There are a variety of ways that people understand the doctrine of salvation. For some it is deliverance from oppression. For others it is concerned with finding your true self. And for still others it is in being part of the church. But the Bible describes salvation as being delivery from slavery to sin and into a restored relationship with God.
The Bible talks about salvation in three different way. Initial salvation is what occurs when a person puts their faith in the risen Jesus. Our salvation experience continues throughout our life as we seek sanctification. And salvation concludes when we experience glorification in heaven.
There are a number of different aspects of what is termed here as initial salvation. All of these, other than calling, essentially happen at the same time.
The Role of Grace and Faith in Conversion
Augustine was a theologian in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine is credited with developing the doctrines of original sin and predestination. In essence the doctrine of original sin teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature as a result of Adam’s fall in the Garden. A consequence of this original sin is what today is called total depravity; that man in his fallen state is incapable of doing good, including turning to God.
Augustine initially taught that man comes freely to God for salvation; that the source of faith is in the individual. But during his conflict with Pelagius that changed. The doctrine of predestination he then developed taught that God chooses people for salvation, entirely apart from anything that the individual might do. There is not anything good within us (because of original sin) that would make us worthy of God or allow us to turn to him. Salvation is solely a work of God’s grace, included the faith to believe.
Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine. Very little of his writings are known, but he was accused of denying the doctrine of original sin, claiming that all we really lack is illumination. God’s grace makes clear to us what he expects from us, and then it is a matter of our own will to accomplish that. Pelagianism focused on the human will as key to salvation, limiting God’s grace to that of illumination, telling us what to do; but it was up to us to do it. Pelagianism was condemned in 418 at the Council of Carthage and branded as a heresy.
In the years that followed the condemnation of Pelagianism a new formulation was developed that was somewhat of a middle ground between the doctrines of Augustine and Pelagius. This formulation became known as Semipelagianism and taught that human free will was sufficient to make the initial approach to God, but then God’s grace finishes the work of salvation. The doctrine was also branded as heresy by the Council of Orange in 529.
John Calvin was one of the early reformers, breaking from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. Calvin was heavily influenced by the writings of Augustine in his development of the doctrines of predestination and God’s sovereignty in salvation. While Martin Luther was the first of the reformers, John Calvin seems to have been the most influential of them. The reformed tradition that derives from his teachings is at the heart of many of Protestant denominations and influences others.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian, was a professor of reformed theology. He eventually became convinced that some of the primary tenants of reformed theology were in error, in particular the doctrines of divine election and predestination as well as limited atonement. In 1610, a year after his death, a number of his follows developed and published the Five Articles of the Remonstrants, formalizing the ideas of Arminianism. In response to this the Dutch Reformed church meet at the Synod of Dort in 1618 to condemn the teaching of the Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius). The branded Arminianism as a heresy and developed what came to be known as the five points of Calvinism, eventually known by the acronym of TULIP. In spite of the persecution of the early Arminian tradition, it has come to be highly influential in many Protestant movements, especially through the efforts of John Wesley in the 18th century. It is, however, still often denounced by those of the reformed tradition and wrongly accused of being semipelagianist.
As far as predestination goes, Calvinism teaches that man is totally depraved and unable to come to God on his own; that God does everything necessary for salvation, that Christ’s atoning death was only for the elect, that the elect would inevitably come to God, and that none could fall away. Arminianism on the other hand, while also teaching total depravity, teaches that God wants all people to be saved, that the Holy Spirit enables all humanity to be capable of believing, that faith in Christ is essential, that we can resist the call of God, and that apostasy is possible. While some forms of Arminianism advocate a form of works based salvation; that is really a corruption of what Arminius taught.
Calvinism and Arminianism are essentially two differing ways that people have come to understand the tension between the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and of human free will, and the roles of grace and faith in salvation. I find that classical Arminianism, with God’s grace calling all people and enabling faith, best reconciles the Scriptures on this issue.
The initial step in salvation is God’s conviction and call of the unbeliever. In John 16:8-9 we see the Holy Spirit convicting the world in regards to sin. It is that convicting of sin that is the first step toward repentance. Without a recognition that something is wrong, there is no impetus to fix it. And in Matthew 11:28 Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus calls to himself a world that struggles and is weighed down with concerns.
But just who does God call? The Calvinist view is that God only calls the elect, those he has chosen before creation. In contrast the Arminian view is that God calls everyone. Romans 8:29-30 is used to support the Calvinist position. This passage says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” This calling, justifying and glorifying are limited to those that God foreknew; and here, for the Calvinist, foreknowledge is taken as foreordination; not just knowing, but choosing. But the word translated here as foreknew simply means “to know before”; there is no implication in the word of a choosing beforehand.
In Matthew 22:1-14 Jesus tells the parable of a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son. The initial invitees (likely the Jews) decline to come so the king opens the banquet to everyone that can be found, both bad and good; all are invited. But during the banquet a man is found without wedding garments, which, if I understand correctly, are issued at the door. This man is thrown out and then, to conclude the parable, Jesus says “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” The invitation to the banquet was ultimately made to everyone, but only those who responded in an appropriate way were chosen. This is in alignment with the Arminian view that all are called, even those who do not respond.
It is the Holy Spirit who calls sinners to repentance (John 16:7-11). And it is God who opens our hearts to be able to hear and understand the good news (Acts 14:14). Arminians use the term ‘prevenient grace’, or grace that comes before, to describe God’s grace that comes to all people ahead of the Holy Spirit’s call, enabling them to believe and respond in faith. Calvinists would use the term ‘irresistible grace’ to refer to God’s calling of selected individuals who cannot resist that calling.
Conversion is the human response to God’s call. There are two different aspects to conversion. The first is repentance, a turning away from one’s sin. The second is turning to Christ in faith. I might repent of my sins and turn in any number of directions, but unless I turn to Christ I do not experience conversion. And I might respond in faith to Christ, but if I have not turned away from my old life I have still not experienced conversion.
Repentance is turning away from sin, feeling a godly sorrow for sin, and is a prerequisite for salvation. John the Baptist preached repentance (Matt. 3:2), Jesus preached repentance (Matt. 4:17), and the apostles preached repentance (Acts 2:38).
Repentance is not an optional step when coming to God. It is not enough to simply believe in Jesus and accept the offer of grace, there must be a real alteration of the inner person . As Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” I cannot follow Christ without turning from self.
While repentance is a turning away, faith is a turning toward; a turning toward Christ. There are two different aspects of faith. The first is to believe in what someone says. 1 John 4:1 tells us not to believe every spirit, but to test them. This aspect of faith concerns what we believe, what we hold to be true. It is believing that God exists, that I am a sinner, and that Jesus died to save me.
The other aspect of faith is personal trust; it is trusting in a person. In Acts 10:43 Peter tells Cornelius concerning Jesus that “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” I might believe about Jesus, but only if I believe in Jesus will I experience forgiveness. Saving faith involves both of these aspects. It is assenting to the facts of Jesus as well as trusting my life to him.
It is sometimes held that faith and reason are enemies; that they are opposing ways of viewing the world and what goes on within it. But faith should be supported by reason and reason is enabled by faith. My faith is not blind; it is based on reason. Conversion is the human response to God’s call. But are repentance and faith a matter of works? Are they something that I have to do, something that comes from within me? Or is it also a work of God in my life. Those in the Calvinist or reformed traditions understand saving faith as being a gift of God; a gift given to God’s elect. Others, myself included, believe that it is something that comes from within, but do not see it as a work that leads to salvation, any more than receiving a gift from another person makes me deserving of it. Rather it is a surrender to the work of God in my life.
Regeneration, sometimes referred to as being born again, is God’s transformation of the new believer, giving them a new spiritual life. In Titus 3:5 Paul tells us that God “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Regeneration is a supernatural and instantaneous event; I am born again. But it is not the end; I will continue to grow in the new life. A baby is born in a moment, but grows throughout its life.
Regeneration is essential. In John 3:3 Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” We are born into this physical realm. We also need to be born into the spiritual realm, the kingdom of God.
Jesus also tells Nicodemus that “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6). Our rebirth is not something that we can do for ourselves, or that other persons can accomplish for us. It is a work of God; only Spirit can give birth to spirit; flesh cannot produce spirit.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!” Regeneration does not just add something to me; it makes me into something new. If I have been born again I am no longer what I once was.
The Logical Ordering of Conversion and Regeneration
Theologians are generally agree that conversion and regeneration happen at the same time. But they differ concerning their logical ordering. While that might seem insignificant to some, if does have some significant ramification.
A Calvinist will say that man is totally depraved and incapable of coming to God on his own. And so conversion is not possible unless something first happens to the person. Regeneration makes the person new which then gives them the ability to repent and turn to Christ in faith; with a faith that is a product of regeneration, a gift of God. So the Calvinist will argue that those whom God as foreordained to salvation will logically first be regenerated and then will be converted. Regeneration and conversion may happen together, or there may be a period of time after regeneration before a person repents and turns to God in faith.
The Armenian position is also that man is depraved but that God’s prevenient grace enables, or frees, our wills in order to be able to respond in faith. Previent means ‘coming before’, so prevenient grace is God’s grace given us that leads us to salvation. For the Armenian, God offers salvation to all people, enabling them to respond. And then all who repent and respond in faith are then regenerated. So logically conversion preseeds regeneration.
This debate goes to the heart of the divide between the Calvinist and Arminian positions. So what does the Bible have to say about it? In Acts 2:38 Peter tells his audience to “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.” In Acts 16:31 Paul tells his jailer to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” In both of these passages there is a sequence that puts conversion prior to regeneration. The Armenian position seems to be clearly supported here.
Union with Christ
As a part of our initial salvation experience we come into union with Christ. The expression ‘in Christ’ is commonly used by Paul to express our relationship with Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ”, and Ephesians 1:13, “and you also were included in Christ”, are two of these passages that illustrate this truth.
The nature of this union is somewhat of a mystery; Christ in me and me in Christ. We do not become one being, I am not God because I am in Christ. I maintain my own personality and identity. But Christ’s experience becomes my experience. The best way I know to illustrate this is to consider a bucket of water and a sponge, with Christ the bucket of water and me the sponge. When the sponge is put into the bucket, it is in the water and the water is in the sponge, yet they also remain distinct. But so long as that condition is true, wherever the bucket of water go, the sponge also goes. The experience of the bucket becomes the experience of the sponge.
In Romans 6:3-10 Paul expresses that as believers we were crucified with Christ and also resurrected with him. How is this possible? Because of our union with him. Christ was not just our substitute on the cross, he took us to the cross with him. And his resurrection is also our resurrection. While those things happened long before we were born, it is part of the mystery of our union with Christ that we were there with him.
Colossians 3:1-4 is expresses another significant aspect of this union with Christ: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Not only did we experience the cross and resurrection with Christ, but we are currently in him as he sits at the right hand of God and are looking forward to appearing with him in glory. While we are clearly still on earth and operating as independent humans, we are at the same time sitting with Christ at the throne of God. No matter what may happen to this body here, it will not take me away from God’s presence; I am secure in Christ.
Union with Christ is also essential to our spiritual life. In John 15:4 Jesus tells us to “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Apart from union with Christ we will be fruitless. And the danger of fruitlessness is that you will be cast aside and burned (John 16:6).
Justification is an action of God whereby he declares me to be righteous. Sometimes we use the expression “Just as if I had not sinned” to describe justification. But that is not really correct. Justification does not make me righteous, rather it is a judicial declaration of righteousness. God now considers me to be righteous.
There are two prerequisites to this justification. The first is God’s grace. In Romans 3:24 we read that “all are justified freely by his grace.” It is because of God’s grace that we are able to experience justification. The other is faith. In Romans 4:3 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It is by God’s grace that justification is offered at all. It is our faith that God credits as righteousness.
Justification deals with the eternal consequences of sin. When I stand before God in judgement my sentence has already been announced; I am justified. There is no eternal penalty for my sin. However, justification does not eliminate the temporal consequences of my sin. In this life I will still suffer the physical and emotional penalty for my transgressions.
While justification dealt with the legal liability of my sin, adoption deals with the relational aspect of my life as a believer. Justification itself does not make me a child of God, it just gives me legal standing. Adoption restores me to a position of favor with God, bringing me into his family. While adoption is logically distinct from regeneration and justification, it does occur simultaneously with them; I cannot experience adoption without also experiencing regeneration and justification.
John says, in John 1:12, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. In the passage we see adoption as a consequence of conversion. And, in Ephesians 1:5 Paul says the God “predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” This passage expresses our adoption as the result of God pleasure and will; it is something he wanted to do. In 1 John 3:1 we are told to “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” Our adoption comes about because of God’s love for us.
Romans 8:14-16 tells us that adoption brings us out of slavery from sin and into the family of God. In the following verse, Romans 8:17, Paul tells us that now, as God’s children, we are heirs of God. But along with being children of God comes discipline. If we are his children then we should expect his correction. In Hebrews 12:5-6 we read “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Ongoing salvation is also called sanctification or practical holiness. It is an ongoing process in which our moral condition is brought into conformity with our legal status. This process is not something that believers are capable of on their own. The help of the Holy Spirit is essential for our growth in Christ.
Sanctification itself really has two different aspects. The first refers to the state of being separate or distinct, set apart for some special purpose. 1 Peter 2:9 expresses this when it says “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” As believers we have been set apart for God’s purpose. This aspect of sanctification occurs at our initial salvation; when we are saved, God sets us apart from the common and unclean.
The second aspect of sanctification is what we are concerned with here. It deals with moral goodness or spiritual worth. We are not merely set apart, we are supposed to act accordingly. In Ephesians 4:1 Paul encourages us “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” We have been saved and called to be God’s children. Now we need to live in a way that is worthy of that calling. This is practical sanctification.
Characteristics of Sanctification
There are a number of characteristics of practical sanctification that the Bible talks about. The first of these is that it is a supernatural work. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 we read, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is God, as the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies us. Sanctification is not a work that we can accomplish. This is expressed well in Galatians 5:16 where Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Sanctification is also not an instantaneous work; rather it is ongoing throughout our lives. In Philippians 1:6 Paul expresses “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” Sanctification is complete when Christ returns, or I die, whichever comes first. Until then, I should expect the Holy Spirit to be actively engaged in molding my life. This is also expressed in 1 Corinthians 1:18 where Paul, talking about the message of the cross, says “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Note that it is not to those who have been saved, but to those who are being saved, expressing an ongoing process.
The aim of sanctification is Christ-likeness. Romans 8:29 tells us that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Christian predestination is an often misunderstood topic. As Paul uses it here, it simply means that God’s plan is to conform us to the image of Christ, or to be Christ-like. Read the gospels and see what Christ is like; not the miracle working, but the living in accordance with his Father’s direction. That is what he wants from us as well. It is a target we should be working toward.
And finally, sanctification, although a work of the Holy Spirit, is something that we need to participate in. In Philippians 2:12-13 we find both of these aspects of sanctification at work: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” It is God who is working in me to fulfill his purpose; but I also need to ‘work out my salvation’, I have a part to play. And what part is that? In Romans 12:1-2 Paul tells us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We are to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God and not be like the rest of the world around us. Being transformed is sanctification.
The Possibility of Sinlessness
Is it possible for us to attain a level of sanctification where we no longer sin? Those who support this notion will point to passages like Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, or 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”, to support their position. Why would we be told to be perfect as God is perfect unless it was something that was attainable?
Those who would argue against the possibility of sinlessness in this life point to passages like 1 John 1:8, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”, to support their position. It would seem that while perfection should be our goal in this life, it is questionable that anyone ever actually reaches this level. But whether it is attainable or not, it is something we should be striving for.
The dictionary defines fruit as “any product of plant growth useful to humans or animals” and fruitfulness as “abounding in fruit, as trees or other plants; bearing fruit abundantly.” As believers, we are not plants, but the terms are descriptive of us. In John 15:4-5 Jesus tells his disciples to “remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus is the grape vine and we are the branches on his vine. Jesus tells us that so long as we remain in him, we will be fruitful. Remaining in Christ is a part of our sanctification. But what is the fruit that we produce?
Some will argue that the fruit we will produce is other believers, pointing to the fruit produced in the natural world where apple trees produce apples and grape vines produce grapes. So believers should produce believers. And yet producing believers is actually a work of God; I cannot produce another believer. I can share the gospel with another person, and can let my life shine before them, but I am not capable of producing a believer, or even enabling them to believe. That is something that only God can do.
In Matthew 5:16 Jesus tells us to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The fruit of our lives is what we produce, whether good or bad. And Jesus instructs us here to produce good fruit, good deeds, deeds that will lead others in this world to ultimately glorify God. As an apple tree just naturally produces apples, so good deeds should naturally flow from us. These deeds are not something done to secure our salvation, rather they are the fruit of it.
The Role of the Law
As a Christian, what role does the Old Testament Law play in my life? Am I supposed to obey all of it, some of it, or none of it? That was a big question that the earliest church faced as well, especially since they were primarily Jewish, but welcoming Gentiles into the church. The Jewish believers continued to observe the law, but what about the Gentiles; should they be subject to it as well?
This question came to a head in the 15th chapter of Acts with a group of Jewish believers coming to the Antioch church, a predominantly Gentile body, and demanding that they be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas disputed with them over this issue and they all ultimately headed to Jerusalem to address this issue with the rest of the apostles and the mother church. In the end the decision was made that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. But unfortunately that was not the end of the story.
The letter to the Galatian churches was written sometime after this, and it is apparent that there are still those who are trying to impose the old Mosaic Law on the Gentiles. This letter is written largely to combat this problem. In Galatians 3:11-12 Paul tells us that we are justified by faith, not the Law. Then, in Galatians 3:23-25 he explains that the Law was intended to bring us to Christ, and now that we have come to him we are no longer under its authority. And, in Galatians 5:4 he warns the believers that if they attempt to be justified by the Law, they will fall from God’s grace. And, finally, in Galatians 5:18 he tells them that if they are led by the Spirit, they are no longer under the Law. This all tells us that the Law had a purpose in our lives; not to bring about justification, but to bring us to Christ. And once it has accomplished that purpose we are no longer ‘under’ it.
A passage that is often used to claim that the Law is still in effect is Matthew 5:17-20. In this passage Jesus says “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and Prophets] but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The argument here seems to be that if Jesus did not abolish the Law, then it still must be in effect. But is that what he is saying here? In the gospel of Matthew are 14 instances of Jesus fulfilling some part of the Law or one of the prophets. Indeed he did not abolish the Law, but he did fulfill it. Luke also records Jesus conversation with the two on the road after his resurrection where he tells them “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Jesus cry from the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30), marks the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.
Matthew 22:34-40 provides another look at the Law and its fulfillment. Jesus identifies the two greatest commandments, loving God and loving others, and then says that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If we will love God with all that we are, and love others like ourselves, then we have fulfilled the intent of the moral code in the Law.
There are many aspects to the Mosaic Law; including sacrifices, dietary rules, sanitary and health regulations, and moral codes. When it comes down to it, few Christians, even those who advocate the necessity of keeping the Law, actually do so. And even though the moral codes are the ones most often stressed, I know of no one who actually makes any attempt to keep them. Apart from the Ten Commandments, most of the Law was applicable to an ancient Middle Eastern people, but has little relevance to us today.
But saying that we are no longer under the Old Testament Law is not the same thing as saying we can live our lives without constraint. The New Testament writers were clear that how we lived our lives was important, and that striving for holiness was expected. Romans 8 especially stresses that we will live either according to the flesh or the Spirit. And if we live according to the flesh, we have no part with Christ. We do need to put to death the deeds of the flesh, not in order to be acceptable to God, but because we are his and are seeking holiness.
Separation from the World
As people that are holy and set apart from the world, what should be our relationship with the people of this world? Should we separate ourselves and associate only with other believers as much as possible? Or should we engage our world seeking encounters with unbelievers?
I believe that Jesus sets the best example for this. In Matthew 10:9-13 Jesus visits Matthew’s house for a meal, along with all of Matthew’s friends. And in response to the objection of the Pharisee’s Jesus tells them that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Jesus did not just hang out with the good people; he spent most of his time with those the religious establishment felt to be undesirable. Rather than separating himself from the world, Jesus engaged it, seeking to redeem it. Should we do any less?
In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus tells his disciples that they were a light on a hill, a light on a stand. They were to let their light shine to the world, drawing others to God. It is hard to let your light shine when it is hidden away in a monastery.
But as we engage the world, we need to be careful that we remain distinct from it. In James 1:27 we are told to help the helpless, without becoming polluted by the world. And 1 Timothy 5:22 tells us to “not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” If we are going to make a godly impact on this world we need to be in it, but we also need to be holy, set apart from the world.
The Scripture is clear that I need to practice forgiveness. Jesus makes clear to us in Matthew 6:14-15 that God’s forgiveness of us is in some way dependent on our forgiveness of other people. But is my need to forgive others predicated on their seeking forgiveness, or should my forgiveness be unconditional?
Those who would advocate conditional forgiveness will use passages like Matthew 18:15-17 where Jesus gives direction for dealing with a brother who sins against you. You should attempt reconciliation one on one first, then with a few witnesses, and then before the whole church. And if reconciliation cannot be obtained, treat them as an unbeliever. This certainly seems to require something from the other party, but I’m not sure this passage is really talking about forgiveness. It seems more to be dealing with conflict in the body, something that should not be allowed to exist in the church.
On the other hand, those who advocate unconditional forgiveness will point to Jesus on the Cross, or Stephen at his stoning, who forgave those who were having them put to death. It is hard to see in this situations where there was any forgiveness requested by the ones being forgiven. Jesus, and Stephen, forgave even while they are being killed.
Forgiveness is hard to do sometimes. But it is something that we need to do. While you might find support in the Scripture for both conditional and unconditional forgiveness, I believe it is best to practice forgiveness regardless the other person’s interest in being forgiven. If for no other reason than true forgiveness will free you from the burden you are carrying around. An unforgiving spirit is a poison in your life. Forgiving and letting it go can free you from that prison.
This final stage of salvation is concerned with what happens at the end of this life. It is broken up here into two parts, perseverance and glorification. Perseverance could easily be included in the previous section on On-going Salvation but is included here because its impact is really at the end of this life.
Will a person who has been regenerated, justified, adopted, and united with Christ always persist in that relationship? Or might they fall away from it and become lost once again? Or, to put it another way, is apostasy from true faith possible?
Many denominations, primarily the Reformed and Baptist, teach that it is not possible for a person who has truly been regenerated and saved to fall from that state. The Westminster Confession expresses it like the: “They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally or finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
Supporting this position are a number of passages of Scripture including 1 Peter 1:3-5, “we have been born into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade”; Philippians 1:6, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”; 2 Timothy 1:12, “I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day”; John 10:27-28, “I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand”; and 1 John 5:13, “so that you may know that you have eternal life.” All of these passages speak of the assurance we can have in Christ, that our eternal life is secure and untouchable by any outside force.
In response to this argument it is perhaps useful to note that none of these passages say anything about my inability to walk away from the faith. No one can take my salvation away from me, but I could potentially throw it away myself. Would God require me to enter heaven for eternity if I do not want to go?
In contrast to this is the view that salvation requires a persevering faith. Faith is necessary, not just to enter into a relationship with God, but also to continue in it. If a person turns away from faith, then they are no longer saved. This loss does not come about because of sin in our life, but because of a choice to no longer walk with Christ in faith.
This position is supported by a number of passages that warn us against falling away, and that pin our salvation to enduring. Among these is Matthew 24:12-13, “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved”; Colossians 1:22-23, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm”; 1 Corinthians 10:12, “so, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall”; and Hebrews 3:14, “we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the end.” These passages are warnings about falling away, and the consequences of doing so. But why would the New Testament writers include so many warnings about apostasy if it were not possible?
There are a couple of arguments offered in response to the warnings that are issued to us. One is that these warnings are effective, and the one who is truly saved will heed them and not fall. The second explanation is that these warnings are not really being issued to true believers, but only to those who seem to be believers, and those who do not heed the warnings were never saved in the first place, but only appeared to be, using Matthew 7:21-23 to support that view.
It seems best to me to adopt a view that borrows from both positions. I hold an Arminian position that God has chosen me based on his foreknowledge that I would respond to his grace and accept his offer of salvation. But I believe that God also knows, not just the beginning of my faith journey, but also the end of it. He knows if I will remain faithful to the end, and only those who do so are saved in the first place. I never can lose my salvation, because I do not ever have it unless I have faith that perseveres until the end.
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” – 2 Cor 1:21-22
In Romans 13:11 Paul tells the Roman church that their salvation is nearer than when they first believed. In 1 Peter 1:5, Peter tells his audience that they are guarded by faith for a salvation that will be revealed in the last time. What is this salvation that we are still looking forward to? The word that the New Testament writers often used to describe this was glory, a word meaning brightness, splendor, magnificence, and fame. In John 17:5 we see Jesus praying that the Father would glorify him with the glory he had before creation. Glory is an attribute belonging to both the Father and the Son.
But the word glory is also applied to the condition that believers face at the end. In Romans 8:29-30 Paul shares what awaits those that God has foreknown. And the last of these is glory, we will be glorified. Elsewhere we see Jesus giving his glory to his disciples (John 17:22), at Christ’s return, a crown of glory given to believers (1 Peter 5:4), and our coming glory will eclipse our current sufferings (Rom. 8:18, 2 Cor. 4:17).
When Jesus returns, it will be in great glory (Matt. 24:30). John, in 1 John 3:1-3, tells us that when Christ returns, we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. I do not believe this means that we will become a part of the godhead ourselves, but we will at least share in his glory.
In 1 Corinthians 15 is an extended discussion of the resurrection, both of Jesus and of us as believers. And in verses 42-44 Paul says that the bodies we have now are natural, perishable, weak, and dishonorable. But they will be raised spiritual bodies, imperishable, powerful, and glorious.
In the life to come, we will experience the presence of God and will be eternally with him, serving him. And, like Moses, who caught a glimpse of God’s glory, and reflected that glory to Israel (2 Cor. 3:7), so we, who will spend at eternity with God, will be glorified, reflecting the glory of God to all the heavenly host.
The Means and Extent of Salvation
Universalism is the belief that ultimately everyone will be saved; that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation. Origen, a Christian theologian of the 2nd & 3rd centuries, believed in the preexistence of souls who initially lived in sinless devotion to God. But over time many of them fell and became demons or humans. But God’s goal was to restore all of them back to a sinless condition. In Origen’s view, punishment of the wicked was temporary in nature and led to purification. Once the person, or demon, had paid for their sins then they would be restored to their original sinless condition. This was branded as heresy, but many over the years since have subscribed to some form of universalism.
There are others today who simply have an overly simplistic view of God and are convinced that a loving God would never condemn anyone to endless punishment. But what these people fail to recognize is that while God’s love does extend to everyone, not everyone is willing to receive that love. God is not less loving just because some refuse his love.
Scriptures used in support of universalism include Romans 11:31, “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all”; Romans 5:8, “. . . one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people”; and Colossians 1:19-20, “and through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Each of these passages seem to be inclusive of all people in the world, expressing God’s plan to reconcile everyone to himself, not just some of us.
In contrast to the few passages used to support universalism is the overwhelming bulk of passages that clearly distinguish between the eternal fate of believers and unbelievers. Matthew 25:46 is representative of these: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Indeed God’s mercy extends to all people, but only those who respond to his offer of salvation experience that mercy. Those who reject his offer will experience eternal punishment will no hope of eventual salvation.
A sacrament is an activity that is instituted and directed by God and that is a means of imparting grace to the participant. Protestants generally limit the number of sacraments to two; the Lord’s Supper and baptism, although not all Protestants consider them as sacraments. Roman Catholics have a number of others, including confirmation, penance, anointing the sick, marriage and holy orders.
Sacramentalism is the belief that salvation is transmitted and received through the sacraments of the church. This is particularly true of the Roman Catholic Church which believes that salvation is dependent on the church. They hold that the sacraments were entrusted to the church by Christ and must be administered by a person ordained by the church. Salvation comes to an individual by participating in the sacraments properly administered by the church. In this view, it is through baptism that the one coming in faith is freed from sin and reborn as a son of God. Other sacraments, including the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) and penance, are ways that God’s grace continues to come into our lives and in which we participate in the life of Christ.
Jesus’ words in John 3:5, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”, are among those passages that the Roman Catholic Church uses to emphasis the necessity of baptism in the act of salvation. The varying views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper will be discussed in a later section.
The Evangelical View
In the evangelical view, salvation is solely a work of God. We are saved by his grace through faith and not by anything we might do. That statement means slightly different things to different flavors of evangelicals, but all agree that neither baptism, nor any other action on our part, will enable our salvation.
The Scripture does seem to add an additional element to grace and faith though. In 1 Corinthians 15:2 Paul, while speaking about the gospel, says “By this gospel you are saved”. In 1 Peter 1:23 we find Peter saying “For you have been born again . . . through the living and enduring word of God.” And in Romans 10:17 we see “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” All of these indicate that the proclamation of the gospel is in some respect essential for salvation. Can a person be saved apart from the gospel? It would appear, at least as a general rule, that only through the gospel can a person come to faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit works in the lives of unbelievers, in conjunction with the gospel, to bring people to faith in Christ.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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