For more than two months, we have been wrestling with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” We have looked at texts that are sometimes ignored when people think about soteriology, and we have tried to understand how these texts might enrich our understanding of the salvation process.
There is certainly more work to be done. There are other texts to analyze (like Luke 14:25-33) and other issues to explore (like eternal security). Still, I think that we have done some good things over the last several weeks. Here is what I would conclude from our time together. Please feel free to add your conclusions in the “Comments” section below.
- Salvation is a process. Stanley Grenz has argued that the conversion experience, predicated on a person’s decision to follow Christ in faith, is perhaps the defining element of evangelical theology. I think that he is right, but I also agree with Scot McKnight that American evangelicals have put too much emphasis on that initial decision. I know a lot of people who claim to have made a decision for Christ but who apparently have no ongoing relationship with him (or with his church), and I know at least one person who cannot point to a single point in time when she began to have faith but who nevertheless is a committed follower of Jesus. I understand that to construe salvation as a process might create a range of theological problems, but I still think that it is a more biblical way of understanding what happens to us when we become part of God’s family.
- Salvation is a social as well as a personal reality. Salvation isn’t just about “me and Jesus.” It is also about “me and the church.” Notice how I described salvation in point #1; we “become part of God’s family” when we receive salvation. It is a way of conceiving of salvation that I have taken directly from the argument of Galatians 3:1-4:11. The family image is so important to Paul because it not only establishes our relationship to God but also because it establishes our relationship with one another. To be saved is to be related to God’s people.
- Faith is an entry point into the salvific process, but it is not the only entry point. Let me be as clear as I can possibly be; salvation is not possible for the one who refuses to trust Christ. Nevertheless, faith may not be the entry point for every person into the salvation process. Some people enter the process through their love for God. Others enter through a realization that they have transgressed God’s law and undermined their neighbor’s well-being. Perhaps some people even enter the process through their efforts to obey what God has commanded or as a result of a life committed to justice and mercy. Regardless of where a person enters the process, our job as followers of Jesus is to help them embrace the entirety of what God is doing in their life. It is to call them to love the triune God with all of their being, to make them aware of their enslavement to evil, to urge them to trust Christ as the agent of their liberation so fully that they naturally and unashamedly repudiate all other claims to their allegiance, and to motivate them to a life of obedience that is based on their love for and trust in Christ and that results in justice, mercy, goodness, loyalty, and love.
- Salvation is an enterprise of holistic renewal. The gospel is intended to touch upon every aspect of human life. As such, it must be presented in a holistic manner. This means that we should embrace a model for doing evangelism that is oriented towards making disciples and not just converts. To be frank, it may not be a good idea to boil down our presentations of the gospel to, “Believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die.” There is a lot more to it, and we need to show how much we value the life-changing message of the gospel by taking the time to share all of it with our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.
- Salvation is a gracious gift from God. It reflects His character; it manifests His love. Everyone who knows anything about Christian theology knows this—whether they be a Roman Catholic intellectual or the most uneducated Protestant layperson. The steps that we take to participate in God’s saving work by no means make that work less an act of grace. They simply constitute the methods by which God’s transforming grace is made active in our lives.