Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
In part 1, we considered the use of sōtēria and sōzō in Philippians, James, and Romans. In the second and final installment, we will consider the uses of sōtēria in the Thessalonian Epistles and in Hebrews.
II. THREE USES OF SŌTĒRIA IN 1-2 THESSALONIANS: DELIVERANCE FROM THE TRIBULATION VIA THE RAPTURE
Paul’s two letters to the believers in Thessalonica give more details about the Rapture than any other books in the NT. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the three uses of sōtēria in the Thessalonian epistles all refer to escaping the Tribulation wrath via the Rapture.
1 Thessalonians 5:8. Paul’s first use of sōtēria is in the section of 1 Thessalonians that deals extensively with the Rapture (1 Thess 4:13–5:11). In 1 Thess 5:8, Paul writes, “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.” Believers are “of the day” in our position. Paul is urging believers to live in keeping with their position. He uses his famous triad of faith, hope, and love.
In what sense is “the hope of salvation” a helmet? In the context of 1 Thess 4:13–5:11, the soon anticipated deliverance/salvation is the Rapture (cf. 4:16-18; 5:3-4). Believers already have everlasting life as a present possession (John 5:24). We are eagerly awaiting the Rapture and the return of Christ. As Constable notes,
The salvation they look forward to is deliverance from the wrath to come when the Lord returns, as is clear from the context. It is not a wishful longing that someday they might be saved eternally. Such a thought is entirely foreign to the New Testament. Followers of Christ have a sure hope; they are not as others who have no hope.1
Green takes the same view:
The hope they enjoyed is specifically linked with their future salvation (cf. Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; Rom. 5:9–10; 1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Tim. 4:18), which here, as in Romans 5:9–10, is deliverance from the wrath of God, as the following verse shows. The hope of salvation is not a vague expectation but rather the settled assurance of future deliverance (see 1:10; Rom. 8:24).2
This understanding is confirmed by the use of sōtēria in the very next verse.
1 Thessalonians 5:9. Verse 9 begins with an explanatory gar (for): “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation [sōtēria] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The wrath in context is the Tribulation. The way in which believers will obtain salvation from the Tribulation is by means of the Rapture.
Green comments, “the present concern is with deliverance from the divine chastisement that will come upon those who rebel against God’s way…The Lord is the one who will deliver believers from the coming wrath (1:10 and commentary).”3 Constable adds, “The wrath of God referred to here clearly refers to the Tribulation; the context makes this apparent. Deliverance from that wrath is God’s appointment for believers…through the Lord Jesus Christ.”4
God did not appoint church age believers to go through the wrath that is the Tribulation. He appointed us to escape it via the Rapture.
2 Thessalonians 2:13. After the Rapture occurs, “God will send them a strong delusion, that they should believe the lie” (2 Thess 2:11). Paul then says that he is “bound to give thanks to God always for you” because “God from the beginning chose you for salvation [sōtēria] through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess 2:13). While those who believe in the Calvinist view of election typically interpret this to be a reference to election to everlasting life,5 the context does not support such an interpretation. The church age believer has been chosen by God to be saved from the Tribulation via the Rapture. Compare 1 Thess 5:9.
The end of v 13 needs some comment. Why is this selection for salvation “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”? Paul is giving the divine and human aspects of our selection to be raptured. The word sanctification refers to being set apart. The Holy Spirit positionally sets the believer apart. This is sometimes called past sanctification. That past sanctification occurs at the moment that a person has “belief in the truth” concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.6
The three uses of sōtēria in 1-2 Thessalonians refer to being delivered from the Tribulation via the Rapture.
III. SEVEN USES OF SŌTĒRIA IN HEBREWS: BECOMING ONE OF CHRIST’S PARTNERS IN THE LIFE TO COME
As is true of nearly every book in the Bible, one’s perception of the purpose of Hebrews is vital to interpret it correctly. And that certainly is true of interpreting the word sōtēria in Hebrews.
Hebrews 1:14. Being the first use of sōtēria in Hebrews, this reference is especially important. The author says that angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation.” This salvation is typically understood as final salvation or the completion of our salvation when we are glorified. Ellingworth says regarding sōtēria in 1:14, “The term is never explained (cf. 2:3) and must be considered traditional.”7
The salvation here spoken of lies in the future; it is yet to be inherited, even if its blessings can already be enjoyed in anticipation. That is to say, it is that eschatological salvation which, in Paul’s words, is “nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11) or, in Peter’s words, is “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5).8
Rayburn adds, “Throughout Hebrews salvation is viewed in terms of its future consummation. Its present dimensions are not emphasized, since they are not immediately relevant to the author’s purpose, which is to call his readers to that persevering faith which alone obtains entrance to the heavenly country (10:35-39).”9
However, there are contextual clues that this future sōtēria refers to being Christ’s partners (metochoi) in the life to come. As Tanner writes,
By salvation, our author is thinking not of our Lord’s saving work on the Cross, but a future salvation associated with His Second Coming (emphasized in chap. 1). This is quite clear in light of his use of “salvation” in 9:28, as well as his explicit mention in 2:5 of “the world to come.”10
Tanner made clear in his comments on Heb 1:9 that he considers this future salvation to refer to being one of Christ’s companions in the life to come.11
The word metochoi (1:9) is translated partners in Luke 5:7. It is used in Heb 3:14 in an eschatological sense: “For we have become partakers [metochoi] of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence to the end.” To be Christ’s partner in the life to come, one must hold fast to the end of his life (cf. 1 Cor 15:2; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26). Everlasting life is secure the moment one believes in Christ (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:35; 11:26). But future partnership with Christ requires endurance (cf. 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26).
Angels are not sent out by God to help all believers. He sends them out to help believers who are walking in fellowship, those who are Christ’s partners and will remain so forever if they hold fast in their Christian experience.
Hebrews 2:3. This second use of sōtēria in Hebrews helps explain the first. It is within the first warning passage in Heb (2:1-4). The author asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation…?” The salvation (sōtēria) of which he is speaking is the same as that in Heb 1:14.
Since most commentators understand the salvation in Heb 1:14 to refer to entering Christ’s eschatological kingdom, they also understand sōtēria here in that way. Ellingworth says, “the message about Christ is an event which brings salvation to those who believe.”12 Bruce writes,
But the great salvation proclaimed in the gospel was brought to earth by no angel, but by the Son of God himself. To treat it lightly, therefore, must expose one to sanctions even more awful than those which safeguarded the law…This is the first of several places in the epistle where an inference is drawn a fortiori from law to gospel.13
However, the first-person plural shows that the author is speaking to believers about something bad that could happen to them if they continue to “drift away” (2:1). While believers cannot lose everlasting life (Heb 10:10, 14), they can lose the opportunity to be Christ’s partners, co-rulers, in the life to come (Heb 3:14).
Hebrews 2:10. In the third use of sōtēria in Hebrews, Jesus is called, “the captain of their salvation.” He was “made perfect [or made complete] through sufferings.” The Lord Jesus was sent to suffer and then to die. He would not finish the work the Father sent Him to do until He died on the cross. The night before the cross, He said, “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose, I came to this hour” (John 12:27).
Many commentators understand the author to be saying that Jesus is our Savior. Bruce, for example, writes, “He is the Savior who blazed the trail of salvation…As His people’s representative and forerunner He has now entered into the presence of God to secure their entry there.”14
However, the text says that He is “the captain of [the] salvation” of all believers who follow Him on the path of suffering (cf. Matt 16:24-28; Heb 5:9). Only by following Him on that path will we become His partners in the life to come. This is not a promise to all believers.
It should be noted that He is leading believers who follow Him “to glory.” In Hebrews and in this context, future glory is reserved only for enduring believers. Christ’s partners will share in His rule and in His glory. Tanner comments,
The word glory recalls Psalm 8 again (see Heb 2:7) and how Christ experienced glory in resurrection and exaltation. To bring many sons to glory looks at God’s plan for believers also to share in glory, as Christ Himself did after successfully completing His earthly pilgrimage. Because of their faith in Him, they will eventually receive the glory of resurrection and (if they do not neglect the “so great a salvation”) a sharing in the glorious reign and dominion of the Son. The latter privilege is conditional in light of 2:1–4 (cf. 4:1ff).15
Hebrews 5:9. This is the fourth use of sōtēria in Hebrews and the first use since Heb 2:10. The author, speaking of Jesus, says, “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him…” To refer to Him as “the author of eternal salvation” is similar to the previous reference to Him as “the captain of their salvation.” As with chap 2, the author indicates that He will give this salvation only to those “who obey Him.”
This is the only use of the expression eternal salvation in the entire NT.16 And it is conditioned not upon faith, but upon obedience.
Hughes says, without explanation, “Here again, then, they are being reminded, as previously they have more forcefully been reminded (cf. 2:3; 3:12ff.; 4:11), that this great salvation belongs only to those who persevere in obedience to Christ.”17 Bruce takes the same view, once again without an explanation as to how this harmonizes with salvation by faith alone in over a hundred NT verses.18 He does note, however, that the author is linking the obedience of Christ in Heb 5:8 to the obedience of those to whom He will give eternal salvation.19
Once it is recognized that this salvation is obtained by obedience and not by faith, it should be obvious that this salvation does not refer to regeneration and escaping eternal condemnation since that is conditioned upon faith alone, not obedience.
Tanner gives four reasons why “eternal salvation in this verse does not refer to redemption from sin based on Christ’s atonement”:
First, of seven occurrences of “salvation” in Hebrews… not once does it clearly mean salvation from sin…Second, Christ’s experience in 5:7-8 is meant to parallel that of believers…Third, the context has not been talking about a sinner’s need for salvation from sin…Fourth, the obedience mentioned in 5:9 must be seen in light of the preceding verse. The word “obey” in v 9 (from hupakouō) is clearly associated with the word “obedience” in v 8 (from the related noun, hupokoē).20
Tanner goes on to suggest that this eternal salvation refers to “shar[ing] in Christ’s inheritance and reign[ing] with Him.”21
Hodges agrees, writing,
[This eternal salvation] should not be confused with the acquisition of eternal life which is conditioned not on obedience but on faith (cf. John 3:16, etc.). Once again, the author had in mind final deliverance from and victory over all enemies and the consequent enjoyment of the “glory” of the many sons and daughters. This kind of salvation is explicitly contingent on obedience and indeed on an obedience modeled after that of Jesus who also suffered.22
Hebrews 6:9. After giving the third warning (Heb 5:11–6:8), the author then says in this fifth use of sōtēria that he is confident the readers will not fall away, but that they would do well concerning “things that accompany salvation.” The things which the author is confident they will continue to do are the good works that flow from the Word of God when a believer receives it (Heb 6:7).
The salvation of which the author speaks is once again often seen as referring to regeneration. Bruce writes, “the fruits of righteousness had beyond all question manifested themselves in their lives. Those fruits, being the natural concomitants of salvation, bore witness that the people in whom they appeared were genuine heirs of salvation.”23 Koester agrees: “The sharpness of the reproof in 5:11–6:3 and of the warning in 6:4-8 does not mean that the author has lost hope for the listeners. His words are designed to motivate listeners to persevere, not to drive them to despair of God.”24 In his view only those who persevere will enter Christ’s kingdom.25
However, there is nothing in 6:4-8 that implies that the eternal destiny of anyone who fails to persevere is being threatened. The warning, like all the warnings in Hebrews, concerns temporal judgment and the possibility of missing out on ruling with Christ in the life to come. The illustration of Heb 6:7-8 is that we burn the worthless overgrowth of fields. The field represents the believer. His worthless overgrowth represents works that are burned. But the field remains. There is no reason to see salvation in Heb 6:9 as anything other than what it has been in the whole book thus far, that is, becoming Christ’s partners in the life to come.26
Hebrews 9:28. In his sixth use of sōtēria, the author says that Christ “was offered once to bear the sins of many” during His first coming. Then when he refers to Christ’s Second Coming, he brings in the theme of future salvation for faithful believers: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.”
Bruce represents most commentators who see this future salvation as entering Christ’s kingdom: “So, our author thinks of Jesus as going into the heavenly holy of holies, to reappear one day in order to confirm finally to his people the salvation which his perfect offering has procured for them.”27 A bit later he makes clear that he interprets salvation in Hebrews to require perseverance: “All the blessings which he [Jesus] won for his people at his first appearing will be theirs to enjoy in perpetual fulness at his second appearing. Therefore, let them not grow faint and weary but persevere in patience and faith.”28
Not all believers will receive this future salvation. It is only “those who eagerly wait for Him.” Compare 2 Tim 4:8 in which Paul says that the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give “the crown of righteousness” to him “on that Day [the Judgment Seat of Christ], and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” The salvation of Heb 9:28 is the same as it has been in the entire letter. It is Christ’s future selection of those who will be His partners in His kingdom.
Deftly the author implied that “those who are waiting for Him” constitute a smaller circle than those whom His death has benefited. They are, as all his previous exhortations reveal, the ones who “hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (3:14). The “salvation” He will bring them at His second coming will be the “eternal inheritance” of which they are heirs (cf. 9:15; 1:14).29
Hebrews 11:7. This seventh and final use of sōtēria is a bit of an outlier. The author says, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” The salvation here refers to the physical salvation of Noah and his family from death in the flood.
Ellingworth represents the view of most commentators regarding salvation in Hebrews in general and Heb 11:7 in particular:
Elsewhere in Hebrews (cf. 1:14; 2:3, 10; 5:9) the reference is to eternal salvation, connected as here with obedience in 6:9; 9:28; only here is there reference to a temporal escape from drowning, and even here the wider implications are perhaps not entirely absent, since Noah’s rescue from the flood is an essential link in God’s purpose for his people.30
Hodges ties his understanding of Heb 11:7 to his understanding that salvation in the entire letter refers to becoming Christ’s partners in the life to come:
That God does reward those who seek Him is suggested by the career of Noah, who became an heir of righteousness by faith. What he inherited was, in fact, the new world after the Flood as the readers might inherit “the world to come” (cf. 2:5). The reference here to Noah saving his household recalls the writer’s stress on a Christian’s salvation-inheritance. It further suggests that a man’s personal faith can be fruitful in his family, as they share it together.31
Except for the one reference to deliverance from death in Heb 11:7, all the uses of sōtēria in Hebrews refer to being Christ’s partners in the life to come. And, as Hodges suggests, even that reference may allude to ruling with Christ in the world to come. That privilege will not be for all believers, but only for those who endure to the end of their Christian lives in faith and good works.
Doing word studies is a vital aspect of hermeneutics. We cannot understand the Bible correctly unless we understand the meaning of key Biblical terms. That is certainly true of the words sōtēria and sōzō. Often new or untaught believers routinely understand the words salvation and save to refer to escaping eternal condemnation. That results in terrible confusion.
In some books of the Bible, these words are used in precisely the same sense in all or nearly all of their uses. Once one grasps that fact, the interpretation of the books opens up. Hebrews, Romans, Philippians, James, and 1-2 Thessalonians are all examples of cases in which the authors use sōtēria and sōzō with one uniform sense (and not the sense of salvation from eternal condemnation).
The reader is urged to do this study for himself. Check out all the uses of sōtēria and sōzō in these five books and in the entire NT.
1 Thomas L. Constable, “1 Thessalonians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 706.
2 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 241.
3 Ibid., 243.
4 Constable, “1 Thessalonians,” 707.
5 E.g., Green, Thessalonians, 325-26; Constable, “1 Thessalonians,” 721.
6 Most commentators understand the salvation here as regeneration and the sanctification as referring to present sanctification. See, for example, Constable, “2 Thessalonians,” 721; Green, Thessalonians, 326; Gregory K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 226.
7 Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 133.
8 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 25.
9 Robert S. Rayburn, “Hebrews,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 1133.
10 J. Paul Tanner, “The Epistle to the Hebrews” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, vol. 2, ed. by Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 1036.
11 Ibid.: “[the OT citation in 1:9] mentions the king’s ‘companions’ (metochous), a term he later applies to believers who participate in the heavenly calling to the New Jerusalem of the New Covenant.” See also, Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 782.
12 Ellingworth, Hebrews, 141.
13 Bruce, Hebrews, 29.
14 Bruce, Hebrews, 43.
15 Tanner, “Hebrews,” 1039.
16 It is found once in the OT in Isa 45:17. There it refers to the future reign of the Messiah and of Israel over all the countries of the world.
17 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 188.
18 Bruce, Hebrews, 105-106.
20 Tanner, “Hebrews,” 1050.
22 Hodges, “Hebrews,” 792.
23 Bruce, Hebrews, 126.
24 Craig R. Koester, Hebrews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 316.
25 Koester’s discussion of 3:14 as well as 6:11-12 confirms that he understands the author of Hebrews to be saying that only those who persevere in the faith will enter Christ’s kingdom.
26 See J. Paul Tanner, “But If It Yields Thorns and Thistles: An Exposition of Hebrews 5:11-6:12,” JOTGES (Spring 2001): 19-42.
27 Bruce, Hebrews, 224.
29 Hodges, “Hebrews,” 803.
30 Ellingworth, Hebrews, 579.
31 Hodges, “Hebrews,” 808.