Note: the following was prepared for a teaching I gave one week ago on an overview of the New Testament epistles 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
A Protestant Christian living in 21st century America has a theology based on the teachings and understandings of 500 years worth of theological debates, teachings and systems, beginning with Marin Luther. Every possible angle and argument 'for this' / 'against that' has been examined, judged and noted. However, the question remains: has Protestant systematic theology helped to clarify what it means when the Bible talks about salvation, or has it made it into something that wouldn't be recognizable by Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early church? I'm afraid the later point may be the case.
But rather than giving a critical analysis of the various systems of Protestant theological thought in the 21st century, I think it better and wise to examine what salvation meant, and how it is obtained by taking an inductive look at the entire canon of New Testament writings, especially those authored by Paul.
But first, the most important issue: what is salvation? How is it defined? Salvation is first of all, and most importantly for us, the God given ability to be removed from the actions and attitudes in this life that are ultimately destructive in nature. These activities are quite varied, and include the usual list of vices like drunkenness, laziness, lying, cheating and so on. In the salvation experience, God delivers us from those destructive tendencies which had previously controlled our lives. If you aren't a slave to God, chances are you are a slave to something else, and something no where near as redeeming.
Secondly, salvation has to do with the fact that God greatly desires to be in relationship with man, and is willing to do whatever he can to enable and encourage this relationship, like the above mentioned deliverance from destructive activities, i.e. "sin". However, it is God's desire to continue this relationship for all eternity, and hence those who accept the God's invitation to salvation, can ultimately look forward to eternal life with God, through the resurrection of the dead. This is the great hope of every single Christian believer. [see JOHN, chapter 3]
Sadly, the concept and the teachings about salvation have been somewhat distorted by popular Christian teachers on TV and radio, as well as by other Christian celebrities who are far more interested in building large organizations than in correct theology. The main difference between a Biblical understanding of salvation and the way it is generally defined in pop-Christian culture is that in popular understanding salvation is an event, while in the Bible, salvation is defined as a process.
Some blame for this can be laid at the feet of divinity schools themselves, especially more conservative ones. But mostly the problem rests in the philosophical mindset that dominates Western culture, and application to Biblical texts, that philosophy being the rational, analytical mindset that tends to see things as component pieces rather than complete systems. While this mindset can be quite useful for scientific and technological pursuits, it can get in the way when it comes to large scale, long time period processes that involve multiple variables and inputs. The Western mindset has a tendency to avoid this sort of complexity, in favor of very simple, practical concepts that can be easily understood. However, a life of a man is not something that can be lived nor understood by simply applying the scientific method; rather, it is more like a story or novel, where various problems and people must be engaged and overcome. To understand the Biblical texts is to understand a story, not a single event, that story being God's relationship with man.
In the New Testament, you will often find texts that would lead you to believe that salvation is an event, especially in the book of Acts. However, reading the New Testament in a more inductive, synthetic fashion demonstrates clearly that salvation is not just a point in time where you turned to God and turned away from a destructive life style, but it is an ongoing process that begins the day you decide to follow after God, and is ultimately rewarded on the Day of Judgment, when Christians and non-Christians alike stand before the throne of God to be judged for their actions (not theological knowledge!), and rewarded or punished depending on that judgment.
The following is a general outline of how the process of salvation works in the life of a believer:
1. A person discovers that God is real, and that God desires relationship with man, as made clear through the teachings and life of Jesus, the son of God. This discovery is always a direct result of God's intention, not man's! In other words, God is the one who seeks us out, and initiates relationship, and we respond accordingly.
[ see LUKE 19-1:11; JOHN 6:25-71; JOHN 10 ]
2. A decision is made to intentionally ask God to help facilitate that relationship, which is commonly known as "the sinner's prayer," where as a person will ask God to help them put an end to any destructive attitudes or actions that they have engaged in, and then commit to live a constructive, ethical life based upon the ethics and morals as described in the Bible, but which are often well known to the human heart as well.
[ see EPHESIANS 2; LUKE 15; LUKE 18:9-14; LUKE 19:1-11; 2 CORINTHIANS 5 ]
3. In order to get the ability to live a changed life, a person will ask God to be "baptized" by the Holy Spirit, which is simply asking God to live within you! Sometimes God will provide the Holy Spirit even without it being asked for directly, due to his merciful response to those who are struggling to overcome difficulty in their lives. Asking God to live within you gives you the spiritual energy and wisdom you need to overcome evil in your life, and the lives of others. It is literally the power and energy of God given to man. It is the single most important gift God gives man, and when a person learns to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is no limit in terms of the good that they can do.
[ see JOHN 3; JOHN 14 through 17; ACTS -the entire book ]
4. Often times a person will ask for and receive water baptism as an outward sign of their commitment to live a new life guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the well known ethics and moral of Christianity.
[ see MATTHEW 3; JOHN 3; ACTS 2; ACTS 8 ]
5. Once the decision to follow God has been made, and the baptisms of water and the Holy Spirit are received, a person will then begin the process of spiritual, emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical healing, as enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit. These healings can take place almost instantly, or in other cases quite a while, depending upon the person, their background, and their resolve to be healed.
[ see MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE, JOHN, ACTS -the entire books ]
6. In order to maintain the momentum of the initial decision to live an upright and constructive life, a person will then begin to engage in outward disciplines designed to help them move forward towards the ultimate goal of eternal life, especially the meeting together with other Christians, Bible study, prayer, and devotional reading.
[ see ACTS 2; 1 CORINTHIANS 11 through 14; ROMANS 12; 1 PETER 4:7-11 ]
7. But the most important discipline of all, is learning to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives direction, purpose and motivation to a person's life. By living by the power of the Holy Spirit, a person will be enabled to live the very moral and ethical life that is required by God.
[ see ROMANS 8; GALATIANS 5:16-26; ACTS -the entire book ]
8. Once a person makes the decision to follow after Jesus, they will be tested with a variety of trails, tribulations and problems that will need to be overcome. In some cases, these trials may begin almost as soon as a person makes the commitment. Yet no matter the person or their circumstance, testing of their faith is guaranteed. The testing comes mainly in two general forms: external and internal. External testing is usually opposition, either active or passive, from other people who are opposed to your decision; whether they be friends, family or co-workers. The internal opposition comes from destructive habits and thoughts that still have a foothold in our lives. Often both forms of testing come about through the work of evil spirits, who are opposed to God, and to anyone who would follow after Him. These demonic spirits use other people they have influence over, plus your own weaknesses and woundedness in an attempt to halt the process of salvation.
[ see LUKE 21; JOHN 8; HEBREWS 12; 1 THESSALONIANS 3 ]
9. The testing of a person's commitment through the trials and tribulations of life results in an even deeper understanding of the Trinity, and greater reliance on the Holy Spirit for guidance and power.
[ see 2 CORINTHIANS 11:1-12:10; JAMES 1, 1 PETER -the entire book]
10. As a person matures in their salvation, they become increasingly effective in pursuing and implementing various positive, constructive habits and behaviors that not only increases the joy and happiness of the one so transformed, but also those around them. However, it should be noted that for this to be fully successful, it relies on a person's ability to live by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Hence, it is not just a person's good intentions and will power that are at work, but the enabling power of God working through a person. There is a very real and literal partnership between a Christian and God, that results in one of the often overlooked activities of salvation: brining heaven to earth. A Christian becomes a partner with God to bring about justice, compassion, peace and well being here on earth. This activity is a critical component of salvation.
[ see 1 CORINTHIANS 2, GALATIANS 5 through 6, JAMES -the entire book ]
11. Having lived a set number of days on earth, pursuing a relationship with God through trails and troubles, and working with God to bring about justice and compassion, a believer stands before the judgment seat of God, to be evaluated as to their commitment to salvation, and their activities regarding salvation. A Christian who has lived his life in accordance with the leadings and guidance of the Holy Spirit will have nothing to fear on this day.
[ see MATTHEW 25, REVELATION 20 ]
12. Having been approved by God for the life lived on earth, a Christian enters into eternal life, where trials, troubles and tribulations cease, and now the Christian becomes a co-ruler with God. The very least, most humble person on this earth, who has lived his life in accordance with the leadings and guidance of the Holy Spirit to the best of his ability, may become one of the greatest kings in the heavenly realm of God. And yes, for those who've persevered until the end of their days, they will inherit far greater wealth, luxury and happiness than the greatest kings here on earth, without any of the troubles and problems that earthly kings face. As far as opportunities go, is this the greatest opportunity that a man can have in this life, well worth any price or pain endured in it's acquisition.
[ see 1 CORINTHIANS 15; MATTHEW 19:16-30; MATTHEW 25; REVELATION 21 through 22 ]
It needs to be noted that there are three key points about the process of salvation that are critical to it's successful conclusion. These are three activities/attitudes that every single Christian is called to participate in, no matter their background or their circumstances:
1. A Christian must learn to live and yield to the power of the Holy Spirit within them, and continually work to develop the relationship with the Spirit. The Spirit does not come into a person to take over, but only to offer guidance and motivation. However, it is up to the Christian to seek out and consider the Spirit's help, and to follow it's leadings. Just like a human source of guidance, the Holy Spirit can be ignored or disregarded, often at one's peril.
[ see 1 CORINTHIANS 2; ROMANS 8; HEBREWS 12 ]
2. All Christians are called to play an active role in God's redemptive work. The activity required involves works of compassion, charity, generosity, and various other types of constructive, positive activities. Specific details of how these virtues are to be appropriated and managed are given by the Holy Spirit.
[ see MATTHEW 5 through 7; EPHESIANS 4 through 5; JAMES -the entire book ]
3. The single most important resolution a Christian must make is to never, ever give up the pursuit of a righteous, compassionate life, no matter the consequences. Even if threatened with persecution unto death, a Christian must determine to never compromise on his beliefs and his lifestyle. A partially lived, or incompletely lived Christian life is not going to impress God, nor is it going to be adequate for eternal life. Only a life lived in complete dedication to God, from the moment of salvation to the end, is a life deemed one worthy of the reward of eternal life.
[ see MATTHEW 10, ROMANS 2, HEBREWS - the entire book]
Now, it is important to note that the process of salvation is NOT one of perfectionism and legalism. It is not about following a code of conduct perfectly, or even at all. Nor is it about the avoidance of making mistakes. As a matter of fact, one will make plenty of mistakes, for a variety of reasons, as they pursue the straight and narrow path of salvation. However, the only mistake that will only ultimately count against you is a refusal to persevere in your pursuit of God and a righteous life. In other words, the only real sin that is disqualifying towards eternal life is the sin of giving up.
Next time: perils in the path of the process of salvation.