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Spring 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 1 · pp. 17–21 

The Concept of Salvation in the Christian-Muslim Encounter

Response to “Islam and Salvation” by Gordon Nickel 23/1 (1994): 3–16.

Eberhard Troeger

I fully agree with Gordon Nickel’s careful study and his conclusions. I would like to add some supplementary remarks. My personal field of experience is the Arabic World, especially Egypt and Sudan.


The theme of salvation leads into the center of Biblical faith and to the main difference between Islam and the Christian faith. We should thank Muslims that they challenge us to think about the central teachings of the Bible. This challenge could help liberal Christian theologians to find their way back to the core of the Biblical message.

For Muslims to speak about assurance of salvation would be to “anticipate God’s decision and to interfere with his will.”

The different understanding of salvation in Islam and in Biblical revelation leads us to acknowledge that the Bible and the Qur’an bear witness to a very different understanding of God (in Arabic: Allah). While Muslims agree that, according to their view, the ‘Qur’anic God’ is different from the Biblical testimony of God, we often hear from Christians that the Biblical teaching about God is very similar to the Qur’anic teaching and that the differences between the two faiths start with the understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection. I believe that this is wrong, because the Old Testament bears witness {18} to God as Savior and Redeemer. Scripture testifies that immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, God started to take care of them in order to save their life on earth (Gen 3:20ff). God chose Abraham (Gen 12:2) to start a long "history of salvation" which leads to Christ. The Bible teaches (e.g., Heb. 9) that salvation through Christ’s cross is anticipated in the Old Testament by the sacrifices of animals. In both the Old and the New Testament God acts visibly as the Redeemer. This long history of saving acts proves that God is faithful in fulfilling his promises. He is a God in whom believers really can trust. The Qur’an, in contrast, teaches God’s absolute free will (e.g., 2:20; 16:93).

The necessity of salvation according to the Biblical testimony is connected with the understanding of God’s absolute holiness and the depth of the human fall. In Biblical understanding sin is not just a human weakness (Qur’an 4:28) and a tendency to worship other gods besides God (Qur’an 4:116). According to the Biblical faith, sin is a person’s rebellion against a holy God (Gen. 3:5; 1 John 3:4), and this rebellion can only be overcome by atonement. So the Bible has a different view of a person’s relationship to God than does the Qur’an.


The main problem for me is how to share the biblical message with Muslims in a way they can understand, even if they don’t accept it. The Arabic Bible - I am referring to the ‘classical’ and widely used Van Dyke Version of 1865 - uses various terms to express the Biblical understanding of salvation. These terms also occur in the Qur’an, but express another meaning in the Qur’anic context. It is not easy to share the Biblical concept of salvation with Arabic-speaking Muslims in these terms, because they are inclined to understand Biblical expressions in the context of their Qur’anic prejudices.

Gordon Nickel put the emphasis on the Arabic root naja. Different forms and derivations of this verb are used in the Van Dyke translation 148 times. In most cases the use of naja refers to salvation by God or men in situations of earthly trouble and danger of death. When referring to God’s saving, the Biblical texts show that God can save those who trust in Him, and that He, on the other hand, punishes the sinners with death. In the prophecies of the Old Testament, the root naja refers to the “day of the Lord” or “the day of judgment,” on which there is only salvation for the rest of Israel (Isa 2:4; Jer. 25:35; 44:28; 50:28; Ezek. 6:8; 14:22; Joel 2:3; Amos 9:1) and a remnant of the Gentiles (Isa. 45:20). Since sin leads to death, salvation from death and salvation from sin can be seen together (Ps. 39:8 {19}; 51:14; 79:9). Therefore Jesus asked his disciples to pray: “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13; NIV). In 1 Thess. 5:1 naja refers to the coming day of Christ in which there is no salvation for unbelievers. Hebrews 2:3 and 12:25 warn that there may be no salvation on the day of judgment.

The conclusion of this short review of the use of naja in the Arabic Van Dyke Bible is that naja is used in a way similar to its use in the Qur’ran. In no case is the root naja used to express salvation from eternal death by Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore it seems to be necessary to include other terms to express salvation by Christ. Arabic Christians normally use forms of the root xalasa when speaking of Christ as the Savior (muxallis, an intensive form). Forms of xalasa occur more often in the Van Dyke Arabic Bible then forms of naja. Xalasa is used to express salvation in earthly situations of danger, but it is especially used for Christ as the Savior, for example: Matt. 1:21 (“he will save his people from their sins”); Matt. 18:11 (“the Son of Man came to save what was lost”): John 4:42 (“this man really is the Savior of the world”); 12:47 (“I did not come to judge the world, but to save it”); Phil. 3:20 (“we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”); 1 Thess. 5:9 (“to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”); 1 Tim. 1:15 (“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”); Titus 1:4 (“Christ Jesus our Savior”); 2 Pet. 1:1 (“our God and Savior Jesus Christ”); 1 John 4:14 (“his Son to be the Savior of the world”).

The problem is that this Christian terminology is strange to Muslim listeners. Derivations of the root xalasa occur only 28 times in the Qur’an. The basic meaning of the root is "to be pure, to be sincere." The Qur’an uses the forms of xalasa in this sense. Twenty times it uses muxlis or muxkzs to indicate that a person is a sincere and true believer in God or a prophet (2:139; 7:29; 10:22; 12:24; 15:40; 19:51; 29:65; 31:32; 37:; 38:83;39:2.11.14; 40:14.65; 98:5). The Qur’an does not use the intensive form xallasa (i.e., "to make pure, to save"). When I as a Christian speak to Muslim listeners about Christ as the muxallis (Savior), they tend to understand that Christ is muxlis (sincere) or muxlas (sincere or pure). Of course Muslims can accept that Christ is a sincere prophet, but it is very difficult for them to understand that Christ is the muxallis (Savior).

There are other terms in the Arabic Bible used to express salvation: the root fada (to free, to redeem, to give a ransom); the intensive form of kafara (to cover) i.e., kaffara (to cover, to atone); a form of salaha, i.e., sa:laha (to make peace, to reconcile) and forms of the root shafa’a (to double, to intercede, to mediate). It would exceed the space given for this short exposition, to compare the Biblical and the Qur’anic use of these roots. {20}


What do the differences between the Biblical and the Quranic use of terms like naja and xalasa mean for sharing the Biblical concept of salvation with Muslims? For me the main consequence in the practical approach to Muslims is to explain the Biblical “history of salvation” by narrating the Biblical stories. It proves difficult to explain the way of salvation in dogmatic terms. I prefer to testify and to tell how ‘Allah’ saves and redeems. The most difficult subject in the Christian-Muslim encounter is to speak about the salvation and intercession through Jesus Christ, because this means explaining the cross and why it was necessary according to the will of God.

One possible way to do this is to say, “Jesus called sinners to repent,” a statement which Muslims can easily accept. “But Jesus did not do this by preaching the coming day of judgement (like Muhammed).” “He did this by preaching the love of God towards sinners and by showing this love through his fellowship with sinners and by proclaiming forgiveness of sins. Jesus did this on divine authority, but this authority was the reason why the Jewish leaders accused him of blasphemy and brought about his death on the cross.”. This is a critical point for Muslim listeners, because they agree with the Jews that only God can forgive sins. Therefore I have to underline: “Jesus really proved his godly power by healing the ill and reviving the dead.” I have to underline by saying, “Of course it was possible for Jesus to avoid crucifixion. It would have been very easy for God to protect Jesus, but Jesus died by his own will because of his love towards sinners. He wanted to be faithful to his message and to his deeds, even at the price of his death. He wanted to make visible to sinners that God’s love and forgiveness are a reality they can trust in." In this context I have also to speak about the resurrection of Christ as a demonstration of God’s power and glory. But the main emphasis is on God’s aim to give assurance of forgiveness.

The question of assurance of salvation is an important issue both for Christians and Muslims. Normally for Muslims the question of salvation is definitely decided by God on the day of judgement. The Muslim believer hopes to die as a true Muslim and that God in his mercy will save him from hell, supported by the intercession of Muhammed. This gives the normal Muslim a kind of certainty that he will go to Paradise. But on the other hand Muslim theology emphasizes the free will of God, who is ultimately free in his decisions and in his judgement. To speak about assurance of salvation would mean to anticipate God’s decision and to interfere with his will. Therefore a Muslim can never say with full assurance that he will be saved. {21}

In contrast to this I can testify to the Muslim that he can be saved now, because salvation is not dependent on his being a sincere (muxlis) and faithful person and is not dependent on an arbitrary decision of God in the future. The Good News is that God’s salvation has already been completed and that everybody can participate in it now by accepting it in faith. While the Qur’an challenges people to make sure of their future salvation by repentance and obeying God, the Bible testifies that God’s salvation is completed and can be accepted by faith. This is the main difference between Christian and Muslim faith.

Eberhard Troeger, a pastor, is Director of Evangelical Middle East Ministries, Wiesbaden, Germany.

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