Salvation Under the Microscope
The article Go To Heaven! is a gospel presentation made as simply and clearly as I know how. But this one is a more detailed theological study of the various issues and implications of salvation. It is my goal for this article to answer deeper questions which otherwise might obscure the gospel itself from the seeking unbeliever.
For example, a typical gospel presentation goes something like this:
|Romans 3:23||All have sinned.|
|Romans 6:23a||The penalty of sin is death.|
|Romans 5:8||While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.|
|Romans 10:9||But Christ is alive; he came back from the dead.|
|Romans 6:23b||The gift of God is eternal life in heaven.|
|John 3:16, Acts 16:31||Put your trust in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.|
This is a good theological summary of the facts about salvation, but it misses the central point, which is reconciliation:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. --- 2 Cor. 5:17-21
So that point should be made in an initial gospel presentation, while the theological implications should only be covered later. To illustrate a good approach toward those with no knowledge of Jesus or the God of the Bible, look at Paul and his speech to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31). He did not hit them in the face with their sinfulness or dangle them over the fires of hell. Instead, he sought to introduce them to the God they didn’t know, so they could be reconciled to Him. And he offered evidence to them in recognition of their reliance upon logic and order.
But beyond the gospel presentation, we must be prepared to answer any and all questions it may raise, thoroughly and scripturally.
What Is Salvation?
The word “salvation” means to be saved. Regarding the theological definition, we must also ask, saved from what? The answer is, from an eternity in a place of suffering and separation from everything good, because it is separation from God. If people decide in this mortal life to reject God, then there must be a place for them to go to be away from God’s presence. So salvation means to spend eternity with God in perpetual bliss, while non-salvation (or being “lost”) means to spend eternity in complete separation from God. Since salvation is reconciliation, then those who reject it would not want to spend eternity in the presence of the One with whom they did not wish to be reconciled.
Why We Need Salvation
We are all mortal; that is, we have inherited “corrupt flesh” that will eventually die. This is the curse all life was placed under because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17, Romans 5:12, 8:21-22). But it also broke the relationship between God and Adam (which we could call a figurative “death” that happened immediately), so all who sin are also separated from God and cannot enter heaven. This does not mean we can’t ever do anything good or comprehend the Gospel message, but only that to be out of relationship with God is to be in relationship with evil; we are “dead” to one and “alive” to the other.
A broken relationship requires both parties to reconcile willingly. God has done his part by providing a sacrifice on our behalf: Jesus became human and sacrificed his innocent life to pay for ours. Since he committed no sins of his own, he was qualified to offer his life as a ransom for ours. He is also qualified because he, being God, was the one offended. Therefore we can’t earn what has already been paid for; salvation is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). The only thing remaining to restore the relationship is for each person to accept by faith Jesus as Savior, and believe that God raised him from the dead.
But how did this broken relationship between God and people happen in the first place?
One of the first events we see in the Bible after creation is about the origin of sin. There are many definitions with very subtle shades of meaning, but simply put, sin is rebellion against God. Adam and Eve were innocent when they were created, but created “in the image of God”. What does that mean? Scholars differ, but personally I think what the Bible means is that we are free moral agents, just as God is. No, we’re not equal to God, just like him in some respects. I can hear the philosophers screaming, but this is one of those concepts that must learn to bow to the Bible. Would God have instructed “robots” to leave the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” alone? What would be the point of telling people without self-will that there would be “a substantial penalty” (death) if they disobeyed?
Adam and Eve were not created with a “sin nature”, because God is not the author of sin. So what made them sin, when they were not “programmed” to do so? If people with no inherited capacity to sin could sin, then how can anyone blame our nature for sin? Or to put it another way, if we sin because it’s our nature, then what made Adam and Eve do it? Those who believe in an inherited sin nature have no answer for this without blaming God for sin.
The answer is free moral agency. Adam and Eve had the capacity to sin simply because they had the power of choice. As the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade put it, they “chose poorly”. God’s nature, which is perfect and from which we get the very concepts of justice, fairness, holiness, and love, could never curse people for doing that which they had no choice but to do. Robots don’t sin, free moral agents do.
So what exactly happened when the first sin was committed, an event which is commonly called “the Fall”? What fell, and from where?
Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve enjoyed direct communion with God. They were in a state of moral innocence, much like children even today. But the moment they freely chose to disobey God was the moment that innocence was lost. This was part of the price of knowing good from evil. But it also erected a barrier between God and man, a legal separation that broke the spiritual communion they had shared: God had been defied, and reconciliation would be required. In addition, physical death entered the world– not just to people but to all of creation. On top of all that, God pronounced specific curses on the ground (because of Adam) and on the serpent, and predicted (not commanded!) women’s oppression. That’s what “went down”. It would be more accurate to call that first sin “the Wall” than “the Fall”.
The Bible knows nothing of the concept of inherited sin or inherited guilt; it simply isn’t there. After all, if we can inherit sin then we can also inherit righteousness (means not being charged with sin). So since righteousness cannot be inherited, then neither can sin. What we inherited was corrupt flesh, that is, we are mortal; we die physically. We have all been born into a corrupt world, a world of death and decay and temptation. But God knew this would happen, and he already had a plan in place to deal with it. After all, since God is love yet is also holy, there needed to be a way to satisfy both aspects of his nature. To simply ignore what had happened would violate his holiness, and yet to leave man in a spiritually separated state would violate his love.
How to be Saved
The deciding factor for a person’s eternal destiny is strictly the question of faith in Jesus; you either want to be reconciled to God and trust in only Jesus as the One who made reconciliation possible, or you don’t. Everything else is just a matter of degree, not location. There are no other requirements, as explained in the Go To Heaven! article.
Security, Faith, and “Works”
1 John 5:12-15 says that anyone who accepts the gift of salvation has eternal life, and that they have it with confidence. Ephesians 4:30 says that when we believe, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit of God. 2 Cor. 5:5 says that believers have God’s Spirit in our hearts as a “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance”. When someone puts down a deposit on an item, it is a guarantee of eventual full payment. But if the payment is not made, the payee keeps the deposit. Likewise, it is God who put down a deposit on each saved person, and that deposit (the Holy Spirit) is ours to keep, so even if God somehow failed to make the “full payment”, we’d still have the Spirit! A gift is a one-time event, a one-way transaction. Your faith gets you saved, but it is God who keeps you saved, and God who guards your faith.
Where do “works” or “deeds” fit in? They are the results of salvation, not the causes of it. If we have been reconciled to God we will want to please Him in all we do. To do good deeds out of any other motive-- fear of hell, impressing others to convince them we are saved, etc.-- is wasted effort, because “The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)
Yes, we should expect good outward deeds from the saved, but the lack of them is not proof of the lack of salvation; only God knows the heart. And instead of condemning the backslidden believer and filling them with doubt, we should rather show love and concern for them and make sure they properly understood and accepted the gospel. If so, then we should take responsibility for nurturing them and emphasizing the life of gratitude and love that should accompany the reconciled.
Many cite James as proof of required outward actions, but note that a dead faith is not a faith that never existed. It is useless to others, but it exists nonetheless. Consider the context of James 2:14-18. The point is about a faith that does good to others, as opposed to one that someone might keep to themselves. In 18 he states point blank that we show our faith by our works, and that no one else can see our faith unless we act upon it.
The following section about Abraham is frequently misunderstood as well. The scripture James quotes clearly states that Abraham was counted as righteous, and this happened well before he was tested. But the later test proved outwardly the faith that had already existed inwardly. Yet how many people’s faith has been tested in this way, directly by God? So we see that the justification James is talking about is evidence that could be entered in a court, that is, visible evidence. There is nothing to use if one’s faith is kept hidden, and it does no one else any good.
This is the point James is making, which in no way contradicts Paul’s teachings about salvation itself being purely by faith. Good deeds certainly should follow, but we dare not judge another’s salvation by them. That is God’s domain, but again, we should show concern for the one without works.
James goes on to point out that even demons “believe” in God, so why aren’t they saved, if works are not required? Because not only do demons obviously not want to be reconciled to God, they have not been offered salvation as humans have. And look at the Jews of Jesus’ day: they believed in the One True God and had his scriptures (the Old Testament) and followed all God’s laws, yet Jesus’ disciples told them they had to “repent” (means to change one’s mind) and accept Jesus as the risen Messiah in order to be saved. Before Jesus, God tolerated ignorance to some degree (Acts 17:30), and Jews were saved by their faithfulness in recognizing God and their own unworthiness, requiring sacrifices of animals. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, salvation was only to be by faith in Jesus as Messiah; without the Son they did not have the Father (1 John 2:23).
And throughout the passage, notice that James never presents these arguments as a stick with which we should beat our fellow servants, but as a mirror into which each one of us must look. It is all about self-judgment, not other-judgment. James challenges the reader to justify a faith that does nothing.
The Gift of Salvation vs. The Wages of Rewards
A gift is not a wage (see Romans 4:4-5). Nothing can be both a gift and a wage, or partly each. We didn’t earn any part of our salvation, because it’s impossible to merit or earn a gift. We did not deserve or earn it, but we are free to make a choice about whether or not to accept it. For example, if a man wanted to marry a woman, he might be motivated by love to spend money on a ring. He would offer this ring to her, not requiring her to accept it, but simply offering it. She is free to choose either way. In accepting it, she did not earn it or have any part in its purchase. Someone paid for the ring; it wasn’t free for the buyer but only for the one receiving the gift. So it is with salvation. Jesus paid with His blood, a price we cannot fathom, yet it cost us nothing. Some call this “cheap” grace, but there’s nothing cheap about it, and in fact that is an insult to the One who paid the price.
Can we give back our salvation, just as the woman in our example might later give back her ring? Can we break off the relationship with God? Again referencing the article Go To Heaven!, the chart there at the end shows the many things that happened when we were saved. We would have to think all those things can be undone. But even if we ignore the scriptures saying that we are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and that God guards our faith (1 Peter 1:4-5), will God give it all back?
No, for the simple reason that God can never break a promise (Num. 23:19, Ps. 145:13). He made a promise to Abraham that no amount of rebellion on the part of his descendants could break, so neither will God break any such promise made to us. And what is it that God protects us from, if He will not protect us from loss of faith? If our faith is what everything else depends upon, wouldn’t that be the first thing God would guard? There is little comfort in promises of protection if God will allow the trials of life to wear away our faith to the point of no return. But “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Cor. 10:13)
Rewards will be our earned wages in eternity:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor. 3:11-15)This is also what Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Phil. 3:14. We cannot strive for or press on toward a gift, we can only receive it. So when we see words like work, strive, prize, etc., we know the topic is not the receiving of salvation but the earning of rewards, the fruit of our labor.
So judgment has nothing to do with salvation but only with earned wages. The passages just mentioned likely refer to “the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10), a judgment of those already classified as saved by faith. And there will be a separate judgment of the lost, referred to as the “white throne judgment” (Rev. 20:11). All will be judged by their deeds, but only after their eternal destination has been determined on the basis of faith alone. The saved will be rewarded, and the lost will be punished.
How Long Is Eternity?
It is known that the Greek word for eternity can also refer to a limited time, however long it may be. But context is the key, and when dealing with the question of the justice of eternal suffering, we must have firm scriptural backing for what we believe. There are several key passages to consider.
First is Matthew 25:46: “These people will go away to eternal correction, but the righteous will go away into eternal life.” If we only consider the word translated “correction” or “punishment”, we might conclude that once the lesson is learned or the penalty paid, the person could be released. But we have to consider the word translated “eternal” along with it, and pay special attention to the fact that this same “eternal” describes the life of the righteous; whatever is true of one is true of the other. Since no one believes that the righteous only have a temporary existence in heaven, then we have a good argument for the “eternal correction” to be unlimited as well. And then it follows that “correction” is not for the purpose of fulfilling a sentence or paying a fine, but for receiving an “earned wage”. Just as the rewards of the righteous are never taken away, so also the punishment of the unrighteous will never be taken away.
We have a more explicit statement in Rev. 20:10-15. The devil, the beast, and the false prophet are thrown into the Lake of Fire where “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. ” The word translated “ever” is the same as the one translated “eternal” in Mt. 25:46 above. But lest we conclude that only those three are tormented there forever, we see in verse 15 that all the unrighteous dead are thrown in there too, and there is nothing in the text to indicate that only the first residents remain forever while the rest are annihilated or destroyed.
We must use caution in our imaginations about this torment. We really aren’t given much to go on, but only that the fate of the lost is both final and unpleasant. How do we know whether those who were actually nice people and did much good will be tortured, or whether they will simply live forever with the regret of having rejected God? Part of the reason people look for loopholes in the scriptures regarding the fate of the lost is because they presume, usually from what Christians tell them, that even the most right-living heathen will suffer horrible agony for all eternity, no different from that of the most vile murderer. This would not be just at all, and many reject God on this account. We should be silent where scripture is silent-- but of course, only after making absolutely sure it’s silent!
Backsliding or Dying?
Some believe that every little sin amounts to a loss of salvation, either in ignorance of the basic facts about salvation or simply by rejecting the arguments. Yet the implications of such a view raise serious questions: What exactly did Jesus die for? How many times would He have to die? Who is it that really is responsible for saving us then? Others believe that only a loss of faith can cost us our salvation, but that this can happen repeatedly.
Let’s look at Hebrews 5:11-6:12 for answers. The passage begins with a reprimand for believers-- not for becoming unbelievers, but for being immature. They are exhorted to move beyond the basic gospel and grow spiritually, and to leave behind the old Jewish laws and their rituals. Before we look at verses 4-8, we should note the end of the passage as well, which says that the people being addressed here are both saved and have done many good things. These two “bookends” frame the controversial passage between them.
Given that the people being addressed are saved in spite of their immaturity, we can safely conclude that the section in verses 4-8 is hypothetical. But even if we take it literally on its surface, at the very least it would tell us that a person can only “fall away” once-- and only for rejecting Jesus’ sacrifice for sins. The reason given is that in order to be saved a second time, Jesus would have to go back to the cross again, for every person through history, every time they “fell away”. But in this same letter we read, “He sacrificed for their sins once for all” (Heb. 7:27; see also Heb. 9:12, 9:26, 10:2, 10:10, and Rom. 6:10). Jesus is the Gate, not the revolving door!
Beyond that, we should note that it cannot be said with certainty whether “fall away” means loss of salvation, backsliding, or Jews who were near to God but rejected their Messiah. This letter is, after all, focused on Judaism and how Jesus fulfilled and superseded the old law and priesthood, and the rituals mentioned at the beginning of the passage seem to infer that the issue here is over Jews who became Christians.
Sometimes also we just miss the forest for the trees; we forget that the bulk of the New Testament letters is about backsliding believers and false teachers. Yet we find very little in the way of clear statements about the danger of losing salvation, and the warnings are to people addressed as “brothers and sisters”, not the lost. We must take care not to use circular reasoning, something like “Salvation is always about our eternal destiny, so wherever we see that word we interpret it as ’salvation from hell’”. We can’t know what a word “always” means unless every context is the same, without exception. Neither can we ignore the points made earlier about what happens when we are saved, and how long eternity is.
What about Predestination?
If we understand that salvation has to do with reconciliation, and not merely privilege or luck or mystery, it should be obvious that God does not force people to reconcile but only makes the offer, as explicitly stated in passages already cited. Some therefore claim that this makes God look weak, like he’s sitting helplessly in heaven hoping people will accept him. But that shows only the failure of people to understand the nature of salvation. Jesus did not fail in dying for the whole world in spite of so few actually getting saved. No, his dying made salvation possible, because it removed the barrier between God and humanity. We are saved by faith in who He is and what He did, and our reconciliation and love would be a farce if it were coerced.
God’s sovereignty does not exist in a vacuum. It cannot override His character, which scripture tells us includes love (1 John 4:8), mercy (Nehemiah 9:31), grace (Eph. 1:7), peace (Phil. 4:7-9), and patience (2 Peter 3:9). These attributes must be balanced with justice and righteousness. But even so, as James put it, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
That being the case, we can conclude that what God chooses or “elects” or “predestines” is not a person’s will regarding salvation but what steps they will take along the path they have chosen. God’s character precludes any other possibility. So when we encounter verses that seem to say otherwise, we must remember this or we’ll come to erroneous conclusions about God. This is an important issue, because many have been repulsed by the picture of God as a cruel monster who created people just to torture them eternally.
Predestinarians (typically Calvinists) say that sin caused Adam’s spirit to die. But after sin entered the world through Adam, God reasoned with Cain not to kill Abel, saying he had the ability to resist sin. Cain had a choice to make, which would not be true if he were unable to resist sin. Would God “witness” to a “dead” man, advising him to choose wisely? Or would God deceive someone he had already decided to condemn into thinking they had a choice? There is no evidence that Cain was forced by his nature to sin, and God does not trick people for some perverse pleasure.
Some take a less extreme view and say that our spirits were given a weakness for sin, making them not “dead” but “sick”. Yet this same “sickness” would have to have existed in Adam even before he “fell”, so this view has the same problem as the extreme. Whether the theory is sickness or death, the fact remains that Adam sinned without such a condition, in a perfect environment which God pronounced “very good”.
Why did God make people as free moral agents, knowing it meant they could possibly sin? The Bible never tells us why God made the universe or us or the angels. We simply don’t know. But from what we do know, it certainly had a purpose, one that could not have been achieved any other way. It may well be that we wouldn’t grasp that purpose even if we were told. The predestinarians may jump on that as their escape clause for “election”, but remember the self-limitation of God’s nature over His sovereignty. We must trust God to be just and loving.
Another question: The Bible says that death came through sin. If babies are born innocent, then why do they sometimes die? Remember that Adam’s sin brought a curse upon all the physical world, including animals and plants, which obviously are incapable of sin and are therefore innocent. So while innocent babies can die physically, their spirits would automatically go to heaven by virtue of not having a broken relationship with God. Since all physical life became mortal (destined to eventually die), all offspring would pass this mortality to each succeeding generation, because the mortal cannot produce the immortal; it’s a fact of physical life. We suffer the physical consequences of that first sin, but not the guilt.
What about those who never knew about God or Jesus?
Scripture tells us plainly that every person is without excuse for knowing that there is a Creator (Rom. 1:20). But being aware of God and knowing how we should relate to Him are two different things.
We must consider the believer’s role in spreading the Gospel. In both Testaments God commanded his followers to tell everyone about Him, and the Bible speaks of the failure of his people to carry out this command. Consider these verses of scripture, and see whether you think God charges his people to bring knowledge of him to others: Ez. 3:18, 33:8, Hosea 4:6, Mt. 11:23, Mt. 23:13, Luke 10:2, Rom. 1:10, 21-25, and Eph. 2:12. We believers will be held accountable for our failure to warn them and preach the Gospel. There is no other, and no greater, motivation for spreading the Gospel. The fact that we are commanded to evangelize the world means that it must be necessary.
As for the question about how God could send someone to hell who never heard the gospel, consider this: Do we trust God to be perfectly fair or not, considering that we don’t have perfect understanding? Do we presume, per our discussion earlier about the nature of being eternally separate from God, that such people will not be given the same opportunities we had? (see especially 1 Peter 3:19-20)
Some will say that those who never hear the Gospel can be saved by living up to whatever religious “light” they have. But the consequence of this is that it would be better to never tell them the Gospel! Why take the risk of having them reject it when they can be saved by sincerely practicing their own religion? What other reason could God have had for commanding us to tell the whole world the Gospel?
So why didn’t God choose to directly spread the Gospel instead of leaving it up to people? Look at Genesis 4:6-7, where God Himself directly “witnesses” to Cain. It shows that people will reject the Gospel even if it is told to them by God Himself. Or why did God bother with all this and not just create robots to populate heaven? God created us in his image, as free moral agents, because only such beings, not robots, are capable of real love. God values our freedom to choose to love him or not more than our comfort.
Some people think they will get a second chance, but that would be like a teacher letting students change their test answers after the tests are graded. Is that fair to the students who studied hard and earned a good grade? Some people think a “loving God” wouldn’t send anyone at all to hell for any reason, but how loving is it to send both the murderer and the victim to heaven? Should we stand in judgment of the One who created us and complain about not having a choice about our existence, even though not even God had that choice for Himself? (And how should he have asked your permission to create you before you were created?)
When we consider all the Bible tells us about human history and God’s plan of redemption, not neglecting “problem” scriptures that would ruin our carefully-crafted systematic theologies, we see that our God does not throw obstacles in front of the very pinnacle of His creation: us. He is not the sort of Father who disowns His children on the occasion of every misdeed, nor a puppet master who chooses some for kindness and others for pain, nor yet a deceiver who gives us only the illusion of free will. That sort of God would not send His Son to die for us, or make reconciliation so very easy for us.
His love and power are both undeniable and unfathomable, such that our feeble attempts to grasp them should humble us and make us trust God more and ourselves less. We must focus on the “what” and “how” of salvation and not divide over the “why”, nor in ignorance present a confusing or false gospel. It is of the utmost importance that we understand the concept of reconciliation, and have hearts that bleed for the prospect of anyone being eternally separated from God. And if our hearts can do this, can God’s do any less?
“Be reconciled to God!”