Salvation in the Bible
The Christian concept of salvation is not directly addressed in the Hebrew Bible, but the story of the Jewish people does prepare for the arrival of Christ. Several of the books of the Old Testament bear witness to the divine pedagogy of Christ's saving love. This is most evident in the four so-called “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah (42:1–4, 49:1–7, 50:4–11, and 52:13– 53:12) described in Chapter 9. Collectively these passages speak of one who willingly suffers for others. The servant, understood by some Scripture scholars as a prefigurement of Christ, does not turn back from adversity but rather bravely endures whatever comes for the sake of the people.
It is important to understand that God's desire for human salvation was a free gift, yet it required men and women to respond positively to the invitation of the Lord. The consistent message of the prophets, that God desired the people to be his own, was often rejected, leading to the destruction of Israel in the north, and the infamous Babylonian exile of Judah in the south.
The mystery of salvation is also presented in the Hebrew Bible in a hidden way. It is manifested most clearly in various demonstrations of God's care for his people. Salvation history is a litany of events where God comes to his people in overt ways. God created the world and gave humanity the ability to subdue it, but through the fall men and women turned away from God, choosing the enticements of evil. Yet even the overt sinfulness of the world could not keep God from saving Noah and his family. The call of Abram (later Abraham) to be the father of a great nation was a seemingly impossible proposition due to his and his wife Sarah's ages. However, God overcomes all obstacles to show care for his people. When the Israelites cried out in Egypt, God sent Moses to rescue the people and lead them through the desert to the Promised Land. God provided judges, kings, and numerous prophets, all as signs that God was ever present to his chosen people and desired them to be saved, both from the evils of the world and even the misdeeds of the people themselves.
The concept of salvation in the New Testament is centered on the person of Jesus. The Gospel evangelists provide significant evidence that while Jesus came to teach, inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth, and, from the perspective of Catholicism, to initiate the church, the principal reason for the Incarnation was to bring salvation, the gift lost through the collective sin of Adam and Eve, to humanity. The centrality of Jesus as the source of salvation is made especially clear in John 14:6: “Jesus said to him [Thomas], ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John portrays his followers as lost without Jesus. John 6:68–69 reads, “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’” Written at least one generation after the Synoptic Gospels, and assuming its readers are familiar with much of the basic story of Jesus, John's Gospel is more theological. The absolute need to make Jesus an integral part of one's life is made most explicit in this text.
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) This highly theological verse associates the Eucharist with salvation.
Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels also clearly portray Jesus as the central figure for human salvation. The baptism formula of Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” demonstrates that membership in the community of believers is found through the Trinity, including Jesus.
Jesus' claim that he has the power to forgive sin clearly associates his ministry among the people with salvation. An example is found in the story of Jesus' cure of a paralytic in Capernaum (Mark 2:1–12). The story concludes with Jesus saying, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — he said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, stand up, take up your mat and go to your home.’”
The principal concept of salvation found throughout the Gospels is atonement, the idea that Jesus' death was part of God's plan through salvation history as the only possible recompense for the sin of Adam. For the Synoptic writers the apex of Jesus' salvific action comes through the Resurrection. The Lord's conquest of physical death is the foretaste of Jesus' action to raise humanity to eternal life at the final judgment. John, on the other hand, uses the cross itself and Jesus' death as the event that brings salvation. For John, Jesus, in a very real way, reigns as king from the cross; this instrument of torture becomes for him a royal throne.
Romans 10:9–10 provides possibly Paul's best example of how Jesus is central to salvation: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth, and so is saved.”
Beyond the Gospel evangelists, St. Paul has the most significant understanding of Jesus as a central figure of salvation. As described in Chapter 12, Romans Chapter 5 is central to Paul's understanding of how Jesus was the antidote to the sin of Adam. Romans 5:18 reads, “Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Paul also describes how the promise of Christ will be manifested in humanity's great victory and reward. In I Corinthians 2:9 he writes, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Thus, Paul not only speaks of Jesus' central role in salvation, but also provides some insight into how that eternal life will be lived.