The semantics of “saved.”

This will be the first part of a multiblog on the subject of salvation. In this first post, I discuss how the word saved has drifted, often, from its biblical definition and usage.

There has been much discussion around the water cooler over the spoken word “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video/phenomena. [I blogged about it here] One of the most raised issues of the video is the usage of, and what exactly is meant by the word religion. Christians and non-Christians have different ideas of what religion means. Even Christians disagree over how religion should be defined and used.

Many Christians agree that the disagreement is over semantics. Semantics is the science of meaning in language, particularly how words and phrases change meanings. A good example is the word gay. During the earlier part of last century, the word gay was used to describe a euphoric feeling of happiness. At some point, the word came to describe a sexual orientation. (Even now, gay is morphing into meaning that something/someone is boorish or unexciting, the opposite of its original meaning.)

All discussion over the semantics of religion made me think long and hard about another word that is regularly used in Christian circles, and how it has changed usage and meaning over the years. Unlike the word religion, an improper understanding and grasp of this word is an eternal life and death matter.

That word is saved.

How many times have we heard things like:

“She got saved last night.”

“Jesus saves.”

“You need to get saved!”

“Are you saved?”

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

“I was saved when I was five years old.”

“Once saved, always saved.”

Saved, and its many forms, is a very biblical word. It comes from the Greek word sōzō which, in its simplest form, means to “rescue something/someone from destruction or perishing.” (Go here to see saved/sōzō used in the Book of Acts.) The word is found nearly a hundred times in the New Testament.

When we read that Jesus came to “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), we know it means Jesus came to rescue perishing souls. In the Gospels, the picture painted is one of a caring Shepherd braving the wilderness to find and rescue a lost, helpless, and exposed lamb (Luke 15:4). The picture is of the amazing act of love God did for mankind (John 3:16-17). The concept of salvation is explicitly Godward.

In the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters, the word saved and the concept of salvation is also Godward. Again, the picture is of humanity being in a dire situation that only God can save them from. How did he accomplish this? By sending his Son to fulfill the mission (Romans 5:9-10) he had purposed from eternity past (2 Timothy 1:9).

The greater issue is not that God sent his Son to die for us, but that God sent his Son to die for God’s glory, to demonstrate his love, to appease the law’s demand for justice, and to secure reconciliation and forgiveness. That is the sense that one gets concerning salvation when one reads the Bible. Over against this backdrop, when Peter pleaded for the Jews to “be saved” multiple times in Acts chs. 2-4, they understood with great awe, urgency, and brokeness that God has done something amazing when he sent Jesus to die in their place.

I’m saying all this because, if we look at the Bible, the idea of being saved carried a lot of weight and urgency. It carried a Godward grandeur. They knew what they were being saved from and why it mattered.

Contrast this with today’s concept of saved. In my experience, saved, being saved, or has been saved all fall into the realm of those words and phrases that have lost their meaning and urgency. Sadly, saved equals a walk down an aisle, a prayer prayed, and a decision made. That’s it. Rarely does it carry with it the concept of joy and mourning that the Shepherd has found his lost sheep. Joy because he’s found unharmed and carried to safety, mourning because it killed the Good Shepherd in the process.

I can’t count the times someone has “gotten saved” only to have them fall away later on, showing their conversion to be a sham (Hebrews 10:39). You’d perhaps be surprised to find out that emotional manipulation, tears, guilt, aisle-walking, prayer-praying, card-signing, getting baptized, church-joining, and hoopin’-n-hollerin’ are never given as assurances of salvation in the Scriptures. One would think it was in the Book as widely accepted as these practices are today.

But, we place so much stock in these things. It’s all too common for someone to walk the aisle, pray a prayer, join a church. . . and their lives remain unchanged. Is it any wonder a curious and critical world looks at this and equates being saved with a mere claim, and possibly a little church-going peppered in for good measure?

It’s issues like these that have caused me to be more careful about how I use the word and concept of saved. I would never doubt the sincerity of anyone who says they have been saved. Sincerity isn’t the issue. The issue is how the word saved has come to mean something other than the biblical concept.

Next Time:  Part II

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