An examination of the occurrences of the word Savior in Scripture reveals some striking facts. The following study seeks ultimately to allow Scripture to direct us concerning the question, “Is it essential to use the word Savior in Gentile evangelism?”
The word Savior does not occur in the OT until Second Samuel 22:3. This means that the first nine books of the OT do not have the word even once. It occurs twelve times in five books among the remaining 29 books. Of the 39 books of the OT, the word thus does not occur in 33 of them. (The word does occur in two other books as a plural in references to people [Neh. 9:27; Oba. 21]).
Four books have one occurrence each (2 Kings 13:5; Psalm 106:21; Jer. 14:8; Hos. 13:4). Isaiah has 8 occurrences (19:20; 43:3, 11; 45:15, 21; 49:26; 60:16; 63:8). Of these references, the first one refers ultimately to the Messiah’s future work in the end times, but the rest do not (at least directly and unambiguously) seem to set forth the Messiah as the Savior. The OT, therefore, uses the word Savior only once to emphasize who the Messiah would be.
In the NT, the word does not occur in Matthew or Mark. God thus inspired two Gospels that present the life of Christ without using the word at all. The word Savior occurs twice in Luke (God [Luke 1:47] and Jesus [2:11]) and once in John (Jesus, 4:42). In Luke, it occurs in the angelic announcement at the birth of Christ, which certainly was an announcement of good news for all people. In John, the word occurs in a statement by some Samaritans who heard Christ and believed in Him. The Gospels, therefore, lack any explicit record of its use in evangelism by any human. They also do not record a single instance of Jesus’ referring to Himself as the Savior.
The word Savior occurs twice in Acts (5:31; 13:23), but not in either of the two epochal accounts of apostolic evangelism, Pentecost and Gentecost. Instead, in two lesser accounts, the word occurs in explicit statements concerning what God has done for Israel. Acts 5 records the testimony of Peter and the apostles to the Jewish Council, and thus appears not to have much direct bearing on our understanding of Gentile evangelism. Though there were Gentiles present when Paul preached his message in Antioch (13:42), his subsequent statement (13:46) shows that he did not regard this occasion at least in some sense as Gentile evangelism. Acts, therefore, does not record a single instance of the use of the word Savior in a context of exclusively Gentile evangelism.
The word Savior also does not occur in the four major theological epistles concerning salvation (Romans; 1 Corinthians; Galatians; Hebrews; this identification of these books as the four major theological epistles concerning salvation is from a recent statement in a sermon by Dr. Mark Minnick). Its absence in the greatest theological treatise in the world about salvation, the book of Romans, is incredible. Furthermore, Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 declare central truths about the gospel, but they do not use the word Savior to do so. (If use of the word were truly central to apostolic evangelism, 1 Corinthians 15:3 would seemingly have been a prime place for Paul to do so.)
In the other Epistles, it occurs 19 times. The word refers to the Father 7 times (three times each in First Timothy [1:1; 2:3; 4:10] and Titus [1:3; 2:10; 3:4] and once in Jude 25).
The word Savior refers to Jesus 12 times in these Epistles (once each in four books [Eph. 5:23; Phil. 3:20; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 4:14]; three times in Titus [1:4; 2:13; 3:6]; and five times in Second Peter [1:1, 11; 2:20; 3:2, 18]). Two of the twelve references to Jesus in the Epistles have significant relevance concerning apostolic evangelism (2 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 4:14), but lack of further information leaves unclear their exact relevance for evangelism today.
The word Savior does not occur in Revelation. The inspired capstone of divine revelation thus does not use the word at all to refer to Jesus.
Based on this analysis of the divinely inspired content of Scripture, how much emphasis and what kind of emphasis should we give to this word in our doctrine and practice? In particular, is it essential to use the word Savior in Gentile evangelism?
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