I am confident in this, that the one who began a good work in you will complete it at the day of Christ Jesus.
– Philippians 1:6
Salvation is a process. To some ears, that may sound like an audacious claim. Many in the evangelical community experienced salvation after hearing a gospel call, walking down an aisle, talking to a preacher, and asking Jesus to come into their heart. That is my experience and testimony. We were then told “once saved, always saved.” I do not find any fault with my own experience in a VBS all those years ago. I still believe in the dictum “once saved, always saved.” However, this common experience gives the impression that salvation is already accomplished. It is a one-time act. It is finished! Paradoxically, this impression is both true and false at the same time. Salvation is accomplished at the positive response to the gospel, but salvation is also a process only completed at the end of this age.
Look at Philippians 1:6 quoted above. The good work, which I believe is salvation, is in the process of being completed. Its completion will only happen on the day of Christ Jesus, meaning the end of this age. This is not the only time that Paul has portrayed salvation as a process. In Galatians 3:3, Paul chastises the Galatian circumcision contingent, “Are you so foolish, having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected in the flesh?” Salvation is process begun and completed by God through the Holy Spirit and based on the saving work of Jesus. The Galatians were being foolish because they thought that they could complete their salvation under their own power.
To bring the idea of salvation as a process into focus, think about the starting point of your own salvation. Did your salvation start only when you positively responded to the gospel? That is a very anthropocentric1 and narrow view of your salvation. When did God start working on your salvation? Was it when he called you through his word and the Spirit? Was it when Jesus died on the cross for your sins and was raised three days later in victory? Did he start your history of salvation when he called Israel out of slavery in Egypt?2 What about Abraham? Could you argue that your salvation began when God chose to create the world? I hope it becomes obvious that God has been working on your salvation for a very long time.
The beginning point of our salvation may be a topic with room for discussion. However, the completion of our salvation is a closed and settled topic in the letters of Paul. As in Philippians, it will happen on the day of Christ at the end of the age. He talks about this in rather victorious terms in 1 Corinthians 15. Our transformation into a Spirit-animated and incorruptible body will be completed when Christ returns to transform the entirety of creation into a new earth free of sin and death.
Some might argue that Paul is talking about our glorification rather than our salvation in 1 Corinthians 15. I counter that such a nuanced ordo salutis3 is the result of a human need to catalog and and explain. The Bible does not separate the two so neatly. For Paul, our salvation will be made complete in the future. However, it is a sure future. Those of us in Christ have been deemed righteous by God and we can confidently expect a future full salvation because of the power and providence of God. That we have been saved (or declared righteous) is a eschatological judgment that has relevance for our present.
Why does it have relevance for our present life? Why would I make such a big point of salvation being a process rather than a one-time event? Our conception of salvation affects how we see our relationship with God and how we interact with the world around us.
If salvation is a one-time event, if we pray the prayer and it’s finished, then what further use do we have for God? It may seem like a ridiculous question to some. After all, those who are truly saved understand that God sustains them. The saved know they are dependent on him for their very life. This is true. I contend that if we view salvation as a process, then it reinforces the understanding of our need and dependence on God. It is a work in progress and that progress depends on God. Our view of salvation affects how we perceive our relationship with God (in many more ways than we are talking about here).
To see salvation as a process also affects how we interact with the world. If salvation is a one-time event, then we are finished, right? If that were true, then why does the Bible constantly exhort us to live better lives and to endure in the faith? The Bible calls us to constantly strive to love God better, to love our neighbor better, to flee from the temptation to sin, and the list goes on. The moment we accept Christ is just the beginning. It is a call to a holiness that we have yet to achieve. It is to begin a process that is often called “sanctification” in the ordo salutis. If we view salvation as a process, then we know that we are not finished. We can be confident of the outcome, but we know that we have not arrived. We will press on in faith rather than rest on past laurels.
Therefore, it is important how we describe our salvation, and it is vital that we think of it as a process. It affects how we describe and understand our relationship to God and the world. We have probably all been asked by a well-meaning evangelist on the street, “Are you saved?” How would you answer that question if you have already responded to the gospel? The next time I am asked I will say, “I am saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.”
1. In other words, it is centered on the human act rather than the work of God.↩
2. This would be an obvious starting point for a Jew. A Gentile Christian is connected to Israel through Christ, who is true Israel.↩
3. This is Latin for “the order of salvation” and a technical term for theologians. Scholars debate the order that our salvation takes place. In Romans 8:30, Paul presents an ordo salutis of predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. I believe that Paul is expressing here a confident future. He would be hesitant to cleanly separate the steps. They are all wrapped up in a bundle you could call “salvation.”↩