Key Terms of Salvation in the Bible

The more one understands the key terms the apostle Paul chose to explain the gospel and its power for our lives, the deeper one’s experience will be with the gospel. Paul uses these terms throughout the book of Romans to describe the free gift of salvation and the resulting eternal transformation that is available to all who will believe and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sin.

Atonement (Romans 3:25)

This term speaks to the satisfaction of God’s holy wrath against sin. As God is purely holy, the sin that is present in all of our lives needs to be dealt with. It is an affront to our holy God. God is the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25); we in our sin have broken his law.

Because all people sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20), the consequence of human sin is the righteous judgment that God must exercise on unrepentant sinners. But punishment is not the end of the story: God sent his own Son, Jesus, to take that punishment on himself. By dying in our place and taking our sins on himself, Jesus has made “atonement,” once and for all time (Romans 6:10), for our sin: he satisfies God’s righteous anger against all who believe, making us “at one” with our Creator.

Faith (Romans 1:17)

Meaning “belief” or “trust,” faith is the means by which sinful people come into right standing with God. It is a complete and active trust in Jesus alone for salvation.

When a person decides to accept the story of Jesus and the free gift of salvation for themselves, they take that first step of faith. As they live their lives and understand that the benefits of salvation bring life and joy and peace and perspective to their lives, their faith changes and grows.

How does one take that first step? Paul tells us very succinctly when he writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

It is literally that simple. After we make that declaration, we can ask the Holy Spirit to work in our lives to change us to become more and more like Christ (see “Sanctification” below).

Forgiveness (“forgiven,” Romans 4:7)

Forgiveness is not a difficult term for most of us to understand. What we do understand, however, is how difficult it can be for us to forgive, in both small and large ways.

Paul’s message to his readers in the book of Romans is that forgiveness of our sins—as impossible as this is to believe—is attainable through a simple act of submitting our minds and wills to God and accepting his free gift of salvation. When that happens, this becomes true of us and our sins: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

We’ve been forgiven much. So then why is it so hard to forgive others for the things that they’ve done, or not done, to us in our lives? Jesus comments on this when he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38). Paul adds, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Hard to do? It can be. But as God chose to do a hard thing when he offered up his Son Jesus as a way for us to find forgiveness, so also, we can do hard things and forgive others. And once we do, we’ll see that forgiveness is more about finding our own freedom than it is somehow mystically bestowing it on to someone else.

Gospel (Romans 1:16)

Literally meaning “good news,” this is the word Paul uses to refer to the message of forgiveness, eternal life and the lordship of Christ. From the earliest beginnings of the Old Testament, the gospel’s message has always pointed to the coming of Jesus Christ. (For a summary of this message, see the martyr Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:1-53.) Jesus highlighted these points when, after his resurrection, he was walking with two individuals on the road to Emmaus. As they walked and talked, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

This gospel message is the one that Paul and the apostles of Jesus risked, and very often lost, their lives to proclaim. This is the message that has been proclaimed through the centuries, giving the hope of eternal life to billions of people who have heard it and have chosen to believe it.

Grace (Romans 6:14)

“The unmerited favor of God.” This refers to God’s inexplicable and unwarranted giving of good things (especially salvation) to those who could never earn it.

The concept of grace can be difficult to accept, but when an individual accepts that God is a loving Father who longs to give good gifts to his children (see Matthew 7:11), they start to understand the implications of God’s grace.

The message of grace is simple: since we are steeped in sin, there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. God graciously offers us the free gift of salvation as long as we are willing to humbly accept the reality that Christ’s death on the cross covers our sin. And while the concept is simple, trying to live every day in the reality of grace can be difficult.

However, there is power for holy living in the grace of God. Through the internal work of his Holy Spirit, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. Seriously.

Paul declares this to be true of believers in Jesus: ”And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).

It’s that power—power that allows us to gratefully change our attitudes and actions and live a life that is pleasing to God and shows love toward others—that gives us new life both here on earth and after we die.

Justification (Romans 5:18)

This is a legal term that means “the act of being declared righteous.” This exchange happens at salvation when God the Judge declares righteous those who trust in Christ and his work at the cross.

Our holy God, because of his purity, has to stand in judgment of sin. But rather than condemning every human who ever lived for their sin, he sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to take on the punishment for the sins of those who believe.

Imagine a courtroom scene in which you’re standing in front of the judge. He has you dead to rights—you know you committed the crime; there are many witnesses to that fact. You’ve been caught red-handed, and you know you’ve earned the punishment you have coming to you. This is true of all of us in the face of God’s holiness, but as the apostle John writes, “If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).

This is the literal truth of the gospel message: Jesus’ blood, shed once for all time on the cross, has the capability to remove the punishment for all of human sin. All we need to do as individuals is to humble ourselves and believe that this is true, and we are forgiven. The profound implications of this have eternal ramifications.

Law (Romans 13:8)

The Law refers to the commandments given by God. This refers to the teachings of the Old Testament, in particular the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down the mountain, straight from the hand of God (read the story of this account in Exodus 19:1—20:21). The law that came from God is good, yet sinful people are incapable of fully keeping it.

The law, then, is like a spotlight that serves to fully expose our sin. In that light, we see that we fall short of God’s requirements for our lives as humans. That’s why Paul emphasizes the law in comparison with God’s grace (Romans 5:206:14–15).

When we come to understand that God’s law, his rules for living, serve to emphasize the immense nature of his grace toward us in Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection, then we can move away from the idea that God is a vengeful deity who just wants to make our lives miserable. When we realize the enormous sin of which God has willingly forgiven us, we can continue to live our lives in a way that pleases him—not out of obligation because we “owe him” anything (again, we can’t earn our salvation); but rather out of thanksgiving for the free gift of salvation that he has offered to us through his one and only Son, Jesus.

Reconciliation (“reconciled,” Romans 5:10)

This word carries the idea of restoring a relationship with someone. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, uses this term many times to describe the way that God loves us and wants to restore a relationship between himself and the people who will accept his invitation.

Romans 5 is a powerhouse chapter on this idea. In it Paul writes,

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11).

Please take some time to study and meditate on this term and on the passage above. This is the whole message of the Bible—that God wants to restore a relationship with those who will accept his gracious invitation.

Redemption (Romans 3:23-24)

What we experience when we are saved. This is “the act of freeing someone by paying a price,” an economic term Paul employed to show how God buys us back with the blood of his own Son.

God, needing to find a way to pay for the sins of humanity, purchased our redemption—our forgiveness of sin—by sending his only Son Jesus to come and live on this earth, teach us how to live, be betrayed by one who was close to him, be unjustly accused and condemned and be nailed to a cross to die a horrific death. He willingly sent His Son to earth, knowing that Jesus would experience the very worst rejection and punishment imaginable.

Again, in economic terms, God wanted to purchase our salvation because he loves us and wants to be in a relationship with each one of us. There was a high price associated with that purchase—one that each of us individually owed to God because of our willfulness and sin. And even though God knew that we would persist in our rebellion, he also knew that there were people who would accept his free offer of salvation and who would gratefully enter into a saving relationship with him through his Holy Spirit.’

That’s why he did it. That’s why he sent Jesus to pay that terrible price and defeat the power of death through his resurrection.

Righteousness (Romans 1:17)

As God buys us back, he gifts us with righteousness, “God’s standard of purity” or “God’s own truthfulness and faithfulness.” Amazingly, in the gospel we are not only forgiven, but we are also granted perfect purity in Christ.

What does this purity give us? It puts those of us who have accepted God’s forgiveness on a par with God’s own Son. Again, we stand condemned in the face of a holy God because of our persistent sin. However, when God looks at us, all he sees is the perfect righteousness of Christ, hard-won through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

The price that needed to be paid for our sin has indeed been paid, and when we accept Jesus’ work on our behalf, God sees us through Christ-colored glasses. Even more than that, he sees us as having the exact same righteousness as that of Jesus.

So the question then becomes, if we have Jesus’ righteousness through Jesus’ salvation, why can’t we just go on and keep sinning? I mean, if Jesus’ blood covers one sin as well as another, doesn’t it make sense to just live like we want to and rely on Jesus’ advocacy when we finally meet our Maker?

Paul comments on this exact question in Romans 6 when he writes,

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin (vv. 1-7).

Let that teaching sink in. Our old self was “crucified with him,” with Jesus, up on that cross. It is dead and gone. Living a life of gratitude to God for his gracious salvation includes an understanding of that fact. The sin that has corrupted us and ruined our lives no longer has to rule our lives. We can walk away from it, experiencing the new life that Jesus offers right here, and right now. That’s incredible.

Sanctification (“sanctified,” Romans 15:16)

Points to a process of becoming more like Christ. When a person accepts the free gift of salvation, the Holy Spirit, when invited, works to help believers “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), changing our attitudes and habits to reflect Jesus’ priorities as outlined in the Bible.

Paul explains this process by saying that for the Christian, “sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). He goes on to write,

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:15-23).

Think about these ideas as they apply to specific actions, habits, attitudes or relationships in your life that have led you into sin. Ask yourself honestly the question that Paul asks in this passage: “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” Can you think of any? Or have you experienced in your own life and body the truth that “Those things result in death”?

The pursuit of a better life through the idea of a continuous process of sanctification is not evidence that God is some sort of celestial buzzkill. Rather, the offer of continually improving your life, of walking away from the sins of the past aided and assisted by the Holy Spirit of God, becomes more and more attractive the more the forgiven person spends in the presence of God and other sincere Christians.

This is what recovery programs such as Celebrate Recovery are all about: God offers us a way out of our sinful habits, and he offers to help us live a better life here and now. That’s real hope in the face of the mess we can get ourselves into here on earth; that’s the benefit of sanctification.

Salvation (Romans 1:16)

Means “deliverance” or “healing” and is the word Paul most often uses to denote deliverance from sin and its deadly consequences.

But why do we even need salvation? If our lives are going pretty well—we seem to be okay in our relationships, have been able to pay the bills lately, and we’re feeling pretty good about the way we’ve been living our lives—what’s the point of relying on someone else to save us?

An excellent question, to be sure. The answer lies in many of the ideas that are outlined in this post. But there’s nothing more important to our eternal disposition—either within or outside of a relationship with the God who loves us—than grasping the reality of the next point. Whether we know it or feel it or realize it or not, we are sinners in need of salvation.

Who says? God says. Keep reading.

Sin (Romans 3:20)

Means “missing the mark” or “disobedience to God’s law.” Sin is more than an action; it’s a condition that leads to disobedient action. Broadly defined, it’s the tendency of humans to rebel against God, which leads to any action or attitude that opposes God’s character and will.

Just as judgment lies with God alone — He alone sets the standards of justice, righteousness and holiness in the universe according to his good character — so too does salvation lie with him. God alone has the power to truly save, for he saves his people from the very judgment that he will execute in the world.

This salvation is accomplished through Jesus and Jesus alone; indeed, salvation was and is his mission on earth. God shows his eternal commitment to save those who trust in him through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

This is the equation to keep in mind:

•  We sin / God forgives.
•  We accept his forgiveness / God restores a relationship with us.
•  We try to pay for that forgiveness / God offers it freely.
•  We live a life that rejoices in the reality of God’s forgiveness of our sin / our lives on earth get better.
•  We die trusting in Christ alone for our salvation / God brings us home to live with him forever.

An Invitation

Through Jesus, the door is open to all who are willing to admit their need of cleansing and salvation in light of the holy standard of God. Those who submit themselves to that standard as revealed in God’s Word and come to him to accept this free gift will experience the benefits of this choice in this life (through inner peace, direction, perspective and gratitude, among many other things) as well as in the next.

In coming to Jesus, we must first admit and confess our pride-filled sin of self-worship and self-lordship, accepting and owning the fact that we have rebelled against our true and right Master. Those who come to the cross with that confession on their lips will find the grace and mercy they need from him (John 1:14, 17; see also the story of the thief on the cross, Luke 23:39-43).


Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and humbling yourself to come to earth. Thank you for sacrificing your life for our salvation. We accept your work on our behalf, and we gratefully look forward to one day seeing you face to face.

Written by Mike Vander Klipp, a senior editor with the Zondervan Bible Group, where he’s been privileged to work for the past three decades. He and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Article drawn and adapted from a framework that appears in The Jesus Bible, NIV.


  1. Amen

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  2. Vernessa Mason-Mitchell says:

    Thank You LORD for enlightening my heart.

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