It was several years ago when my first car officially bit the dust, and I decided that it was time to get a car that I actually wanted to drive. On day two with my newfound dream car, I was driving down the road at 45 mph when a loud THUD introduced the sight of my wheel rolling down the street. I ditched the car in some grass on the side of the road, in complete shock as I watched my new car’s wheel speed away from me.
I was shocked, stranded, and in dire need of some help. I needed a savior.
Yet that’s a fact that is true of everyone: we all need a savior. My car situation was more of an earthly ordeal. But we need eternal salvation. St. Paul is clear about this when he writes that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Each and every one of us will stand before God one day, in need of his mercy, for we all sin. A lot.
But the good news is that’s why Jesus came to earth. St. Paul finished that verse by saying that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). This is great news. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus came to pay our eternal debt to sin: He paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.
But after nearly 2000 years, many questions have arisen about the nature of salvation. How are we saved?
Obviously, this is a massive question. So I only intend to discuss one element of it. But that one element is an important one, namely: are we saved or are we being saved?
To some, the difference may seem small. But there is a very large difference between the two positions. The first implies that salvation is something that happens once in a believer’s life; something that is finished. Some even believe that once one is saved, there is nothing one can do to undo that salvation.
The latter position implies that our salvation is something that continues until the end of our lives; it’s something that a believer lives out over time.
So how does it work? Is salvation a one-time event in the past? Or is it something that continues through the life of the believer? I believe that a close scan through the Bible shows that salvation is something that occurs at a point in time, but continues through the life of the believer. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Salvation: A Past Event or an Ongoing Journey?
Salvation: A Past Event
We can’t scan through many page of the Bible without finding passages that refer to one’s salvation as a past event. For instance, just look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8-9). The tense of the word saved is in the past, implying that one is saved at a point in time.
Similarly, Paul speaks of the hope that believers hold for the redemption of their bodies, saying that “in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24). Again with the past tense.
I could go on and cite more examples, but you get the point. Salvation is a past event. But, salvation is also spoken of in the present tense as well.
Salvation: A Process
If we read on, we will find that not all verses that speak of salvation are set in the past tense. For instance, Paul writes to the Philippians, instructing them: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). By instructing them to “work out” their salvation, it implies that salvation is something that is happening more than something that happened.
One might point out that Paul was instructing the Philippians on how to become saved. And this is an important point to be made. But I think that it doesn’t match up with Paul’s original meaning. For instance, Paul is writing to the Christian community that he and Timothy established in Philippi. In his greeting he addresses the letter: “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi…” (Phil 1:1). This isn’t exactly how you would greet a people who have not yet experienced salvation.
Paul is exhorting the Philippians to grow closer to God. But he is doing so with the knowledge that salvation is something that is continual, not a one-time deal.
I should also point out that Peter had also written similar words. He says to his readers: “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9, emphasis added). Again, notice that this is in the present tense: obtaining salvation.
If salvation is something that occurred in the past, and something that continues through the reader’s life, you might expect that it’s spoken of as a future event. And you would be right.
Salvation: A Future Hope
Paul, writing to the Philippians says that the God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). This is the hope that Christians hold dear to their hearts: that day when our salvation is complete; that day when go to our final home with our Lord. This is the final salvation that we one day hope to attain.
Again, writing to the Romans, St. Paul tells his readers that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11). Salvation is something that we can experience in our everyday lives, and it’s something that we ultimately hope to see to completion.
Why Does it Matter?
Some may be reading, wondering why any of this matters. Whether salvation is a one-time deal, or a continuing process, doesn’t it mean the same thing for believers?
Well, not entirely.
I have met many Christians who believe that their salvation was a past event, but who still strive to live upright and just lives. They take seriously Paul’s charge to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). That’s fantastic.
But I have seen Christians claim that once a person is saved, nothing can change that. Taken to an extreme, I have even heard it said that a saved man could murder someone, die the next minute without repenting, and still be welcomed through the pearly white gates.
This belief is not only wrong. It is dangerous.
Nowhere in the Bible will you find such a teaching. Rather, we see warnings to the contrary. Take Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21).
Now one might argue that only someone who was truly never saved could do such things. But I believe that the Bible says otherwise. In the letter to the Romans, Paul warns his audience: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22). He is warning his readers that, while they are in friendship with God, they can lose that status. They can be cut off as the Jews who refused to follow Jesus.
And similarly, the Master himself, Jesus, said of impending trials that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22).
If we think of our salvation as only a past event, it is tempting to forget that it’s something that we still experience. It’s something to be hoped for. And as such, it is something to be fought for.
The good news is, Jesus did the hard part on the cross. He paid the debt we couldn’t. All we must do is follow him.
Following Jesus won’t always be easy. Jesus acknowledged this when he said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Doesn’t exactly sound like a cakewalk, does it? But the process of salvation takes place with every step in Christ’s direction. And our final salvation takes place on that glorious day when we hear Jesus say, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).
Akin, James. Salvation. Catholic Answers, 2015.
Catholic Answers, “Assurance of Salvation?” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2004)