How Does Jesus Save?


The Christian faith teaches that Jesus saves. The question is, “How?” If Jesus is Saviour, then what does Jesus save us from, and how does he do it?

The part of Christian theology that deals with this question is soteriology—the doctrine of salvation. The focus is on the work of Christ as Saviour (soter in Greek) and it usually centers on the cross as the means of atonement. To atone is to repair a wrong. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that the atonement lies at the heart of Christianity, the church has never adopted one official position on just how that atonement is accomplished.

The reason for this is simple. The Bible uses different metaphors to describe God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. For example: the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for the sheep, the innocent dying for the guilty, the ransom of a slave, payment of a debt, and victory over the powers of evil (Living Faith 3.4.3).

In the history of the church, these various metaphors have spawned a number of theories about how Jesus saves. I will briefly identify four.

Theory 1: Jesus died in our place.

The “Substitutionary” theory is the most familiar to Presbyterians and runs as follows:

Christ died for our sins.
The innocent one bore our condemnation on the cross.
He suffered and was put to death
for the sin of the world. (LF, 3.4.2)

Notice that this theory embraces a range of images:

  • We are indebted to God, and Jesus pays the price (financial).
  • We are guilty of a crime, and Jesus bears the punishment (legal).
  • God is angry with us, and Jesus appeases divine wrath (ritual).

The basic idea seems straightforward. What does Jesus save us from? God’s punishment for sin, i.e. death. How does he do it? By dying in our place, on our behalf. For support, its proponents point to Bible passages such as 2 Cor.5:21 (Jesus became sin for us) and John 1:29 (Jesus is the lamb of God).

There are, of course, questions. What kind of God demands the sacrifice of His son? Is this, as some have suggested, a case of “divine child abuse?” And what about the use of violence and suffering to achieve salvation? Doesn’t it justify the suffering of all victims? In short, the substitutionary theory has led some to say: “I love Jesus. But I hate God.”

Theory 2: Jesus defeated the Evil One.

The Christ is Victor theory dominated the church for the first 1,000 years. It depicts Jesus as the winner in a great cosmic battle between the reign of God and the reign of Satan. By sinning, human beings fell under the control of the devil. But Christ frees us by defeating Satan. Human beings are liberated from the devils’ grasp by Christ’s victory.

Again, there is strong biblical support for this theory. On the cross God in Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col.2:15). The Book of Revelation tells this story graphically.

But again, there are problems. For one thing, the military imagery puts some people off. Furthermore, this theory assumes a kind of dualism in which the world is divided between a good god and a bad god. In some versions, Christ wins by tricking Satan which raises ethical questions. Even its defenders worry that it seems naïve, simplistic, and morally questionable.

Theory 3: Jesus set an example to follow.

The Moral Influence theory proposes that Jesus lived a good life and died a good death. His example should inspire us to do the same—to love God and others. The faith and obedience of Jesus should influence us to confess our sins and commit ourselves to moral living. The love and forgiveness that Jesus displayed, even in death, set the standard by which we should live and die.

This is the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) theory of the atonement. 1 Peter 2:21 seems to support it: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

Among the problems here, the most pressing is that we are thrown back on ourselves. Think what you like about the first two theories, but they offer explanations of salvation in which Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Not so here—it’s really up to us to save ourselves, with a little help from Jesus’ example.

Theory 4: Jesus lived the life we were originally intended to live.

The Recapitulation theory emphasizes salvation as the restoration of human existence to its original condition.

Jesus re-lives life for us, in full obedience, undoing our failure, and re-connecting us to God. Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what he is. It’s not just about the cross, but about the whole course of Jesus’ life – the incarnation.

Jesus is the image of God who sums up human life in order to restore the image of God in us. Its advocates pick up Paul’s theme of Christ as “last” or “second” Adam (1 Cor.15:45) and Peter’s idea of participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Its critics point out that it ignores a good deal of what the Bible says about the significance of the cross.

What should we make of these four theories? Do they, separately, or together, answer the question “How does Jesus save?”

Well, maybe. But they don’t begin to exhaust the richness of the biblical teaching on salvation. We should remember that the purpose of doctrine is to illumine and clarify the Christian story. Doctrines are not ends in themselves. They are intended to bear witness to God’s revelation in Christ.

That said, despite their failings, these theories try to get at something that is central to the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is our mediator. Through him God has come to us. And through him we come to God. This dual representation is at the heart of Christ’s saving work. In Christ we know that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters. The “how” of it all remains a mystery.

It seems to me that Bishop N.T. Wright has a point when he says that “on the night before he died Jesus did not give us a theory; he gave us a meal.” Perhaps it’s when we share the Lord’s Supper that we best understand and experience how Jesus saves.

Questions for Study and Discussion:

  1. Read Living Faith 3.4. Which of the biblical metaphors used to describe the saving work of Christ makes the most sense to you? Why?
  2. The article identifies four views of atonement. Discuss the biblical support given for each view, and the critical questions that arise for each.
  3. To what extent do the four views set out in the article reflect the historical periods in which they were developed? What does this tell us about the development of Christian doctrine?
  4. “If sin is forgiven, it is not punished. If sin is punished, it is not forgiven.” Discuss this statement with reference to the substitutionary theory of the atonement.
  5. The Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, distinguished between what Christ has done “for us” (justification) and what Christ by his Spirit is doing “in us” (sanctification). Is this still a helpful distinction? Why or why not?
  6. The Christian tradition in the west (Roman Catholic and Protestant) emphasizes the cross of Christ. If Jesus is Saviour, how do his life, teachings, resurrection, ascension, and intercession contribute to his work of salvation?
  7. How might your view of the atonement affect the way you pray, the way you approach the Lord’s Supper, the way you read the Bible?
  8. Are there other views of the saving work of Christ not identified in this article? If so, what are they?