Category Archives: Soteriology

What it Means to be Saved

A look at the important religious word saved from a historical literary perspective.

Saved in the English contemporary language has many nuances and evokes powerful emotions. In evangelical circles, this word is the basis for religious conversion. It is a required act to get into heaven while others see it as an archaic and outdated term that religious people fervently force on contemporary society. Many more have taken religion right out of the definition and use it for referring to the saving of data.

There are many accounts of the word saved throughout the New Testament. In this case, I have restricted the word saved as it relates to when Jesus often said, “Your faith has made you well.” The word saved doesn’t seem apparent here, but it exists in the original Greek. The Greek here, σέσωκέν sesōken can mean saved or made well. This difference between selecting made well and saved by the translator shows that the meaning has a much wider semantic range than supposed and begs a re-evaluation. What did the Greek verb, σῴζω sōzō, historically mean to the ancient writers and how can we apply it today?

Sōzō is a core religious word for the Evangelical religious system. This makes the study even more interesting.

The phrase “Your faith has made you well” is an idiom and found in a number of places:

  • Mark 5:34, Matthew 9:22 and Luke 8:48 which recounts the story of a woman suffering years of persistent blood loss
  • Luke 18:42 is about Jesus healing a man of blindness
  • Luke 17:19 narrates His healing a man with leprosy
  • Luke 7:50 tells about Jesus who absolved a woman of her sins and thus freed her mind from shame.

The Greek phrase for this idiom is: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε which is unchanged in every place it is found. The English translations vary and prompts one to understand how saved fits within this context.

Since all these passages above have a similar connection, I randomly chose two to look at for doing a comparative historical literary analysis. Here is a sampling of the important English translations and the Greek, Latin and Syriac source works of Mark 5:34 and Luke 7:50.

Mark 5:34:

  • The 14th century Wycliffe version, “thi feith hath maad thee saaf”1
  • Tyndale Bible: “thy fayth hath made the whoale.”2
  • The 1611 King James: “thy faith hath made thee whole”3
  • The New King James Version and the New American Standard: “Your faith has made you well.”
  • Douay-Rheims (English translation for a Catholic audience): “thy faith hath made thee whole.”
  • New International Version: “your faith has healed you”
  • The Greek: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε4
  • Latin: “fides tua te salvam fecit”5
  • and the Syriac:* ܗܰܝܡܳܢܽܘܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ ܐܰܚܝܰܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ

Luke 7:50:

  • The Wycliffe version: “Thi feith hath maad thee saaf.”6
  • Tyndale Bible: “ Thy faith hath saved thee.”7
  • The 1611 King James Version: “Thy faith hath saued thee.”8
  • The New King James Version, the New American Standard, and the New International Version: “Your faith has saved you.”
  • Douay-Rheims “Thy faith hath made thee safe.”
  • The Greek: Ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε9
  • Latin: “fides tua te salvam fecit”10
  • and the Syriac:* ܗܰܝܡܳܢܽܘܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ ܐܰܚܝܰܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ

The statements are almost identical in both passages. The circumstances prompting this phrase are different.

The traditional Protestant English mind immediately connects the word saved with this passage as momentary but necessary ritualized confession. However, it does not take into account that this may be shaped by centuries of English Bible literary tradition. It may not exist with the same understanding in earlier times or different Church traditions.

The first result of this investigation reveals that the idea of saved was not present in the 14th century Wycliffe version, which is the oldest English Bible. This Bible concentrated on the word saaf instead, which means the person is safe and secure from any spiritual or physical harm.

The earliest that the actual word saved can be found in Luke 7:50 is in the Tyndale Bible printed in 1525. The Tyndale version used whoale (whole) for Mark 5:34. The Geneva Bible in 1587 and the King James in 1611 followed the tradition set by Tyndale while the Bishop’s Bible in 1568 used saved for both. Tyndale’s Bible is the standard by which all English Bibles have followed. The use of well for Mark 5:34 and saved for Luke 7:50 became entrenched. English Bibles have maintained this tradition since then.

It is funny how both the Mark and Luke passages are the same in the Greek, but English translation tradition brings them on separate paths.

What did earlier works have?

The Greek keyword for saved in Luke 7:50 and Mark 5:34 is σέσωκέν, which comes from σῴζω, sôzô is described by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as:

  • to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
  • to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
  • to save in the technical biblical sense
  • to deliver from the penalties of the Messianic judgment
  • to save from the evils which obstruct the reception of the Messianic deliverance.11

The definition above demonstrates that sôzô has a wide semantic range. It is not simply for the world to come, but also has a present meaning.

The Latin gives a slightly different read with the keyword. The Latin word is salvam, which is the accusative of salvus. It is not a verb, as it is in the Greek, but rather a noun, which emphasizes a state rather than an action. The emphasis is on the external and internal condition of the person, not an act seized upon them.

Salvus, doesn’t necessarily mean saved in this context either. The meaning of salvus extends its meaning to be well, unhurt, safe, sound, or uninjured.12 So the verse can three combinations of meanings: the person is saved in the religious metaphysical sense only, made well physically or emotionally, or a combination of the two. It is hard to distinguish.

There is a tension here where the Greek and Latin texts are colliding on a crucial word. The reader may invariably think the oldest text, which is the Greek, would be the most accurate. Such an assumption is correct, but modern perceptions of how the Greeks used or understood this word may be a problem that clouds judgment. A third party must be consulted to find out where the truth is.

This is where the Syriac text comes in and gives a very powerful clue.

It is found in the Syriac version of Luke 7:50. The important piece is found in how they translated the Greek word σέσωκέν. They used ܐܰܚܝܰܬܼܶܟܼܝ܂ with the feminine pronoun singular attached at the end, which is pronounced ‘aḥyaṯeḵ(y). Its root is from the word chai, which in the ancient Hebrew vernacular, is full of religious symbolism.13

Chai means life. Although the Syriac Dictionaries gives the translator the option to use the English word saved when encountering this verb, it also suggests “given to life” or “restored to life”.14

This is the same root that was used in Genesis 2:7 “and the man became a living being,” The living part here is where the chai noun is used — an authoritative statement on the meaning and definition of man. It is the life-giving force that distinguishes between living and non-living things.

Life, according to the ancient Hebrews, is unending and cannot be eradicated. Death is considered the most powerful weakening of the life-force but cannot destroy life entirely. Illness, poverty, and environment also deprecate the ability of life to work at its fullest.

If one can extrapolate further on this subject, Jesus did not come to destroy death, but to bring life, and offer everyone its fullest capacity without hindrance. A disposition evidenced when the Apostle John quoted Christ saying, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10 NKJV)

When the woman was healed, the Syriac says that her life-force was restored to a full state. She didn’t have to worry about her physical malady anymore; it didn’t dominate her life, finances, or relationships. She learned what it meant to be alive and complete on every level.

When Christ spoke to the sinful woman in Mark 5:34, the stress is on the woman’s mental state. She was not mentally, emotionally or socially at peace and needed a cathartic episode to be whole. Unable to do it herself, Christ afforded her the opportunity.

After He spoke to each one, He then added, “go in peace”. The word for peace in the Syriac is shalom. If one uses a Hebrew dictionary to look up this word, and in this instance Marcus Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary, the root of this term means to be whole, complete, perfection, soundness, health, peace. It is a synonym with the word saved. These women had no more crushing worries. They were content — free from the forces of life and circumstances that controlled their thoughts and bodies.

The Syriac agrees with the Latin, the emphasis is not merely an action, or a prepared emotional or mental state for the world to come, it is about improvement of the overall person’s mental, physical and spiritual condition to what it ought to be, both now and in the hereafter.

The idiom refers to a practice and authority that Jesus and few others can ever achieve, but there is an application for the followers of Jesus. It means that whatever a person is lacking, Christians are to meet that particular need in an individual’s life.

If a person has a physical disability, we are to pray for a miracle. If this does not occur, we are to support people through the potential economic deprivations caused by their limitations so that they can lead a whole life.

If a person has an emotional disability, symbolized by the sinful woman, what path will lead her to a whole state? We are to provide an environment of encouragement and acceptance. In some cases, it may require financial or social assistance. Preaching the Gospel or implying repentance on someone who already feels shame increases the emotional turmoil. It may be counter-productive. They need to feel love for who they are as-is. The sense of unconditional love from others is one of the gateways for many to enter into a state of peace.

On the other hand, if God has blessed a person with perfect health and all abundance and lacked a place in eternity, we are to assist that one in becoming complete.

If someone is terminally ill and is need of spiritual direction for eternal life, bringing foodstuffs, gifts, hugs or encouragement, will not entirely satisfy his or her soul. It would be a travesty to deny any person information on how to get to heaven in such a situation.

However, one must realize that we are not God, nor have the immediate powers of Christ to call people out of wheelchairs, restore blindness, or reverse genetic problems. Being whole often requires the ability to accept the limitations imposed on us or others and necessitates to adapt to the circumstances.

We also have to be whole ourselves, content with our own identity, at peace with any physical limitations, emotional histories or difficult realities before one can encourage others to be complete.

This is a much more complicated definition to fulfill than just evangelism. It involves intensely and intentionally loving people in the little things and the big ones too. It requires commitment to others everyday lives and self-sacrifice for their betterment.

This article is restricted only to two Bible passages and cannot entirely speak for the religious meaning of the word saved in the New Testament. However, it does show that the ancient writers understood this word more comprehensively than the current definition.


References to the Syriac text can be found at

See also Evangelicals on the Problem of Being Saved.

Evangelicals on the Problem of Being Saved

What does it mean to be saved? It depends on who you ask.

In general, the modern definition of saved according to many contemporary Evangelical Churches is a defined spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. How this relationship begins and the nuances that publicly confirm such a declaration varies slightly between denominations. The rudiments consist of an acknowledgment of one’s shame, the inability to correct one’s behavior, the need for divine intervention, and the promise of a changed life.

Evangelicals believe the only route for a divine intervention is through the mediation of Jesus Christ who substitutes Himself as both the sufferer and the redeemer on each person’s behalf. This portrait of Jesus, according to Evangelical doctrine, is the only way to forge a relationship with God. However, a verbal confession is required to enact such an arrangement and a prerequisite to gain entrance into heaven. This declaration is volitionally done and verbally expressed both privately and publicly.

Normally this realization is a one-time intense emotional experience that is described as an epiphany between God and the person — a mystical union and results in catharsis. “Catharsis is an emotional discharge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress.”1 This moment is dated, qualified and publicly expressed. Other terms to describe this moment are born again or conversion.’ A clearly defined confession of this epiphany is usually necessary for full entrance into an evangelical community.

The Billy Graham Association has liked to emphasize this moment as born again and describes this state succinctly:

A born-again Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and turned to Christ for their salvation, and, as a result, has become part of God’s family forever. All this takes place as God’s Spirit works in our lives.2

This is typical of most evangelical Churches, but perhaps is an over-generality. John Stackhouse, a Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, believes being saved to be a distinctive mode of Evangelical spirituality but that the date and time of conversion are not universal within Evangelical circles. He cites that Billy Graham does not give an exact date or time of his being saved but a process.3

However, once one starts to get into the details and begin asking questions such as;

  • What is a qualified experience?
  • Is it an intellectual or psychological state?
  • What is the demarcation line between sincere and insincere penitence?
  • Does it take a crisis moment, such as a death of a family member, loss of a job, etc., as the Christian Missionary Alliance puts it, to bring on a conversion.?
  • What if a person is incompetent and cannot understand the abstract foundations of penitence, redemption, sacrifice or confession? Does their lack of intellectual capacity damn them?

These details start to unravel the unity between the various camps on the subject.

Many leaders within are beginning to question the traditional Evangelical position and have called for a re-evaluation. Brian D. McLaren, a Pastor from a Plymouth Brethren background, and one of the leaders of the growing Post-Modern Christian movement believes it is outdated:

“I think our definition of “saved” is shrunken and freeze-dried by modernity. We need a postmodern consideration of what salvation means, something beyond an individualized and consumeristic version.”4

McLaren reflects an active tension in the Church community where one is questioning or even repudiating the modern evangelical definition, but lacks a solid model to replace it.

Scot McKnight, a New Testament Professor at North Park University, takes it even further:

Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today… My own estimation is that somewhere near 75 percent of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less universalist. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions.5

The Evangelical world has been challenged internally on the definition by Rob Bell, whom some considered the replacement for Billy Graham. A review in Christianity Today accuses him of universalism and then claims that Bell’s thesis offers answers that “sabotage his own goals.”6

Salvation is intended to be the defining character of Evangelicalism, but as Cathleen Falsani, web editor and director of new media at Sojourners, has found the movement itself is very diverse. In her web article titled, Defining “Evangelical” and Other Unsolved Mysteries she asked a number of Evangelical leaders on their definition and concluded:

As you can see from the answers some of our authors have offered, “evangelical” at best has a fluid definition, depending on whether the question is asked in a cultural, religious, historical or political context — and then colored by where both the speaker and the listener situate themselves in those worlds.

Perhaps defining “evangelical” is a bit like trying to define (definitively) what pornography is. To paraphrase former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 Court opinion, I shall not today attempt further to define it, but I know it when I see it.

The best answer I’ve heard lately to the question, “What is an Evangelical,” arrived unexpectedly at a New Year’s Eve party I attended a few weeks ago in the southern California town where I live. Not long before the clock struck 12, a mutual friend casually turned to my longtime friend (and now neighbor) Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill church in Michigan, and casually asked him what “evangelical” really means.

With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

A quote attributed to the late science fiction writer Rober A. Heinlein finds a serious weakness in the Evangelical theology of being saved, “A long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven. An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain — then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity. Is that the system?”7

It is indeed a subjective experience that cannot be qualified except through emotional fervency. One could perhaps surmise that the strength of such a definition was waning in the mid-1900’s until Billy Graham exploded on the scene.

Graham’s preaching and the Evangelical voice came in the 1960s during a radical shift in cultural thinking regarding life and personal identity.

21st-century philosophers discussed a similar parallel that Graham so strongly emphasized. Philosophers Karl Jaspers’ and Martin Heidegger promoted that to experience true existence, one must confront reality and make a decision. It did not matter if the final personal result was a grim one or a leap of faith. It was the decision that counted. It was considered the special moment that defined one as fully human. If one did not confront reality and come to that moment of decision, they would not discover their true humanity.

Karl Jaspers called this the first order experience and also final experience. Followers of Jasper were known to say, “I have had a final experience”.8

It is not surprising that many of Graham’s programs have the word decision as the key phrase in their traditional literature, such as the Decision Magazine, the radio program The Hour of Decision etc.

With the general society already conditioned that a one time intensely subjective experience is necessary for becoming being fully human, the Evangelical message of being saved nicely fit. One could argue that this evangelical conversion process is the religious alternative to the final experience.

Factions of the Catholic Church have had their own internal struggle against the contemporary definition of salvation and struggle to re-find what they believe to be their traditional one. Extremist groups within this realm, such as the St. Benedictine order, led by the late Father Feeney, have fought against Liberalist theology and modernism, by enforcing an ancient decree, “Extra Ecclesiam Nullus Omnino Salvatur”–“Outside the Church, there is no salvation for anyone” (the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215). The statement conveys that only formal members of the Catholic Church can be saved. They cite numerous Church Fathers throughout history to support their position. Father Feeney and his followers are recoiling against a modern challenge by urging allegiance to the Church and its traditions. It is a protectionist type of reaction, which does not give a precise definition of what the term saved means.9

The discussion of conversion in the annals of the Evangelical world can be traced back to the Methodist movement that struggled over the same question. Harold Roberts, the President of the World Methodist Council in the late 1950’s, stated:

“The test of the reality of conversion is to be found in a sense of forgiveness, a growing sensitiveness to sin, a conviction that all sin can finally be overcome by the power of God, an assurance that we are on the right road and that our life is in the hands of divine love, a changed relationship to our fellows revealed in social justice, the pursuit of peace, compassion, patience, humility, and absence of self-concern, and deepening allegiance to the Church as the people of God.”10

This is one of the better definitions, but it is not ironclad. How can one test that a person has changed relationships, overcome sin, has conviction etc.? The question of conversion then switches from the pronouncement of the individual’s conversion experience to confirmation by the Church authority.

Another approach can be taken from J.A. Wickham’s A synopsis of the doctrine of baptism, regeneration, conversion, etc.11 He argues that the historic Church taught and believed conversion and regeneration were represented in baptism. Baptism and being saved are synonyms. Either one is baptized or not. Whickham’s approach takes away the subjective nuances of conversion. There are weaknesses in this argument, but it is compelling.

These are a few of the problems that modern Evangelicals face today in defining the core of their belief system. However, none, except for J.A. Wickham, offers a satisfactory and a non-subjective alternative.

The next article on this subject looks into the earliest role of faith in the Christian message. It is an analysis of two key phrases found in the Books of Mark, and Luke. What it means to be Saved.