Appendix 4. Metaphors of Salvation

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The Bible explains salvation by using a number of metaphors or word pictures. Nearly all of these have their roots in the Old Testament. It remains for the early apostles, prophets, and teachers to take these themes and reinterpret them in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord. (Of course, to call a particular wording a metaphor doesn't make it untrue; rather it's just another way of looking at the same truth.)

In my book Names and Titles of Jesus (JesusWalk, 2016), I traced some of these themes by examining the various titles of Jesus the Messiah in the Old and New Testaments. Here, I want to look at those same themes a bit differently.

The Apostle Paul makes contributions to each of these metaphors of salvation, but for some he is the pioneer interpreter, and those we'll discuss especially in the lessons of this study: "Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship."

These are the primary metaphors of salvation. We shouldn't see each as mutually exclusive; they certainly aren't treated that way in the New Testament. But I think it's helpful to examine the metaphors one by one.

1. Salvation, Savior, Messiah. This involves a military image of a mighty man who comes to save and rescue those who have been threatened or attacked. In the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, God is seen as the mighty man of valor who saves his people. The Jews expected the Messiah to be such a Savior, to free the nation of Israel from its oppressors. In the New Testament, Jesus is seen as the Messiah, our Savior from our spiritual enemies, especially salvation from sin. Of course, at the close of the New Testament, in Revelation 19, Jesus is the Savior who goes to war with the forces of Satan and vanquishes them.

2. Substitutionary Atonement, Sacrifice, Lamb of God. The roots of these metaphors come from the tabernacle and temple guilt offerings. The sinner presents an animal, lays his hands on its head while confessing his sins. Then he slays animal, and the priests collect the blood. Blood is poured out at the altar, and the animal's carcass (or parts of it) are burned on the altar as a way of presenting the sacrifice to God. The animal bears the sin of the sinner, and is killed for it. A variation of this is the scapegoat upon which the sins of the nation are transferred, before sending the goat away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:8-28). Jesus, obviously relying on Isaiah 53, sees himself as a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). John the Baptist points to Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Jesus is our substitute, bearing our sins on the cross, that we might no longer have to carry their guilt. Peter puts it this way:

"Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." (1 Peter 3:18)

3. Justification by Faith. Justification comes from the realm of the court and law, and refers to a judge declaring a person as just before the court, acquitted of any charge against him. While Pharisaic Judaism sees obedience to the Law as the way of justification or righteousness before God's court of law, Paul recognizes the hopelessness of this. He goes back to Abraham, whose faith is counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6) and Habakkuk the prophet who said, "The just shall live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).

4. Election. This idea as we see it in Scripture comes from the uncontestable choice of the Sovereign, the absolute monarch. God's will or choice about a person's salvation is what is important, not a person's efforts or personal holiness. This theme Paul develops especially in Romans 9, 10, and 11.

5. Grace, Favor, Gift. A person is given the gift of salvation by a rich benefactor solely because the benefactor favors him, not because the recipient is especially worthy. Paul also develops this theme in his writings. God's unilateral choice to bestow salvation on a person is, of course, related to election.

6. Debt, Forgiveness is a legal term, and relates to the sphere of owing money, and, by extension, having a debt of sin before another person or before God. The sin or debt can be forgiven by the aggrieved party. You see this in Jesus' Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

7. Love, Affection. Here, the person is forgiven because of great love. John 3:16 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) are examples. The Old Testament word is hesed, the New Testament word is agape. This is closely related to the next category, mercy.

8. Mercy, Alms, Compassion. The idea of showing mercy on the needy is a theme related to love and grace. It begins with Yahweh's self-declaration as his glory passed by Moses -- and is repeated a number of times in the Old and New Testaments.

"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful[561] and gracious,[562] slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love[563] and faithfulness,[564] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...." (Exodus 34:6-7a, ESV)

Of course, this passage suggests also the ideas of grace, love, and forgiveness, as well as mercy. In English, mercy is providing aid to those in need, without concern for their relative worthiness. In Hebrew, the word isn't used so narrowly.

9. Healing, Wholeness. Sometimes sin is seen in terms of a sickness that only God can heal, as in the words of the song, "There Is a Balm in Gilead ... that heals the sin-sick soul." This is the meaning behind Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. Jesus is our Healer.

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10. Peace, Shalom. This word is used in the realm of relationships, though shālôm is broader than that. Hebrew shālôm can refer to "absence from strife," but "completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment," are closer to the core meaning. Implicit in shālôm is the idea of unimpaired relationships with others and fulfillment in one's undertakings.[565] So "peace with God" refers to a state of unimpaired relationship with God (Romans 5:1).


[561] "Merciful" is raḥûm, "compassionate." This root refers to deep love (usually of a "superior" for an "inferior") rooted in some "natural" bond. It can refer to a mother's or father's love, as well as the feeling of mercy people have for each other by virtue of the fact that they are human beings (Leonard J. Copps, rāḥam, TWOT #2146c).

[562] "Gracious" is ḥannûn, "gracious," from the root ḥānan, "be gracious, pity," cognate with Akkadian enēnu, h̠anānu, "to grant a favor," Ugaritic ḥnn "to be gracious, to favor," and Arabic ḥanna "to feel sympathy, compassion." The verb ḥānan depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need (Edwin Yamauchi, ḥānan, TWOT #694d).

[563] "Steadfast love" (ESV, NRSV), "love" (NIV), "goodness" (KJV) is ḥesed. No one English word encompasses its full meaning. Essentially, hesed is unremitting love within a covenant relationship, even when one party fails or is unfaithful to the covenant. In his landmark study, Gordon Clark concludes: "Hesed is not merely an attitude or an emotion; it is an emotion that leads to an activity beneficial to the recipient. The relative status of the participants is never a feature of the hesed act, which may be described as a beneficent action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties, by one who is able to render assistance to the needy party who, in the circumstances, is unable to help him or herself." (Gordon R. Clark, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p. 267. See also Robin Routledge, "Hesed as Obligation: A Re-Examination," Tyndale Bulletin, Vol. 46, No. 1 (1995), pp. 179-196. See also R. Laird Harris, hesed, TWOT #698). When you consider hesed, you think of a word developed by Paul in the New Testament, grace, Greek charis -- favor that is extended to a person unilaterally, not on the basis of how well one performs or behaves or reciprocates love.

[564] "Faithfulness" is ʾemet. It comes from the root ʾāman, "to confirm, support, uphold (Qal); to be established, be faithful (Niphal); to be certain, i.e. to believe in (Hiphil)." At the heart of the meaning of the root is the idea of "firmness, certainty," hence, "truth, trustworthiness, faithfulness." The noun carries underlying sense of certainty, dependability (Jack B. Scott, ʾāman, TWOT #116k).

[565] The root of shālôm is shālēm, "be complete, sound." It suggests "completion and fulfillment -- of entering into a state of wholeness and unity, a restored relationship" (G. Lloyd Carr, shālēm, TWOT #2401a).

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