Monday, September 24, 2007

Riff - salvation present and future

Tim exhausted me with his early morning meanderings, especially since he touched on so many issues in a mere 7 paragraphs! I’m not actually going to be interacting with him here. Frankly, I’m happy to admit to a need to think more on some of the things he brought up. Nope, I’m merely riffing on his post. To use less jazzy parlance, I’m using him as a point of departure for something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. None of the following is novel, but perhaps often too easily forgotten.

Very briefly, I just want us to think a little more about how we use the word "salvation". Generally, Christians tend to use it very much to denote a state in the present time. "Have you been saved?" "I’m saved." Also, we tend to use it interchangeably with words like "redemption", "justification", "forgiveness" etc. However, this does not do justice to the way the word is used in the New Testament. While I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to talk of salvation or to use it synonymously in the way I described above, depending on the context, if we are regularly careless or reductionistic with our language, this might have potentially distorting effects.


In the New Testament, salvation has both a present and a future dimension. (Strictly speaking, most will also acknowledge a third dimension, the past, as well, but here I will more simplistically lump the past and present together). This is in line with the already-not yet tension we find throughout the New Testament, that is, the recognition that God’s work or mission has already occurred in some significant manner – not least in the person and work of Christ – but is not yet completed. I’ve explored this before briefly in relation to our inheritance in Jesus here.

So in the NT, we obviously do hear about salvation as a present reality. One classic text would be Ephesians 2:1-10, where Paul talks about us being “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” but gloriously, “it is by grace you have been saved” (v.6, 8). We can be certain that as we place our trust in Jesus, salvation becomes our possession. I want to be absolutely clear on this point because I don’t want any possible misunderstandings to cause any consternation. (See also Romans 8:24 for another clear cut example).

But actually, in the NT, salvation is often conceived in future terms as well. “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:13). “...so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28). Another way we can see this is by thinking of the way “redemption” is described. So we already have redemption (Col. 1:14), we enjoy this privilege. Yet in another sense, we recognise that we are still waiting for the “redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23). The end of all sickness will only be positively enjoyed in the new Creation.

So there is a paradox here. We are saved and being saved, redeemed and being redeemed. Salvation is both present and future. In fact, we need to beware of dividing these two dimensions into neat separate boxes but recognise that they are both parts of a whole. What is interesting is that what shapes the theology of the NT with regards to the present and future is actually the past, namely the finished work of the cross. We know what will happen in the end because of what happened in history, and therefore, this will characterise our outlook and thus, our lives in the present. The three come together (probably in a more complex fashion than how I’ve just described it!).

Therefore, we need to give due weight to both senses in which salvation is described, without giving preference to one or the other. And we need to recognise that salvation is so big that we need different words to describe its multiple facets, such as redemption, regeneration, justification, reconciliation etc. which all convey slightly different meanings. Quick recommendation: Mark Meynell’s pretty good on this, and supposedly this book is as well. Even sanctification, which we tend to usually take as the process by which God makes us holy (so a future-oriented process), isn’t as straightforward as that, as it is used in some places to simply mean the holiness that is already ours through Christ (so a present reality).

My modest hope is that by now, we’ve begun to understand a little more of the riches of salvation. This should open up better ways to think through some of the usual debates about legalism, cheap grace, individualistic gospels as opposed to a more cosmic version etc. Of course, this is hardly even scratching the surface or offering any quick-fix resolutions to hard questions. Just the opposite: I’m sure it throws up further questions! Like those who are wrestling with the New Perspective on Paul, or on perseverance.

It will be remiss to keep this at a theoretical level. Theology translates to doxology:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in love, freely giving eternal life through his willing Son, who paid the price as the Divine Substitute, disarming evil and welcoming us into the domain of light as his beloved children, to all who will repent and believe. Praise the Lord, O my soul, praise the Lord!

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