This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches.
One of the most frequently misunderstood words in the church today is the word “salvation.” The problem seems to be rooted in the broad ways that the Scripture itself uses the word. It may surprise you, but the New Testament refers to salvation as a past act, a present act, and a future act. For example, there are passages of Scripture which affirm that we “have been” saved, we “are being” saved, and we “shall be” saved. According to the New Testament, all of these are true.
One way to understand this is to picture salvation as a stool which is held up by three legs. Salvation is the overarching concept and can, at times, be used for the three more precise terms for each of the legs of the stool. The first leg is justification, which primarily refers to a past action. The second leg is sanctification, primarily referring to a current operation of God in the life of the believer. The third leg is glorification, which primarily refers to a future state of the believer once we are finally in the full presence of God.
So, this study does not actually merely ask the big question: What is salvation? Instead, we ask the more precise questions: What is justification? What is sanctification? What is glorification? Once you understand those terms, then the meaning of salvation will be made clear, because it is nothing more than the sum of those three questions.
Justification refers to an act of God whereby he declares sinners forgiven for their sins and made right before him. The Scriptures do not give us a single metaphor or picture of how we are to understand the death of Christ. Instead, several metaphors are given, all of which convey different facets of the full meaning of Christ’s death.
The first idea is that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice, rendering what we call a “substitutionary atonement.” This means that Christ died in our place and bore our sins upon himself. It draws upon the Old Testament idea whereby the lifeblood of a lamb or bull was sacrificed in the place of the sinner. The sins were transferred from the sinner to the sacrificial animal. We already noted that it was actually impossible for the blood of a lamb or bull to truly take away sins. Jesus became the final substitution for our sins, fulfilling all those sacrifices which were offered in faith over the centuries. When someone asks how an Old Testament believer was justified, we can say with assurance that they were justified in precisely the same way we are—namely, through the death of Jesus Christ. The difference is that they looked forward in anticipation of the true substitution, whereas we look back in remembrance of that true substitution.
The second idea is that of redemption. In the ancient world a slave could be purchased out of slavery by making a payment. This payment “redeemed” the slave and purchased his freedom. The New Testament pictures us as slaves to sin and in bondage to Satan. On the cross, Jesus pays the debt, purchases our redemption, and sets us free from our bondage to sin. He redeems his enslaved people.
The third idea is a picture of a courtroom and a judicial process. In this picture we have symbolically been brought before the Judge, our sins have been exposed, and we have been declared guilty before God and sentenced to death. It is a righteous and just verdict. However, before we are removed from the courtroom, the Judge announces that he is prepared to satisfy the demands of justice by dying on behalf of the sins of the guilty party. In this picture, Jesus takes on the “curse of the Law” by accepting the just penalty for our sins upon himself, and we are actually declared “not guilty!” Christ thereby simultaneously satisfies the necessary demand for justice, and extends mercy and grace to the condemned person.
The fourth idea is that of a great cosmic battle, out of which Jesus Christ emerges as the triumphant victor. In this metaphor all the powers of evil, death, and darkness are arrayed against Jesus and the people of God. Since Jesus is our champion, the death of Jesus Christ is first perceived to be the final defeat of our hope. Instead, through the resurrection the tables are turned, and what appeared to be the defeat of Jesus turns out, in fact, to be the defeat of Satan and the overturning of death. Christ is our victor. He has defeated sin and death, triumphing over them and vanquishing all our enemies.
A fifth picture of justification is that of reconciliation, whereby the broken relationship between God and humanity is restored through the mediating priesthood of Jesus Christ. He is simultaneously both priest and sacrifice, bridging the broken gap between God and humanity, and restoring the fellowship which had been broken by sin.
There are several other metaphors in the New Testament, but these are some of the central ones. Collectively they help us to capture a glimpse of how a condemned sinner can be declared righteous before God. All of these metaphors are pointing to various facets of what it means to be justified before God.
2 Corinthians 5:17–21
See also our Seven Minute Seminary, “What Is Justifying Grace?”