At first appearance you may be thinking to yourself, "Duh . . . of course it is," but what I mean by "process" may not be exactly what you're thinking. Then again, maybe it is.
This whole "process" concept stands in contrast to both the evangelical understanding of the idea (if I may paint it with a broad brush) and the typical - or, perhaps more accurately, the "historical" - Adventist understanding of it. The former group usually talks about salvation from a purely past/accomplished perspective - ie., salvation is something that has been accomplished at some point in time in the past. This is often accompanied by the idea that, since salvation happened in the past, it can never be forfeited by the individual. Furthermore, this salvation is only effective for the individual who has accepted - or will accept - it (though strict Calvinists would say that it was effective at the cross for the "elect").
Meanwhile, the typical/historical Adventist view places salvation at a very punctiliar point in time in the future. This is what we would call "eschatological salvation." In other words, salvation can only be strictly defined from the perspective of those who are living eternally in heaven or on the new earth. Thus, one cannot presently "have" salvation, per se, because salvation history has not ended. Salvation, then, is only a "future accomplishment."
There are, of course, Adventists who do maintain that one can have the assurance of present salvation. However, this is predicated upon the idea that one must first repent, confess, believe, and accept Christ's offer of salvation.
There are other views of salvation, of course, but these are essentially the major views that a person will encounter - especially those who are a part of my particular faith community. Though there are some differences in the above views, there are at least three important similarities in these - and just about every soteriological - understanding of the subject.
1) Salvation is understood to be effective for only a select group (either "the elect," in Calvinism's understanding, or those who "believe," in every other theory). The exception to this is, of course, "universalism" - a theory that has gotten a lot of press lately - which maintains that everyone will eventually be "saved." This latter theory is so far off base, however, that we need not discuss it presently!
2) Salvation is understood to be only punctiliar in the person's life; meaning, it has a specific point of beginning - usually effective only upon one's acceptance. Though some Adventists who maintain that salvation can be experienced now - as opposed to the future - might object to the "punctiliar" nature of my claim, far too often it is viewed by such individuals as such in reality. That is because, quite often, salvation turns into a "yo-yo" where people are "in and out" of it, thus reflecting the idea that at one point you are in it, the other point you are not, and so on.
3) Each group stresses its favorite passages of Scripture that bolster their argument to the exclusion of passages of Scripture that seem to contradict their argument. Thus, those who subscribe to the idea of "eschatological salvation" will focus on those passages of Scripture that speak of salvation purely as a future accomplishment, and they will either ignore or explain away the passages of Scripture that seem to speak of salvation as a "past accomplishment." The same is true of those who are "accomplished salvation" advocates.
What would help all groups is if they allowed all Scripture to have its place at the table and see that all these verses complement one another to form a unified whole; a beautiful picture of the process of salvation.
Specifically, when one studies the witness of Scripture exhaustively on the subject, one finds that the biblical view of salvation is that it is a past, ongoing, and future accomplishment all at once. This may seem like an inherent contradiction, but not when one thinks in terms of "process" rather than specific, punctiliar points in time. Furthermore, as we will discover, there is no doubt that the Bible very clear talks about those who "have been saved," "are being saved," and "will be saved" - categories that are not necessarily talking about different groups of people.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let's examine these three categories and grapple with the implications.
Of course, it would probably be important for us to define the word "salvation" first, as well as what we mean when we talk about the word "saved," though this will inevitably be affected by our presuppositions. However, the Greek words that are used for these two words, soteria (noun) and sozo (verb), have the idea of not only saving, but rescuing, delivering, and even healing. In the Greek culture surrounding the New Testament's composition, the words had the connotation of what the gods or men did in rescuing others from serious danger, as well as saving from illness, or even deliverance from judicial condemnation. What I also find interesting is that the word sozo is related to the idea of "making safe," a concept that has tremendous implications as it relates to salvation in its final form. (These definitions, relating to the Greek culture, were taken from Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, pp. 965ff.)
The point is, we must allow all of these meanings to have their full weight when we discuss this issue because, too often, we have a very narrow understanding of salvation which focuses solely on whether or not we would "go to heaven" if the Lord came right now. If this is salvation and "being saved" in its entirety, however, not only will we miss the fullness of what God wants to teach us about salvation, but I would argue we might miss out on that final goal altogether!
I also want to point out something else that I am in the process of grappling with: in my personal study of this topic, I have really only done an exhaustive study of these two words (soteria and sozo) in the New Testament. I have not done any extensive study in the LXX (the Greek version of the OT), nor have I done an extensive study on the Hebrew word yasha. This is, no doubt, a fault of my present thinking since the OT is really foundational to any topic in Scripture, but that is where I am right now.
Secondly, I am also in the process of studying related salvation words like "justification," "forgiveness," "reconciliation," "righteousness," etc., but have not finished it yet (nor will I ever finish studying this whole topic throughout eternity, I know). I continue to grapple with the relationship of all these words to the salvation process as a whole. In other words, are the words "forgiveness," "justification," and "salvation," interchangeable synonyms, for example? Or are they speaking of completely different aspects of a larger package?
I know that some might propose that these other words and concepts are included in the "salvation" package and are a part of the end-salvation product, but I am not yet sure they are not speaking of the same concept in different terminology and imagery.
With all this being said, we will now turn to a more exhaustive study of the subject at hand. But that will have to wait for Part 2.