What must I do to be saved?
– Acts 16:30
What does it mean to ‘be saved’?
The predominant view today that stems from a particular (narrow) reading of the Bible in American revivalist theology that usually identifies ‘salvation’ as primarily going to heaven after you die and or being saved from the fires of hell or eternal damnation. However, this language does not always correspond to biblical usage.
Here are some considerations by M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock in The People’s New Testament Commentary.
1. The language of salvation was already present in the Old Testament and in the Hellenistic world, in both secular and religious senses. Jesus and the church did not invent the language of salvation. The Caesars were regularly called ‘saviors’, and the good life they took credit for bringing to the world was called ‘salvation’. In the Septuagint, the term ‘Savior’ was applied to God (e.g., Deut. 32:5; 1 Sam. 10:19; Ps. 24:5) and to the judges who were deliverers that God had sent to save Israel in times of need (e.g., Judg. 3:9, 15). The term ‘salvation’ was used for God’s deliverance of his people from various threats to their life and well-being (e.g., Psalm 18:2; 38:22; 74:12; Isa. 12:2; 25:9; 49:6). Jesus and the early church found the language of salvation used frequently both in their secular world and in their Bible.
2. The biblical language of ‘being saved’ presupposes that life as we know it is incomplete, that it lacks something to be what life should be, and that God has graciously acted in Jesus Christ to supply that lack. The Greek words for ‘be saved’ and ‘salvation’ are translated in several different ways, but they all represent the New Testament idea of salvation, many of which are daily, down-to-earth concerns rather than more ‘other-worldly’ concerns to one’s soul, spirit, afterlife, postmortem existence, etc. For instance, in Luke-Acts, God’s people are said to be saved from
- their enemies (Luke 1:71);
- from the guilt of sins (Luke 1:77; 5:31);
- from sickness and diseases (Luke 6:9; 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42; Acts 4:9, 12; 14:9);
- from demonic powers (Luke 8:36);
- from isolation and exclusion from the people of God (Luke 19:9-10);
- from troubles, distress, and the threat of death (Luke 23:37-39; Acts 7:25; 27:20, 31, 34);
- from death (Luke 8:5).
Furthermore, salvation is used in a more comprehensive sense that includes deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, inclusion in God’s people, acceptance before God at the Last Judgment, and eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom (Luke 8:12; 9:24; 13:23; 18:26; Acts 2:21, 40, 47; 11:14; 13:26, 47; 15:1, 11; 16:27, 30-31).
In Luke 18:18-26, ‘be saved’, ‘inherit eternal life’, and ‘enter the kingdom of God’ all mean the same thing.
In Luke-Acts, interestingly enough, the language of salvation is never used with reverence to ‘hell’ (but see Luke 12:5). In Luke-Acts there are no pictures of what salvation beyond death is like – curiously, there are no pictures of heaven and the like, and being saved does not primarily mean going to heaven when you die. Being saved is having one’s life put in right relation with God and other human beings, being given one’s life as it was intended to be by God in this world, and being given the sure and certain hope of eternal life beyond this world. As such, being saved is sometimes the opposite of ‘being lost’ (Luke 15:4, 6, 9, 24, 32; 19:10).
3. The question, ‘What must I do?’ presupposes the act of God. The question asks what human beings must do, but the New Testament never indicates that human beings are capable of remedying their own lack, of doing certain things that in themselves result in salvation. Salvation is always predicated on the grace of God given in Christ (Acts 15:11).
It seems as if many persons may be giving the wrong message when sharing the gospel with others. The gospel is more than just a person’s “ticket to heaven”. Salvation is a very down-to-earth experience rather than a particular experience that happens post-mortem or something solely related to the spirit or soul or the afterlife.
And surprisingly, salvation has little to do with the fear of being sent to hell, or even the afterlife for that matter.
Instead, salvation encompasses the entire being of a person or persons involved – mind, body, heart, soul, spirit, relationships, vocation, etc – in the here and now, while the person is alive.
When we have fellowship with other Christians, that is a part of experiencing our salvation. When we pray for others and ourselves we are experiencing salvation. When we help others we experience salvation.
To reiterate Boring and Craddock’s statement: Being saved is having one’s life put in right relation with God and other human beings, being given one’s life as it was intended to be by God in this world, and being given the sure and certain hope of eternal life beyond this world.
However, I would also like to add that ‘eternal life’ does not just refer to life after death, but also (or more so) having the very life of God himself living in and through us, because who or what is eternal, only God is, so the eternal life that he brings through salvation is his very life being breathed into us.
Salvation is an on-going and organic process, experience and reality that we (should) experience daily for the rest of our lives and not just a one-shot decision making event.
Perhaps that is one of the meanings when Paul wrote: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16
 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 425 – 426.
 The authors group the book of Acts with the gospel of Luke as most scholars agree that the original writer (or writers) of the gospel of Luke intended Luke and Acts to be one work, or Acts to be a direct continuation of the gospel of Luke in one writing.
 In this verse, ‘Hell’ is a translation of ‘Gehenna’, which originally meant Valley of Hinnom, a valley located south of Jerusalem which was once the site of pagan sacrifices, and was later made the city garbage dump, where stench, maggots, and fire were always present. It is a powerful symbol of hell, the place of ultimate punishment for those who finally reject God. (Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, 227.)