A popular Christian radio show recently debuted a new book. It sounded like a beneficial book to help young girls mature in faith and love. The author was most proud of her last chapter that presented “the plan of salvation” and “the sinner’s prayer.” Her highest desire was that young girls would “read and repeat” (her words) and be saved.
As sincere and humble as the author was surely God’s salvation is more, infinitely more, than simply reading and repeating. If not careful even sincere gospel presentations can lead to a baptized “abracadabra” as if there is some magical formula.
We hold out a salvation that is as full and free as it is eternally bigger than we could ever imagine. We don’t enter this salvation through a “read and repeat” method. We enter this salvation through God’s sovereign work wherein he orchestrates all of history so we would believe in the Crucified and Risen Christ.
We must not make salvation necessarily harder for sinners. But we must not hold out a weaker salvation minimized to a “read and repeat” method.
What exactly does it mean to be saved? What does it mean when we say, “We saw three people get saved” during an altar call? Is getting saved what one is doing by repeating a prayer, walking an aisle and getting baptized?
According to Scripture, “salvation” is far more than a one-time decision a person makes. In fact, salvation is the summary term for all that God has done, is doing and will do to bring sinners to their eternal home in Christ. “Getting saved” is not what we do at a moment in time. Salvation is what God does throughout all of time to bring sinners into his eternal glory.
Scripture refers to three “tenses” of salvation (past, present, future): “Now, I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15.1-2). We have been saved (“received”). We are being saved (“in which also you stand”). We will be saved (“by which also you are saved”). Salvation doesn’t happen at one time but begins at one time.
For example, when POWs see friendly planes screaming over their camp they exclaim “We’re saved!” They’re still in tattered clothes on foreign soil but the power of their captors is broken even if they still suffer a few vengeful blows. They are saved in one sense but still need to be saved in another. They’re not yet safely home and warm. When the former prisoners are buckled in the rescue helicopter they are saved but there is still more salvation to come. When they set foot on the carrier they are still being saved but there is more salvation to come. As they salivate to kiss their wives and hug their children they look forward to being saved still. Their salvation includes everything necessary to liberate them and bring them safely home. In fact, their salvation began long before their capture when pilots trained and cartographers mapped.
Sailors on a stranded ship hear the rumble of a Coast Guard cutter and announce they are “saved” but there is still saving to be done. Their salvation began when they saw the faint silhouette of a friendly boat. But it will be complete when they are no longer in any danger. In fact, their salvation began when Coast Guard plebes trained long before they were ever lost at sea.
Likewise, salvation cannot be simplified into “read and repeat.” That weakens its glory and what God has done to save sinners. When we enter salvation we enter into “the eternal covenant” (Heb 13.20) God started before time began. God started saving us long before we ever knew ourselves to be lost, enslaved or dead.
What then does salvation summarize?
God’s foreknowledge, predestination and election (Acts 13.48; Rom 8.28-30; Eph 1.3-6). The church has long debated the nature of election and predestination. She has always agreed, however, no one is saved who is not first chosen for salvation. We may disagree as to the grounds on which a person is chosen (God’s sovereign decree or man’s foreseen faith) but all agree salvation begins with God’s foreknowledge, predestination and election.
Atonement and redemption (Ps 106.10; Is 63.9; Gal 4.5; Titus 2.14). Our salvation included God’s provision of the only sufficient sacrifice for our sins. At the cross, Jesus actually redeemed sinners. He exchanged his righteousness for their sin (2 Cor 5.21). Like those POWs or stranded sailors, Jesus redeemed many before they ever knew themselves lost (cf. Rom 5.8).
Regeneration, repentance, faith, justification (Jn 3.1-21; Rom 5.1-2; Eph 2.8-9). Our salvation includes God applying Christ’s work to us. Jesus purchased life for those dead in transgressions. Therefore, God applies that life to them through the Holy Spirit’s regenerating, life-giving work (i.e. new birth) marked by repentance and faith. And upon their believing the gospel God declares them right and at peace with him. We display and affirm this work through baptism into the church (Rom 6.1-4).
Sanctification/Perseverance (1 Cor 1.18; 2 Cor 2.15; Phil 1.6; 2.12-13). Our salvation did not merely happen when we believed. It began then (even though we could rightly say it really began in eternity past). All those who are saved are being saved still. Through sanctification, God keeps saving us as we again and again and again retreat to, trust in and hope for Christ. Jesus was clear: “it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt 10.22). “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2.10). Those who believed keep believing. We affirm this ongoing work through by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper with the church (1 Cor 11.26).
Second Coming/Glorification (Rom 6.22; 1 Pt 1.3-9). Those who are saved are being saved. And those being saved still need to be saved from the sting of death. Our salvation is secure in Christ but will be completed by Christ when he returns (Jn 14.3). We are justified (past tense) by faith but are finally saved when we are with Christ physically forever in resurrection. We are only and finally saved when we are safely home with Christ, never to be attacked, condemned or wounded again by sin, Satan and death. We do not really see people “get saved” when they walk an aisle because there is far more salvation yet to come. Their salvation includes their sanctification/perseverance and resurrection. In reality, we’ll only see them get saved when we see them raised bodily to eternal life (Jn 5.28-29; Phil 3.11).
“Getting saved” suggests a weak understanding of salvation but it’s certainly not a heretical one. Nevertheless, we should reflect on and stress the God-centeredness of salvation. If not careful, “getting saved” becomes more about what we decided, did and declared than what God has been doing from from eternity past into eternity future. Genesis 1.1 is not merely the beginning of creation but even more the beginning of our salvation (cf. Jn 1.1-5).
We don’t “get saved” as much as God saves us. We don’t present a “plan” of salvation, but the Man of salvation. We don’t call all people to “read and repeat” for salvation but to hear, repent, believe and endure to the end to be saved.
We have been, are being and will be saved by God in Christ, by Christ and for Christ. God began this work before we ever knew we needed salvation. And he will complete it long after we ever thought we understood it (cf. Jn 6.35-40). God is doing far more, in fact, everything to see his children rescued from sin, Satan and his own coming wrath.
“He saved us, 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, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3.5-7).
He saved us, which is to say he washed us in regeneration, renewed us by the Holy Spirit, justified us by his grace and is preparing us in hope for our salvation to come. You know your salvation has come because you rejoice that it’s also coming. Maranatha.