Salvation in the Gospels

In the context of the Gospels “salvation” is the salvation of at least part of Israel from the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and from the accompanying devastation of the nation. It is in the first place, therefore, a national or political category: it refers to something that happens to a people under extreme historical conditions. This is fully in keeping with the narrative-historical understanding of salvation that we find in the Old Testament. The pattern is established, for example, in prophetic accounts of the return from exile: “But Israel is saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity” (Is. 45:17).

So we find that Jesus will “save his people” from the historical consequences of their sins (Matt. 1:21); he will save Israel from its enemies (Lk. 1:71). Although the “many” in Israel have been called, only a few will be saved (Lk. 13:22-24). Those who endure to the end of this period of turmoil and suffering will be saved (Matt. 10:22; 24:13); and Jesus assures his disciples that for their sake the period will be cut short, otherwise no one would survive (Matt. 24:22). The rich—whose wealth is dependent on the prosperity of Jerusalem—will have trouble finding the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 10:26-28). The “salvation” of the sick and demon-possessed in Israel is a sign of the coming restoration of the people (cf. Mk. 5:34; 10:52); so too the restoration of “sinners” (Lk. 19:9). At the individual level, therefore, salvation means participation in the salvation of Israel.

Jerusalem and the diaspora

For the disciples in Jerusalem and Judea following the death of Jesus, salvation has essentially the same meaning. They call on the Jews to save themselves from a “crooked generation” that faces destruction (Acts 2:40). Peter tells the “Rulers of the people and elders” and “all the people of Israel” that the stone rejected by the leadership in Jerusalem has become the cornerstone of Israel’s salvation: “there is no other name under heaven given among men” by which we Jews must be saved (Acts 4:8-12). Paul will later put the same argument before the Jews of the diaspora: God has brought a saviour for Israel from the family of David, but if as a people they spurn the offer of forgiveness, they will incur the destructive wrath of God (Acts 13:23, 38-41). In the end, of course, the Jews for the most part “judge themselves unworthy” of the life of the age to come—the age that will come after the collapse of Second Temple Judaism—and salvation is extended instead to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47; 28:28; cf. Rom. 11:11; 1 Thess. 2:16).

The salvation of Gentiles

For Gentiles salvation meant escape from a world under judgment and inclusion in the restored and righteous people of God. The Philippian jailor asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), not because he is keen to go to heaven, but because he has seen in the earthquake the power of the God who will overthrow the superstitions and customs of the Romans (16:21). The Jews, on the one hand, and the “Greeks”, on the other, were perishing, but the “saints” were being saved through the power of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). The salvation of Gentiles by grace, through faith, meant departure from a world subject to wrath, incorporation into the covenant people, and reconciliation with God—made possible by the fact that Christ’s death had “broken down… the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:1-3, 8, 13-14).

A climactic day of salvation

The church in the pagan world, however, also faced a day of turmoil and persecution, when the communities built on the foundation of Jesus Christ would be severely tested (1 Cor. 3:12-15), a day of intense opposition when they would need to put on the “helmet” of the hope of a future salvation that was assured for them (Eph. 6:17; 1 Thess. 5:8-9). As for the community of Jesus’ disciples, salvation was the moment when the suffering would be brought to an end and those who put their faith in Jesus would be vindicated (Rom. 13:11). Churches enduring persecution would have to work out their own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 1:29-30; 2:12), confident that a saviour would eventually come to transform their wretched bodily existence (3:20-21). Salvation is the climactic eschatological moment when pagan Rome is finally overthrown and the martyrs stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-14; 12:10; 19:1).

Salvation today

In the New Testament salvation is what happens to the people of God under particular historical conditions. We have moved beyond the climactic historical moment, but the argument about salvation may be restated. The people of God may still at times need to be saved from its own folly or from its enemies. It is still made up of individuals who have been called to leave darkness and become part of a people that should be a light to the nations. And we still have the overarching hope that the God who has made us a people for his own possession will ultimately make new all things.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” -Paul

What a Savior Jesus Christ is! What a Redeemer!


I presume that this reference to 1 Timothy 1:15-17 was inserted as a correction or contradiction of the narrative argument about salvation.

It’s possible that Paul here is simply affirming a gospel of personal salvation, that he accordingly confesses that he is a sinner and expresses his conviction that he has received mercy and now has the assurance of “eternal life”.

However, I would point out that he sets this in the context of his autobiography, in which he figures as a prominent “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of the church—and therefore a “foremost” instance of Israel’s national sinfulness and defiance of YHWH.

Paul is certainly conscious of the fact that he has personally been “saved” from a way of life in Israel that could only end in destruction. I would suggest that this passage illustrates my point that in the New Testament narrative both judgment and salvation for individual Jews and Gentiles are determined by the story of what God is doing to transform the status of his people in the ancient world.

@Andrew Perriman:

“It’s possible that Paul here is simply affirming a gospel of personal salvation, that he accordingly confesses that he is a sinner and expresses his conviction that he has received mercy and now has the assurance of “eternal life”.”

I believe that is exactly what Paul is thinking. As he said to the saints in Ephesus that we are all children of wrath including himself, and blinded by the prince of this world. “But God….”


Jesus has His sheep, and other sheep, and so there will be one flock that our Good Shepherd tends and feeds, and even dies for. And there are the goats as well.


Have a joyous day in your salvation, which is eternal life, which is Jesus Christ. John 17:1-3

@Andrew Perriman:

What are your thoughts on Titus 2:11-14 where Paul speaks of “salvation for all men”, with instruction for “the present age” but also “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” who gave himself for us to “purify for Himself a people for His own possession”? I don’t see this solely in a limited or exclusive historical setting confined to only either Jews or Gentiles (the people for His own possession includes both of them because that wall of seperation is gone - and moving forward Paul uses that as the granted truth). This is the hope of all believers, and is something Paul wanted Titus to continue to preach. This salvation is offered to all people, and it is not simply some salvation from physical destruction (i.e. 70 A.D.) - though I don’t deny the limited sense of salvation as such in certain contexts - but is primarily an inward spiritual salvation (which I have yet to see mentioned). The importance of regeneration and being born again must be emphasized (and Jesus told Nicodemus about that on a personal, individual level). So when considering salvation in the “context of the Gospels”, as you put it, and yet failing to consider the individual salvation of men is a major oversight. You should make mention of that.

Returning to what Paul said in Titus, he puts it this way in the next chapter: “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” (Titus 3:5). Why do you never seem (I say ‘seem’) to consider the spiritual efficacy and individual working of the Holy Spirit and only look at how it affects such & such a people or nation? You have to see the trees that make up the forest. And the message of the individual “circumcision of the heart” was not for Israel only.

Let’s also not forget that the Body is not uniform either in its gifts and callings. Not many were apostles (like Paul), not all were prophets, or teachers, or could speak in tongues. Diversities working among individual of the Body are given by the Spirit who works corporately and individually. We were all baptized into one Body by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). The individual components have callings as well.

I appreciate that God has called a people, and even preserved a remnant when the greater “people” was unfaithful, but we do have salvation offered individually to us who (though they have not yet attained it) press forward toward the mark and persevere to “lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12). Paul said that he counted all things rubbish “so that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). That is a personal gaining of Christ, and Paul says that he seeks it that he may have Christ’s righteousness “on the basis of faith” (his exercised faith), but also not forgetting that attaining to the salvation promised us is not a free ride and we must also experience the “fellowship of his sufferings” and be “conformed to His death”. The thing is, I don’t see how you can possibly focus on the importance of this if only corporate election and salvation is in view in Scripture.

I regret if I have taken what may seem like a harsh tone in trying to make this point, but I am a bit confounded at how much you focus on the corporate calling and historical contexts only (having already made your point quite well - why brood on it?) to the seeming neglect (omission?) or even denial that individual salvation and calling is possible. We must face that there are verses that deal with both corporate and individual contexts for salvation, but one should not be ignored in favor of ther other. A balanced systematic view should be reached of the overarching themes of corporate election, but also how individual election and calling comes into play (2 Peter 1:10).

Most New Testament theology books I have read deal with both, whereas I find it difficult to find much on how all this applies to individuals in your articles (but perhaps I am looking in the wrong places). I would be delighted and honored by your response - because I am sure you have considered these matters before even if I have not seen them written in your articles.

God Bless. 

Read time: 4 minutes