In our modern church-lingo saturated culture, we've taken certain words and conscripted them for specific uses, when in Scripture those same words have fluidity. It's important that we don't try to wrestle Biblical words into a straight jacket in an attempt to make them mean only one thing. The words "saved" and "salvation" are no exception. In fact, only 30% of the uses of the words "saved" and "salvation" in the New Testament refer to salvation from Hell.1 That means that seven out of ten times you see the word "saved" or "salvation" it isn’t talking about the most popular meaning of the word. That’s why you need to ask a simple question when ever you see the word “saved” or “salvation.”
Saved from what? This question is an indispensable tool in interpreting the Bible correctly. In this chapter we will be discovering the difference between being “saved from condemnation,” and “saved from wrath.” Although these two ideas sound like twins with different names, they are more like second cousins once removed.
Let's first look at what it means to be saved from condemnation in John 3:17-18.
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.2
In verse 17 appears the word "saved." That should trigger us to automatically ask, "saved from what?" The answer is revealed in the next verse when he explains that those who don't believe in the Son of God are condemned already.
Condemnation, then, is already the destiny of those who don't believe. Since, by default, mankind doesn't believe in Christ, and must be persuaded to do so, all men are condemned unless otherwise convinced to believe in the Son.
The condemnation here has an obvious connection with the previous verse, John 3:16. Being condemned and not being condemned are synonyms for "perish" and "eternal life." Therefore, being saved from condemnation in this verse is the equivalent to being saved from Hell.
As we move to the next phrase, we will have to stow many of our preconceived ideas about what some standard biblical terms mean. Let’s take a look at our next verses, Romans 1:16-18, as we cross over from salvation to discipleship.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,3
On first reading the above verses you may not see why they are considered discipleship verses, since they seem to employ salvation terminology. However, our new Bible study tool can help us out on this one. Paul says, 'saved' so our question should be, “saved from what?” The simple answer is, saved from “God's wrath” as it says in verse 18. That opens us to another question. What is God’s wrath? To understand that, we need a wider view of what Paul's letter to the Romans is about. Let's explore.
Paul discusses justification, which is a synonym for the status of immortal believers, between chapter 3:21-4:25. In this section he hammers the idea that being justified is equivalent to eternal salvation from Hell. Probably the best description of justification comes from Romans 3:23-24.
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus4
Clearly, believers are justified by Grace, and it’s free. In another letter he said, “by grace you have been saved.5“ No one who reads Paul’s justification section disputes that it’s the word “justification” that he uses to talk about being saved from hell.
What might strike you as strange is that his justification section, 3:21-4:25, doesn't use the word "saved" or “salvation” a single time. This is odd, to someone who has chained the word “saved” to the meaning, salvation from Hell. However, when we free the word “saved” to its range of meanings, the truth comes out.
Paul decides not to use “saved” or “salvation” to describe justification in his section that defines it. That means that we have to be very careful when we see the word “saved” or “salvation” in the other parts of his letter. Might they mean a salvation from something other than Hell?
There are basically two main categories for what a person can be saved from. People can be saved from damnation or saved from damage. Being saved from damnation would mean that the person is saved from Hell. However, “saved from damage” can mean a range of things. Jesus saved people from their illnesses when he healed them. In fact, the word we translate as saved is often translated as “healed,” or “made well.” That is a salvation from a damaged life. Jesus also saved the disciples from drowning when he calmed the storm, and the demon possessed man was saved from spiritual torment. So, a person can be saved from eternal damnation or saved from temporary damage.
If you read through his letter as a whole, from the beginning, Paul defines salvation as deliverance from God’s present displeasure brought about by sins.6 His thesis is that the world is and has been experiencing the wrath of God. God demonstrates his wrath by releasing the world to suffer sin’s full consequences. You can see that in Romans 1:18, and in the following verses. That means that “God's wrath” in Romans is not to be understood as Hell.
To further support this, In all the explanations of God's wrath in Romans7 It's described in present tense, not as a future judgment. Even in his other letters Paul uses the term "God's wrath" as a present reality, and not as a future condemnation to Hell.8 In Romans wrath is a manifestation of God’s temporal displeasure.9 This fits with the Old Testament sense of "God's wrath" since to the prophets, the wrath of God was continually operating10.
In the opening chapter, he sets out both a dilemma and a hope to overcome. The problem with the world is that God is pouring out wrath but the gospel, “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” When we ask, “salvation from what?” The answer rings back loud and clear. He’s talking about salvation from the damage of sin (God's wrath) and not salvation from Hell. He shows that believers are able to be saved from “God’s wrath,” and the damage it causes.
He then goes on to give a vivid description of what God’s wrath is in vs. 24, 26, and 28. In those verses we find out what “God’s wrath” looks like.
Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions… God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting;11
God allows the mounting consequence of sin to be felt by the human race without alleviating the present suffering it causes. Since, he is focused on God's angry outpouring of wrath on the sinful world here-and-now, some astute Bible translators have rendered well known verses like Romans 5:9-10 this way.
If therefore we have now been pronounced free from guilt through His blood, much more shall we be delivered from God's anger through Him12, if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, all the more, since we have been reconciled, we shall be delivered by His life13
Now that we have established that justification does not mean saved from Hell, we notice an interesting thing in the verses. He uses a standard since-then format here. It could be rendered, “[since] we’ve been justified, [then] we shall be saved from wrath.
One can follow the other, but they are not synonyms. This brings up a valuable question. Is this deliverance from God’s temporal wrath an automatic conclusion for all people who believe in him for eternal life? In other words, is there something a Christian has to do be delivered from this present wrath? The answer is, yes. The Greek tells us that the deliverance from “God’s wrath” is expected under certain circumstances14. What’s more, he then tells us what the conditions are that have to be met.
Verse 10 explains that first we must be justified by his death. After that condition is met his life is what will allows us to experience deliverance from God’s temporal wrath. Obviously then, one must be a believer before they can expect to be delivered from the damage that God’s wrath causes, but then, what does it mean to be “delivered by his life.”?
The answer is, by following the example of Jesus’ life we can be delivered from God’s temporal wrath. Following Jesus’ example is clearly a term of discipleship. It’s obedience to Christ’s example and commandments that leads to victory. However, he doesn’t leave us alone in the struggle. He later says, “just as Christ was raised from the dead… we also should walk in newness of life.15” So it’s actually the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead that gives us the ability to obey Christ. We have resurrection power that he has provided for us, as we make our attempt to follow and obey. When we obey Christ on a daily basis, we will gain victory over a damaged life. We will begin to escape the “wrath of God” through discipleship.
Our justification by grace through faith frees us from eternal condemnation, but our discipleship by hard work frees us from God’s wrath which the world is currently experiencing. Obedient discipleship is the key to freedom. He sums this up nicely when he says this in Romans 8:5,9.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit… So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.16
Therefore, a believer who refuses or neglects discipleship will inevitably live in the flesh. Paul teaches that if we choose a life of discipleship instead of pursuing the flesh, we will be delivered from God’s anger, and instead please him.
In this chapter we discovered that Paul has two distinct messages that run through the book of Romans. His first message is that justification is by faith in Christ. His second message is that deliverance comes by the good works of a believer. These two concepts, once again, reinforce the Bible’s most consistent distinction between salvation and discipleship. Being saved from condemnation is connected to salvation, while being saved from God’s wrath is connected to discipleship. When we keep this vital difference in mind the Bible is much more clear.
1 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Ten Most Misunderstood Words In the Bible,” (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 33.
2 John 3:17–18.
3 Romans 1:18.
4 Romans 3:23–24.
5 Ephesians 2:8-9
6 René A. López, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 626.
7 Romans 1:18, 2:5, 8, and 3:5
8 Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6
9 Zane C. Hodges, Romans: Deliverance from Wrath, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2013), 36.
10 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, 3rd ed. fully rev. & updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 30.
11 Ro 1:24, 26, 28.
12 Romans 5:9 - Weymouth New Testament
13 Romans 5:9-10
Translated by Zane C. Hodges, Romans: Deliverance from Wrath, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2013), 143.
14 Zane C. Hodges, Romans: Deliverance from Wrath, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2013), 141.
15 Romans 6:4.
16 Romans 8:5,8.