Salvation as a process.

November 2, 2016.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(I Corinthians 1:18)

Today I would like to take a few minutes to dwell on the topic of salvation, and perhaps shed light on a biblical perspective that we may or may not really think about when we talk about salvation. Among the circles I run in, it seems that salvation is one of the more controversial theological subjects, which I’m sure makes the apostolic fathers roll over in their graves, so to speak. Why is it so controversial? Honestly, I don’t really know. But I have a theory that a lot of the controversy comes from miscommunication and a misguided view of salvation. Maybe we can make some deeper insights and clarifications, can come to a better understanding of how we should view salvation and the implications thereof. I don’t claim to be infallible, I would just like to share my current thoughts on the matter.

Salvation in the past tense.

When theologians talk about salvation, there are actually three categories that often come up, each talking about salvation in a different sense. I tend to think that the lines aren’t as distinct as it can be portrayed, but it will be helpful to explain the three categories. The first is justification. Paul talks a lot about justification in his letter to the Romans. Justification holds the idea of the act of God declaring or making us righteous or just. As mature believers, we tend to think of justification as something that has happened in the past. Paul speaks of justification this way to the Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
(Romans 5:1-2)

Later, as we will see, Paul says that we are justified by the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9). Whole books have been written on justification and the theology surrounding the topic, but for now let’s just think of justification as what God has already done for us as believers. This is probably what most of us are thinking when we approach the topic of salvation. We ask the question, “Have you been saved?” or talk about our salvation as an event in the past. This is not without biblical precedent, of course. On and around the day of Pentecost when great multitudes of people were believing and being baptized, we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
(Acts 2:42-47)

Further, perhaps one of the most known verses about salvation, as Paul relates to the Ephesians, reads:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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.”
(Ephesians 2:8-9)

And if that were not clear enough, Paul explicitly talks about salvation as a past event when he writes to the Romans:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
(Romans 8:23-25)

Salvation in the future tense.

So that’s it, right? Although there are plenty of verses that speak of salvation as something that has happened in the past, there are other verses that speak of it happening in the future (for those of you who might know where I’m going with this, yes this is out of order- but I have a reason for doing so). Theologians might call this idea of salvation as a future event glorification. Paul speaks of this glorification, and the glorified bodies we will receive, in I Corinthians 15:

“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(I Corinthians 15:50-57)

This concept of being saved as a future event perhaps is also another way we often think about salvation, though we do not think of it in the same sense as we do when we think of salvation as a past event (I hope you are starting to see why there may be a problem in the way we perceive our salvation). We say things such as, “In the end, we will be saved.” Again, this is not without biblical precedent. When there was a problem between Jews and Gentiles in the church at Antioch, and Paul, Barnabas and some of the other disciples went up to Jerusalem to talk with the apostles and elders about the problem, Peter had this to say in response:

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
(Acts 15:6-11)

Paul also speaks of salvation as a future event when addressing the Romans in a different place:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
(Romans 5:6-11)

Even Jesus spoke of salvation as a future event when He was giving the signs of the end of the age:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
(Matthew 24:9-14)

We often quote a similar verse, Revelation 1:10, to convey the same concept. Again, this way of looking at salvation certainly has biblical precedent.

Salvation as a process: present tense.

We saw the biblical precedent for speaking of salvation in the past tense (justification) and in the future tense (glorification). Is that it then? You probably can see where I am going with this, as the next couple of passages we will look at will be ones that deal with salvation in the present tense, but before we look at them, I think we should start to consider the question: So, which is it? Past? Present? Future? I truly think that part of the reason that salvation can be such a controversial issue is because we tend to view salvation as in one solid tense, rather that viewing it as an ongoing process. This is why I chose to leave the verses that deal with salvation in the present tense for last, as I think they speak to a perspective that we need to dwell on.

As Paul wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians, he talked about salvation as a present process in two places, once at the beginning of the letter, and once towards the end:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(I Corinthians 1:18)

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
(I Corinthians 15:1-2)

Scholars and commentators would likely call this idea of salvation as a present process sanctification. I think this might be the key to understanding salvation on a deeper level, as I don’t think there is as much of a distinction between the tenses of salvation as we like to make it out to be.

Here’s the controversial question: What saves you?

It is controversial because many groups give many different answers. Baptism, Faith, Grace, Jesus, Hope, Works, etc. They are all answers that can be given to the question, “What saves a person?” So which is it?

The answer is ‘yes’.

I think we fight and we divide so much because we don’t fully grasp the nature of salvation. We see salvation as an event- not as a process. But how does the bible treat salvation? Let’s ask the New Testament: “What saves a person?”

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
(Romans 8:23-25)

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.”
(Ephesians 2:8-9)

“…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
(Romans 5:8-10)

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience,through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
(I Peter 3:21)

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
(James 2:24)

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
(Romans 10:9-11)

“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:38)

The answer is ‘yes’. Why? Because salvation is a process, not an event. This is why Paul can say to the Corinthians, “those of us who are being saved.” Is any one part of the salvation process more important than the others? Can we really put them in a hierarchy of magnitude? Can you be saved by forgoing any part of the process?

Our arguments really boil down to what role each part of the salvation process plays in salvation, and I’m not saying those distinctions aren’t important. What I’m saying is that I think that by viewing salvation as an event, it has caused us to draw hard lines in the sand and invent some theology for some to remove various parts of the salvation process and others to place much more importance on one aspect of the process at the expense of all the others. I like what Paul has to say to the Romans in a section dealing with salvation:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
(Romans 10:13-15)

When does the salvation process begin? The process begins before the gospel call even reaches you. How can you believe without hearing, and how could you hear without someone preaching? And who would preach if none were sent? I think we should see salvation much bigger than what we do. Salvation begins when the good news is sent out and doesn’t end until the believer is fully glorified in Christ in the Resurrection (see I Cor. 15). I believe it is somewhat frivolous to try and pin down an absolute point at which we ‘were’ saved (which is where most of the arguments come from). Yes, there are events along the way that are necessary, and each event has its role to play in salvation, but the process is ongoing. And it is a process that the person can quit at any time, regardless of which ‘events’ the person has already completed (cf I Corinthians 15:1-2). But God is faithful, and if we have our hearts turned to Him, He will continue the process of salvation unto its ultimate end.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
(Hebrews 12:1-2)

So let us ever press on, justified by His blood, being sanctified by His power and ever looking forward to that ultimate hope of glorification at His coming on the last day. Let us take the bible at its word, and perhaps we can stop arguing about which ‘events’ that make up salvation as a whole are necessary, and see the big picture of salvation as a process. I pray for wisdom and audience in this area.

Suggested Reading: Romans 3, 6, 10, I Corinthians 15.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.

-Walt

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