The Reformers have left a valuable legacy for us in their doctrine of the assurance of salvation. It is perhaps most commonly associated with John Calvin. Despite what some may think, Calvin did not invent assurance of salvation, however he did help codify it.
Christians of the Reformed faith would strongly argue that the doctrine of the assurance of salvation is to be found before Calvin. It is to be found in God’s word, in fact.
Nevertheless, assurance of salvation makes some Christians uneasy. For some reason they want an escape clause built into the Christian faith just so any Christian who decides he does not want to be saved can put his hand up and be excused.
They will point to famous examples of Christians who have rejected the faith, like Charles Templeton, they will insist God would not force anyone into heaven and they will support the notion that everyone has a free will, which is supposed to ensure anyone can get in or out of the Kingdom whenever they want.
Interestingly, no one I have spoken to who holds these views has ever pointed out the three tenses in which the Bible says we are saved; the past, the present and the future. Is it possible we have over simplified this whole business?
The story is told of Regius Professor of Divinity, Brooke Foss Westcott, who was approached at Cambridge by a student to ask if he was saved.
‘Ah,’ said Westcott, ‘a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?’ - and then he mentioned three passive participles of the Greek verb ‘to save’, indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three the student had in mind. ‘I know I have been saved,’ he said (except that he used the Greek forms, which are here put in italics in English); I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.’ Salvation has a past, a present and future reference.1
Saved - past tense
Not surprisingly, there many references to salvation as a past tense transaction in the Bible.
Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:50)
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? (Rom 8:24)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)
But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. (2 Tim 1:8-9)
But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:4-5)
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Heb 10:39)
The Reformers were insistent on this point. We did nothing to earn our salvation. It was made a reality due solely to the grace of God (the sola gratia part of the reformation war cry). “It is the gift of God” Paul said and it is “not by works” (Eph 2:8-9).
This simple sentence underscores a doctrine which Paul (and the Reformers) took to be an absolute. That meant your salvation had nothing to do with your behaviour, no matter how good or bad, and this will always be the case no matter when or where you lived.
As a sinner, you can not impress God by doing either a few or many good works in the hope he might consider you worthy of heaven. If that were the case, then he would be more like a judge at the Olympics. If you were presented with the gold medal, you would know you earned it. Not only that, you probably trained for it and made all sorts of sacrifices along the way.
No one I know really believes salvation is like this, but that is in effect what happens to the doctrine when you open the door to the idea that salvation is based on God observing who’s doing what and reacting to it with the great offer. That makes God contingent on us instead of the other way around.
Past tense salvation is bound up with Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross. It’s a done deal and it is the gift of God. You may rest assured.
Saved - present tense
If ‘past’ salvation has to do with the cross, ‘present’ salvation is bound up with the risen Jesus and therefore the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is difficult, and indeed unnecessary, to draw a clear distinction between this present work of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, for it is the Spirit who makes effective in the people of Christ not only what Christ has done for them in the past but what he is doing for them now.2
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (2 Cor 2:15)
And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" (1 Peter 4:18)
The Bible teaches God has not abandoned us now that Jesus has returned to the Father. Quite the opposite; the Holy Spirit is God with us by his Spirit. You have God when you have the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we may say that this ‘present’ salvation being spoken of is your ongoing sanctification. The issue at stake is not whether your name is in the book of life, but what sort of a Christian you become as God works in you to bring you to perfection.
There are most assuredly some believers who are more obedient than others and yet all are freely given this gift of eternal life. What makes us different is that we each play a part in the body that is ever so slightly unique. No one performs exactly the same function as me.
To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:1-3)
The question, then, turns from being one of salvation to one of stewardship. God has gifted me in certain areas, given me a particular level of understanding and presented me with so many opportunities in life to use them all. What have I done with them? Am I one who hides my lamp or do I let it shine? Will I bury my talent or invest it?
Saved - future tense
So, ‘past’ salvation is the assurance of eternity with our Lord while ‘present’ salvation describes the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. But what about ‘future’ salvation? What does that mean?
All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22)
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:12-13)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (John 10:9)
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:21)
They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household." (Acts 16:31)
When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor 5:5)
This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. (Phil 1:28)
This part of the equation can be confusing because passages such as these seem to indicate God expects a work from us before he decides whether he will offer salvation. In one, the critical factor seems to be what you say out loud, in another it is your ability to stand firm, then it’s calling something or even unwavering belief.
As important as all those things are, we must be careful not to think to them as pre-requisites for salvation in the sense that God waits to see if you will do them, then rewards you with eternal life.
The problem is God does not wait for you to do anything. He does it all before you know anything about it. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He does not wait to see who will call out, believe or persevere. He knows already because he has called them by name. They are his elect.
There is a reward at the end of this life and Paul gives us a little clue in the abovementioned 1 Corinthians 5:5. The unrepentant sinner must be handed over to Satan “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”.
Here is the ‘future’ salvation at work. Your sinful nature is being put to death so that the part of you which matters, your spirit, will be saved. In other words, there is a part of you which must die, a part of you which is being sanctified and a part of you which will be renewed.
Paul goes on to describe this in detail in 1 Corinthians 15.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable (v42).
“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." (vv 53-54)
It is our bodies which will undergo the great transformation of the future. Our salvation is assured, but we still live in corrupted flesh. That is to be transformed into something “imperishable” but otherwise indescribable. Our bodies will be glorified.
Then the final enemy, death, will be destroyed as well. Our salvation is complete.
In order to understand our salvation, we must trust fully in the “finished” work of Christ (John 19:30). The death & resurrection of Jesus provides us with the certain basis upon which salvation is based. Jesus has completed his work. It is finished.
But despite the work of Jesus (ie atonement) being complete, the work in us continues. We are presently being sanctified so that we might become Christ like, the goal of every Christian. This sanctifying work is the domain of the Holy Spirit and it will continue until the Lord returns for us.
All the while, we labour under the weight of sin. Our bodies and our minds are corrupt. Being transformed yes, but corrupt nevertheless. The Bible’s authors knew nothing of a salvation which did not involve the glorious transformation of creation.
One of this life’s frustrations is no matter how sanctified you become on earth, your body may no show anything for it. Your hair will still turn grey and you will eventually need glasses. Your back will go out more than you do and your get-up-and-go will have got-up-and-gone one day.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor 4:16)
It’s one of the great mysteries of the gospel. Our salvation is assured the moment we enter into a genuine relationship with God through faith in Christ. Yet, despite this guarantee, we must go about allowing the Holy Spirit to make us in reality what we know by faith we will become – holy. And as this is being completed inwardly, our bodies slowly deteriorate to the point of physical death. A death which has no hold nor victory over us.
“For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10)
We will be saved because we are already reconciled.
1. Bruce, FF. The Work of Jesus, 1984, Kingsway Publications, UK, p. 137 (emphasis in original)