So how is a person "saved"? What does it mean to be "saved" to begin with? And what is the goal of "salvation"?
These are questions that many of us often give casual and hasty thought to. This is because we either assume we know the answers already, or we believe the questions are not all that important to begin with. We know the string of texts that we use to explain how a person is saved. You know, "All have sinned" (Romans 3:23), "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), "For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). So we give a nod to God and "believeth in Him," and that's the end of the story; we're in - and that's all that matters.
While this string of texts has certainly led many into a walk with Christ, I am not sure that it really gets at the heart of what God is trying to reveal about, not only salvation, but also His character and what He's trying to accomplish in the grand scheme of things.
This string of texts presents other problems as well, mainly because it speaks to the problem I mentioned in Part 1 where we usually view salvation as a punctiliar event, rather than a process. Furthermore, we become challenged when we are confronted with Scriptural nuances in relation to salvation that don't fit into our preconceived ideas, be they speaking to the idea that salvation is something that happens in the future or something that happened in the past.
So, although the "science of salvation" can be rather simple, it can also be rather deep. Or, put another way, there is a deep simplicity to it that deserves our attention!
The Importance of Tenses
It is interesting to survey the NT usage of the words "salvation" and "save," especially noting the tenses of the latter word. This is critical. Doing so is very revealing, in and of itself. For example, the Greek word sozo is used 11x in the present tense, 31x in the future tense, 1x in the imperfect, 10x in the perfect, and 54x in the aorist. The last three tenses, though not neatly fitting into the category, are usually considered to be "past" tenses. So this means that out of the 107x the verb sozo ("to save") is used in the NT, roughly 60% of the time it is in reference to something that happened - or started to happen - in the past (though almost always it is, in fact, a completed action, since the perfect and aorist tenses both denote completed action, with the imperfect tense denoting something that started in the past, with no reference to whether it has been completed or not).
This, to me, is very telling. The NT spends the bulk of its time talking about salvation in a past, completed sense. This doesn't mean we should overlook the present and future elements of the process at all. On the contrary, these elements are critical. What it indicates to me, however, is that we need to recognize the importance of the foundational reality of Christ's accomplished salvific work, recognizing the implications of what the NT authors bring out about it.
As an example of these past tense sozo verbs, notice one of the most well-known passages on the salvation process. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul states, "For by grace you have been saved [perfect tense] through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" (NKJV). Elsewhere, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:9 that God "has saved us [aorist] and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began" (NKJV). Finally, Paul again writes that God "saved us [aorist], not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (NASB).
Of course, it must be made clear that these passages do have some exegetical issues and they are not entirely as cut-and-dry as the versions I quoted make them appear. But, though the Greek of the passages is nuanced, I believe the versions I quoted are about as accurate as any other version.
With that being said, it is interesting to note some commonalities between these three verses as it relates to an "accomplished salvation."
1) Paul very clearly states in all these verses that we were not saved "by works." In fact, both Ephesians 2:9 and Titus 3:5 use the exact same Greek phrase to explain this: "Not of works" (ouk ex ergon), while 2 Timothy 1:9 says "not according to our works" (ou kata ta erga hemon).
2) Each passage presents our having been "saved" as a unilateral act done on God's part, accomplished by His grace and mercy, apart from anything we have done. Ephesians clearly states that it is "by grace" that we have been saved (which is an echo of what Paul had already said in v. 5), while he states to Timothy that we have been saved "according to His . . . grace," and he says to Titus that we have been saved "according to His mercy." Just a few verses later in Titus, as well, he also states that we have "been justified by His grace."
Of course, the astute student will point out that Paul does say, in Ephesians, that we have been saved "by grace through faith," thus implying that this "accomplished salvation" is not a completely one-sided, unilateral act done by God.
But whose faith does it speak of? Paul does not clarify! Thus, I cannot help but think that the "through faith" element that Paul speaks about is not our faith, but God's and Christ's faith (see Gal 2:16 in the KJV for further evidence of being saved/justified by Christ's faith). This, of course, is a whole other subject in and of itself that deserves an exhaustive treatment, but we will have to return to that in the future.
3) Each passage speaks of this "accomplished salvation" from a corporate perspective. The "you" of Ephesians is in the plural, whereas the "us" in both 2 Timothy and Titus are, obviously, in the plural as well.
What is the significance of this? Put another way, who has "been saved"? I believe contextually that Paul states that all of humanity has been unilaterally saved by God's grace. Ephesians 2:4-6, for example, states that "God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive [aorist tense] together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together [aorist], and made us sit [aorist] together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."
This is a powerful, powerful passage that speaks to Christ's one-sided, objective work which He accomplished. Using aorist verb after aorist verb, Paul plainly states that "we" were raised up on that resurrection morning and were seated together "in Christ" when He ascended to heaven. And all this was done and completed "when we were dead in trespasses."
Furthermore, he speaks to this same point in Titus when he says that Christ "saved us" (3:5). But who is the "us"? Was it simply Paul and Titus, or even other Christians? On the contrary! Starting in the previous verse, Paul states that "when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared . . . He saved us." This is further solidified by what he shares in the previous chapter: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." Or, as the NASB states it, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men" (the Greek of this passage is a little ambiguous and thus it has been translated differently by just about every version).
All this is to say that this salvation which has been accomplished, is not simply speaking of a select few; of believers who accept it or repent. No, on the contrary, when the Bible speaks about salvation as a past accomplishment, it is speaking about what God has accomplished unilaterally for the whole world - yes, even sinners and those who do not believe.
This idea is certainly not accepted by many. In fact, it is looked upon with great disdain. Nevertheless, this is a biblical idea, as one part - a very important part - of the salvation process. Truthfully, it is the foundational component of the salvation process and if it is overlooked, the rest of the process really has nothing on which to build.
Of course, we need to hasten to clarify what the Bible is saying when it talks about Christ "saving the whole world" as a past accomplishment. This is not universalism. The Bible is not saying that everyone will enjoy "eschatological salvation" and be "saved at last." What the Bible speaks about when it places salvation in the context of a past accomplishment is that Christ has unilaterally saved everyone from the "penalty" of sin.
Though some may object to this, since people will, no doubt, receive the penalty for sin in the future, it takes little thought to recognize the truth of the statement. One question will suffice in realizing this: has any human being yet received the "wages" of sin? The answer is "Yes." But just one! Christ.
As we already noted in passing, Paul elsewhere states that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). This is not speaking simply of any death, however; it is speaking of eternal death - what the Bible also calls the "second death" (see Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). It is the penalty that Adam and Eve - and all other subsequent human beings - should have received the minute they/we sinned. But since Christ is the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev 13:8), and thus took upon Himself the penalty for all our sins, we have all been saved from the wages that we rightfully deserve. This is why David states in Psalm 103:10 that God "has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities." It is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that God has not been "imputing their trespasses to [the world]."
The truth is, if God did impute our trespasses to us, if He did deal with us according to our sins, we would all be zapped instantly. It would be lights out. Instead, Christ has already saved and redeemed us from the "curse of the law, having become a curse for us" (Gal 3:13).
Of course, I know that many people will object to this "universal salvation" idea, insisting that we call it something else - anything else - but do not call it "salvation," or insist that every human being has already "been saved." Call it a "probation," or "second trial," they say, but do not call it what the Bible does not!
But we have already seen that the Bible does, in fact, call it "salvation," and that all have already "been saved." We have all been saved from the penalty of sin! We have all been given life completely by God's grace, secured solely by the fact that Christ took the penalty for sin upon Himself - all done freely and of His own initiative, independent of our doing or even asking. In fact, Christ did all this "while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8), even His "enemies" (v. 10).
As we have already noted before, the reason people do not want to call this "salvation" or do not want to say that everyone has "already been saved," is because we have a very narrow and punctiliar definition of salvation. Most of us view it from a "if you were to die today, would you be saved?" mindset. But the Bible does not limit it to this. Remember, the larger definition of the Greek words for "salvation" and "saved" have the idea of "rescuing" or "delivering." And has not God already "rescued" us from the penalty for sin?
"Only if we accept it," some will respond! Is that so? What doth the Bible say? Furthermore, what happens when you pinch yourself? You recognize that you are alive and have not received the penalty for your sins.
Simply put, what the Bible teaches is that God has begun the salvation process for every human being. After all, doesn't Paul say elsewhere that God has "begun a good work" (Phil 1:6) in us? Because of this, none of us presently stand condemned. God has given to each human being the gift of salvation and the gift of life. If this were not so, none of us would even take a second breath after sinning.
This does not mean that everyone will continue through that process, as we will see; but it does mean that the only reason why any of us will be lost and condemned at last is because we have derailed the process that Christ has begun in our lives and thrown away the gift of life. Hence, Christ, personified through wisdom, sadly proclaims, "All those who hate me love death" (Prov 8:36). That is the only conclusion He can come to when He examines the facts. Those who throw away the salvation He has begun in their lives must truly love death. They would rather go to their eternal grave than continue the life that Christ has graciously started for them.
A further implication of this foundational reality is that, so long as a person is living, breathing, and able to hear the Holy Spirit's convicting power, he or she is not lost yet - even if they are living a life of complete sin and wickedness. I know that many people are frightened by this idea, believing that it inevitably gives license to sin, but the biblical witness and logic demands we recognize this reality. If salvation is a process that God has begun for everyone, it is not until he or she has either gone to the grave or committed the "unpardonable sin" that he or she is condemned or lost, or has thrown away salvation. And, again, the only conclusion that God can draw, if this is the case, is that the person must love condemnation or being lost.
Of course, I have had people say to me, "You would never tell this to an unbeliever, of course. " Or, "I would not say this to an unbeliever because it would remove their impetus to repent." That is a great concern for many. They think that if a person hears that he or she has "already been saved" from sin's penalty, then he or she will feel like there is no need to repent. The person will feel secure in his or her state if he/she does not hear about the impending and imminent danger/condemnation.
But where, in the Bible, does it say that it is "the fear of condemnation that leads to repentance"? Where does it say that it is the "possibility of of being lost forever that brings someone to repentance"? Such tactics may be helpful in securing baptisms or turning a person away from sin for a season, but they have a hard time bringing about true and lasting repentance.
Instead, Paul unequivocally states that it is "the goodness of God that leads to repentance" (Rom 2:4). When a person is first introduced to the idea that he/she has already been saved from the penalty for sin that he/she rightfully deserves, this has a way of melting the heart and and bringing the person to humbly repenting of the sin that nailed the Savior to the cross. Fear of hell or hope of reward cannot lead to lasting and continuous repentance, so we may as well not even worry that we will remove people's motivation for repenting if we tell them that Christ has already saved them from the penalty they rightfully deserve.
Furthermore, we must allow Paul to mean what he says (and mean what he means) when he writes to Timothy elsewhere that "God . . . is the Savior of all men" (1 Timothy 4:10). Some will object and say that God is "potentially" the Savior of all men if they accept it. But that's not what Paul says. It says that He "is" (present tense) the Savior of "all men." In order for Him to be presently the Savior of "all men," He had to have actually - in reality - saved "all men" from something already.
Of course, that the verse goes onto say in the next breath, "especially of those who believe," does not negate the fact that He is already the Savior of "all men." This latter clause simply means that those "who believe" have allowed God to bring them to a richer and deeper salvation experience. In other words, God has "saved" them from more than just the "penalty" of sin - which is what He has done for "all men" already. Those who "believe" are presently being saved, not only from sin's penalty, but also its power.
Is it any wonder, then, that Paul says in the next verse, "These things command and teach" (v. 11)? Yet how few of us have actually "taught" the beautiful truth that God is in actual reality the "Savior of all men"?
We avoid doing so, however, because we are afraid it might be "confusing" to people. The reality is, we avoid doing so, not because sinners might actually be confused, but because we, ourselves, are confused on the subject. Because of the fact that we have bought into a false understanding of salvation, when someone comes along and says that every human being, in some senses, has "already been saved," we have a hard time reconciling it with our presuppositions. But does that mean everyone will be in heaven? we naturally ask, betraying the fact that we have a very narrow understanding of salvation.
We fear that telling people they have "already" been saved will lead them to licentiousness (a claim that Paul already had to address in his epistles) when just the opposite is true. We don't have time to go into this in detail now, but when people have to do something (even "believe" or "repent") before Christ's salvation can be effective in the life, we are unwittingly setting them up for failure and giving the impression that their initiative is what saves them.
From an Adventist perspective, Ellen White clearly warns us against this: "There is nothing in faith that makes it our savior. Faith cannot remove our guilt" (Reflecting Christ, p. 78). I would encourage you to read that quotation a few times through until you get it!
Unfortunately, we do give the impression that faith/repentance/acceptance is "our savior" and that these are they which remove our guilt. But the Bible teaches that it is Christ's death that has unilaterally "remove[d] our guilt," and separated that guilt from us "as far as the east is from the west" (Psa 103:12). Thus, the only reason anyone will be lost at last is because he or she has begged God to place that guilt back onto his or her account.
But when we tell people that they first have to "repent" in order for their guilt to be removed, it actually discourages them and prevents them from accomplishing the very thing we are hoping they will accomplish to begin with. Remember, it is the "goodness of God that leads to repentance," not the other way around.
The bottom line, from examining this portion of the salvation process, is that God has begun the salvation process for every human being that comes into the world. He is everyone's Savior - in reality, not just potentially - and has already saved every human being from the penalty of sin. And, as we will learn going forward, God will bring this work to completion if we allow Him to.
This does not mean that there is no place for "works" or "obedience" in this whole process, but we need to make sure that we allow the foundation to be in place; otherwise, the structure cannot be built. It will be impossible to achieve "eschatological salvation" if we do not first recognize that Christ has begun the process for everyone and is seeking to continue that saving work in our lives.
Lastly, before closing this portion of our study on this important topic, I want to share a few other quotes from an Adventist perspective. A couple are from Ellen White, a couple are from E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones. Notice these, first, from Ellen White (all emphases supplied):
- "To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life. The bread we eat is the purchase of His broken body. The water we drink is bought by His spilled blood. Never one, saint or sinner, eats his daily food, but he is nourished by the body and the blood of Christ. The cross of Calvary is stamped on every loaf. It is reflected in every water spring" (The Desire of Ages, p. 660).
- "All men have been bought with this infinite price. By pouring the whole treasury of heaven into this world, by giving us in Christ all heaven, God has purchased the will, the affections, the mind, the soul, of every human being. Whether believers or unbelievers, all men are the Lord's property" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 326).
- "The wrath of God is not declared against men merely because of the sins which they have committed, but for choosing to continue in a state of resistance" (Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 1551).
- "The sinner may resist this love, may refuse to be drawn to Christ; but if he does not resist he will be drawn to Jesus; a knowledge of the plan of salvation will lead him to the foot of the cross in repentance for his sins, which have caused the sufferings of God's dear Son" (Steps to Christ, p. 27).
This last quotation really encapsulates this concept beautifully. Simply put, Christ has started the salvation process and is trying to draw every human being into a fully saved relationship (ie., "eschatological salvation") with Himself. Thus, the only way we will not be saved is if we resist what He has started. Furthermore, it is a "knowledge of the plan of salvation" that "leads" us "to the foot of the cross in repentance for sins" - sins that have caused the "sufferings of God's dear son." Powerful, powerful thoughts!
Here are some quotes, in closing, from A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner (the first one anticipates the very same thing that I have also anticipated by way of a question!):
- "'What! do you mean to teach universal salvation?' We mean to teach just what the Word of God teaches, - that 'the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men.' Titus 2:11, R.V. God has wrought out salvation for every man, and has given it to him; but the majority spurn it, and throw it away. The Judgment will reveal the fact that full and complete salvation was given to every man, and that the lost have deliberately thrown away their birthright possession" (Waggoner, The Glad Tidings, pp. 22-23).
- "His death has secured pardon and life for all. Nothing can keep them from salvation except their own perverse will. Men must take themselves out of the hand of God, in order to be lost" (Waggoner, Signs of the Times, June 11, 1896).
- "Therefore, just as far as the first Adam reaches man, so far the second Adam reaches man. The first Adam brought man under the condemnation of sin, even unto death; the second Adam's righteousness undoes that and makes every man live again. . . . [But] the Lord will not compel any one to take it. He compels no one to sin and He compels no one to be righteous. Everyone sins upon his own choice. The Scriptures demonstrate it. And every one can be made perfectly righteous at his choice. And the Scriptures demonstrate this. No man will die the second death who has not chosen sin rather than righteousness, death rather than life" (Jones, 1895 General Conference Bulletin, p. 269).
- "The Lord wants every one of us to be saved, and that with the very fulness of salvation. And therefore he has given to every one of us the very fulness of grace, because it is grace that brings the salvation. For it is written, 'The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.' Titus 2:11. Thus the Lord wants all to be saved, and therefore he gave all of his grace, bringing salvation to all. The marginal reading of this text tells it that way, and it is just as true as the reading in the verse itself. Here it is: 'The grace of God that bringeth salvation to all men, hath appeared.' All the grace of God is given freely to every one, bringing salvation to all. . . . What we are studying now is the truth and the fact that God has given it. having given it all, he is clear, even though men may reject it" (Jones, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 17, 1894).
I realize, for many, the witness of Ellen White is not authoritative. That's fine. I also realize that for many who do believe Ellen White's witness is authoritative, they do not see any value in the witness of E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones. That is also fine. But these three individuals - Ellen White, E.J. Waggoner, and A.T. Jones - all echo what we have already seen the Bible clearly demonstrate.
Simply put, Christ has started the salvation process for everyone and has actually saved every human being from the penalty of sin. Thus, the only way a person will be lost in the end is if he or she deliberately "continues in a state of resistance" or "throws away" what God has actually given.
Of course, what we have addressed so far is simply the "beginning" of the salvation process, but the rest of it will have to wait for another time.
Check back here soon!