Salvation: Now and Not Yet
If there is one thing which everyone knows about the message of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s that “Jesus saves.” Yet, tragically, the nature of salvation in Jesus Christ is often a matter of bitter disputation.
There are many who emphasize salvation as a present reality: a person can be saved now in Christ. Such people place great emphasis on what is called “initial” salvation, the point of conversion from the world to being in Christ through faith: God accomplished the work necessary to secure this salvation long ago, and many who emphasize the “now” of salvation are easily induced into suggesting that it will endure no matter what a person may or may not do in the future. Those who emphasize the “now” of salvation point to John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11, 8:31-39, and Ephesians 2:1-10, among other passages.
There are others who emphasize salvation as a future promise: a person is not fully saved until after this life has ended and the resurrection of life has been obtained. Such people place great emphasis on what is called “final” salvation, the fullness of all what God promises to believers in Christ: to overcome sin and death in an incorruptible and immortal resurrection body, dwelling in the presence of God without hindrance or veil, no longer enduring pain or suffering. Many who emphasize the “not yet” of salvation are easily induced into questioning the ability for a present believer to have much confidence in their present salvation since it cannot be fully known what he or she will do in the future. Those who emphasize the “not yet” of salvation point to Matthew 10:22, Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 9:24-28, and Philippians 3:8-15, among other passages.
For generations those who emphasize the “now” of salvation have argued and disputed with those who emphasize the “not yet” of salvation; such arguments endure to this day. Many Christians end up feeling very confused by such argumentation, and for good reason. In the New Testament salvation is not a matter of “now” or “not yet,” but is both “now” and “not yet”! “Initial” and “final” aspects of salvation are not at odds with one another; the Apostles and associates hold them both as true in the tension of life in the world in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.
Christians can see the interplay between “initial” and “final” salvation in a passage like 1 Peter 1:3-9. Peter blessed God because He had already begotten Christians to a living hope in Christ; Christians have an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance guarded for them through faith (1 Peter 1:3-5). These promises speak to a current relationship and form of standing before God: initial salvation, salvation in the here and now. Yet Peter expected the inheritance to be obtained when salvation is “revealed in the last time”; the outcome of their tested faith is the salvation of their souls (1 Peter 1:5-9). And so the promises speak to something which awaits the Christian: final salvation, salvation not yet fully obtained. Peter did not seem to note any irony or internal contradiction in his encouragement to the Christians of Asia Minor.
Many Christians find this kind of tension uncomfortable. Why has God left us in this awkward transitory space, in the “now” but “not yet”? We understand the impetus of the question, yet it is vanity, a striving after wind: we cannot know the ways of the Almighty. Nevertheless, we can at least perceive that yes, we are in this transitory space according to what God has made known in Jesus. We can maintain confidence in God, for if He was willing to give of His Son to secure our salvation now, He will most assuredly bring to pass all that is necessary to bring salvation to a complete end.
We do well to understand salvation in relational terms. God is one in perichoretic relational unity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are “in” each other, yet remain distinct persons (cf. John 17:20-23). Jesus prayed for believers to become one with God and one with each other as God is One within Himself (John 17:20-23). Yet humanity has become separated from God and alienated from one another on account of sin and its consequences (Isaiah 59:2, Ephesians 2:11-12). If left on our own, we humans could never atone for the sins we have committed: our good deeds cannot outweigh the guilt we bear for transgressing God’s commands, and we would be justly condemned (Romans 3:23, 6:22-23, James 2:9-11). In His great love, grace, and mercy, God sent His Son to become the propitiation of our sins, to show us the way of life and truth, and to obtain cleansing from sin and reconciliation in our relationship with God through faith in Him (John 14:6-11, Romans 3:24-38, 5:6-11, 8:1-7). Once we have died to our life of sin in baptism, we have new spiritual life, raised up spiritually to walk with Jesus (Romans 6:3-7, 8:10). We have become part of the household of God, and participate in the Body of Christ; we can call upon God as our Father; our relationship with God is restored (Romans 8:15-16, Ephesians 2:18-22, 4:1-16).
We confess that Jesus is Lord and serve Him in His Kingdom and recognize His death and resurrection as a transitional moment of new life (2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 1:13, 2:6-9). Yet this new life broke into the old world which is still subject to corruption, decay, and death. Jesus gained the victory over sin and death in His resurrection, yet His enemies, sin, death, and the powers and principalities still exist, and have not been fully conquered (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Our salvation, therefore, is very much like ourselves once we have become Christians: a new creation of the Kingdom striving to grow and expand in an old, decayed world, until the contest is over and the victory is won. Today we live by faith and hope that what God began in Christ will be glorified in our lives and brought to its successful completion soon (2 Corinthians 4:7-18).
Indeed, what is gained by faith must be maintained in faith: if we turn away from our trust in Christ before the end comes, we have lost our ground of standing before Him and will suffer same condemnation as the world which we have chosen (Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22). While we cannot know what will be, however, we can maintain confidence that God will do everything He can to save us and to continue to commit our lives to Him in faith (Romans 8:31-39). If we strive to be one with God and with the people of God as God is One in Himself now, we will enjoy the fullness of relational unity with God and His people for eternity. May we take hold of salvation in Christ now and maintain our faith in Him so as to obtain the fullness of salvation when He appears in glory on the day of resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry