When you think of “salvation” is it a past, present, or future reality?
If we let Scripture shape our thinking and the answer we give, it is surely all three. The elect of God have been saved (past tense) when they received and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 2:8). At the same time, those who have been saved are also being saved (see 2 Corinthians 2:15) and one day will be saved (Romans 13:11).
This way of thinking is not uncommon in biblical Christianity. As it is often framed, Christians are saved from the penalty of sin (past), the power of sin (presence), and will be saved from presence of sin (future). Each temporal aspect is true and cannot be divided from the other, but are they of equal stress in the Bible? Does Scripture place greater prominence on one aspect of salvation above the others? I believe so.
In seminary I read the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance by Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday. In their book, they show how the New Testament emphasizes a future orientation for salvation. That is to say, while salvation is a past, present, and future reality, it is the future aspect that is most often described and discussed.
This revelation surprised me, and I bet I’m not alone. Protestants are people who like to hear testimonies of someone “got saved.” We say things like: “At youth camp, 15 teens were saved.” And we like to ask questions like: “When you were saved?” All in all, while we may know that salvation has a future orientation, that is not the emphasis most evangelistic Christians seem to put on it. And that, I believe, is a problem.
How the New Testament Speaks of Salvation
The problem of stressing salvation’s past tense is ultimately a practical one. But first, we should see how Scripture speaks of salvation as a future reality. Consider these 12 passages.
And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
1 Thessalonians 5:8–9
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
1 Timothy 4:16
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
2 Timothy 4:18
18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
1 Peter 1:5, 9
who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time . . . obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 2:2
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—
Importantly, these verses show the future orientation of salvation. Some describe salvation in an ongoing, dynamic way (see Philippians 2:12; 1 Peter 2:2). But most speak explicitly of a future salvation—Romans 5:9–10 being a good example. In that verse, justification and reconciliation are present experiences, but salvation is a future event. Likewise, Romans 8:23 and 13:11 make plain adoption, redemption, and salvation are future events.
Surely, other passages speak of adoption, redemption, and salvation with the past in view—even the eternal past—but here their orientation is future. And this is the corrective some of us may need. While salvation can and should be spoken of as a past reality, the greater stress in the New Testament is on its future completion—a truth that has massive implications for our daily living.
The Theological Significance of a Future Salvation
If the New Testament emphasizes the future reality of our salvation, what impact does this have? Does it really matter? Or is this just something theological eggheads like to talk about?
Let me answer that “so what” question in three ways.
First, our Bible reading should notice where Scripture puts stress on various truths.
If the New Testament puts stress on the future completion of our salvation—and not the past tense—we should take note. This is the point Schreiner and Caneday make when they consider the above passages in The Race Set Before Us. Speaking of the future orientation of salvation, they write,
When we study the New Testament writers . . . we discover something quite surprising. Though they occasionally describe salvation as the present possession of believers, they usually envision salvation as something that will occur in the future. For example, Jesus says, “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22 NIV; cf. also Mt 24:13). Matthew does not say that the one who endures to the end has been saved or that this person shows evidence that he or she was saved. Matthew says that the one who stands fast and perseveres will be saved, that is, will be saved on the future day of the Lord.
Paul usually conceives of salvation in future terms as well: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 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!, (Rom. 5:9-10 NIV). Notice the logic in both verses: since we are now justified and reconciled, we can be sure that we shall be saved. Paul does not say that we can be sure that we are saved but that we will be saved. He thinks of salvation as a future blessing that we shall receive. Paul conceives of salvation in a similar way in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9. “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV). Salvation must be a future gift, since Paul speaks of the hope of salvation. Of course, Paul says elsewhere that believers are saved, so apparently salvation must be conceived of as both a present possession and a future reality, and 1 Thessalonians 5:9 confirms the future dimension of our salvation. God’s wrath refers to his wrath that he will inflict on the wicked on the day of judgment (cf. Rom 5:9). Believers are not appointed to receive wrath on the day of judgment; instead, we shall obtain the gift of salvation promised to us. (pp. 49–50)
When I first read this page more than decade ago, it rewrote my categories for thinking and talking about salvation and it helped me see more clearly the eschatological nature of the Bible.
This is what Scripture does and should do: it renews our minds. And with respect to salvation, we need to see how forward-looking Scripture is with respect to salvation. For then, with the framework of Scripture in mind, we can begin to tune our theology of salvation to the Bible itself and not just the beliefs handed down to us from others.
Second, our theology should match Scripture’s future orientation of salvation.
A healthy theology does more than repeat the words of Scripture, it also knows how to position and apportion those words. Thus, when Scripture speaks repeatedly about the future event of salvation, we should find out why.
Much of the answer relates to the way in which salvation follows the pattern of Christ’s kingdom—it is both already and not yet. Likewise with salvation, those who believe on him have received the gifts of deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, but we still await the consummation of God’s promise—the final eradication of sin, death, and the evil. All of these are future realities are ours now, but only in promise. The Spirit secures our future inheritance, but the experience of salvation is still a foretaste of what is to come.
Accordingly, Scripture tells those trusting in God for salvation to keep trusting, to abide in Christ, and to walk in the Spirit. Salvation is not a past decision, but an eschatological life given to us who believe in Christ. Salvation is a future reality that has broken into the present bestowing on us justification and the renewal of the Holy Spirit—the former granting us a new position before God; the latter empowering us to live in a new way with God.
Indeed, a self-awareness that salvation is fundamentally a future reality empowers us to live for Christ. But conversely, when salvation is only conceived of as a past decision, it tempts us to live as though we’ve arrived at our destination, when really the gift of salvation is only the first step in an eternal walk with God.
Therefore, third, the future orientation of salvation should press us into our salvation.
Ultimately, the cash value of this observation—that Scripture slants forward when speaking of salvation—is to press the “saved” into their salvation. As Romans 13:11 puts it, we are daily approaching our salvation, but we haven’t arrived yet. Similarly, Philippians 2:12 insists we must continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. These type of verses do not teach that we can earn or secure our own salvation. Instead, they remind us that in this world, salvation is a future reality to press into.
And with this reality in mind, our future salvation promotes present-tense sanctification. By contrast, language that speaks only of salvation in the past easily leads to lethargy or inattentiveness. In Matthew 24–25 Jesus tells his disciples to stay alert, for his return is imminent. Likewise, he says in Matthew 10:22 says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” In other words, by looking ahead it promotes steadfastness and endurance—two virtues sorely lacking in the church today.
Gloriously, God’s work of salvation, including his election of individuals, goes back before the foundation of the world and is experienced in the present. But importantly, the stress on salvation in the New Testament is eschatological. Salvation is slanted towards the future, and thus it impels those who are secure in God’s love to press forward and run the race with perseverance until the finish line is crossed. At the same time, it calls us to do less celebrating of the “saved” (“15 people were saved tonight”) and more discipling of those awaiting Christ’s future salvation.
Indeed, imagine the change in discipleship and dependence on the Lord that would happen if we tilted our sites to match the New Testament. It would help us to be more biblical and to be more bold in spurring others on in their walk with Christ. Therefore, with that in mind, let us encourage one another not trust in some past decision, but to trust in the Son of God who is coming again to save his people.
To that end may we strive with all the grace God has supplied us, so that we who profess the name of Christ may not be deceived but received into glory when the Lord returns.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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