1 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul contrasts this worldly wisdom with God’s wisdom, the latter of which the rulers of this age failed to grasp. “For if they had,” Paul says, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (verse 8).
Given our best efforts, we could not have imagined God’s plan of salvation. “What no human mind has conceived,” however, “God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (verses 9–10).
Many belief systems place the hope of salvation on human effort alone. Through rituals, moral behavior, discipline, pedigree, etc., adherents look for a salvation their work could produce, a survival they have earned. Even the nonreligious often look to science and technology to achieve their version of salvation or survival.
One significant contrast between Christianity and other belief systems is that Christians do not believe we can save ourselves. God is the author of our salvation.
“The Salvation of Man,” Article 5 in the Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths, declares our “only hope of redemption is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
“Redemption” can refer to the payment of a ransom to set someone free. That ransom is understood to be the “shed blood” of Jesus, which frees and cleanses us from sin (Hebrews 9:14; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5).
Article 5 goes on to describe the conditions and evidence for salvation, highlighting the work of the Trinity in salvation and the human response to that work.
Scripture conveys the meaning and power of Christ’s death in multiple ways. Jesus said He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He explained His death in the language of sacrifice — as blood poured out for a new covenant (Matthew 26:27–28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).
Paul pointed to the death of Jesus as the demonstration of God’s love for sinners (Romans 5:8) and explained how Christ’s obedience to God in death reversed the effects of Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:10–21). By His death, Jesus conquered the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:14–15).
How does the death of Jesus save us? Theologians have proposed several answers to this question, known as theories of Atonement. The Bible teaches that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3) but many of these theories can be distinguished by how they answer “to whom” Christ’s death was given.
One family of Atonement theories may be distinguished by an emphasis on Jesus as Victor over Satan. Some Early Church theologians explained Christ’s death as a payment to Satan, who in some sense had rights over humanity by Adam’s disobedience (ransom theory). That payment could also be understood as a trap because neither Satan nor death could lay claim to Jesus permanently (Christus victor).
Other theologians were repulsed by the idea that Satan had a claim to humanity. There was a renewed emphasis in the Middle Ages on the death of Jesus as the payment of a debt owed to God rather than Satan. A common explanation was that Jesus, as both God and human, restored the honor due God that human sin offended (satisfaction theory).
By the time of the Reformation, many described the Atonement as Jesus taking the punishment for sin in our place (penal substitution theory). This theory emphasizes the crucified Jesus as the Victim or Vicar (substitute) who offers himself to God on our behalf.
Still other theologians highlighted humanity as not only the “for whom” but also the “to whom” of Christ’s death. As an example of God’s love for us, the death of Jesus could inspire people to respond in love to God (moral influence theory). Some emphasized the death of Jesus as a demonstration of human obedience, showing us how to obey God (moral example theory). Proponents of these Atonement theories portray Christ’s death as the image for our virtue in life.
In teaching the Atonement, we should not allow any theory to take on a life of its own apart from the full witness of Scripture.
Should we explain the Atonement by emphasizing Christ as Victor over Satan, Vicar to God, or Virtue for humanity? In isolation from other considerations, there are limitations to any theory of Atonement.
For example, if we stress Jesus as Victor exclusively, are we giving Satan too much credit? If we emphasize Jesus as Virtue only, is His example of love or obedience enough to turn us from sin?
The Assemblies of God, along with the majority of evangelicalism, has emphasized the penal substitution theory. As John Stott writes in The Cross of Christ, “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”
Scripture teaches that Jesus, who never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), took on death, the penalty for sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12). Christ did this in obedience to the Father (Philippians 2:8) and in place of sinners (Isaiah 53:4–6; 1 Peter 2:24–25), so that we may be right with God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“The Salvation of Man” does not promote one theory of Atonement, but it does emphasize the death of Jesus provided our only hope for redemption. In teaching the Atonement, we should not allow any theory to take on a life of its own apart from the full witness of Scripture. We must take care not to misrepresent the Cross.
Thus, it is important to keep the following three points in mind.
1. Jesus did not die to appease a God who hated us. The Cross was not where God became loving toward humanity. It was the response of an already gracious Father who loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
If we are not careful, people might hear the story as if Jesus were the big brother standing in the way of an abusive father. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus did not change the Father’s heart. Rather, Jesus revealed the heart of a God who already loved the world (John 3:16).
2. The Atonement hinges on the Incarnation. The Atonement requires the Incarnation to make sense. Without the Incarnation, Jesus’ death is no more significant than that of any other historical figure.
God the Son in human flesh laid down His life for a world in need. Any explanation of the Atonement that excludes the Incarnation is an inadequate representation of human need and divine response. The significance of the death of Jesus rests on the story of the birth of Jesus.
3. The meaning of Jesus’ death requires the rest of the story. There is no hope for the forgiveness of sin without Jesus overcoming sin’s penalty, death. His resurrection provides the basis of our present and future hope (1 Corinthians 15:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Peter 1:3–5).
Good Friday is good because of Easter. Both require Christmas, while the enthronement of the resurrected Savior is the focus of the good news. Along with the familiar symbol of the cross, the story of salvation includes a virgin’s womb, an empty tomb, an occupied throne, and a resounding trumpet. These images provide a more complete picture of salvation.
Article 5 also highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation. Through the Holy Spirit, we are renewed and regenerated — symbolized as washing because we are being cleansed from the stain of sin. This cleansing and newness of heart signifies the freedom to live for God as members of His family. We become adopted heirs of God in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5–7).
The Holy Spirit confirms to our spirits the reality of this adoption, providing internal evidence of our salvation (Romans 8:16). We can now have the kind of close relationship with God Jesus demonstrated when He called out “Abba, Father,” using an Aramaic term of endearment for fathers (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15).
Although Paul was writing in Greek, he likely used Aramaic in his letter to remind readers of this practice from Jesus’ life. The Spirit bears witness that we can speak to God as if our relationship with Him is that of Jesus.
Available to All
Who can claim Christ’s offer of salvation? Our answer depends on our theology of divine election.
The language of election and predestination comes from Scripture (Romans 8:29–30; 2 Peter 1:10), but many today associate it with Calvinism.
Modern Calvinism includes five points that form the acronym TULIP: total depravity of humanity; unconditional election; limited atonement; irresistible grace; and perseverance of the saints.
The first point, total depravity, means there is nothing good within humanity by which we may experience salvation apart from the grace of God. We can accept this point without embracing the others. This is where Arminianism and Calvinism agree. The last four points go together in such a way that it is difficult to accept one without the other.
If God’s grace is irresistible, every recipient of that grace will respond positively and receive salvation. If only some have responded positively, God must not have given His grace to all. If God did not give His grace to all, He must have chosen to save only some. If only those God chose can be saved, Christ died for them alone. If the promise of the Atonement is limited to the elect, God’s choice alone determines who will be saved. Those unconditionally chosen for salvation will not fall away but will persevere in faith throughout their lives.
There is no hope for
the forgiveness of
sin without Jesus overcoming sin’s penalty, death. His resurrection provides the basis of our present and future hope.
By contrast, Arminianism holds that Christ died for all, but each person may freely accept or reject the grace of God. The freedom to choose salvation does not violate the sovereignty of God, since our free will was God’s choice. If salvation is available to all but not everyone receives it, humans have a choice in the matter — and there must be conditions by which a person may receive salvation.
The AG has a deep connection to Arminianism through the Wesleyan tradition. We recognize “conditions to salvation” on the part of humanity. The paragraph in Article 5 on these conditions is about the reception of salvation, not the earning of salvation.
Some may wonder why they should need to do anything for salvation. If God wants to forgive sins, why couldn’t He just do so, without requiring the Cross or our response?
For God’s forgiveness to be meaningful, the sins He forgives must also be meaningful. If there is a moral weight to our choices, God cannot overlook them. Sin has a cost because those we have sinned against have value. God is too loving to ignore sin.
The point of salvation is not our individual happiness but the rescue of creation from the evil that corrupts it. For God to save, He must conquer evil. Forgiveness is for sin’s destruction, not its allowance.
Jesus’ death is too high a price to pay for grace that is permissive rather than redemptive. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Paul described salvation this way: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If salvation is reconciliation with God, it requires both parties to respond to each other.
Restoration of a relationship broken by wrongdoing requires both forgiveness on the part of the one wronged and repentance on the part of the one who committed the wrong. Though someone repents, there is no chance of reconciliation without forgiveness. Though someone forgives, there must be acknowledgement of the need for change by the wrongdoer.
God desires a restored relationship with all, but each person must repent to receive His forgiveness (2 Peter 3:9). Repentance does not earn salvation; it recognizes the need for salvation (Luke 24:47).
We trust in God’s forgiveness because of the work and person of Jesus, who is now seated at the right hand of God. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are justified in the eyes of God.
Justification, another way to describe salvation, involves God declaring us in right standing with Him. We are justified by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
Grace, as God’s undeserved favor, is the objective means by which we are saved. We cannot save ourselves but must rely entirely on God’s grace, which makes the possibility of our salvation a reality. Faith is the subjective means by which we are justified (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16; 3:11,24).
Pistis, the Greek word for faith, has a variety of meanings, including belief, trust, loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness and allegiance. In English, faith may be understood as a mere belief. In Greek, it can refer both to putting your trust in someone and being faithful to the one in whom you’ve put your trust. Our commitment to God is produced by our confidence in Him.
To say we have faith in Jesus as Lord means we have placed our trust in Him, and God credits that trust as righteousness (Romans 4:5). It also means we have committed to serving Jesus faithfully (Romans 10:9).
Turning from sin in repentance means turning toward God. When we truly repent of our sins, we turn toward God in obedience. God counts our faith as obedience, while obedience also results from that faith (Romans 16:26).
We are not saved because of how righteously we live. Rather, our faith and repentance naturally lead to righteous living as proof of our salvation. Holiness is evidence of, not a condition for, salvation (Ephesians 4:24).
Christians express holiness through loving actions toward others, or “good works.” Love demonstrated through actions defines holy or righteous living. The expectation of good works as the result of a saved life is evident throughout the New Testament (Acts 26:20; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; Titus 2:7; Hebrews 10:24; James 2:26; etc.).
This does not mean new Christians immediately exhibit the same level of obedience. We all grow in Christ from the place where we started, not from where anyone else started. Yet regardless of our starting point — whether as a young child or after a lifetime of bad decisions — we were all far enough from God to need the Spirit for growth into a life of obedience.
Our pastoral ministry begins and ends with our hope in Jesus. Consider the following three implications of the promise of salvation for ministry.
1. Teaching grace. Pastoral work involves explaining, modeling, and practicing grace. In a sinful world, it is difficult to appreciate just how much the grace of God challenges assumptions, feelings, and practices from outside and inside the Church. People have much to unlearn in order to understand God’s grace.
The grace of God must remain the bedrock of our salvation, even as God continues working in us.
Some Christians struggle with feelings of inadequacy and despair because they think God’s grace was only for conversion. They assume godly living is now entirely up to them, and they fall short. Some might even feel like Christianity is some sort of bait and switch — offering grace but giving guilt.
Other believers measure their growth by a church culture in which they succeed. Such Christians often fall into a works-based mentality, as if they entered by grace but have earned their place over time. This way of thinking leads to judgmentalism toward others on the basis of human standards rigged to the benefit of some.
Those with a proper understanding of God’s grace learn to let go of their insecurity, despair, self-righteousness or pride.
A healthy view of grace leads Christians deeper into discipleship as Christlike people living by the power of the Spirit and fully aware of their ongoing dependence on God’s grace.
Eugene Peterson writes, “In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace — a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence.”
We must teach the depth, breadth, width, and height of God’s grace. The grace of God must remain the bedrock of our salvation, even as God continues working in us (Philippians 1:6). The grace that brought us to Christ is the same grace by which we live for Christ, die in Christ, and will live again with Christ.
2. Encouraging good works. As pastors, we want our communities doing good works as the fruit of salvation. This is not a replacement for evangelism but a necessary example of the gospel at work.
Good works are not the basis for salvation. They reflect the grace God has freely given us, which we can now freely give others.
Such works include caring for people, especially those in need, out of the abundance of grace by which we continue to live. We share the blessings we receive from God, even to the point of giving sacrificially.
AG churches throughout the U.S. do good works through benevolence ministries, food banks, shelters, after-school programs, and ministries for the sick and grieving. Some of the most celebrated AG ministries are known for their good works, including the Lillian Trasher Orphanage in Egypt, Adult and Teen Challenge, Project Rescue, and Convoy of Hope.
We should continue encouraging Christians to do good works in their personal lives and provide opportunities for participating in efforts locally, nationally and globally.
The Church exists for the good of the world, and good works reflect our faith to others who can see a gospel community in action. People are more willing to hear what we believe when they believe in what we do.
Christians hope for a salvation we cannot bring about on our own. Because Christ’s sacrifice is at the center of this hope, we have the power to live sacrificially ourselves. Knowing what awaits us by the promise of God, we have the freedom to give of our lives for one another. Our “one command” is not to survive but to love (John 15:12–13).
3. Declaring salvation. Ministers must remain committed to declaring the message of salvation through Christ in every platform we have. The elements of our weekly worship gatherings (sermons, songs, prayers, testimonies, etc.), conversations during our community outreaches, and smaller gatherings of believers throughout the week are all opportunities to explain the good news of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ.
It is possible to get so caught up in the weekly rhythms of a community formed by the Word of salvation we assume people heard it without intentionally declaring it.
At the same time, if we focus on making every gathering an attention-grabbing event, our methods can become more of a concern than our message. In our efforts to build excitement, we might bury the Word we must give.
We must prioritize the message of salvation in our worship gatherings (which should be more about gratitude than excitement), on behalf of disciples who need reminding they live in grace, and for those who remain lost without the message of Jesus.
God calls us to declare salvation clearly, faithfully and frequently.
“For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:13–15).
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine.