Every person who has ever lived was born into a cognitive environment. A cognitive environment is the sum total of all the things a person understands and recognizes and knows intuitively. One does not need to be a football fan to recognize what the Super Bowl is—provided one lives in America. A Maasai woman in Kenya would probably think of a large dish as “Super Bowl” would not be part of her cognitive environment. In the same way, an American cattle rancher would not take kindly to a neighboring rancher “reclaiming” the former’s cattle, simply because his neighbor believes God had given all cattle to his people, yet this practice would be readily understood—and accepted—by the Maasai people. It is part of how they understand the world.
The disciples of Jesus were born into a world whose cognitive environment was very different from ours. To understand their writings better we must have some awareness of how they understood the world and how they perceived words. Take the word “salvation,” for example. When we hear the word we tend to think of a future rescue from divine condemnation. How did Paul understand the word? How was it used among first-century Romans?
In the first century many men were called “savior” and brought “salvation” to others. An ancient decree from the Roman governor of Asia (issued in 9 BC) proclaims the “gospel” (good news) of Caesar’s birthday and expresses gratitude for the emperor’s salvation. In this context salvation referred to his benefactions. Caesar gave gifts and performed good deeds. These were the salvation he offered, and therefore he was a savior and was praised as such.
Salvation also meant deliverance or rescue from danger. In a letter from the second century a man named Apion described how the god Serapis saved him when he was in danger in a boat at sea. He then asked of his recipient’s own “salvation”—his present well-being.
When Paul wrote of salvation, this was his cognitive environment. This was part of his understanding of the world that shaped his use of language. A savior brought salvation, which included gifts and benefits and perhaps even rescue of some sort. With this in mind, consider his words to Titus.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.Titus 2:11–3:7 ESV
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
More than any other New Testament author, Paul frequently uses the words “Savior” and “salvation”. He certainly speaks of salvation as a future event, a future rescue from death, but it is also clear that he understands the present effects and benefits of salvation. He says our hope is the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ who has saved us. Notice the present benefaction in mind. He writes that we were once foolish and disobedient, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another (and they didn’t have social media back then!) yet we receive present benefaction—gifts and good deeds performed for us. This salvation comes from our Savior who rescues us in this life from our own sin. While there is a future element involved (“hope of eternal life”) we also receive gifts now, namely, we are no longer foolish and disobedient, etc.
Let us not limit our understanding of salvation to heaven-and-not-hell. Let us recognize that God our Savior has brought us salvation, which includes our present deliverance from our sin. Let us live as those renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. Let us live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, even as we wait for the return of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let’s also recognize Paul’s implication. If Jesus Christ has saved us, this means he has rescued us from our danger, which is God’s wrath. It also means he has given us gifts and benefits in the present time. These gifts and benefits are freedom from slavery to sin. When we speak of living holy lives, we cannot do so thinking that holy living will result in our salvation, for salvation is what enables us to live holy lives. We show that we have received our Savior’s gifts by living in the freedom bestowed by those gifts.