Salvation is not Conversion
As a Christian one of the scariest passages in the bible is Matthew 7:21-23. Yep that one. The infamous “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven,” passage. As frightening as Matthew 7 can be for some people, what can be the most confusing are passages like Matthew 10:22, 19:25, 24:13, John 15:1-8, and Revelation 21:7. The theme of each of these verses is essentially this “but the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Some Christians struggle with this though wondering, “Well wait…I thought I was saved. Why is this passage warning me to bear or fruit or else?” When this happens, many in the reformed camp immediately go to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints and so dismiss the warnings about persevering to the end. So what's going on here? I think many well meaning believers have forgotten a few things about salvation. And, are confused about how God uses the term and "saved" how we use the term “saved.”
From God’s Perspective
One of the ways I have failed as a Christian and pastor is that I can forget that the bible is written from God’s perspective. That sounds dumb right? However, many of the contradictory statements about salvation come from not realizing this fundamental truth. When God speaks about his people he often speaks of us as completed people. Meaning, he says things that are in the past tense as if they are done. Like the word “saved.” It is a past tense way of saying we have salvation. But then God will simultaneously speak to us in the present tense and tell us that we must “conquer to the end” to be saved. Almost as if we are not saved yet. So, what is happening here?
Because God is outside of time and knows all things related to time, he weaves statements in and out of time. When I say time, I mean specifically our experience. Years, months, days, hours, minutes etc. When he says we are saved, he is saying this, in some ways, outside of time. Because it is a finished work. It is past tense. It has been completed. But God will also use the same term in the present tense. This deals more with our experience of being saved. He speaks as if we are saved only IF we believe until the end. And this is where the problem begins to occur. How are we saved and yet aren’t saved unless we believe until the end? This question has created theological divisions with certain emphasis depending on your theological tradition.
I am reformed in my Soteriology (fancy word for the doctrine of salvation). And I believe there is an Ordo Salutis (Latin word for order of salvation). For the most part, reformed tradition lists salvation in this order: Election, Gospel Call, Regeneration, Conversion, Justification, Adoption, Sanctification, Perseverance, Death and Glorification. I will not be explaining these terms but feel free to look them up. As true to what I see the bible teaches about salvation, those of us who are reformed place a lot of emphasis, as Luther did, on Justification. While none of us would outright say this, Justification has become equivalent to salvation in the reformed world. It is often where we stand our ground. Justification is taught a ton in reformed churches and can in some ways compete with the gospel itself.
In the non-reformed world many people believe in some sort of Ordo Salutis as well. But in the non-reformed world, salvation’s emphasis is on conversion. The weight of salvation, and I would even say the very hope of salvation, is on the moment you get “saved.” That decision to accept Jesus as your savior at a youth retreat, or that altar call moment that was laced with tears is how most people think of being saved. People will wage their eternal destinies on that moment of conversion. Even if that person bears no lasting fruit of believing in Jesus when they die, "conversion" is a watershed moment in our lives and it becomes, for many of us, the very foundation of our being saved. The problem is, justification and conversion are not salvation. Since people have thought they were, along with the way God speaks in and out of our space-time continuum, much confusion exists about salvation. Especially when one arrives at the verses I mentioned above on fighting to the end. This, I think, but am probably wrong here, does not have to be as complicated as it has become. Let me explain.
Salvation: Only God knows
Even though this may be hard to believe, only God knows who is truly saved and who is not. While I can have confidence that I and others I know are saved based on faith and fruit, ultimately we do not know who is saved and who isn’t. Only God knows who are his. This creates a tension in our experience. We want to be assured of salvation and we should be. Didn’t John write 1 John to give people the assurance that they are saved? Yes. But isn’t it funny that people are as confused as ever about being saved? We must start with the reality that only God knows who are saved.
Because we are limited to space and time, and are in many ways hindered by emotions, this is a hard truth to grasp. But haven’t we all seen people who seemed at one point to look like believers, and after a while they show themselves not to be? When that happens we usually toggle between confusion and self-righteousness. But it is in these moments that we are forced to remember that only God knows who is saved. When Jesus said to the disciples “one of you will betray me,” none of them said, “Oh it must be Judas.” They each accused themselves by asking, "Is it me, Lord?" Only God knows who is saved. Yet we can have confidence that we are saved, based on who we believe in (Jesus) and how we live.
The problem with ‘saved’
The biggest problem with the term saved is when God uses it he speaks omnisciently knowing all things. He can speak confidently that some will be saved because he chose them to be. He speaks knowing how all things are going to end up. When we speak of being saved we speak in time (experience) and usually mean converted. That is the only way we can speak because we do not know all things and can only speak based upon what we know now, which is why most of what we believe is in faith. It is not necessarily wrong to do this, but we must remember that when God speaks of being saved he speaks outside of time. God can see you and I as finished, glorified even, because he has chosen us to be. Even though that it is not our experience. So what does all this mean?
We have to think of salvation not as Conversion or Justification but as a spectrum that begins with Election and ends with Glorification. From our knowledge and experience, salvation only begins in this life. Salvation doesn’t end with conversion. It doesn’t end at Justification. As a matter of fact, sanctification, perseverance and death are the only things we can experience with our senses. Those are the only parts of salvation that are tangible in this life. Salvation ends when we are standing face to face before God and have received glorified bodies. This is why God warns us to persevere. He is warning us from our experience not his perspective. It is why he says we must persevere because that is the only true measure of a genuine Christian. 1 John 2 and 2 Peter 2 both cover this. People who only believe for a season in this life were never converted to God, even though they were to us.
We have to persevere to the end because that is what salvation is. It’s not the moment you made a profession of faith. All a profession of faith means is that we are being saved. We are in a process to be saved and can have some assurance that we are saved (however we will only be as confident as we are obedient). But honestly, we will only know that we are saved for certain if we hold firm to the end. We need to think of salvation as a process that we are in (from the standpoint of our experience) and know that we must prove ourselves to be his disciples (John 15:8) throughout this life. So that we may die believing they very thing we do now. If we remind ourselves that salvation is really Election to Glorification, it may help us to see why we have to persevere. Rather than thinking we are saved (which we are, but when we say it, we say it outside of time and experience. But only God can speak with that kind of authority), it may be more helpful to think we are being saved, which is more accurate to where we are in our experience of salvation.