From one point of view, salvation is very simple. It can be summed up in Paul’s words to the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). At the same time, salvation is profound; it has the most pervasive and permanent impact possible on the one who experiences it. We do not, of course, have to understand all the aspects of salvation before we can receive it. We may understand very little when we first trust Christ. A great deal we will not understand until we see our Lord face to face. But studying God’s Word and trying to understand more fully the truth of our salvation greatly enriches us spiritually.
Several theological terms are generally used in connection with salvation. Each contributes something and, taken together, they give a greater fullness of God’s light. None of these terms or truths can be isolated completely from the others. We should always study them in context. We cannot always be dogmatic about the order, or sequence, in which an individual should experience these various aspects of salvation, for they often overlap and sometimes are simply different views of the same truth.
John the Baptist began his ministry with a call to repentance: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus began preaching with the identical words (Matt. 4:17). He commanded His disciples that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Peter took up this message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). Paul points out that now God “commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, cf. 26:20). Acceptance of the Gospel, to both Jews and Greeks, consists of “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
The word used in the Old Testament for repentance means to turn or return. It implies a personal decision to turn away from sin and to God. In the New Testament, the terms “repent” and “repentance” that apply to man’s relationship to sin and God have the basic meaning of a change of mind. They imply a change of mind about sin, and a turning to God. In a sense, they are the negative and positive aspects of the same truth. The two together are inseparable and complementary. Paul, in his defense before Agrippa, said he preached that both Jews and Gentiles “should repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20).
True repentance is not merely a feeling of remorse, such as Judas had after he betrayed the Lord. It involves the intellect, the emotions, and the will.
Repentance brings the mind to realize both the holiness of God’s law and one’s utter failure and inability to keep it. It may also involve a change of mind as to who Christ is, as was true with the Jews on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40). They had formerly viewed Jesus as an imposter, but Peter called on them to accept Him as Messiah and Saviour.
The emotions are involved in repentance. “Godly sorrow,” in contrast to one’s being superficially sorry for sin. often precedes the change of mind. “The sadness that is used by God brings a change of heart that leads to salvation – and there is no regret in that!” (2 Cor. 7:10, TEV ). Repentance involves a feeling of the awfulness of sin in its effect on man and his relationship to God. Emotion, however, is no gauge of the extent of one’s repentance. The presence or absence of tears does not necessarily indicate genuineness or lack of it. But when we truly repent we are sure to experience some feeling about it.
Repentance involves the will. The prodigal son not only came to his senses intellectually, and felt a loathing for himself and what he had done, but he acted: “I will arise and go to my father….And he arose” (Luke 15:18, 20). Repentance is deliberate, willful turning away from sin and following after God. True repentance always leads to a change in conduct or attitude.
Repentance, if it is genuine, will lead to faith. In fact, some Christians understand “faith” to include repentance, pointing out that for a person to receive Christ as his Saviour in faith is in itself evidence that he is aware of his need, as a sinner, for the Saviour. The term faith, in its noun, verb, and adjective forms, is used dozens of times in the Old Testament, but occurs several hundred times in the New Testament. Its most common meaning is confident trust in or reliance on.
Faith is central to the whole Christian experience. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he that cometh to [Him] must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Faith, in the New Testament, always has as its background the Person and work of Christ. He is the object of our faith, reliance, or trust. Whoever believes in Him will not perish, but has everlasting life (John 3:16). In and of itself, faith is meaningless. It always has an object to which it is directed and upon which it rests. If the object of our faith is worthless, we are a victim of superstition, no matter how intensely and sincerely we believe.
Saving faith consists of several elements. First are the facts about Christ – His Deity, His death, and our need of Him. We must accept these facts as true, though mere mental assent to this truth does not save us. James makes this clear: “Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well; the demons also believe and tremble” (James 2:19, ASV). One could not possibly be a Christian without believing these basic facts, but saving faith goes beyond mere belief about Christ to complete commitment to and trust in Him. Such commitment involves the will as well as the mind and the emotions. One does not believe simply because of one’s feelings – one decides to believe.
Faith is the instrument that links us to Christ. The New Testament emphasizes that we are saved by faith and not by works. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
At first sight, the Epistle of James appears to disagree: ‘What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works. Can [such] faith save him?…Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:14, 24).
The “faith” James criticizes is “head belief” — mere intellectual assent to facts. Such “faith” does not lead to holy living and hence is worthless, or “dead” (James 2:20). It has no saving value. When we read about “faith” in the other epistles, whole-hearted trust in Christ is in view. This is the faith on the basis of which God credits a believer with righteousness and which leads its possessor to want a holy life.
When we read that we are saved by faith rather than by “works,” the works in view are the keeping of the Law in an effort to earn salvation. James (2:14, 18, 20) does not use the term “works” in this sense. His “works” are very much like “the fruit of the Spirit” of which Paul speaks (Gal. 5:22). “They are warm deeds of love springing from a right attitude to God. They are the fruits of faith. What James objects to is the claim that faith is there when there is no fruit to attest it.”48
How does faith come about? “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). In the days of the apostles, “many of [the people] who heard the Word believed” (Acts 4:4). God uses His Word, both spoken and written, to produce faith. At the same time, “God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3), which implies that faith is a work of God.
In almost every phase of salvation there is a mysterious interplay between the divine and human sides. It is not always possible, though, to draw neat lines of distinction. For instance, we may think of repentance and faith as man’s response to regeneration, which God produces.
“Regeneration, or the new birth, is the divine side of that change of heart which, viewed from the human side, we call conversion.”49 The term is used only twice in the New Testament – of the restoration of the world (Matt. 19:28) and of the renewal or rebirth of individuals: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Sin is so serious that a sinner cannot even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it, unless he is born from above, or born again (John 3:3) – as Jesus pointed out in His conversation with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus. God takes the initiative in regeneration, or rebirth, but man must actively respond in faith. “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13). “God, who is rich in mercy…even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4, 5).
The new birth results not in a change of personality as such, but in a whole new way of life. Before the new birth, self and sin are in control; but after it, the Holy Spirit is in control. A born-again person shares in the very life of God. He becomes a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) , and is described as a “new creation” (1 Cor. 5:17, ASV); he puts on “the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24; cf. Col. 3:10). Regeneration is a decisive experience that happens once for all, though it has continuing results in the life of a Christian.
God wants “all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). That some men are not regenerated or reborn is not God’s fault. The responsibility rests with men. Our Lord diagnosed this problem. When speaking to a typical group, He said, “Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life” (John 5:40). It wasn’t that they could not have come, but that they would not. They deliberately refused.
How men actually come to faith in Christ is a profound question. Some, by approaching the problem entirely from man’s side, have tended to eclipse the sovereignty of God. Others, by approaching it only from God’s side, have seemed to obliterate man’s freedom.
We need to understand several theological terms to avoid confusion and popular misconceptions. These terms are election, predestination, and foreknowledge.
Election has to do with God’s choice of certain groups and people to receive His grace. This choice is based on His sovereign pleasure and not on the value, goodness, or disposition of those chosen. In the Old Testament, God’s election is illustrated in His choice of Abraham, with whom He made an everlasting covenant, and of Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel, to have a special relationship with Himself (Gen. 11:31-12:7).
Election, as used in the New Testament, has to do with God’s choice of particular individuals for salvation. Jesus said, “And then shall [God] send His angels and shall gather together His elect [chosen] from the four winds” (Mark 13:27). Christians are “elect [chosen] according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2). God has “chosen [elected] us in Him before the foundation of the world…having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph. 1:4, 5). Jesus Himself explicitly said, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen [elected] you and ordained you” (John 15:16).
Predestination and Foreknowledge
Closely allied to election are predestination and foreknowledge. Predestination is a term used only of Christians. It indicates that God’s purpose for a believer – that he become Christlike – is sure to be fulfilled. “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son….Moreover, whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified, and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Rom. 8:29, 30). Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification are all grouped together in one “package.” A person who has one of them has them all. The sequence indicates that apart from the grace of God we cannot trust in Christ. Jesus said, “No man can come to Me except the Father that sent Me draw him” (John 6:44).
Like election, predestination is according to God’s sovereign purpose and will. It is not based on any merits in those persons whom He has chosen.
It is important to realize that all men are sinners and are under the judgment of God. “God in sovereign freedom treats some sinners as they deserve…but He selects others to be ‘vessels of mercy,’ receiving the ‘riches of His glory’ (Rom. 9:23). This discrimination involves no injustice, for the Creator owes mercy to none and has a right to do as He pleases with His rebellious creatures (Rom. 9:14-21). The wonder is not that He withholds mercy from some, but that He should be gracious to any.”50
The purpose of the Bible’s teaching on election and predestination is to lead pardoned sinners to worship God for the grace they have experienced. They come to see, in unmistakable terms, that salvation is all of God and not at all of themselves. They also come to see that since they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, their election is eternal and therefore certain. This inspires devotion and love to Christ in gratitude for God’s unfathomable love.
The popular misconception of election and predestination as the arbitrary acts of a capricious tyrant is totally foreign and unfair to Scripture. The attitude often expressed by unbelievers is that if they are elect, they’ll get into heaven anyway, and if they’re ,not, there’s no use in their trying. In either case, they reason, they needn’t be concerned. This is a tragic misconception. No one in hell will be able to tell God, “I wanted to be saved, but my name was On the wrong list.”
Election and predestination are always to salvation and its blessings – never to judgment. It is true that no one believes on the Saviour unless God the Holy Spirit convicts him, but it is also true that those who do not trust Christ choose not to believe. God never refuses to save anyone who wants salvation.
Some feel that the expression, “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” (1 Peter 1:2) means that God elects to salvation those whom He knows in advance will respond positively to the Gospel. But foreknowledge is not the same thing as foreordination or election.
Throughout Church History, honest differences of opinion have arisen about these complex and not fully explainable doctrines. Each believer should be persuaded in his own mind about them, and should show a charitable spirit toward those who differ with him.
A conversation between Charles Simeon and John Wesley, on Dec. 20, 1874, is helpful at this point. Simeon said, “Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have sometimes been called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw draggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission, I will ask you a few questions….Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God if God had not first put it in your heart?”
“Yes,” said Wesley, “I do indeed.”
“And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do, and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?”
“Yes, solely through Christ.”
“But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?”
“No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.” ” Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?”
“What then? Are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?”
“And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?”
“Yes, I have no hope but in Him.” “Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.”51
The experience of salvation, in relation to the divine and human factors, includes some ambiguities. The results of salvation, however, are very clear. There are three phases of salvation: past, present, and future. That we have been saved, that we are being saved, and we shall be saved are all true statements. Each refers to a particular aspect of salvation.
Justification has often been defined as meaning, “Just as if I’d never sinned.” This aspect involves acquittal, but justification goes even farther by declaring a person to be righteous. When God justifies us, He does not merely forgive our sins, making us neutral – moral and spiritual ciphers. He sees us in Christ as having His perfect righteousness. Justification has to do with our standing before God, and is objective. It does not make one personally righteous, but it declares him righteous in a legal sense, and brings him into right relationship with God.
Paul, to whom justification is central in salvation, stresses that we cannot be justified by the works of the Law, “for by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Rather, we are “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
The basis, or ground, of our justification, or being declared righteous, is twofold. Christ’s death as our Substitute satisfied the claims of God’s holy law against our sin. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5:8, 9).
The other basis of God’s declaring us righteous is Christ’s perfect obedience. “For as by one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience many [i.e., all men] were made sinners, so by the obedience of One [Christ] I shall many [Le., all who believe] be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Christ became identified with us when He was made sin for us on the cross; and we are identified with Him in His newness of resurrection life, and share His righteousness.
We are justified by faith. This truth burst upon the heart and mind of Martin Luther like a bombshell as he considered the words: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). After long struggling in unsuccessful self-effort to win the favor of God, Luther suddenly realized it was not what he could do, but what God had done, that made justification and peace possible. The Protestant Reformation resulted from this discovery.
The fact that we have been justified becomes clear through the evidence of our changed lives, marked by obedience to God and desire to do His will. When we say that we have been saved, we are referring to our justification. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace are ye saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Paul’s certainty of a past event, based on what God has done, led him to overflow with assurance. “I am persuaded,” he wrote, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,…nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39). We, too, may enjoy such assurance, for our salvation is an accomplished fact if we are in Christ.
But we are also being saved. This process of becoming holy is called sanctification. Justification has to do with our standing before God and is instantaneous. Sanctification has to do with our character and conduct and is progressive. It continues as long as we live.
Basically, the word “sanctified” means “set apart.” The term “saint” comes from the same root and means “a set-apart one.” Another word with the same meaning is “holy.”
“Sanctify” is used in two ways:
(1) To set apart, or declare holy, for God’s use or service. Christians are called “saints” in this sense – God has set them apart for His service. Such “sanctification” is usually regarded as being instantaneous and as taking place at the time of one’s conversion. “Ye are washed…ye are sanctified…ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
(2) To make the personal life of an individual Christian holy, in the sense of moral and spiritual improvement. This is a lifelong process. We are to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of…Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), and as we mature spiritually we “are changed into the same image [that of Christ] from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3;18).
Some feel that sanctification is a crisis experience, as is justification, and that one can experience “entire sanctification” in a moment of time. Differences of opinion on this question hinge almost completely on the definition of sin and on the standard of holy living meant. Sin is often defined as “any voluntary transgression of a known law,” as Wesley put it. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, on the other hand, defines sin as “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” This definition includes sins of omission and also takes our sinful nature into consideration – as well as overt sins committed deliberately.
Another big question has to do with how God sanctifies us. Those who say the process is all of God tend to minimize human responsibility. On the other hand, those who tend to minimize sin exaggerate human responsibility in sanctification.
A key principle that recognizes both God’s initiative and man’s responsibility is expressed in the scriptural command, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12,13). It is because God works in him that man is able to work. On the other hand, although God enables, man must respond. He is to show neither supine passivity nor naive confidence in his own effort.
Justification, declaring us righteous, delivers us from the penalty of sin. Sanctification, involving the development of holiness of character, delivers us from the power of sin. But how does holiness become real in our daily experience? Paul portrays the personal struggle vividly (Rom. 7) and also gives the remedy for it. He says that Christ died so “that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk [live] not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). God’s command is, “Walk [live] in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The Holy Spirit gives us power to overcome sin and produces in us the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23). This “walk” is a life of daily faith in which we claim and live personally what has already been given us by God. Christ has been made to us “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
As we depend on Christ, then, His patience, love, power, purity, etc., will begin to show in our attitudes and conduct. He does not dole out these qualities to us in “little packages” – we have all of them we need in Christ, who indwells us. “His divine power has given unto us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath caned us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).
The key principle in sanctification, as in justification, is faith. We can be saved only by faith and we can live effectively as Christians only by faith. “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord [by faith], so walk [live] ye in him” (Col. 2:6). God, in both instances, does what we cannot do. Our part is to respond in faith.
But there is a sense in which salvation is also future: we shall be saved. We have been saved from the penalty of sin, we are being saved from the power of sin, and we shall be saved from the very presence of sin. We shall personally be perfect and free from an sin. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). It is in this sense that we are appointed “to obtain salvation”(1 Thes. 5:9), and it is this salvation which is ready to be revealed in the last time and to which Paul refers when he says, “Now is our salvation nearer than when we [first] believed” (Rom. 13:11). This complete and final sanctification and deliverance from the very presence of sin are called glorification.
Salvation is God’s great gift to man. Though in experience its aspects may not be separated, an understanding of its details gives a Christian deeper appreciation, greater love, and happier praise for the God who has saved him.
For Further Reading
Berkouwer, G. C. Faith and Perseverance. Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1958.
Macon, Leon M. Salvation in a Scientific Age. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955.
Prior, K. F. w. The Way of Holiness. Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967.