Wonderful Words of Life
Understanding (and living) salvation
By Paul Petersen
The Bible employs a number of different ways of describing how God saves human beings. This article briefly revisits some of these important concepts from the perspective of Scripture.
Forgiveness and Salvation
Only one of the supplications in the Lord’s Prayer contains a condition. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14, 15, ESV).1
When confronted with these words, Nietzsche ironically exclaimed, “How unevangelical!” Does God really grant forgiveness only on conditions?
Yet in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus emphasizes exactly the same point, and we are left with the nagging question Are we forgiven, or not? Are we saved, or not yet?
The tension is heartfelt, because the alternatives seem extreme. If we are saved once and for all, then human responsibility evaporates, lawlessness easily takes over, and salvation becomes a mechanical process. On the other hand, if it is not yet finished, we may lose our assurance of salvation and develop a legalistic attitude.
Is there a middle road where we are not left with only uncomfortable extremes? I think there is. A proper understanding of the biblical usage of some of the key terms helps us understand.
However, we first need to remember that genuine forgiveness is part of a personal relationship, not simply an impersonal object. It is present only when Jesus is present, and it is only my experience when I am with Him.
When using theological terms, we all too often mechanize salvation. We may speak about forgiveness as if it is a kind of object, a little like New Age people who buy a stone of forgiveness and supposedly feel and experience it if they press the stone in the palm of their hand. But in employing purely abstract concepts, we may miss the very nature of forgiveness: we are forgiven only because someone, another person, forgives us. Forgiveness is always (and only) present in personal relationships.
Justification and Sanctification
The tendency to turn central aspects of Christian life into purely abstract concepts is also common in regard to the expressions “justification” and “sanctification.” These terms are biblical, but in the course of history their meaning has at times changed. Thus, we may approach the biblical terms with the baggage of later definitions and risk imposing our cultural concepts upon the biblical message.
The major misunderstandings regarding these terms stem first from the Latin words from which our English words derive. In Latin the words are compound words, connecting the adjectives iustus(“just,” or “righteous”) and sanctus (“holy”) with the verb facio (“to do, make”). In Western Christianity the meaning easily became “making righteous/holy,” and with the emphasis on the inner man so typical for much Western thinking since Augustine, theologians often came to use the terms justificationand sanctification as parts of a continuing process of salvation, in which sanctification follows justification in a straight line.
But in the Bible these terms describe aspects of our ongoing personal relationship with Jesus rather than a psychological-ethical process. Let me illustrate this by focusing on the termsanctification.
In light of later discussions and the way we often use the term today, the original meaning of the word for sanctification may be surprising. In the New Testament the verb sanctify (from the Greekhagiozo) exclusively takes persons as their object (as in John 17:17, 19; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:12). In the Old Testament this is the dominant usage too (as in Joshua 3:5; 1 Sam. 16:5; Joel 2:16). In the context of the sanctuary service God sanctifies or asks people to sanctify cultic objects (as the altar in Exod. 29:36, 37). There was, of course, also holy time, such as festival days and Sabbaths. The weekly Sabbath remains as sacred or sanctified time in the Christian Era as a memorial of Creation (Gen. 2:3). But the sanctuary system with its sacrifices and festivals is now replaced by the realities of the heavenly temple, built on the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.
The main point is clear: God sanctifies people. This can be described as a past event. According to Scripture, the Holy Spirit has sanctified believers to Christ (1 Peter 1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 6:11). The meaning is akin to a marriage ceremony. In baptism the believer is sanctified to Jesus Christ, and this sanctification is then to be a daily, ongoing experience, just as a spouse is to be daily committed or dedicated to their partner.
This sanctification leads to a life of holiness. In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 Paul provides a good illustration of this usage in the context of marriage relations. In these verses the Greek noun for sanctification, hagiasmos, occurs three out its total of 10 occurrences in the New Testament, marked in italics in the following translation of the text:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (ESV).
Consequently, sanctification is a lifelong process—for our dedication to Jesus is never to end. It is part of our ongoing faith relationship with Jesus. As such, it is not a psychological process that one day is finished. Even in eternity we are in this sense to be sanctified to God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, to whom else should we be sanctified?
So in conclusion: Is there a middle road in describing salvation, where I am not left with only uncomfortable extremes? The answer is yes. That way is Jesus. Only in walking with Him is forgiveness a reality. In Him, salvation is experienced, and the promises of future restoration guaranteed. When I trust in Jesus, God in His mercy treats me as if I were Jesus, as if the future verdict on the day of judgment has already been pronounced. This is justification, daily revealed to me through the Word. As I respond in faith, the Holy Spirit sanctifies me to Jesus.
1 Scriptures quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Paul Petersen, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Religion and Biblical Languages, Andrews University.