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What is Salvation? This appears to be a simple question, yet the answer has been highly debated among Christian theologians for centuries and the issues date all the way back to at least the first century believers. Perhaps the reason salvation and what exactly it is becomes so contended is because the conclusions have immense consequences for life and faith- both on an individual and a corporate level in the church. Luke records salvation as the chief purpose of Jesus’ life on earth; “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) To bring salvation to the gentiles was the God-given mission of Paul and Barnabas. “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:47) Paul, when writing to the church in Ephesus, reminds them that it is not by works that one is saved, but rather for works. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:8-10) In another letter, to the church in Galatia, Paul sums up his faith in light of the life and death of Jesus with salvation at the core. He writes, “I am crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:20-21). These passages are a miniscule sampling of what is clearly a lot of weight given to the doctrine of salvation- especially in the New Testament.

While there are numerous soteriologies one could adopt in answer to this basic question, for the purposes of this paper, they will be summarized in one of two categories: (1) Those who claim salvation is a single event in time and (2) those who believe salvation is a process. Through an analysis of the relevant biblical passages and the thoughts of other theologians on the subject, it will become clear that while salvation may have a beginning point, it is a lifelong process made of both justification and sanctification, not merely a moment in time where a soul is instantly redeemed by God.

Those who claim that salvation is an event treat it as a “spiritual birthday” and look for confirmation that one is “saved” based on the precise ability to name a day when they were spiritually reborn. They would argue that even if the record has been lost by bad memory, all Christians have a spiritual birthday when their names are written in the “lambs book of life”. (Rev.13:8) Like a physical birth, it is an event that is permanent and in the past for every soul that has been promised eternal life. This realization places great confidence in the Christian that all their sins were paid by Jesus and no matter how they live from this day forward, they have an inheritance guaranteed by the deposit of the Holy Spirit in them. (Eph 1:13-14) This is the message preached in evangelical sermons all over the world, many of which also offer a chance for an individual who is listening to “receive salvation” by praying a prayer of repentance and accepting Christ’s shed blood as payment for their sins.
Perhaps this doctrinal position has best been championed in the modern day by Campus Crusade for Christ’s founder and author of the very famous “four spiritual laws” evangelism tract, Bill Bright. When asked what is the message of salvation, and how to communicate it to an “unsaved” person, he says,

“The basic components of the Gospel could be summarized as: problem, penalty, provision, and decision. You might use the Four Spiritual Laws and bring their attention to these four components. The Problem is sin. It is universal, and at some level, almost everyone acknowledges that they fall short of either God’s standards or their own: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The Penalty is death. Romans 6:23 states that ‘the wages of sin is death.’ This is not physical death, but spiritual. The result of sin is eternal spiritual separation from God. The Provision is Christ’s death for our sin; He pays the penalty for us. The Decision one needs to make is to place their faith in Christ to pay the penalty for their sin (to be their Savior). “

That is all there is to it. Help people realize these four easy steps and once they decide to place faith in Jesus, their “salvation” is complete.

In examining the historical roots of this idea, Hindmarsh notes others who have held to this concept of salvation. He records that, “Wesley and other evangelicals conceived of salvation primarily (and that is an important adverb) in terms of the individual and his or her eternal destiny. They understood that the gospel implied much else, but when they spoke of salvation, they conceived of it primarily in terms of the inherited Reformed ordo- the so-called golden chain of God’s saving actions that begin and end in eternity: Those whom God predestines, he calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies.” But this view of salvation primarily as an event designed for an individual soul is not a message we can afford to communicate as the dominate view of salvation in the church today, nor is it the whole Biblical truth.

The problem with this message is not that salvation does not have a beginning or a specific starting point. It’s that salvation is more than a one-time choice made by a lost individual in need of a Savior. If this is in fact the Gospel message and there is nothing more to salvation than this, then God’s redemptive plan for humanity post the fall has been to get men and women to make a single decision to be His follower so that they could find eternal life with Himself post physical death. Anything beyond that is unnecessary for salvation and simply a bonus if it happens. One could be the thief on the cross headed from a life of sin to a life of redemption in an instant or could serve God for a lifetime like Paul’s companion Timothy. But either way, the status of “saved by grace” is all that matters.

By way of a word picture, it’s like being told you are officially on a sports team because the coach picked you and you agreed to join. Then after being welcomed to the team, you’re told it is expected but not mandatory if you show up to practice, run hard, score any points, or even work directly with your teammates. All that really matters is you’re on the team and you can sit on the bench until you die and that won’t change your status. The Evangelical position would argue that a true conversion would not merely “bench it” for life. But the truth is, they could if salvation is solely a momentary line that is crossed by belief and profession of faith. But the redemptive work of God in the life of the believer does not begin and end on a penal substitution theory of the atonement whereby a Divine exchange is made for the lost soul and then what was lost is now “saved” and we’re done. There is way more to the redemptive life of God in us than a single life-altering event.

For those who see salvation as a process, they see it less like a legal transaction, sports team membership, or spiritual birth date and more like the constant adjustments one makes while driving to stay on the road. There may very well be a distinct day and time one could point to when they first got behind the wheel and started to drive (or it may be a series of moments starting with just watching Dad drive as a kid), however the act of driving- like the act of being a follower of Jesus- itself is made up not of one decision, but of many. That is what the New Testament teaches. Jesus called His disciples to, “take up their cross daily”. (Luk 9:23) Paul’s challenge to the Philippian church was to, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13). Peter also underlines that salvation is a process, even for the believer when he writes to them scattered around the Roman world and tells them, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (1Pet. 2:2)

Even famously chosen verses by the “salvation is an event” group like 1 John 1:9 are in the context of a bigger plan of salvation. 1 John 1:9 tells the reader that sins are forgiven upon a prayer of confession. However, 1 John 1:7 reminds the reader that, “if we walk in the light, as [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Here we see more of the process of salvation. The question becomes, “Which piece of this sentence is it here that produced a purity from sin?” Was it the blood of Jesus? Was it the life lived in fellowship of other believers? Was it the walking in the light with God? Can we dump one of these three character traits of a believer as optional? The answer is no, nothing can be dumped because God uses all of those things to daily redeem our hearts and minds and souls. He uses other people. He guides our steps. And yes He uses the sacrifice of Jesus to save. This is not an attempt to add works to salvation or to limit the atoning power of Jesus’ blood for sins. But it is an attempt to open the believer’s eyes to the fact that the act of salvation is more daily and present tense applicable than a past tense experience with future implications.

One New Testament scholar who gives some clarity to this position is Scot McKnight in his recent book, “The Jesus Creed.” He says that “conversion, like wisdom, takes a lifetime.” By way of an illustration, he puts it in terms of a birth certificate verses a driver’s license. He notes that the first is concerned with “What do I need to get to heaven?” and the later is concerned with, “How do I love God?”. He cautions that, “If a conversion is likened to a birth certificate, we produce babies who need to be pushed around in strollers. If it’s like a driver’s license, we produce adults who can operate on life’s pathways…. And so conversion to Jesus and [the Jesus Creed- which he defines as Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18] is total conversion- heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

As an example, Scott McKnight looks to the life of Peter verses Paul as conversion or salvation experiences. Paul’s story is touted by Evangelicals as a case study for conversion and how one can go from extreme sinful hatred of God to a passionate servant via a dramatic salvation experience. The Apostle Paul can name the day and time when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus. He seems to be a classic proof text of the “salvation is an event” theologians.

But what about Peter? When was he saved? Was it when his brother introduces him to Jesus and Jesus promises he’ll get a new name? Was it when Peter confesses he’s a sinner in the presence of God after Jesus gives him a huge catch of fish one morning when he was done fishing and throws down his nets just because Jesus says to do so? Was it when Peter correctly answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” at Caesarea Philippi? Was it only after Jesus dies and is resurrected and calls Peter to return to feeding and loving Jesus’ sheep? Was it on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon him? These rhetorical questions don’t have a clear answer in the pages of the New Testament writers. The point is, it’s not always so easy to name a date and time, nor was it the goal of salvation for the early church fathers. They were seeking disciples, not merely decisions.

But the truth is, no matter how big or clear the “beginning” conversion moment may or may not be, both Paul and Peter spent their lives post meeting Jesus striving to live more fully the life of a faithful follower. They were both amazed the grace of God was given to them and they intended to live their lives working that grace out through every part of them. But they were not living completely redeemed lives themselves, they were a work in progress and thus were moving toward fully experiencing salvation in every area. In fact, a large portion of the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a summation of a disagreement between these two men about God’s plan of salvation for the gentiles and what was required for them to begin this new life as a follower of Jesus. In the case of Peter, we also see God’s continual forming of his salvation plan in him with regards to the gentiles in Acts 10 at the home of the centurion Cornelius where Peter is given a vision that opens his eyes to see all people in renewed spiritual ways and in need of a Savior. It is clear that in the New Testament, both Paul and Peter were both still very much in the process of salvation in themselves and learning how to call and lead others to experiencing salvation in Jesus too.

But, despite the fact that there are those who believe that salvation is a process, the dominate evangelical position of our day is that it is an “event”. The question is, has it always been this way? In his studies on the history of the doctrine of salvation, particularly among Evangelicals, Bacote notes that, “Evangelical soteriology has rightly focused on the salvation of individual souls, for indeed the eternal destiny of individuals is a central aspect of the gospel. But it is not the only aspect…. Prior to the twentieth century, there was considerable evangelical engagement in all areas of life. In particular, those who held a postmillennial eschatology sought to transform society so that the Kingdom of God would eventually appear on earth. … however a shift that some scholars have labeled ‘a great reversal’ [in the 1900-1930] led to a distinct de-emphasis on matters of social concern. This reversal was a reaction to the social gospel of liberalism and the result of a shift to rapture-focused premillennialism as the dominant view of eschatology. Concerned that the gospel message of eternal life through Christ’s atoning work would be lost in a sea of social concern and convinced that the Bible teaches that society will only deteriorate, fundamentalists and evangelicals directed their soteriological gaze toward eternal matters.”

True as this may be, the caution of socialist goals has been overstated for the last 50 years and now we find many in the Evangelical community who believe that their salvation is secure and their lifestyles are but optional areas of progressive holiness having no consequence greater than the crowns one may receive in heaven. Consequently, the social, corporate, and morally sanctifying pieces of the gospel of salvation need to be resurfaced as part of the soteriology of Jesus who “came to seek and to save that which was lost.”- which is broader than the individual soul’s of humanity momentary profession of Jesus as Lord.

In the process of studying the Catholic Church’s perspective on salvation, something traditionally viewed as drastically different from the Evangelical position, Francis Sullivan studied the history of Papal statements on the subject of salvation as it pertains to the Catholic Church from the 1200’s through modern day. His conclusion is that the Papacy has declared that, “God has assigned to the church a necessary role in the divine economy of salvation. As Christ is the one mediator, so his body, the church has a subordinate but necessary role of mediation in the salvation of mankind.” While the Catholic Church’s view of the salvation works has traditionally been rejected by the Evangelical position, more and more they are finding some common ground. One point of common ground should be that salvation is a process in which the believer’s role in submission to and participation with the voice of the church is critical to the salvation work of Jesus in our world today. Rosner comes to a similar conclusion regarding the need for salvation to be viewed in light of the Biblical context of the whole of creation, not just the individual soul in his study of the history of salvation. He states, “Salvation is thought of both individually and corporately. If Christ is in the individual believer, correspondingly all believers together are in Christ. The believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit, just as the church as a whole is such a temple. As well as a judgment of individuals, there will also be a judgment of nations. And if individuals long for salvation, no less does the whole creation. Salvation history makes it clear that God’s purposes loom larger than my personal fulfillment, are bigger than me and my God, and embrace a universalistic vision.”

But, this view of salvation as a process produces some obvious fears for evangelicals- especially those with a linear thinking modern mind. (1) How can we assure people of salvation without knowing when they were reborn? (2) If salvation is a lifelong process, how can we ever know we are “saved”? (3) This sounds like a salvation by works doctrine whereby someone must earn their way to God. We are either saved by grace or we’re not… These and other valid questions could and should be asked in the arena of this discussion on salvation for the accepted conclusions determine the very function of the life of Jesus and by default those who claim to be His followers. At the outset, it is enough to say that some of the debate is over concern for a math equation for salvation. The process view of salvation is less concerned with an objective moment of decision to cast assurance on, and content with the mysterious life of transformation and an embracing of the process as a whole. Where the exact line is that justifies a follower is less important than the awareness that one has truly embraced the Holy Spirits lead and embraced faith in Jesus as His disciple.

When Evangelicals in America get that wrong, and begin to teach and live out an event or justification only driven evangelism model, the ripple effects are broad and catastrophic. Take for example the search for conversions that characterized much of the conquering of the Native American Indians in this land among some of this continent’s earliest believers where men and women tried to force an entire people group to become Christians. Regarding this Bacote writes, “The implications for God’s covenant people are enormous as ever. Those who have entered into a covenant relationship with God cannot assume that their “saved” status carries no responsibility for their behavior. The legacy of Christian treatment of Native Americans is lamentable and reveals the hubris that can result from misunderstanding our status as a covenant people.” In this case, sin clearly has corporate consequences as well as individual ones and the gospel of Jesus speaks to both.

In our modern day, these consequences continue as those who claim to be among the “saved”, confident in a birth date in their past upon praying a prayer of confession, then go onto refuse to live the daily life of a follower of Jesus in the marketplace. Horn writes, “The deepest reason for faith alone is that salvation is by Christ alone. Faith only means it is all Christ. Christ, not the church; Christ, not me; Christ alone. This is certainly the Bible’s teaching. The trouble is that it seems to cut out my responsibility altogether. I cannot do anything to gain justification, for Christ does it all. I need not do anything, for faith rules out works. So the question arises: what are the consequences of this emphasis on grace and faith? What does ‘faith only’ lead to- a life of spiritual idleness.”

In fact, one of the most frightening teachings Jesus ever gave on the subject of salvation was given in his famous Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew. It was there that he told the crowd that they could be very religious and look like they were “saved” only to find that on the day of judgment, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’(Matt 7:22-23) Bacote sees the results of this among the poor and oppressed. He notes, “Christians who claim to have given their hearts to Jesus while failing to call for justice, particularly those in positions of influence, may unwittingly have joined themselves to the enemy in their life practice. Though they may give to missions, attend church regularly, and engage in daily personal devotions, their lives, apart from inner piety, hare no different from those of the unsaved. Will evangelical piety break free from the inner life and have a public statement thereby changing the circumstances of Christian brothers and sisters who suffer? If not, are we really who we say we are?”

For the evangelical holding to an event based salvation plan, this discrepancy of a life lived partially committed to God is an issue of “carnal” verses “spiritual” living. Since one is saved by a decision or profession of faith, there must be some sort of doctrinal explanation for the fact that some who are “saved” don’t live as such. Here again we can find this teaching by Bill Bright helpful to understanding this position. He writes, “Jesus meant for the Christian life to be an exciting, abundant adventure…. The carnal man, described by Paul in I Corinthians, Chapter 3, is a defeated and fruitless Christian. He is living in the energy of the flesh instead of drawing upon the inexhaustible resources of the Holy Spirit. He may be a Sunday school teacher, a salesman, a student, or even a minister or missionary who, even though he is a Christian, is in [personal] control at the same time. The carnal man desires and sometimes attempts to set his affection on the things of God, but still holds onto the things of this world.” Speaking of the same passage, Charles Ryrie concludes that “Paul can only mean that these carnal Corinthians lived like unsaved men. That clarifies why the word carnal can label both unbelievers and believers, simply because the lifestyles of both are the same. The cure for the unbeliever’s carnality is salvation; the cure for the believer’s is to grow in the Lord.” Notice how Ryrie separates the two processes. Salvation is the act of belief that occurs at some point for the unbeliever to become “saved” and redemptive living is an act of obedience that is clearer among some followers than others depending on their “growth in the Lord”.

The perceived problem of “carnality” is not because there cannot be variation in the holiness of a Christian in process of becoming like God, it is instead due to the fact that the doctrine of salvation has been reduced to the doctrine of justification. Which is like reducing a recipe for cake down to the ingredients and ignoring the need for an oven to bake it. It is agreed that justification occurs in an instant. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome makes this abundantly clear in multiple locations, the most famous of which is likely Chapter 3, verses 22-24 where he writes, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Justification is then the moment when all the ingredients come together to make a cake mix in profession of belief. It is a significant spiritual moment in the life of a believer when the process of salvation has begun. However salvation also includes sanctification. It has a time and life transformation piece too. This is what James is speaking of when he cautions that, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jam 2:19) Belief is not all there is to salvation.
In his study on the subject of justification, Horn states the commonly taught evangelical position on these two doctrines. “Justification is beginning and sanctification is continuing. Justification is complete once for all; sanctification is progressive and increasing. One settles our status and secures our adoption. The other is God’s dealing with inborn sin, starting to train us in godliness.“ However, he also reminds us that “Justification does not stand in isolation. God does not justify us so that we can say, ‘Right, I am saved. No I don’t need to bother with what God wants anymore.’… only the person who has been justified is in God’s family and only he can begin to grow like Christ in character. That person alone will truly love and obey Christ.”

Thus the question, “What is Salvation” is a widely contested one. Whatever specific conclusions one comes to, it is clear that though there are verses in the Bible that deal with and support salvation as a moment in time conclusion, the problem is they’re only half the story. God’s redemptive plan of salvation is in part a justification process where by a lost soul is found and divinely forgiven. This is not the end however, but instead the beginning of the process of salvation whereby the Holy Spirit leads and guides a disciple into a sanctified life lived eternally both in this life, and the life to come. It is the process of working out and growing up into salvation. It is a process that is less about individual soul winning and more about redemption. It is about redeeming lost and found individuals into the image of their Creator. And ultimately it’s about redeeming lost cultures, a wounded creation, and the Kingdom of God back to it’s full light. As a final word, Titus 2:11-14 sums up the process and the goal of salvation well. “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self–controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”


Dieter, Melvin E., and others. Five Views of Sanctification. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.

Green, Joel B. and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 1992.

Horn, Robert M. Go Free! The Meaning of Justification. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 1976.

McKnight, Scot. The Jesus Creed. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004.

Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Downers Grove: IVP, 1973. Part 3.

Ryrie, Charles C. So Great Salvation. Wheaton, IL.: Victor, 1989.

Stackhouse, John G. Jr., ed. What does it mean to be saved? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Sullivan, Francis A. Salvation Outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response. New York, NY: Paulist Press. 1992.

Toon, Peter. Justification and Sanctification. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1983.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker., 2005

Wells, David F. The Search for Salvation. Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 1978.

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