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What is salvation?
God’s salvation is all gift given sinners with no expectations, no regulations, and no strings attached.
What is salvation? To the follower of Christ, this might seem like a rudimentary question. But I believe that the answer to this question will provide the answer to a myriad of other questions that confound and perplex Christians all across this sphere we call “Earth.” The answer to this question is foundational and fundamental; it gives you clarity to view the world in its proper perspective and even the ability to live how you ought, how God originally intended. Without first understanding the basic purpose of salvation and what it is, questions like “What is the meaning of life,” and “Why am I here on this earth,” and “Why am I struggling with persistent sin,” and “Why am I going through adversity and hardship,” will continue to befuddle and frustrate you. To know what salvation is, is to know what life means — it’s to know the heart of God.
An important inquiry.
You don’t have to go very far or search too long to find differing, if not directly opposed, views of salvation. One theologian says it’s this, another says it’s that; one says you must do this in order to be saved, another says you must do that. All these philosophies only create one thing: confusion — confusion in the minds of the unsaved genuinely seeking the truth and confusion in the hearts of believers longing for assurance. I believe that the reason the unbelieving crowd remains skeptical of Christianity is because of the rampant dissension among the ranks of Christ-followers. How can I trust what they’re saying if they’re saying different things? To truly and completely understand salvation, it’s critical that we go to the Source — that’s the only way to know if we’re getting the truth. And yet, we’ve neglected the truth and have, instead, allowed man-made theories and philosophies to rule our minds and influence our hearts.
Permit me to pose this question: “Is salvation something God did, something he’s doing, or something he will do? The answer: Yes! All three are, in fact, accurate and truthful. We often think of salvation in terms of “getting saved,” as if it’s a point in time, something that happened in the past that “saved me” from something else. And truth be told, Christ’s atoning work for us does, indeed, rescue us from a terrible eternity spent in hell. But we must understand that salvation isn’t merely “fire insurance” — something we get just to insure our future and give us a sense of peace and calm in this current life, knowing our eventual destination in the next. Jesus didn’t die for you solely to keep you from suffering the horrifying consequences of death, and then just rest on your laurels. No, salvation is far grander than that. I believe we’ve placed far too heavy an importance and emphasis on what we’re saved from, instead of what we we’re saved for — what we’re saved to.
Yes, to accept Jesus as Savior and Master and Lord immediately frees us from sin and gives us eternal life and eternal security in the promise of a future in the presence of God instead of suffering the torment of eternity in hell. That’s what we’re saved from; and by the grace of Jesus, and his grace alone, we don’t have to suffer that fate. But salvation is so much more than that! Likewise, salvation isn’t simply “believing” in God. It’s not just mental affirmation of a higher power or a grand designer or a sovereign controller of your life. Many philosophies and religions trending right now postulate that to believe in God is to be saved — that all you have to do is accept the fact that there is a God. This is markedly false and gives those under that preaching a false sense of security and confidence. In fact, even demons and the minions of Satan himself believe in God (James 2:19). Does that save them? Most assuredly not.
It’s not enough to simply believe in God, to believe that he’s out there. Too often, and alarmingly so in this generation, “believers” of Jesus believe only in the historical and cultural impact that he started, ignoring the truth — that Jesus is God and that he came to redeem, reconcile, and rescue you; to restore you to where God wants you to be: in his presence. It’s not just mental assent; to believe in Jesus is to believe that he is who he says he is and that he did what he said he did.
“Believing in Jesus means you’ve declared war on the sin in your life,” says Matt Chandler, “and that you’re serious about growing in your knowledge with God.” Believing in Jesus is you recognizing your desperate need for Jesus as your Savior and submitting to the will of an — no — The Omnipotent, Holy God. It’s you beginning the glorious pursuit of God and burgeoning an intimate communion and fellowship with him.
Great American preacher and author A. W. Tozer maintains that the “throbbing heart” of genuine Christianity is “the continuous and unembarrassed interchange of love and thought between God and the soul of the redeemed man” (15). In other words, salvation is a relationship, with a real Person, who really and wholly and eternally loves you and who is desperately wanting to be known by his creation! Salvation is so much more simply accepting the fact that there’s a God.
Furthermore, salvation is not “being a good person” or “doing good things.” You can’t clean up your life and deem yourself a child of God. This is the belief that many, believers and unbelievers alike, stumble and struggle and wrestle with constantly. After all, aren’t we commanded to do “good works”? Certainly, James 2:24–26 would seem like a clear indictment on the belief of salvation by faith alone. These verses state: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” This is where skeptics and critics pounce, for how does this not contradict John 3:16; Romans 3:22, 26; 5:1; 11:6; Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8; and 1 Timothy 1:16, and the like, which all seem to say that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone, apart from our works? How can we synthesize the message “that a person is justified by works and not by faith” with that of salvation “is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace”? (Rom. 11:6). On the surface, these verses contradict one another, again spawning confusion and doubt. But the reality is that there’s no contradiction, there’s no opposition, and these seemingly conflicting verses are actually in complete and perfect harmony. Allow me to digress here for just a moment, because there mustn’t be any confusion when addressing the salvation provided by Jesus.
We must begin by looking at the context. In chapter 2 of his epistle, James begins by addressing the person that declares he follows Christ, but has no works (James 2:14). He’s confronting the issue of a flimsy follower, the type of Christ-follower that praises the name of Jesus on Sunday, but then lives wickedly and immorally Monday through Saturday, without even a thought for how God might be magnified and glorified by his life. This type of faith is nothing more words, hot air that has no meaning, no life, no ground upon which to stand. This faith is baseless and gratuitous — God hates this type of person (Rev. 3:15–16). Therefore, James is not indicting salvation by faith alone, but rather faith that has no fruit; faith proclaimed, but not lived out. And to further prove that both Paul and James are writing the same thing, they both quote the same Old Testament verse (Gen. 15:6), in Romans 4:3 and James 2:23, respectively. Their message is the same — our salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in the work and performance of Christ alone. But moreover, our salvation is proved by how we live (1 John 2:3–6). Verbal assent is of little value; actions speak louder than words.
The apostle John states in his first epistle, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18). We prove the love and the grace of Jesus by how we live and act and walk and talk — our lives are to be living reflections, living proofs of the gospel. So, what is salvation, then?
Salvation as a process.
Salvation is a restoration process to a right relationship with God; it’s the renewal in us to the fellowship God originally intended us to enjoy at creation. It’s you recognizing who you are (a sinner), realizing what you need (deliverance), and then rejoicing in what Jesus did for you (the gospel). Salvation is you relenting control and repenting of your filth and wickedness before a holy God and accepting the righteousness and life of a Savior who’s waiting to dwell with you. It’s Jesus’s grace poured out on you, enabling you to pursue the holiness and knowledge of God. Without grace, without the gospel, without Jesus, we are nothing.
We are thoroughly sinful, and the only remedy is Jesus. “The gospel does not come to us as a premium for virtue,” declares Charles Spurgeon, “but it presents us with forgiveness for sin. It is not a reward for health, but a medicine for sickness.” This is the fallacy of believing in “good works” alone, for we can do nothing good (Rom. 3:23; John 15:5; Isa. 64:6), and we are, in fact, wholly bad, broken, rebellious people, desperate for hope, grace, and deliverance. We are sons and daughters of Adam, and through his transgression we are completely infected and affected by sin.
Sin has nothing to do with our circumstances or what’s around us; it has everything to do with our hearts — who’s in control, who we’re following, who we’re yielding to. We aren’t sinners because of the bad things we do; we do bad things because we are sinners. It’s in our nature. Therefore, we can’t just clean up our lives and determine to “be good” in hopes of making it all up to God. We’re a wayward bunch, so far from where God wants us (Isa. 53:6). Our hearts are fully and completely wicked (Jer. 17:9), and without the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’re forever hopeless. “Once we understand that sin has more to do with what’s on the inside of us than what we do on the outside,” notes Tullian Tchividjian in One Way Love, “we begin to see our own desperate need for grace” (49).
A gratuitous gift.
This salvation, this gospel, this grace, is all gift — there’s no exchange (Eph. 2:8-10). It’s not a reward or something we have to earn. It’s not something we can achieve or win by performing better or doing more or working harder. No, salvation is a gift — the greatest, mind you — given to you with no expectations, no regulations, and no strings attached. When Jesus performed his redeeming work for us on the cross, he forever tipped the scales on the side of grace. All our attempts at making it up and paying it back and relying on our goodness and being better and fixing our lives will never even the score, will never balance the scale. The favor of God has already been given to you — stop trying to win it! I’m speaking of a “prevenient grace,” a “previous” gospel (Tozer, 14). What is “prevenient grace” you ask? It’s grace that has been given to you before you even move — before you can even lift a finger. Jesus’s gospel of prevenient grace is that which justifies us even while we were still marred and stained with the blackness of sin (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10; Eph. 2:4–5).
We were the enemies of God, and despite that, Jesus still died for us, still took our sin and our place on the cross (Isa. 53:4–5). “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be” (Manning, 192). This gospel of grace gives you the righteousness of Christ, so that you might be justified (what Jesus did) before God, our Holy Judge, and thereby also adopted into the Family of our Creator, making him your Loving Father. What amazing love and grace God shows for his enemies — for us! Therefore, when God sees us, he sees Jesus — his righteousness, his goodness, his perfection (Col. 3:3). This gospel gives us freedom — freedom from the fear of messing up because Christ already made everything new, everything right. We’re free to be sanctified (what Jesus is doing) because of the matchless, endless, and previous grace we’ve been granted. It’s this gospel of Jesus’s grace which frees us to be holy and enables our grace-driven-pursuit of sanctification.
Furthermore, it’s this gospel of grace that emboldens us and gives us the hope of a future eternity spent in the very presence of God (Heb. 10:19–23). We will be glorified (what Jesus will do) and made perfect, completely liberated, fully freed from the disease and effects of sin (1 Cor. 15:51–55). This gospel is far grander, far more marvelous than you and I realize. The grace of Jesus — that which we’ve spent numerous words on and yet have not even plumbed the depths of its majesty and glory — is simply this: “God meeting our rebellion with his rescue . . . our badness with his goodness” (Tchividjian, One Way Love, 31). God initiated his love for us and to us (John 3:16; 1 John 4:19), so that now we’re free from guilt and free from sin (Rom. 8:1–4). It promises salvation to all who run to it (John 6:37; Rom. 1:16). Salvation is a gift that is waiting to be opened. We can do nothing to earn it, it’s already there. All that matters is how we respond to it. Mr. Tozer sums it up this way:
Religion, so far as it is genuine, is in essence the response of created personalities to the Creating Personality, God. (15)
All of salvation is concerned only with our response — our response to grace, the gospel, and the redeeming work that Jesus has already done for us. Will you prove the outpouring of grace and love of Jesus by relentlessly pursuing him and letting his Holy Spirit renew and transform your life? Or will you mar and, in fact, mock the gospel by reclining in grace and remaining static? How will you react to the gospel? How will you react to salvation? It’s already there, waiting for you . . . so what will your response be?
Brennan Manning and John Blase, All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2011).
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013).
A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Whitakers, NC: Positive Action For Christ, 2007).