The Three Tenses of Salvation In Paul’s Letters -- By: Brenda B. Colijn

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 22:0 (NA 1990)
Article: The Three Tenses of Salvation In Paul’s Letters
Author: Brenda B. Colijn


The Three Tenses of Salvation
In Paul’s Letters

Brenda B. Colijn

Dr. Colijn holds a Ph.D. in English from Cornell and is an M.A. student at Ashland Theological Seminary.

Although the term “salvation” (in Greek, soteria) has given us the name for a central category of systematic theology (soteriology), many discussions of soteriology do not give much attention to the actual Biblical use of the word group related to salvation. A systematic approach, of course, must synthesize the various Biblical concepts, and the terms for salvation occur with relative rarity. In addition, a focus on justification by faith has sometimes contributed to the neglect of the salvation word group. Nevertheless, some scholars believe that salvation is the key to the theology of Paul.1 Certainly the subject is of central interest to believers, both in Paul’s day and now.

This essay will not attempt to cover Paul’s soteriology as a whole. Any such discussion would draw upon a number of different word groups. Instead, this paper will focus on passages in which Paul uses terms from the “salvation” group — sozo, soteria, soterion, soterios, and soter — to see how he uses them. In particular, it will examine Paul’s description of salvation as past, present, and future. As A. M. Hunter observes, “When Paul thought about Christian salvation, he saw it as a word with three tenses: a past event, a present experience, and a future hope.”2 In what follows, I will attempt to characterize Pauls’ view of salvation in each of these tenses. To do this, I will discuss the effects of salvation, not the means of salvation. I will also explore the implications of these concepts for believers.

Instances of salvation in the past tense are very rare in Paul’s letters. In the undisputed letters, only one instance of sozo in the past tense occurs: “For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:24).3 The past-tense salvation Paul is describing here corresponds to the justification he discusses in previous chapters.4 He sums up the situation of believers in Rom. 5:1–2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Without using the terms for salvation, these verses express the same ideas as Paul’s three tenses of salvation: believers we...

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