After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”–Revelation 7:9-10 (NIV)
Martin Luther is reputed to have said that we read the Bible forwards, but we understand the Bible backwards. That is, the whole canon only makes complete sense in the light of the great ultimate revelation of the new creation in its final book. Accordingly, it seems appropriate in our exploration of the great biblical theme of salvation to start at the end with the climactic statement quoted above. The doxology sung by the whole of redeemed humanity condenses into a few pregnant phrases the whole biblical doctrine of salvation and will serve admirably as a programmatic text for our survey.
- Salvation Is the Property of God: “Salvation belongs to…God.”
This is the theocentric dimension of biblical salvation. The categorical affirmation that salvation is the property of God excludes human initiation or achievement by any means, including religion.
The form of the words in the doxology is very Hebraic: literally, “to our God is salvation.” It is the same structure for expressing a possessive relationship as the opening words of Psalm 24, “To Yahweh the earth and all its fullness”—that is, the earth belongs to Yahweh; it is his property. Similarly then, salvation is a reality that belongs to God, not to us.
Salvation, as biblically understood, is not at human disposal or a matter of human achievement. We do not own it, or control it. We cannot dispense it to others, still less sell it or offer it on our terms. We cannot destroy or threaten it for those to whom God has granted it, nor can we decide who gets to have it, or not. Salvation belongs to God, initiated by his grace, achieved by his power, offered on his terms, secured by his promises, guaranteed by his sovereignty. God is the subject of the act of saving us. He is not the object of our attempts to gain salvation. Salvation is the result of no action of ours other than that of asking and accepting it from God.
In the Bible there are, of course, many instances when salvation comes through human agency, but even then the source of the power to save still lies with God. The judges all illustrate this principle. Gideon is told to go and deliver Israel—he would be the deliverer, but only because God would be with him (Judg. 6:14- 15). But when he assembles his army, it is systematically decimated before he can begin his campaign, explicitly to ensure that God is seen to be the true source of the victory, not the size of the army (Judg. 7:2, 7; contrast the ironic refusal of God to save them in Judg. 10:11-14). Similarly, David’s victory over Goliath shows the world who really is the God with power to save (1 Sam. 17:47).
Only Yahweh, then, can save. This is the message especially of the prophets. Yahweh saves when nobody else can or does (Isa. 59:15-17). Astrologers cannot save (Isa. 47:13-14). Kings, mere mortals that they are, cannot save (Psa. 146:3). Military power cannot save (Psa. 33:16- 17). And other gods are most commonly characterized as contemptibly unable to save (Isa. 43:11-13; 45:20- 21). So salvation is clearly not something you can “get” from religion considered as a set of human activities or aspirations. The very question sometimes asked in the debate over other faiths, “Is there salvation in other religions?” is highly misleading, since it embodies a false premise—namely, that salvation is something you get from any religion. But according to the Bible, religion saves nobody. God does. Salvation belongs to God and is not manipulated out of him by religious activity.
We shall look at New Testament material in more depth later, but on this opening point it is worth noting that the word “savior” is applied to God eight times and to Jesus 16 times in the New Testament, and to nobody else at all, ever. And yet the term soter was a fairly common term in the classical world, applied to both human kings and military deliverers, and also to the great gods and heroes of mythology. But not in New Testament Christianity. Salvation belongs to our God . . . and to the Lamb. Nobody else merits even the vocabulary.
- Salvation as the Identity of God: “Salvation belongs to our God.”
The Particularity of the Biblical, Saving God
The affirmation in the doxology of the redeemed from every nation is very specific and particular: “Salvation belongs to our God.” This is not some bland generic linkage between salvation and deity as an abstract transcendent concept. It is this God, the biblical God, the God of revelation and redemption, Yahweh the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who is not ashamed to be called “our God.” This is the God to whom salvation belongs. This indeed is the God who is defined above all else precisely by his saving ability and activity.
“You were shown these things,” said Moses, speaking of the great redemptive act of the Exodus and revelatory act of Sinai, not so that you would know that there is only one God, but “so that you might know that Yahweh is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deut. 4:35, 39). “Salvation is found in no one else [than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,” said Peter (Acts 4:12). The point of God’s great saving acts is to demonstrate not just monotheism, or a theocentric worldview, but the identity of the true and living God as the one and only source of salvation. Salvation is the work of this God, revealed as Yahweh, incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth—and of no other.
This affirmation underlies the constant importance in the Bible of knowing God—that is, not just knowing that some god exists, or even merely knowing truths or statements about God, but precisely in knowing who God is, or who truly is God. And the true God has proved his identity supremely through his power to save. Israel knew Yahweh alone because he alone had saved them. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You know no God but me, no Savior except me” (Hos. 13:4). “This is eternal life [which in John is synonymous with salvation]: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3 NIV).
The Impotence of Other Gods
In sharp contrast, other gods are distinguished from Yahweh most commonly by the fact that they cannot save. The early encounters between Yahweh and Baal in the book of Judges bring this out sometimes with comic intent. Gideon’s father’s reply to the men of his town who came to lynch Gideon for demolishing the altar of Baal is wonderfully sarcastic. If Baal is a god, ought he not be able to save his own altar? Or is he so weak that he actually needs this mob to “save” him? What kind of god needs to be saved by humans when the whole point of being a god is to be able to save your worshippers? Are we missing something here, citizens? (Judg. 6:31).
Similar sarcasm and scorn is poured on the great imperial gods of Babylon at a much later stage of Israel’s history (Isa. 46:1-7). Bel and Nebo are caricatured as stooping down from their heavenly residence because their idols are being carted off by their worshippers, struggling under the burden as they flee from their fallen city. What kind of god is it that cannot save even its own idol, let alone its worshippers? What strange reversal is it that makes the very worshippers find their god is now a burden they have to carry, rather than a strong champion who will carry them in their hour of need (as Israel’s God had done from the dawn of their history, vv. 3-4)? No, the very nature of these false gods is that “though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save” (v. 7 NIV). This is as true at the individual, domestic level as it is in grand imperial politics. The deluded worshipper of an idol seems blinded to the sham and impotence of the god he has created for himself as a byproduct of heating and eating. He calls to it for salvation, but that is the one thing it can never deliver (Isa. 44:9-20, esp. 17, 20). False gods never fail to fail. The trouble is, we never fail to forget this and go on putting our faith in them.
- Salvation and the Story of God: “Salvation belongs to our God.”
As well as the particularity of the expression “our God,” there is also its covenantal resonance. The phrase “The Lord our God” is the most common summation of covenantal faith in the Old Testament. “You have declared this day that the Lord is your God. . . . and the Lord has declared this day that you are his people” (Deut. 26:17-18; cf. 6:4-5). Salvation, then, belongs to the covenantal God; not just to this God, but to the God of this people and this history, to our God. Biblical salvation has to be understood in the context of God’s covenantal relationship to his people, Old and New Testament. This covenantal, historical, relational dimension of salvation generates a number of other features worthy of note.
God’s salvation enters history through a community. God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 and the following narratives is set against the backdrop of global human sin and rebellion, which climaxed in the great failed attempt at self-salvation, the tower of Babel. In a world in which the human race now lives in division and strife upon an earth that strains under God’s curse, God initiates a redemptive covenant of blessing. Blessing is a key word in Genesis—the promise and mandate of creation in chapters 1 and 2; the echo of that creation after the flood (9:1); and now again the promise of God to and through Abraham. Salvation means blessing on a particular people and blessing through a particular people.
The nation that would come from Abraham, then, would be a people who would know the saving blessing of God. But inherent in the Abrahamic covenant was the further promise of blessing to the nations. Indeed, this is the bottom line of the Abrahamic covenant—textually and theologically. “In/through you all the families/nations of the earth will find blessing” (Gen. 12:3, etc.). Israel would be the people of this saving, covenantal God whom they would call “our God”—precisely for the sake of other nations who did not yet know him as such. The election and salvation of Israel was ultimately for the blessing of the nations.
Such considerations clearly inspired the composer of Psalm 67, who turns the Aaronic blessing into a prayer—“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us”—and then immediately turns it outwards in a remarkable “missional” prayer for the blessing and salvation of the world: “that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (NIV).
Possibly the most startling text in the Old Testament to portray the implications of such a theology of salvation for the nations (among many that point towards that great goal) is Isaiah 19:19-25. Following a prophecy in which the prophet declares an oracle of comprehensive divine judgment upon the Egypt of his own day, he looks to the eschatological future and dares to envisage a day when, in a gloriously ironic reversal of exodus history, the Egyptians will cry out to Yahweh from their oppressors and he will send them “a savior and defender, and he will rescue them” (v. 20). Furthermore, not only can God offer salvation to his former enemies, he can turn them into the vehicle of blessing to others.
In that day, Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (vv. 24-25).
The beneficiaries of Abrahamic blessing become the agents of it to others. Thus the very nature of the people of God—Israel—is redefined to include the nations in the eschatological fulfillment of the covenant that brought them into existence. The blessing of salvation for Israel means the blessing of salvation for the world.
To speak of “our God” is to speak of the God who engaged with Israel throughout their long historical journey. Indeed the story of the covenants in the Bible is the story of God, and vice versa. God engages with real people in real history, and the Bible is the story of that engagement. The succession of covenants recorded in the Old Testament presents to us the developing story of God’s saving response to the plight of humanity. The covenant with Noah ensures the continuation of life on earth—it provides the universal platform on which it has been possible for us to live as a sinful human race on a cursed planet with some assurance of survival. The covenant with Abraham launches the community of blessing—both blessed and being a blessing to the nations. The covenant at Sinai through Moses binds that national community to Yahweh after the great salvation of the Exodus. The covenant with David echoes the Abrahamic, provides Israel with the dubious historical phenomenon of kingship, but points beyond that to a messianic rule that will transcend the historical throne of David. The new covenant of prophetic promise points forward to the era in which we now live on this side of the incarnation and Easter, and on beyond even that to the future hope of new creation.1
Biblical salvation, then, because it is embodied in the historical covenants, is not merely a set of doctrines to be learned or an esoteric personal experience to be enjoyed. It is fundamentally a story, or rather, the Story. It is constituted within the grand biblical metanarrative that forms the biblical worldview, of creation, fall, redemption in history, and the new creation that lies ahead. All the particular historical moments and all the doctrinal minutiae only make sense within that overarching framework. The gospel is the good news about what the biblical God has done, is doing, and will finally do within history. Salvation, therefore, in both Testaments, shares in this past, present, and future shape of the whole biblical story. God has saved his people in many great events of the past; God is constantly engaged in hearing the cry for salvation in the present; and God will ultimately save his people and his creation forever.
The great doxology of the redeemed in Revelation 7, then, celebrates the salvation of the God whose saving work encompasses the whole of biblical covenantal history. To celebrate salvation is to retell that story.
Since the experience of salvation lies within the historical covenant relationship, it has a very broad and comprehensive range of significance—in both Old and New Testaments. “God saves” covers a huge range of realities precisely because of the immense variety of circumstances in which God’s saving engagement with people takes place through the great sweep of biblical history. We ought to resist the temptation to discount what we might regard as “ordinary” or “material” or even trivial instances of the language of salvation and to isolate only those we might deem “theological” or “transcendent” or “eternal.” We need to let the whole biblical witness speak for itself.2
So in both Testaments, then, God saves people in a wide variety of physical, material, and temporal ways from all kinds of need, danger, and threat. But of course, and also in both Testaments, God’s saving action goes much further. The Bible recognizes that all those proximate evils from which God saves his people are manifestations of the far deeper disorder in human life. Enemies, lies, disease, oppression, false accusation, violence, death—all of these things from which we pray to be saved are the results of rebellion and sin in the human heart. That is where the deepest source of the problem lies. There is, therefore, a need for God to deal with sin—sin in the world and sin in his own people. The biblical God who saves is the God who deals with sin. Other claimed salvations of other posturing gods are tinkering cosmetics.
So, reviewing the sweep of this section, we can see the breadth of the biblical language of salvation. It is holistic—encompassing both personal and community needs, both physical and spiritual, both present and future, both historical and eternal, both this life and the world to come. We ought to preserve and affirm this biblical totality of God’s saving action, and not dichotomize it, or restrictively assign terms like “theological” to only one set of spiritual or eschatological dimensions. Ultimately the biblical God has saved, does save, and will save his people and his world at every level of our humanity and createdness.
Salvation is a matter of celebrated experience—whether in recent personal testimony, as in so many Psalms, or in collective historical memory of the great saving events that constitute our knowledge of God as Savior, or in the faith imagination of worship and the advance celebration of an anticipated future. Several aspects of this experiential side of salvation may be noted.
First, because salvation belongs to our God and is therefore a matter of his initiative and his power, it is experienced on our side through the ”cry for help” that is so prominent in the Old Testament (individually and nationally); through repentant turning towards him and away from sin, rebellion or idolatry; through trust in God; and through acceptance of whatever he does in response. The salvation of God is for those who call on him, fear him, cry to him, and love him (Psa. 145:17- 19; Isa. 25:9; Isa. 30:15). And everywhere in the New Testament, of course, salvation is offered by God’s grace only on the basis of repentance and faith. As the simple tag goes, we experience salvation by receiving it, not by achieving it.
Second, because salvation is covenantal, we are saved as part of the people of God as a whole and through connection to the story of God’s saving action among that people. “How can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14). These questions apply, of course, as much to Israelites in the Old Testament (as Paul does apply them) as to any other human beings. Hence the great importance attached to the constant teaching of the great traditions of Israel’s faith, the call to love, trust and obey their covenantal God, in order to appropriate the blessing of his saving acts on their behalf. The saving God must be known. Above all, God’s people must know the Story. They must tell and retell the story of the Exodus. They must tell and retell the story of the cross and resurrection. Salvation is through faith, and “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Third, because of the importance of the story of salvation, we can appreciate the key role of the Scriptures in mediating salvation. For it is in the Bible that we have the record of those saving events. Here is the testimony of those who experienced them firsthand—the generation of the Exodus, the witnesses of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. But what about the generations who followed? What about the rest of us? How do we enter into the experience of a salvation that is rooted in unique historical events? By knowing the story, assimilating it as our own, and trusting the God to whom it testifies. This was true for every generation of Israelites after the Exodus. For them, as for us, it was a matter of knowing the story, knowing what it demonstrated, knowing the God of whom it spoke. And knowledge of that story and the God of the story comes to us through the Scriptures.
This explains the great emphasis on “the word of salvation” in the New Testament. This is not because salvation is a verbal abstract or a systematized philosophy. Rather it is because salvation is a narrative needing to be told, good news needing to be announced, events needing to be known, revealing a God needing to be trusted (Luke 8:12; John 5:31-40; Cor. 15:2ff; 2 Tim. 3:15). Biblical salvation, then, is inseparable from the biblical word—the Scriptures themselves. Salvation is not some subjective experience of esoteric faith and individual piety. It is rather a biblically informed experience, an entering into this story of this God saving the world through these events, and ultimately through this person, his Son, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Fourth, our experience of salvation is mediated not only scripturally but also sacramentally. The narrative is not merely to be recollected. It is to be reenacted in such a way as to connect each generation with the living power of the original events themselves. For Israel, of course, this was the annual Passover; for Christians, the Lord’s Supper, celebrated “as often as you do this, in remembrance of me.” These feasts and sacraments are more than just memorials of the events they celebrate. In the sacrament we enter a kind of two-way time machine which, on the one hand, puts us “as if we were there.” Every generation of Israelites says of themselves, “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt but the Lord brought us out” (e.g., Deut. 6:21). Every Christian hears the words as addressed to him or herself, “This is my body, given for you.” On the other hand, the sacrament brings the past events “as if now”—that is, mediating the effect and power of the original, unrepeatable, and once-for-all saving act of God into our present lives, experiencing afresh the liberation of exodus, the grace and cleansing blood of the cross.
This narrative nature of biblical salvation is the essence of its uniqueness. Salvation is not some mystical rainbow’s end in the celestial realm to which all religions may aspire in their different ways. Salvation is not what lies at the summit of a mountain, which all religions laboriously climb from their different starting points. Biblically, salvation denotes the “having-happened-ness” of the historical events by which God has acted to save humanity and creation. Salvation is what God has done already, as a result of which certain future outcomes are assured. Salvation is not a dream for the future towards which we may bend our efforts indefinitely. Biblical salvation declares that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It affirms that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. It assures us that Christ died for our sins and was raised again on the third day for our justification. It asserts that God saved us, not because of any righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. Note the past tense and the divine subject of all these great affirmations. Other religions and ideologies do not save because they do not tell this story. They may have scriptures and cultures of great antiquity, wisdom, and dignity, but they do not tell this story—the story of our covenant God and his saving action in history. They cannot therefore “connect” people to that story and its sovereign, saving Subject. They have no gospel to tell to the nations.
This is also why we must resist the suggestion popular in some quarters that we may substitute the scriptures of other faiths for the Old Testament. If other religions may be the preparation that leads people to faith in Christ, goes the argument, then we may allow those other scriptures to function as a culturally appropriate alternative to the Jewish Scriptures. But this is to ignore the necessity of the Old Testament as the Scriptures that tell the story and declare the promise that lead to Jesus, the Scriptures that provided Jesus’s sense of identity and mission, the Scriptures with which the early church went out and turned the world upside down once they read them in the light of Jesus the Messiah (as he told them to do, Luke 24:44-47). Without the Old Testament the story loses its beginning, its sense of direction, and its ultimate plot. No, a biblical perspective on salvation needs the perspective of the whole Bible. For it was its witness to salvation that generated, informed, and determined the shape and the limits of the whole canon.
- Salvation and the Sovereignty of God: “Our God who sits on the throne.”
Returning to the doxology of redeemed humanity, we find their next phrase equally resonant of Old Testament notes. Yahweh is, in many texts, the God who is seated on the throne of the universe. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel had visions of that throne of God and of the overwhelming glory that surrounded it. Two brief points may be made.
In Isaiah 40-55, the context that most probably provides the source for the phrase in Revelation 7, Yahweh’s sovereignty over the nations, over their gods, and over all of history is categorically affirmed. The point of the affirmation, however, is not merely to dethrone the gods of the nations and announce their defeat. It is also the basis on which God claims all nations and offers them also salvation. If Yahweh alone is the source of salvation, then he is so not only for Israel but also for all nations. “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.” Thus the call goes out to the “fugitives from the nations,” as it did to the remnant of Israel—“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other.” So then, the universal missional task of God’s people flows directly from the universal offer of salvation. And that in turn flows from the universal sovereignty of God—from the very throne of God to the world. As Jesus said, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” So, on this basis of this sovereign lordship of Christ, the missional mandate follows immediately: “therefore, as you go, disciple all the nations” (Matt. 28:18-20 ISV).
Who is it who sings this doxology of salvation in Revelation 7:9-10? It is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” The echo of the Abrahamic covenant could not be clearer. Here, in eschatological fulfillment, is God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham, that his seed would be as uncountable as the stars or the sand, that people of all nations would be blessed through him. Biblical salvation, then, belongs to our God because it is this God who will have kept his promise. “All nations,” God said to Abraham, who only just managed to believe it in the extreme improbability of not having even one son to his name. All nations, it was promised, and all nations it shall be. The sovereign faithfulness of God guarantees not just a redeemed, multinational humanity, but also, of course, from other texts, a whole new creation as well. Ultimately the whole created order—human, angelic, and creaturely—will join this song of praise (Rev. 5:11-14). This is not just a vague dream of what might be, but a confident vision of what will be because of the one who is seated on the throne.
- Salvation and the Lamb of God: “Salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb.”
Here finally we come to the Christocentric dimension of biblical salvation. The salvation that belongs exclusively to “our God”—the biblical God of the covenants—belongs with equal exclusivity to the Lamb of God, the one through whom God has accomplished his saving will.
The earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, as devout scriptural believers, knew that Yahweh alone is God and there is no other source of salvation among the gods or on the earth. This they knew because their Bible told them so, not least Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Yet now they are so utterly convinced that Jesus of Nazareth, their contemporary, so shares the very identity of Yahweh their God that they use the same exclusively salvific language of him. Peter declares that salvation is now to be found exclusively in Jesus and in no other name under heaven (Acts 4:12). This is consistent with all the preaching recorded in that book (cf. Acts 2:38; 5:31; 13:38) and is the settled resolution of the first council of the church, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we [Jews] are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are” (Acts 15:11). Later, another Jewish believer describes Jesus as the author or pioneer of salvation (Heb. 2:10), the source of our eternal salvation (5:9), and the mediator of complete salvation for all who come to God through him (7:25).
Biblical salvation is utterly Christ-shaped.
The Lamb, in Revelation, alternates between the Lamb who was slain and the Lamb on the throne. Both are essential of course to his role in salvation. Salvation belongs to the Lamb who was slain, because the source and ground of our salvation is the historical, once-for-all atonement achieved by Jesus on the cross. But salvation also belongs to the Lamb on the throne, because he ever reigns with the Father. The sovereignty of the Lord of the universe is shared with Christ. This is clear not only in the exalted claim of Matthew 28:18, but even more so in the amazing affirmation of the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:9-11. Whoever first composed this stanza has taken a text from Isaiah 45:23-24 (in which Yahweh affirms that every human knee and tongue will acknowledge Yahweh himself as the sole source of righteousness/salvation and strength), and without hesitation applied the same language to Jesus. The uniqueness of Yahweh as the only saving God is now transformed into the uniqueness of Jesus as the only saving Lord to whom every knee will bow. The two have become one, because in Jesus of Nazareth this saving God has walked among us, our Emmanuel, our Jehoshua, God of our salvation. And in the person of his Son, this saving God took our sins on himself on the cross, as the Lamb who was slain to purchase people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, who alone is worthy of all praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.
This paper by Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright was developed in further detail with a more comprehensive treatment of salvation in the biblical texts in his book Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story, published by InterVarsity Press in 2007. We are grateful to Dr. Wright for granting permission to reproduce this essay.
1I have surveyed this sequence more fully in Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), ch. 2.
2For a fuller discussion on the holistic nature of salvation in the Old Testament verb yasa and its derivative nouns, as well as the New Testament use of sozo, see Christopher J. H. Wright, “Salvation and Human Need,” in Salvation Belongs to Our God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Pres, 2007), 15-36.