Some Christians insist on talking about salvation almost exclusively in the past tense, “…when I got saved…” On the surface, that might seem like a reasonable way of describing a distinct moment of “accepting Jesus into your heart” or “giving your life to God” or “beginning to following Jesus,” or however you would want to phrase it. Some describe this as a “conversion” or a “born again” experience. What I want to do here is show that concept of referring to yourself or others as “saved” doesn’t seem to actually map onto the language of the New Testament concerning salvation.
I’ll admit from the outset here that I’m no Greek scholar, so I’m not going to traffic in Greek texts, or try to give you ‘word studies’ (that aren’t particularly helpful anyway) to try to bolster a point. We’ll just take a look at some translated texts (ESV) and I’ll you give you some thoughts.
As a way of getting at this… If you plug the word “saved” into a Biblegateway or BlueLetterBible search bar and take a look at the numerous New Testament references that pop up you’re going to notice something. I hope you notice that every instance of “saved” in the New Testament (accept for two, that I’ll talk about here shortly) concern salvation that is ongoing (i.e. some notion of ‘being saved’) and also, and most predominately, that salvation that is future. In fact, most texts about salvation in the New Testament put the focus of salvation in the future (i.e. they are eschatological). But that doesn’t mean a vision of salvation as ‘going to heaven when you die.’ I only mean that the majority focus on salvation of individuals is by far future-oriented, whatever that future heavens and earth may look like. The runner-up to future-oriented passages are the present-oriented senses that salvation is already at work in us, and lagging way behind are texts concerning salvation in the past-oriented sense. Here’s a sampling of those present and future texts that we are talking about… (emphasis mine)
praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47
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. Romans 5:9-10
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18
you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord I Corinthians 5:5
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. I Corinthians 15:1-2
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, II Corinthians 2:15
And that’s just a sample of the “saved” texts… We could also turn to those texts like Romans 8, I Corinthians 15 and II Corinthians 5 that are emphatic about our salvation being wrapped up in a future bodily resurrection. The New Testament teaching regarding salvation of individuals is in a present and future sense, and I think a good case can be made that it is actually exclusively present and future.
OK, let’s look at these past-oriented sense passages (emphasis mine):
2 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand,that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:2-10
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. Titus 3:3-8
I see the authors saying “you were saved”… back there… when Christ died and was raised, and through your identification and participation with Him now, you are inheriting salvation, so that what God has done in Christ, He will do in you, in the ages to come. You’ll notice there are similar themes (above) in Ephesians 2 and Titus 3. What I want to suggest about these passages is that, as it concerns believers, we can locate our salvation in Christ crucified and raised, and that we can locate our salvation in the past, but not our past… not our personal story about when we embraced Christ as a fifth grader at church camp or as an adult sitting in the back of a church service or whatever our story might be… We can locate our salvation in the past work of Christ on the cross, dying for the sins of the world, and I think that’s what the authors might be getting at here.