Explaining Salvation

1:19 PM

My sister asked me to lay out the basics of what salvation is in order to explain it to her friends. I've been wanting to do this for a long time, because I've found that most Christians do not even understand the depth and meaning of their salvation, much less explain it to a brand-new or possible convert. It's taken me the sum of my Christian upbringing and theological study to grasp these concepts, so I certainly was in that category not too long ago! P.S. Another great article to read is "5 Ways to Know if You're Really a Christian."

What is salvation, anyway?

Before anyone can make “a decision for Christ,” she needs to know what exactly she’s getting into. THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT. Salvation is not merely or primarily a get-out-of-hell-free card. It’s not a ticket to heaven. It’s not primarily having a relationship with God, even. Salvation has two parts: you’re being saved from something and saved to something. You’re saved from the penalty of sin (death, separation from God) and the power of sin (which makes you a slave to sin unable to do righteous works or please God [Romans 6:20-23]). You’re saved to becoming conformed to the image of Christ (called “sanctification” [Romans 8:29]), belonging to the family of God as a member of His church and a co-heir with Christ (called “adoption” [Ephesians 1:5]), and doing good works for God’s glory and the furthering of the Gospel (Ephesians 1:4, 2:10). Basically, salvation is restoring you back to the perfect human in perfect harmony with God.

Salvation: Three Parts, One Package

Many people get hung up on the confusion between what salvation is and what it produces. Some people—rightly noting that a Christian must exhibit good works in order to be saved—add works into salvation. Some even go so far as to say you can lose your salvation based on your performance as a Christian. On the other hand, others say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re “saved” to start with. They believe it’s possible to be saved yet not live for Christ.

We can cut through this confusion by understanding that the New Testament presents salvation as a three-part process. All the parts must be in place for one to be truly “saved.” Because it’s more of a process, some people who profess to be saved will in the end prove not to be (1 John 2:19). This is the doctrine called “perseverance of the saints”: all those who are genuine Christians will stick it out to the end; they will experience the three parts of salvation. Here are the three parts:

Justification. This means that God legally declares a guilty person to be “not guilty.” There is no longer a record of that person ever having sinned (Romans 8:1). Christ has taken that person’s punishment, so all debts are paid. This person owes nothing to God. According to God’s official record, this person is entirely innocent and righteous. This first part of salvation is by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Sanctification. This means “purification”—getting rid of the bad, putting on the good (Ephesians 4:21-23). Even though a person is legally declared righteous, she is still sinful. Because God has saved her from sin to good works, He wants her to pursue righteousness and holiness: “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The Holy Spirit takes over in her life, giving her new desires and abilities to love God and obey His commands. She battles sin and overcomes sin and sees herself change into a brand-new person who is starting to look like Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). She demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24). This second part of salvation is just as necessary, but it flows out of being justified. Even though she is able to do good works that earn God’s pleasure and reward, she is not good enough on her own to add to her salvation. Her good works are only good because she is justified. Still, she will, by necessity, perform good works because the Holy Spirit lives within her (James 2:14). If she does not, then that’s evidence she’s not saved to begin with.

Glorification. This third step is another act of God that occurs after a believer dies or the Lord comes back (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). She will immediately be purified completely from sin. She will not only be declared righteous; she will be righteous.

What does that look like in real life?

An unsaved person is destined for hell. She shoulders all the responsibility to pay for her sins. When she stands before God in judgment, she will receive a guilty sentence and must pay the penalty. She is an enemy of God because she has rebelled against His perfect law and has not accepted His proffered grace. She is a slave to sin, unable to work for God or experience His pleasure. This doesn’t mean she will be unable to do “good things,” but they will not count for anything in God’s eyes. In fact, those “good things” are like filthy rags. It doesn’t mean she can’t fix sinful habits or exhibit things like love and patience, but again, those “good things” don’t count for anything. God does not hear her prayers or acknowledge her as His child. Her sin keeps her from abiding in Christ, being His child, and doing good works that count before God.

A saved person is destined for heaven. She still retains responsibility for her choices and will experience discipline and consequences for sin on earth, but Christ has paid the legal debt for her sin. God deals with her graciously as His beloved child: all discipline is meant to bring her back to Him and help her conquer sin, not to destroy her or make her pay up. She is a friend and child of God. In His eyes, she appears perfect because she comes before God clothed in Christ’s righteousness. (Theologians used a fancy word called “imputed,” which means Christ’s righteousness was put into her account—it’s not her own righteousness, but God treats it as if it were.) She is now a slave to Christ. Her whole life is devoted to upholding the greatest commandment (“love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”), preaching the Gospel, and making disciples. The Spirit of God indwells her, enabling her to “grow in grace” and produce the fruits of the Spirit and other good works. These works don’t save her or add to her salvation; they are merely evidences. This doesn’t mean that works aren’t important, for God will reward her for every good deed she does. Of course, she will still sin, but she is able to go directly to God and ask for forgiveness and get the grace and help she needs to overcome sin. Her sin doesn’t count against her. She is freed from it, able to overcome sin with the help of the Spirit. She no longer wants to sin: she wants to do God’s will. God honors her faith, always treating her with abundant love and lavish grace. He hears her prayers and pursues a deep relationship with her as a beloved child.

“What must I do to be saved?”

If a person expresses interest in being saved, she will naturally want to know how to be saved. Don’t repeat Christian clichés like “accept Jesus into your heart” or “ask Jesus into your heart.” Jesus needs to accept her, and He is already the one asking, seeking and pursuing her. She needs to do two things to receive the salvation offered to her. These acts do not save her, just as a call to 911 does not perform CPR to a dying person: it only asks for help while the paramedics do the actual saving. These acts are her “911 call” to God asking for salvation:

Repent of sin. A person truly convicted by the Holy Spirit and ready for accepting salvation is someone crippled by the sinfulness of her sin. She realizes that she has offended God by breaking His commands and trying to do things her own way; that she is responsible for those sins and can offer no excuses; and that she deserves death as punishment for her “guilty” sentence. She is sorry for her sin. She no longer wants to sin but wants to do good works God’s way. She’s willing to make radical changes—to do anything—for God.

Believe on Christ. What does this exactly mean? It means that in light of how horrible her sin is, she needs a savior. She acknowledges that Jesus is the only savior who can save her from her sin. She believes that He paid for her sin by experiencing the wrath of God on the cross. She understands justification—that God now legally declares her righteous. She understands sanctification—that the Spirit now indwells her and enables her to perform good works and change her into someone who looks more like Christ. She will immediately go about wanting to follow Christ, starting with His command to be baptized as a tangible sign of her belief.

The Bible is clear that anyone who repents and believes in such a way that produces fruit can be assured of her salvation.

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  1. This is a very good explanation, and it would be wonderful to refer back to when sharing with someone. Thank you for posting it! I enjoy reading your thoughts.

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