(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
You might think that this is a ridiculous question. Seriously, is it possible for Christians to save themselves? Or, does it take God’s action to experience eternal life? This seems like a stupid question to raise as it seems self-evident that any person is not able to experience eternal salvation by his or her own actions.
Take a read of Acts 2:40, ‘And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”’ (ESV). This verse raised some interesting comments on a leading Christian forum online. Here’s a sample:
- ‘Well, let’s see, surely the translation of “save yourselves” must have been by synergists. We either need to delete this from Acts or explain it away from our own intelligence’.
Remember the other emphases in Acts 2:
- ‘And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:21 ESV).
- ‘And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47 ESV).
So, we seem to have three emphases:
- Salvation comes when any person calls on the name of the Lord (v. 21);
- People can save themselves from a crooked generation (v. 40);
- The Lord adds those who are being saved (v. 47).
Are there contradictions here?
‘Save ourselves’ – the meaning
My response to the comment of saving ourselves was:
In Acts 2:40, what do you consider is the best translation of sothete apo tes geneas, based on the grammar of sothete?These are some of the translations I have access to:
- ‘Save yourselves from this untoward generation’ (KJV)
- ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’ (NKJV)
- ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’ (ESV)
- ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’ (NASB)
- ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’ (NIV)
- ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’ (NRSV)
- ‘Be saved from this corrupt generation’ (HCSB)
A response came, ‘I am not a Greek scholar, so I don’t know which is the best translation. But they all say the same thing. They all require action on the part of man’.
It’s not saying the same thing
They actually don’t all say the same thing. Let’s look at them again:
In Acts 2:40, what do you consider is the best translation of sothete apo tes geneas, based on the grammar of sothete?
Of those 7 translations quoted above, all of them correctly translated the verb sothete as a command, ‘Save’ or ‘Be saved’, as it is an imperative verb. However, the verb is aorist, imperative, middle-passive. Therefore, it could be translated as ‘Save yourselves’ (middle voice) of ‘Be saved’ – by somebody else (passive voice). Either one would be correct grammatically in that verse. However, when we compare with the rest of Scripture we know that Christians cannot save themselves. If it were not for the active grace of God in taking the initiative towards sinners, there would be no salvation.
Ephesians 2:8-9 makes that crystal clear: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (ESV). Therefore, any concept of ‘save yourselves’ should be abandoned as it is not consistent with the emphasis of Scripture of the need for God to take the initiative for salvation to be accomplished.
John 6:44 confirms this: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day’ (ESV).
Titus 2:11 affirms, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (ESV).
Therefore, in my understanding of the Greek language and the context of the whole of Scripture, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’ (NASB) is the better translation of Acts 2:40.
There have been those who promoted self-salvation
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have those who supported ‘save yourselves’. They were:
Pelagius (ca 390-418) and Pelagians who believed ‘the value of Christ’s redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam’s wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace’ (Catholic Encyclopedia: Life and Writings of Pelagius).
Semi-Pelagians whose view of salvation is that it ‘is more than denial of the efficacy of grace for salvation; it is the affirmation of the human initiative in salvation…. Every scholar of historical theology knows that “semi-Pelagianism” is a term for a particular view of grace and free will that emerged primarily in Gallic monasticism in the fifth century in response to Augustine’s strong emphasis on grace as irresistible for the elect…. although God may initiate salvation with grace, for many people the initiative is theirs toward God. That is, God waits to see the “exercise of a good will” before responding with grace. This is what was condemned (along with predestination to evil) at Orange in 529.’ (Roger E Olson, ‘R. C. Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism’, Patheos, February 22, 2013).
Therefore, Acts 2:21, 40 and 47 demonstrate that, (1) The Lord saves, and there is (2) The human responsibility for human beings to respond to the offer of salvation. There will be no salvation without the Lord saving and there will be no salvation without people responding in faith. So, God-centred salvation is hand in glove with human response. There is no conflict with the Gospel proclaimed, human beings responding, but it is salvation from the Lord God (because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice).
It’s interesting to see how some generally sound Bible translations such as the KJV, ESV, NIV and NRSV can translate a verb without taking into consideration the whole context of the Bible. There is conclusive evidence from Scripture that we cannot save ourselves. To save ourselves or even take the initial initiative to respond is the false teaching of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.
No human being can save himself or herself to experience eternal salvation. Therefore, ‘save yourselves’ is an heretical view of salvation that was condemned as semi-Pelagianism at the Second Council of Orange in 529. In one of its canons it stated:
CANON 7. If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).
I recommend the article by Roger E Olson, ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism?‘ (Patheos, March 22, 2013).
 EmSw#2, 27 August 2014, Christian forums, General theology, Soteriology DEBATE, ‘More evidence for Christ’s death for everyone’. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7839226/ (Accessed 9 May 2015).
 Ibid., OzSpen#4.
 Ibid., EmSw#6.
 This is my reply at ibid., OzSpen#7.
Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 May 2016.