A Short Account of Biblical Salvation

 

by Ken Schenck

 

1.    What are we saved from?

Before we can talk about what the New Testament means by salvation, we must figure out what we are being saved from.  If I were to ask most Christians to answer this question, I suspect the first answer they would give is “sin.”  Salvation is when we are saved from our sins. 

 

But what does that mean?  Are my sins out to get me?  Are they lurking just around the corner waiting to jump out at me?  In a sense they are!  But that is not usually what a person means when he or she speaks of being saved from sins.

 

What we more likely mean is that we want to be saved from the consequences of our sins.  In at least one respect, our world today can identify with the idea that certain actions bring about horrible consequences.  Someone has an affair and a marriage falls apart.  We are startled to find our children with judgmental or hateful attitudes we have modeled in front of them.  You do something in a moment of rage with consequences you never foresaw or would have wanted.

 

The Bible places actions like these into the context of our relationship with God and calls them sins.  1 John 5:17 has perhaps the simplest definition of sin in the Bible: “all wrongdoing is sin.”  It is not hard to figure out what wrongdoing is in relation to others.  In general, it is anything that is hurtful or harmful in some way.  Such “sins” against others can be intentional or unintentional.  It is particularly hurtful if I intentionally ignore my wife’s birthday.  But I have still wronged her if I forget it unintentionally. 

 

This last example also reflects the fact that I can both sin against others by things I do and by things I don’t do. We might call the first wrong a sin of commission—it is something I do. The second is a sin of omission—it is something I do not do.

 

Further, groups can sin, even beyond the actions of individuals. If I had been a German in Nazi Germany, I would feel some sense of guilt for the Holocaust, even if I had opposed Hitler and had not been a Nazi. How could we have sinned against God and humanity in this way? We can thus distinguish between individual sins and corporate sins. This particular kind of sin is difficult for us to identify with, given individualistic Western culture. Nevertheless, we must at least reckon with it as a part of biblical culture (e.g., 2 Kings 23:26-27; Josh. 7:24-25).

 

Once again, the Bible places these different types of wrongdoing into the context of our relationship with God and calls them sin. The Bible mentions all these types of sin. Here are two examples:

 

“It is sin if someone knows to do good and does not do it” (James 4:17).

 

James refers here to an individual, intentional sin of omission.

 

“But into the second room the high priest enters only once a year, and he does not enter without blood to offer on behalf of himself and the sins that the people have committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:7).

 

Hebrews here refers both to individual and corporate sins that Israel had committed in ignorance.

 

But the worst sins of all are those that by their nature do not acknowledge God as God. I believe that most of these sins come from the fact that we do not even take God into account in our lives—a horrible thing when you reflect that God is the one who owns this world. Would we treat lightly or ignore someone who had the power to prosper or destroy us? Christianity believes that God is interested in how we honor or dishonor him. While the Bible portrays him as loving to extremes unheard of on earth, it also teaches he ultimately will destroy those who do not recognize his authority over the universe.

 

We find both positive and negative examples of what serving and sinning against God look like. Here are two examples:

 

“Everything you do—whether in word or in action—do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, while giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

 

Here is a positive example of how we can properly serve God: by factoring Christ into everything we do.  On the other hand:

 

“Whatever is not [done] on the basis of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

 

Paul here is talking about instances where Christians disagree on what is right or wrong. While you can be convinced wrongly, Paul teaches that it is essential that you act in good faith toward God.

 

So what might it mean then to be saved from our sins? There are two principal ways in which God saves us from our sins through Christ.

 

1.    God can save us from the power of sin over our lives today in this world. We will be talking about this possibility later in our short account.

 

2.    God will literally save us from his wrath on the Day of Judgment.


Most of the New Testament thinks of salvation in these future terms. Romans 1:18 points out that there is a day of wrath yet to come:

 

“The wrath of God from heaven is revealed against all ungodliness and wrongdoing of people who fight against the truth by their wrongdoing.”

 

But the good news about Jesus Christ is that

 

“God has not appointed us for wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).  

 

“Therefore, since we have now been deemed right with God by Jesus’ blood, how much more will we be saved through him from wrath” (Rom. 5:9).

 

The New Testament has other ways of formulating salvation.  For example, Luke and Acts focus on the restoration of God’s people when they speak of coming salvation.  The gospels also use the word salvation in reference to the wholeness that comes in healing.  However, our discussion will focus primarily on the matter of eternal salvation and will center itself in Paul’s writings.

 

 

2. Salvation is a “Done Deal.”

So in the most literal sense of salvation, we have not been saved yet, for the wrath of God has not yet come upon the world. Nevertheless, we can be saved from the power of sin even in this world.

 

In a very real and objective sense, salvation is already accomplished, for Christ has already atoned for sins. His sacrifice cannot be undone. Salvation is a “done deal.” It will take place for the creation and those who are “in him.”

 

Hebrews 10:14 captures this truth majestically:

 

“With one offering he has perfected forever those who become sanctified.”

 

We must be very careful as we read this verse to hear it on Hebrews’ terms and not in terms of our current Christian traditions. In particular, Hebrews thinks of human “perfection” and “sanctification” (making holy, making God’s) in reference to the initial cleansing event when a person appropriates Christ’s sacrifice, things that happen when you first become a Christian (cf. Heb. 9:13-14; 10:1-2).

 

Our interest at this point is that Christ has already done it. Hebrews words this verse in a way that focuses on the fact that Christ has already finished the act that perfects and sanctifies us. The offering it mentions is the death of Jesus, his sacrifice for sins. Romans 3:25 puts it in this way:

 

“God in his faithfulness offered Jesus as an atoning sacrifice through his blood.”

 

The idea of a sacrifice is somewhat foreign to us today, but it was part of daily life throughout the ancient world. To keep the gods from getting angry, ancient peoples offered them animals both to appease their potential anger and as a kind of substitute for themselves.

 

Does God really require blood sacrifices? It is common in many Christian circles today to say that because justice is intrinsic to God’s nature, someone has to pay for the sins against him that people have committed.

 

On the one hand, there is some biblical evidence that God requires blood:

 

“Nearly everything is cleansed by blood according to the Law, and apart from the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).

 

Yet surely God could declare forgiveness by a divine order if he wanted to do so. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) say nothing of someone having to pay. Those who represent God in these parables simply forgive by their command.

 

God thus chose sacrifice in part because it was something the first audiences of the Bible could understand and identify with immediately.  Sacrifice also teaches us about God’s demand to be honored and about the judgment awaiting those who do not ultimately submit to his rule (Rom. 2:25-26). At the same time, it demonstrates his great love for us in that God was willing to substitute his own Son for our reconciliation to him (Rom. 5:8).

 

But with Christ, all sacrifice of this sort is now at an end. With one offering, atonement is accomplished. No amount of action or work on our part could secure what Christ did for us on the cross. It is strictly God’s gracious willingness to count Christ’s faithful death as atonement that effects our salvation:

 

“By grace you have been saved through your trust [in God], and this is not something of your instigation. It is the gift of God, not on the basis of your actions, so that no one can boast [about it]” (Eph. 2:8-9).

 

Ephesians’ wording is careful—you are now in a saved state because you have trusted in what God has done through Christ. Although salvation is technically still a future event (cf. Eph. 1:13-14), your faith has secured your reservation. It’s a done deal.

 

As Christians, we do not have to fear the future wrath of God, because Christ has atoned for sins. “We will be saved from wrath through his blood” (Rom. 5:9). As we will see, we are also freed from the power of sin as well through Christ:

 

“In his death, he died once and for all to sin; in his life, he lives to God. So also you also must reckon yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:10-11).

 

Salvation is a done deal. All we need to do is sign up for it.

 

 

3. Signing up for salvation

Christians today often talk about when they got “saved.” What they mean is when they “signed up” for salvation.

 

Romans 10:9 gives us a simple overview of how we can reserve our salvation on the Day of Judgment:

 

“If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and have faith in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

 

The apostle Paul argued both with his fellow Jews and even some other Christians about how a person might be considered right with God. Some of his Jewish brothers thought that they had inherited acceptance with God because of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. Paul disagreed:

 

“All [that is, both Jew and Gentile] have sinned and are lacking the glory of God [intended for humanity].”

 

Paul had been very diligent at keeping the Jewish law (cf. Phil. 3:6), so when he found out even he was not right with God, he concluded that no one could be right with God apart from Christ:

 

“We reckon that a person is considered right with God on the basis of faith apart from keeping the Jewish law” (Rom. 3:28).

 

This faith is a trust in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God considers those right with God “who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over because of our transgressions and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:24-26).

 

Justification is a legal term that has to do with us being considered acceptable to God. If we think of a court scene, it is being acquitted of sin and being found “not guilty.” God “justifies” us, declares us right with him, if we trust in what he has done through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. Further, we accept Jesus as the Lord of all, as we saw above in Romans 10:9.

 

Our faith in God and Christ thus brings about our justification:

 

“Therefore, since we have been justified on the basis of faith we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).

 

Acts 2:38 also speaks of repentance and baptism as a part of being reconciled to God.  These are elements of getting right with God that are especially important to Luke.  Paul mentions these things in passing, but they do not play as great a role in his way of talking about salvation.

 

“Repent and let each of you be baptized on the basis of the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

 

In this response of Peter to the Jewish crowds in Jerusalem, Acts gives us some other important pieces to the puzzle of signing up for salvation. We must turn toward God and away from those aspects of our lives that have been contrary to him. Water baptism represents the cleansing of our sins and God’s forgiveness.

 

But the most essential component of all in coming to Christ is God’s part. After God justifies us on the basis of our faith in him, his Holy Spirit enters our life and makes us officially his: “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Both Luke and Paul agree that the Spirit is the most important element in belonging to God.

 

Paul says on this topic that “if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not of him” (Rom. 8:9). God is “the one who has sealed us [in ownership] and has given us the guaranteeing down payment of the Holy Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:22). The Holy Spirit inside a Christian is thus the tell-tale sign of God’s ownership of us. Spirit is the stuff of heaven, and the Holy Spirit inside us is a foretaste of glory divine.

 

Acts tells us that receiving the Holy Spirit involves a cleansing of the heart on the basis of faith (Acts 15:9).  This event refers to the forgiveness of our sins. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 speaks of God choosing the Thessalonian church “for salvation by the sanctification of the Spirit and by trust in the truth.” Sanctification means that something becomes holy—it comes to belong to God. You don’t treat lightly something that belongs to a god.

 

The term holiness has as much of a feel to it as a definition. It is the god-ness or holiness of God that led the prophet Isaiah to fall on his face in Isaiah 6. It was the god-ness or holiness of God that led Israel to put to death any animal that happened to touch the mountain where God was speaking to Moses in Exodus 19. When 1 Peter 1:16 says “Be holy, because I am holy,” it means to live in a manner that is worthy of the one to whom you belong: God.

 

If we think of sin as something that makes us dirty, the sanctification we experience when we become a Christian is like a cleansing, as we saw in Acts 15:9 above. Hebrews 9:14 tells us of the cleansing of our spirits that takes place as the sacrifice of Christ sanctifies and cleanses us of our past sins. We are made “clean” inside.

 

We can tie all these images together:

 

1.    We “sign up” for salvation by placing our faith in what God has done for us in Christ, including Christ’s sacrificial death and his victorious resurrection. By acknowledging Christ’s resurrection we acknowledge him as Lord. In response, God justifies us and considers us right with him, acquitted of our sins.

 

2.    We must repent or turn from our sins if this faith in God is to be authentic.

 

3.    We will be baptized in water as a reenactment of the cleansing God does inside us.

 

4.    God will cleanse our “inside” by sending his Holy Spirit in our hearts. This sanctifies us or makes us God’s possession. As we will see, it also empowers us!

 

 

4. Saved from the power of sin

An area of the New Testament’s teaching that is greatly misunderstood is the place of sin in the life of a Christian. You will commonly hear Christians today say that a Christian cannot help but sin, that sin is part of what it is to be human.

 

In some senses of the word “sin,” this sentiment is true. We will never be absolutely perfect in what we do. Take sins of omission, for example, most if not all of us from time to time will unintentionally fail to do things we should have done. Or take sins of ignorance: most if not all of us will unintentionally wrong others or fail to give God his due at some point or another. The Old Testament considers these kinds of wrongdoing sin and requires their atonement.

 

But for the most part, the New Testament is not referring to these types of sin when it ascribes blame. The New Testament almost exclusively is thinking of willful, intentional wrongdoing when it speaks of sin. I can honestly say that there is not a single passage in the New Testament that teaches an individual Christian cannot help but sin intentionally. The New Testament teaches that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:10) and thus that all of us have sin that we need Christ to cleanse (1 John 1:8). But it does not teach that Christians cannot help but do sin.

 

While the New Testament does not typically use the word “salvation” in reference to the power of sin, part of being in Christ is being saved from the power of sin over our lives, the power that makes it impossible to “do the good” we might want to do. One of the most important respects in which we can be saved today literally is being saved from the death grip of sin over our lives and the way we live. Paul puts it in this way:

 

“What will we say? Should we remain in sin so that grace might abound? Certainly not! How will we who have died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1).

 

And again,

 

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free to righteousness..., but now that you have been set free from sin and enslaved to God, you have your fruit in holiness and the end result of it is eternal life” (Rom. 6:20, 22).


“For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins aroused through the Law used to work in our members, so that we bore fruit to death, but now because we have died [with Christ] we have been released from the Law by which we used to be held so that we might serve in the newness of the Spirit...” (Rom. 7:5-6).


“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1-2).


“A wretched human am I! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Praise be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).

 

Some will notice that I have given Paul’s words both before and after a famous passage that is often quoted to say that Paul did not believe a Christian could ever keep from sinning. The broader context in Romans makes this popular reading impossible. When Paul says “the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14), he cannot be talking about his current experience without contradicting his entire train of thought in Romans 6-8. He has already made it powerfully clear that Christians—including himself—are no longer “slaves of sin” but “have been freed” (Rom. 6:20, 22 above).

 

It is an atrocious and violent misreading of Paul to see Romans 7:13-24 as a testimony to Paul’s failure at keeping the Law. If we read these verses in context rather than ripping them out of Romans, they are Paul explaining why a person under the Law is unable to do good even if he or she wants to.

 

But in Paul’s thought, a Christian is no longer under the Law. These verses in Romans 7 thus depict a person who might want to do good, but who does not have the Spirit to enable them actually to do it. Such a person in Paul’s thought is still “in the flesh,” under the power of sin over human flesh. Such a person might say, “I find a rule in me—the one who wants to do the good—that bad is present in me” (Rom. 7:21).

 

But it is a beginner’s understanding of language that thinks the present tense always means present time. Let’s say I am wanting to talk about what it is like to want to do good but not be able to do it. Although I try to do good, I can’t because of the power sin has over me. This last sentence is in the present tense, but I was not talking about my current experience. I was talking in vivid terms about the person who is “in the flesh” rather than in the Spirit.

 

Paul pleads for us to read on.

 

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).

 

This is a somewhat difficult passage for us to get our minds around. Did Paul not write these words while he was in his body? The flesh for Paul must have something to do with our “mortal bodies” or else it is a strange word to use. We can think of the flesh for Paul as our bodies under the power of sin. To be under the power of sin for Paul primarily meant that we find ourselves helpless against temptation, we cannot help but give into it and sin.

 

To be freed from the power of sin is thus to do the right, to “fulfill the righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4). Paul and other New Testament authors sum up the essence of the law as loving of our neighbors and enemies (e.g., Matt. 5:44, 48; 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10; James 2:8). Or in another place, Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

 

In contrast the kinds of things that a Christian can be victorious over include: “sexual immorality, uncleanness, indecency, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, divisiveness, factionalism, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things that are similar to these” (Gal. 5:19-21). Paul calls these the deeds of the flesh, and strongly commands us to “walk by the Spirit and you will never follow through with the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

 

We find similar passages elsewhere in the New Testament that make it clear that a Christian should be victorious over temptation and not sin intentionally:

 

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to humanity. And God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are capable. But he will make with the temptation a way of escape so you are able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

 

“Everyone who has been born of God does not practice sin, because God’s seed remains in him. And he is not able to be sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).

 

The New Testament authors thus taught that the norm for a Christian was to beat any temptation to sin that comes your way. Many debates have arisen over the particulars of this claim. Some have simply reinterpreted the words to mean something else—surely Paul could not have meant such a thing. Others have systematized and internalized Paul’s words in ways that take them well beyond anything he was thinking. While we expect Christian thinkers to expand and re-appropriate the New Testament’s teaching in our categories, we should remember the simple aspects of the New Testament’s way of thinking.

 

Thus these authors were not talking about feelings or, really, even about attitudes or orientations as we conceptualize them. We have become very introspective in modern culture, and we think a lot about things that go on in our heads that never express themselves in concrete action or even become clear intentions. Feelings in themselves are neither good nor bad; they just are. It’s what we do with them that relates to sin—and whether they are moving in a certain direction over time.

 

But the power of sin for Paul referred to concrete action or concrete intention. He would not recognize our debates about whether God eradicates or suppresses a fleshly, carnal nature inside us. If we are victorious over sin, then we are freed from sin in his mind.

 

To be sure, we can sin intentionally and concretely in our heads as well. Thus the Sermon on the Mount indicts not just the person who has an affair, but the person who plans one out in his head. But Jesus was not likely referring to passing thoughts or feelings. The ancient mind just wasn’t wired to focus in on such detail about our internal eddies of thought and emotion. As one contemporary proverb says, “You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair.”

 

Therefore, in theory, all Christians should be consistently victorious over temptation and should not sin intentionally and willfully.

 

 

5. From Theory to Practice

It is fairly clear in theory that the New Testament teaches Christians are supposed to be consistently victorious over the temptation to sin. But even if we did not look any more at the New Testament, we would all affirm that this theory doesn’t always make it to our practice.

 

1 John 2:1-2 powerfully attest to this fact:

 

“My children, I am writing these things to you so that you will not sin. And if someone should sin, we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the righteous one. And he himself is an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only our sins, but even for the sins of the whole world.”

 

Similarly, in the middle of Paul’s presentation of the powerful truth of victory over slavery to sin, Paul writes,

 

“Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies so that you obey its desires” (Rom. 6:12).

 

Willful sin remains a possibility for believers, even though they have the Spirit. While we should be free from the power sin can have over our mortal bodies, in a sense, the power of sin is only as far away as our bodies, just as victory over sin is only as far away as the Holy Spirit.

 

The Corinthian church provides us with a helpful, although unfortunate example of the fact that Christians can be torn between “flesh” and “spirit.” On the one hand, Paul refers to the members of this church as “sanctified” (1 Cor. 1:2)—they belong to God and are set apart by the Spirit as his. He tells them “you are the temple of God,” and “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Cor. 16).

 

Yet at the same time, they were fleshly:

 

“I was not able to speak to you as to spiritual people but as to people made of flesh, babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink and not solid food, for you were not yet able. Even now you are not able [to stomach it]. For you are still fleshly” (1 Cor. 3:1-3).

 

While the Corinthians claimed to be spiritual, Paul makes it clear that they really weren’t.

 

What did their fleshliness look like? It looked like the deeds of the flesh Paul mentions in Galatians 5:19-21.

 

“You are still fleshly. For when there is jealousy and strife, are you not fleshly and walking on a human level?” (1 Cor. 3:3).

 

Here we have a sharp point of dissonance between where the Corinthians were and where they needed to be. Paul encourages them to “become what they are.”

 

Again, we should not think of their fleshliness in terms of passing desires or of thoughts swirling around in their minds. 1 Corinthians is a testimony to the concrete ways in which jealousy and strife were showing themselves in the every day lives of the church.

 

Historically, various traditions have taken different approaches to the question of “becoming what you are” in Christ. Among those with an optimistic view of God’s power over sin, some have still seen the Christian life as an endless struggle between a desire to sin and God’s power over temptation (Keswick). John Wesley had some days of optimism, in which he taught a person could in God’s timing deliver you even from an orientation toward sinning.[1] On his pessimistic days, he might see this moment just before death. Phoebe Palmer in the 1800’s argued for a “shorter way.” She saw God’s removal of the bent toward sin as a matter of faith that a Christian might appropriate almost immediately after coming to Christ.

 

All these discussions go well beyond anything a New Testament author would recognize. Paul was dealing with someone who wanted to do good but couldn’t, not with someone who could do good, but had a part that didn’t want to. Nevertheless, these traditions bespeak a common truth: that God can make you consistently victorious over sin in this life and that he can even change a person’s inclination to sin.

 

Some testify to an instantaneous moment when they experienced an empowerment over sin of immense proportions, a time when after a long struggle with the desire for sin they were freed and empowered. Others would attest to a gradual empowerment over certain desires and struggles over time. Regardless of the path, the destination is clear.  God can and wants to give us the power to defeat sin in our lives, whatever its form.

 

God will scarcely do this work for us unless we are a “fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ,” to use a phrase made popular by Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church. The first step in power over sin is to surrender our lives as best we know how to God. Sure, new things will enter our lives—we will need to surrender those as they arise. And from time to time we might struggle again with things over which we had previously seen victory—we must surrender them again. But God will only “fill” those parts of our lives that we have made available to him.

 

Ultimately, power over sin and an orientation toward righteousness is not something we can do in our own power. Becoming a fully empowered follower of Jesus Christ is only something God can do for us through his Holy Spirit. This is a matter of faith and, as we will see, usually involves God’s church.

 

“Therefore, in the light of God’s mercy, I urge you, brothers, to be presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, well pleasing to God, your appropriate service of worship. And stop being conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you can demonstrate what the will of God is, his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1-2).

 

 

6. Working out Salvation Together

Western culture pushes us to think of salvation and sanctification as an individual experience, but the Bible thinks about most of these things as much in corporate as individual terms. So while we tend to think of our individual bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul uses the plural word for you:

 

“your [plural] body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you [plural]” (1 Cor. 6:19).

 

The Holy Spirit inhabits the church as his body even more than our individual bodies.

 

Similarly, Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is “May the God of peace himself sanctify you [plural] completely, and may your [plural] whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). Paul equates belonging to God and thus being holy (being sanctified) to being free of blame. He prays that the Thessalonians will be this way collectively even more than for each one individually.

 

And so we are not surprised that Paul also encourages his churches to work together so that they are all saved on the Day of Judgment:

 

“So, my beloved ones, just as you always obeyed, not only when I was there but now even more now in my absence, work out your [plural] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

 

As usual, Paul is speaking in the plural. The Philippians are to work together to help each other make it to the day of salvation.

 

The idea of “working” having anything to do with salvation goes against the grain of much Christian thinking today, but it was an essential element in Paul’s understanding. Here it is important to point out the difference between justification—becoming right with God—and salvation—escaping God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment because you remain right with him. Only faith or trust is operative in justification. But God expects us to honor him in response to his grace in order to be saved ultimately.

 

Paul only contrasted faith and works when he was writing about becoming a Christian. Even then, he primarily contrasted faith in Christ with works of the Jewish Law (e.g., Gal. 2:16). At the same time he made it clear that faith will yield a certain kind of “fruit” in one’s life (e.g., Rom. 6:22). In 1 Thessalonians, Paul commends the Thessalonians for their “work of faith” (1:3).

 

Further, the same passage in Ephesians that says “by grace you have been saved through faith... not on the basis of works so that no one can boast” goes on in the very next verse to say,

 

“For we are his creation and we have been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared ahead of time so that we might walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

 

It is thus God’s will that Christians walk together (“we”) in a certain way after they are justified, a way that Ephesians calls “good works.”

 

We can gain great clarity on these things if we realize that one way in which the original audiences of the New Testament would have understood grace—often defined as “unmerited favor”—is in terms of what scholars call patron-client relationships. Patrons were wealthy individuals with excess resources. Clients were individuals who could use these resources. Patrons often gained honor and prestige in the ancient world by accruing clients to them. The clients of course did not earn or merit such hand outs—the giving was much greater than anything the client could return. But at the same time, the client was usually expected to do various things for the patron in turn, not least of which was give them honor for their giving. If clients did not appropriately honor their patrons, the giving would of course stop.

 

While this model is not the only way early Christians would have understood their relationship with God, grace and gift language pushes us to see it as one way they did. God was a divine patron who freely gave to those who sought him. No one could earn his divine patronage. On the other hand, the idea that such patronage came with no strings attached would have made no sense at all to any of the New Testament authors or audiences. After all, this is the same God who made a covenant with Israel in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 28 leaves no doubt that such a covenant involved clear expectations of God’s people in return.

 

Thus in the New Testament, God expects his people to serve him in return for his gracious gift of justification and salvation. If they do not serve him, 1 John 5:16-17 speaks of a “sin unto death” that severs our relationship to God. Similarly, Hebrews 10:26-27 says,

 

“If we continue to sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, the sacrifice for sins no longer remains, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and of the eager fire that is about to eat God’s enemies.”

 

Paul himself expresses the need for faithfulness when he says things like

 

“So I run, not as if I did not have a goal. So I box, not as if I were beating the air. But I keep my body under control and I lead it as a slave so that I myself might not become disqualified somehow after I have preached to others” (1 Cor. 9:26-27).

 

And

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings as I am conformed to his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

 

Even Paul himself did not believe his acceptance in Christ was unconditional. It demanded an appropriate response, a response Paul was determined to give.

 

Paul had not yet attained the resurrection. The next verse in Philippians 3 continues:

 

“Not that I have already received [resurrection] or have already been perfected [as I move into the next age], but I pursue [the resurrection] if also I might take hold of that for which I was even taken hold of by Christ. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of [this resurrection]. But one thing [I do], forgetting the things behind and reaching out to the things before me, I pursue with my eye on the goal the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:12-14).

 

It is common to think of Paul as forgetting his past sins and failures here when he says he is forgetting that which is behind. But we can only do so if we rip these words from their context. The earlier part of the chapter is a rehearsal of Paul’s accomplishments on a human level—that which was “to my gain” (Phil. 3:7). Indeed, Paul here says that he had been blameless as far as the righteousness that was in the Jewish Law (3:6). This comment debunks the all too common notion that Paul felt like a failure at keeping the Law before he became a Christian. On the contrary, Luke 18:9-14 probably is a better picture of the pre-Christian Paul in his Pharisee days.

 

It is also common to see Paul’s comments in Philippians 3:12-14 as a basis for the idea that “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Again, you have to ignore what Paul has been talking about to interpret it this way. The verse that precedes this passage is talking about resurrection. Paul is saying he is not yet absolutely guaranteed a place in the resurrection and thus, salvation. I don’t think Paul ever had serious doubts or felt insecure—nor should we. But he reminds the Philippians that they must remain faithful to God even after God has graciously made us right with himself through Christ (cf. Phil. 3:9).

 

Paul ends the section in this way:

 

“Therefore, as many of us as are perfect [mature], let us have this attitude. And if you think differently on something, God will also reveal this fact to you. However, let us walk appropriately to that which we have already reached” (Phil. 3:15-16).

 

After Paul has mentioned perfection as something that will happen at the resurrection (Phil. 3:12), he refers to the Philippians as already perfect or complete in a sense (3:15). The mature attitude is for them to continue together on their journey toward salvation. God will reveal areas of growth. But far from saying, “you will mess up continually on things you’ve already mastered,” Paul says not to fall back on those things. Move forward without falling back from where you are.

 

How can we move forward toward salvation together?

 

Any number of obvious answers present themselves. We can pray for each other (1 John 5:16). We can carry each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We can confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We can intercede for others that we see sinning and work for their reconciliation (James 5:19-20).

 

There are any number of enslavements we know of today that most often seem healed through the care of others. We hear testimonies of instantaneous healing from various addictions in the past. Is it our lack of faith that keeps us from seeing them today? Regardless, God seems to work often today through the body of Christ and through others to bring us healing on various enslavements in our lives. We should not shun each other. The person who tries to be victorious over some temptation alone today is often someone who repeatedly fails. The Bible urges us to bear each other’s burdens, and this instruction can only take place if we share them with people we trust and to whom we can be accountable.

 

Many Protestants are also prone to ignore various “means of grace” that God has given the church as a way of experiencing his presence and strength. If communion is practiced correctly, we should feel an extra shot of God’s power after we have received it and be invigorated by the “communion” with the rest of the church.

 

Prayer and devotions have become means of grace in our time. But we’ve forgotten things like fasting, hospitality, and confession. Some of these things we can do in private to find God’s strength in our struggle against sin. But the Bible urges us not to forget the corporate ones as we work toward salvation. We should “not abandon meeting together, as is the habit of some, but we should [come together] to encourage each other” (Heb. 10:25).

 

We can celebrate the return of the small group in recent years. John Wesley organized small groups like these with a rigor we would feel uncomfortable about today. But the idea was exactly what we need to work out our salvation together, not as a group afraid or insecure, but secure and optimistic in the love of God for us. When we think that the Corinthian church may have only constituted a group of about 40-50 people, we realize that they were far more accountable to each other than many of us are in our churches today.

 

We probably should not close our discussion without some mention of corporate sin.  The goal is of course for us to find ourselves before God as a “glorious church, without spot or wrinkle” (cf. Eph. 5:27).  But it seems unfathomable that we will ever find the church on earth to be entirely pure.  There is a place for the church as a whole to confess its corporate sin, particularly those things that we have left undone.  We will never have helped those in need as much as we could or witnessed to the world to the best we could have.  It also seems likely that we will always find some in the church who still think with their flesh.  The process of redemption is both a corporate and an individual matter.

 

Luke and Acts especially speak of salvation in terms of the restoration of God’s people and the forgiveness of their sins.  To be sure, Luke-Acts think of this salvation firstly in terms of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins and the restoration of Israel, formulated in terms of the Israel of that day.  But these books also see the gospel as a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), who are now expected to repent of their sins as well and become part of the people of God (Acts 17:30).  If we extend the meaning a little, we might just find a model for the corporate forgiveness of the church today as it moves toward ultimate salvation (cf. also 2 Chronicles 7:14). 

 

God also means for the church to be a witness to the world, changing it by his grace to turn to him (cf. Matt. 18:19-20).  It will not always be possible in every time and place for us to have great impact on our world.  At least it may not seem that we are having such an impact.  But God calls the church to go and to make disciples.  Acts does not model a pessimistic view of the success we will have in this task.  We must keep in mind that the church that wrote Revelation and 1 Peter was a suffering church.  In other times and places God does not expect things to get worse and worse.  In some periods of history God has used the church to make things better and better.  We must be faithful to our task and let God decide the increase he will give (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6).

 

 

7. Glorious Ultimate Salvation

Romans 3:23 says that

 

“all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God.”

 

Many take the glory of God here in some way to refer to a moral standard to which we cannot attain. Thus the New Living Translation renders it “God’s glorious standard.”

 

But when we get into Paul’s world, it becomes extremely likely that Paul is alluding to Psalm 8 in his Greek Bible:

 

What are humans, that you remember them,

     or the son of a human, that you look on him?

You made them lower than the angels for a little while.

     You crowned them with glory and honor.

You appointed them over the works of your hands

     You subjected everything under their feet.

 

We find a number of places in Hebrews and Paul’s writings that allude to this psalm. From these scattered comments we can reconstruct the story of salvation:


1. God created humanity to be in the role we read about in the psalm. Humanity was meant to have glory and honor in the creation. “When he subjected everything to humanity, he left nothing un-subjected to them” (Heb. 2:8).


2. But Adam sinned, and all have sinned like Adam, “and are lacking the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Humanity did not attain to the glory God intended them to have. This is the problem. As Hebrews says, “Now we do not yet see everything subjected to them” (Heb. 2:8).


3. But God had a solution.

 

“But what we do see is one who was made lower than the angels for a little while—Jesus—who because of his suffering of death was crowned with glory and honor so that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of all” (Heb. 2:9).

 

At the resurrection, Jesus will conquer death for good.

 

“Death is destroyed as the last enemy, for God subjected everything under Christ’s feet... and when everything is subjected to Christ, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjects everything to himself (1 Cor. 15:26-27).


4. Ultimate salvation certainly means escaping God’s wrath. But it also means attaining finally the glory God intended humanity to have.

 

“Through Jesus we have had our entrance into this grace in which we stand and we boast because of our hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2).


“It was fitting for God, because of whom and through whom all things exist, to perfect Jesus through sufferings—Jesus, who leads many children to glory, the pioneer of humanity’s salvation (Heb. 2:10).

 

This “glorification” will take place at the resurrection for those Christians who have died before the time of Christ’s return. For those who are alive and remain at his coming, it will take place as we are caught up to be with the Lord:

 

“Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we all will be transformed, in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:51-52).


“For our citizenship exists in the heavens, from which we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humility to the same form as the body of his glory according to the power that enables him even to subject everything to himself (Phil. 3:20-21).

 

And it is not just we who will experience this transformation, this ultimate liberation from our mortal bodies. The creation itself as a whole will finally experience its salvation from the power of sin and corruption.

 

“For we consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy in comparison to the glory that is about to be revealed to us. For the eager expectation of the creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility because of hope. For even the creation itself will be freed from the slavery of corruption for the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:18-21).

 

What a glorious hope! It is full salvation, by any reckoning.

 


8. Conclusion

This short account of salvation in the New Testament is a story that begins even before where we began it. It begins with a gracious God who creates a universe full of hope. He creates humanity and shows his greatness by his concern for such a small part of all that is. He creates us to experience a place of glory and honor over the creation.

 

But it doesn’t happen. As a result of Adam’s sin humanity is demoted and is lacking the intended glory of God. The created realm, including our physical bodies, is enslaved to the power of sin and the decay we now see in the creation.

 

Still, the story does not end at this point. Because of God’s great love and his saving righteousness, God sends Jesus his Son to troubleshoot the human problem. Jesus lives out the human experiment without sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). Accordingly, he is able to attain the glory intended for humanity and is now in a position to lead many other children to glory as well.

 

At the resurrection, God will transform our bodies to be like Christ’s glorious body. We will be finally and ultimately glorified. We will no longer face even the possibility of being in the flesh for “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Further, the creation itself will be transformed. It will no longer be subject to decay and corruption.

 

“Thanks be to God, who gives to us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:57).

 



[1] I am indebted to Dr. Chris Bounds of Indiana Wesleyan University for this breakdown of movements in the Wesleyan tradition.