The Call to Study Our Great Salvation
April 16, 2018 | Andrew Davis
In a World of Many “Greats,” Our Salvation is Truly Great
The word “great” is thrown around so easily in our culture that it loses its meaning. In nature, there are the “Great Lakes,” the “Great Barrier Reef,” and the “great white shark”; in history, Alexander the Great and the Great War; in literature, The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations. Every sports enthusiast likes reading the list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time,” and Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest.” Even in commercial life, you can go to “Great Clips” for a haircut and search on Google to find “great wedding gift ideas” or a “great vacation spot.” In many cases the word “great” is an overstatement.
However, when it comes to the salvation Christ has won for us, the word is an understatement. We need to understand and teach how truly great is our salvation in Christ, and specifically in terms of its component parts: regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.
The Danger of Drift, and the Remedy of Careful Study
Our salvation is called “great” in Hebrews 2:3: …how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? In context, the author is writing to some Jewish people who had made an initial profession of faith in Christ, but who were wavering in their commitment to Christ, and choosing not to go to church (Hebrews 10:25) because of persecution by the Jewish community. So the entire Epistle to the Hebrews is rightly called an “Epistle of Warning.” These Christians were being warned not to “drift away” (Hebrews 2:1), “turn away” (Hebrews 3:12), or “fall away” (Hebrews 6:6) from Christ.
For this reason the author of Hebrews makes this soul-saving demand: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. …How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3).
Drifting away from Christ is a painful thing to watch in someone else, and even worse to experience in ourselves. The image in my mind is of a sailboat alongside a dock, with its mooring line just lying loosely on the pier. The gentle ebb and flow of the basically placid sea does not present any immediate threat to the boat, so if you came back in five minutes, you would barely notice that the mooring line had slipped a little. But come back in ten hours, and the changing tide and the consistent bobbing of the boat has caused it to drift away entirely. It is gone. So it is with many who profess faith in Christ. Their initial excitement about the Christian life can soon ebb, and their neglect of the gospel can result in drifting away from Christ. This is why each of us must heed the clear instruction the Book of Hebrews gives us to be ever vigilant over our own souls.
The remedy given in Hebrews 2:1 is clear: We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift away. “What we have heard” is clearly the gospel message itself, and “paying more careful attention” means to study it and attend to it and give our hearts fully to it, so that we can understand its message better and better. The alternative to studying the gospel is that we ignore such a great salvation. (Hebrews 2:3) The word translated “ignore” means to “neglect” or “make light of” our salvation, to treat it lightly as though our very lives did not depend on it. In order to avoid gradually drifting away from Christ, therefore, we need to study the greatness of our salvation, study it carefully and diligently, study it daily.
Our Great Salvation is Unfathomable
In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan, in the process of leading the first ships to circumnavigate the globe, attempted to sound the depths of the central Pacific Ocean. He spliced six lengthy lines together and attached them to a cannonball. He lowered the cannon ball until the line ran out—four hundred fathoms or about 2400 feet. He concluded the ocean was immeasurably deep—literally “unfathomable.” At that place in the Pacific, he would have probably needed as many as fifty such lines spliced together to hit bottom.
When we come to the infinite richness of the gospel, we are like sailors out in a dinghy, pulling pieces of string out of our pockets, splicing them together and trying to find the bottom of the ocean. Certainly the Apostle Paul must have felt something like that. In the Book of Romans, after writing eleven chapters of the deepest and richest description of gospel doctrine in the Bible, he reacted in wonder and amazement at what God had revealed through him: Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33). Paul is marveling over the doctrinal depths of the gospel, and states we can never exhaust its riches or fully plumb its depths. Even still, the effort is essential to our ongoing salvation.
Our Great Salvation Comes in Stages
God did not intend to give us our salvation all at once, but in parts. There are several distinct stages of salvation, each with its own patterns:
Stage I) the process of calling/drawing;
Stage II) the moment of regeneration, faith, and justification;
Stage III) the process of sanctification;
Stage IV) the moments of glorification (first of the soul at death, and then of the body at resurrection).
For the Christian, the first two stages are over, the third stage is progressing now, and the fourth stage is yet to come. Thus, speaking in terms of time for a Christian in the process of sanctification, we “have been saved,” (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8), we “are being saved,” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 1 Peter 1:8-9) and we “will be saved” (Romans 5:9-10). Human effort (works) achieves nothing positive in Stages I and II, is essential in Stage III, and unnecessary in Stage IV, as we shall see.
Stage I: The Process of Calling and Drawing
Romans 8:29-30 lays out the order of salvation very plainly: For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. For every Christian, foreknowledge and predestination happen in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. But calling is the beginning of God’s direct work on an individual, bringing that person ultimately to saving faith.
For the elect, this “calling” stage begins at the moment of birth and continues until the moment of regeneration. The Sovereign God draws his elect to himself, using innumerable means and methods prepare them for faith in Christ. Jesus spoke of this “drawing”: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
In this drawing process, God mysteriously uses one encounter after another to shape the heart of the lost person. It reminds me of the tumblers of a combination lock: when the knob is turned to the proper positions in succession, one tumbler after another gets positioned until they are all in place and the lock can be opened. Likewise an encounter with a godly grandmother at age six, with a Sunday school teacher at age eight, with a street corner evangelist at age fourteen, and with a Christian dorm-mate at age eighteen can all be used by God to prepare the lost person for their eventual conversion at age twenty.
When Saul of Tarsus was converted on the Road to Damascus, he had begun the day still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (Acts 9:1). When Christ appeared to Saul in resurrection glory on the Damascus Road, he said, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14). The word “goads” refers to sharp metal spikes put on the plow to keep the ox from kicking back at the master. It explains the wise and powerful way in which Christ worked in Saul’s life before his conversion. By that point, the Lord had already put every piece in place: Saul’s years of training in the Scriptures, his knowledge of the basic facts of Christ’s life, his partial understanding of the gospel preached by men like Stephen, his involvement in the vicious persecution of the church (including his willing assent to and involvement in the death of Stephen), the powerful sermon Stephen preached (Acts 7) and the winsome way Stephen died. As Saul made his way to Damascus, these things (and many others besides) were “goads,” pricking his conscience in an unmistakable direction.
Jesus says it is hard for you to kick against the goads. Whenever a sinner is resisting the calling of God, it creates a certain amount of pain, and God uses that pain to bring him in the end to Christ. The “goads” are God’s sovereign actions in a person’s life, over perhaps decades of experiences in God’s world, and they are used by God to bring the person to Christ. But they alone are insufficient without the preaching of the gospel and the internal regenerating work of the Spirit. These constitute the final aspect of the “calling” God does in a human heart. The gospel message of Christ crucified is proclaimed in some manner, the person hears it and by it the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit creates something that wasn’t there before: God… gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17).
Stage II: The Moment of Regeneration, Faith, and Justification
The next elements of salvation all happen instantaneously. In fact, they are so intertwined it becomes very difficult to separate them. Many theological battles have been fought over the order of regeneration and faith in particular. I give logical priority to regeneration over faith because faith is a gift of God, the evidence of God’s regenerating work in a previously dead human heart.
Regeneration: The culmination of the calling of God is the moment of regeneration. God speaks as a Creator-King into nothingness and creates something that wasn’t there before. He does it by the power of the Spirit while the person is hearing the gospel of Christ. The best verse in all the Scripture to explain this moment is 2 Corinthians 4:6: For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. This likens our regeneration to the sovereign work of God in creating light in Genesis 1:3. There, God spoke into nothingness and created physical light by the word of his power. In regeneration, God speaks into the spiritual deadness of our hearts and creates a special kind of light that did not exist before: the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Christ, as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3), appears glorious, magnificent, attractive, and completely desirable. The person is alive to truths to which up until that moment they had been utterly dead. They are made a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) at this moment, “born again” by the Spirit of God (John 3:3).
Faith and Repentance: If God is going to say, “Let there be light!”, he must also say “Let there be sight!” At the moment God causes “his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” he creates also the eyesight of the soul, namely faith. Faith is a gift of God (Eph.2:8), and it is the capacity to receive what God is freely giving. I call it the eyesight of the soul because it receives the invisible spiritual light of the glory of God in Christ just as the eye receives the physical light that comes to it from the world. Christ appears to the person as what he really is: the glorious display of the perfections of God. The soul cleaves to Christ, trusts in Christ’s blood, accepts Christ’s saving work on its behalf. The Scripture reveals that the word of the gospel is the effective means of faith springing up in the heart: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom.10:17, ESV).
Faith as the eyesight of the soul has also a negative side, and that is to see our own wickedness in the pure light of the person of Christ and of the law of God. We see and hate our sin and want to be free from it forever. We turn away from wickedness and toward God. This is called “repentance.” The close link between repentance and faith can be seen in Jesus’ initial preaching of the Kingdom of God: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Repentance is an internal change of heart worked by God. It is inevitably displayed by a change of life that marks the beginning of the journey of sanctification.
Justification: The centerpiece of the gospel of grace is this simple truth: sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law. Simply by believing the gospel of Jesus Christ a sinner is justified (made righteous) in the sight of God, not by anything he or she can do. The most important text in the whole Bible on this crucial doctrine is Romans 3:21-30. In that vital section of Scripture, Paul asserts that there is a righteousness from God apart from the law which comes through faith in Christ. Every single person on earth has sinned, and every person who is justified in the sight of God is so by faith in Christ alone. God presented Christ as a propitiation (sacrificial atonement) for our sins, and every sinner who has faith in Christ is justified by God’s grace. This justification by faith precludes all boasting, for no sinner is ever justified by works of the law but merely by grace through faith.
The foundation of our justification is the redeeming work of Christ on the cross, a redemption made in his blood. It is there that Christ paid the righteous penalty due for our sins, fully propitiating (atoning for) the just wrath of God for anyone who believes in him (Rom. 3:25). The effectual core of Christ’s atoning work is the exchange of our sin (and the guilt that justly goes with it) for his perfect righteousness: “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.5:21). Our guilt is laid on Christ, who suffered in our place (Isa. 53:5-6); Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to us, and we are declared righteous by our holy Judge.
The idea of Christ’s perfect righteousness being imputed to us is found in Romans 4:3: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The Greek phrase translated counted to him can also be translated “credited” or “reckoned,” and it has a sense of the matter being entirely in the mind of God. In the accounting book of God’s appraisal, Abraham was thought of, considered, or reckoned as righteous. What is the source of Abraham’s righteousness? As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “in him [Christ] we become the righteousness of God.”
This means that, from the moment of repentance and faith in Christ going forward (even into eternity!), God sees us positionally as perfectly obedient to his law, as obedient as Jesus Christ was! There is nothing we can do to improve our standing in his eyes, for Christ’s perfect righteousness is already ours by faith. All our sins, past, present, and future, are completely forgiven: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7).
At this glorious moment of regeneration, faith, and justification, “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) is lavished on the new believer by God’s grace. The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit comes forever (Eph. 1:13), and the Spirit begins his essential ministries of conviction of sin (John 16:8), daily guidance (John 16:13), illumination of the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10, 13), testimony with our spirits that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16), and assistance in prayer (Rom. 8:26). So also the new believer is adopted as a child of God (John 1:12-13) and takes a permanent place in the family of God (John 8:35). Many other blessings flow at this moment as well: reconciliation with God (Rom. 5:10-11), spiritual union with Christ (Rom. 6:4-5), cleansing of a guilty conscience (Heb. 9:14), rescue from the dominion of darkness and transfer into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). All of these gifts (and others besides) are bestowed at this one moment, and they will never be revoked.
Not one of them comes, however, by human effort or striving. They come by grace through faith apart from works. (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5) Thus the true believer is eternally secure in the grip of God’s sovereign grace. No enemy is powerful enough to snatch Christ’s sheep from God’s omnipotent hand (John 10:28-30), and Christ will lose none of all that the Father entrusted to him, but will raise all of them up at the last day (John 6:39-40, 44).
With that solid ground under our feet, we can now embrace the progressive part of our salvation: sanctification. But as we labor, struggle, fail, weep, succeed, exult, fall, and rise again in the pursuit of daily holiness, we must keep ever before us these immutable truths: “I am a regenerate, justified believer in Jesus Christ, seen in him as perfectly righteous, adopted into God’s family, completely at peace with God, and in that state I will continue until I am finally vindicated on Judgment Day.”
Stage III: The Process of Sanctification
From the moment of justifying faith until the moment of death, we are in the process of sanctification, the infinite, internal journey. Sanctification is a partnership between God and the believer whereby the believer puts sin to death and brings forth fruit in keeping with repentance.
Sanctification is different than justification. In justification, our effort and works are unnecessary and unwelcome, repugnant to God; in sanctification, they are essential and celebrated, commanded by God. Justification is unchanging, set once for all in the heavens; sanctification is dynamic, constantly changing based in part on our faithfulness or faithlessness to God. Justification inevitably leads to sanctification; without evidence of sanctification, there should be no assurance of justification. There are no degrees of justification: we are either justified or we are not. There are infinite degrees of sanctification, based on how conformed we are to the perfect standard of Christ.
The central treatise on sanctification is found in Romans 6-8. The basic idea of Romans 6 is that, since we are united with Christ, we have died to sin, and cannot live in it any longer (Rom. 6:2-5). Based on that premise, we are told to consider ourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11). And we are to fight to prevent our bodies from being used now as they were in the past, as instruments of sin. Instead, we are to present ourselves to God, and to present the parts of our bodies to him as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:12-13). In the past, such a presentation of our members to sin brought about ever-increasing habits of wickedness (Rom. 6:19). From now on, the same dynamic must be used to produce ever-increasing habits of righteousness (Rom. 6:19, 22). New status (dead to sin, alive to God in Christ) should produce new thinking (I am dead to sin, I am alive to God), resulting in a new presentation of the body and its members in service to ever-increasing righteousness.
However, the bitterness of the struggle to walk in holiness in our mortal bodies is clearly highlighted in Romans 7. Through deeply ingrained habits, we still sin. And that is also the purpose of Romans 7—to show us that we will be struggling with sin the rest of our lives. Sin living within us has built up such strength of habit in the members of this “body of death” that we are fighting its pull at every single moment of our lives.
Romans 7:14-25 shows the bitterness of the journey of sanctification. Paul describes how he desperately yearns to do good but cannot seem to carry it out, simultaneously lamenting that the very evil that he would like to kill forever he actually continues to do! The indwelling sin and indwelling Holy Spirit are in constant warfare against each other, and though the Spirit cannot be conquered and will be victorious in the end, the “flesh” (the old nature with its habits and practices) wins many battles every day (Gal. 5:17).
This anguish caused Paul to cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). His buoyant and triumphant faith motivates his answer to his own question: “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 7:25). God will rescue us from the body of death through Jesus Christ! But in the meantime, while we live in the mortal body, we struggle bitterly.
In Romans 8, Paul speaks of the nature of the triumphant work of the Spirit in the life of the true Christian. The Spirit’s presence in our lives is the grounds for our assurance that we will not be condemned on Judgment Day (Rom. 8:1). The central act of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is to lead the Christian into battle against sin: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:13-14, ESV); “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). Romans 8:13 may be the key verse in the Bible on the Christian’s responsibility and victory in the bitter ongoing struggle with sin. The blending of the Spirit’s power (“if by the Spirit”) and the believer’s responsibility (“you put to death the deeds of the body”) is clear. And the stakes could not be higher, for the verse contrasts that daily battle with the opening statement, “if you live according to the flesh you will die,” then Paul says that only those who are led to put sin to death by the Spirit are truly children of God; the “for” connecting verse 13 and verse 14 supports this strong conclusion: if you are not led by the Spirit into battle against sin, you are not a child of God.
Unlike justification, sanctification is dependent upon a Christian’s constant effort, struggle, faith, and obedience, in conjunction with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thus sanctification is a mysterious collaboration between the power of God and the efforts of the believer. A vital passage on this collaboration is Philippians 2:12-13: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” The human side of sanctification is intense labor, working out salvation in fear and trembling. It is a serious struggle, a fight against the world, the flesh and the devil, and as far as the believer is faithful in this struggle, he will make good progress in sanctification. Yet he does not struggle alone; rather it is God who is at work in him to will and to do according to God’s good purpose.
Stage IV: The Moment(s) of Glorification
We come now to the final stage of our great salvation: glorification. Glorification is the gracious act of our sovereign God whereby he instantaneously, perfectly, and eternally conforms justified sinners to Christ in every respect. Unlike sanctification, glorification is not a process in which our efforts and faith are required. It is an instantaneous work of God. It happens in two stages and in two distinct times: at death and at the General Resurrection. At the physical death of believers, they are immediately separated from the “body of death,” removed from this present evil age, and brought into the very presence of the Lord: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8, KJV). At that moment, they are made perfect spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and volitionally. All of the internal aspects of our being will be perfectly conformed to Christ and we will be like him. But the departed saints in heaven are waiting for the redemption of the body at the Second Coming of Christ. At that moment, we will be raised physically from the dead in bodies as glorious as his resurrection body (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:40-44). That is the final moment of our salvation, when all that sin ever did to us will be completely swallowed up in the victory of Christ!
This is the end of glorification and of the entire salvation process: total conformity to Christ, spirit, body, mind, emotions, will, everything. And not just for one individual, but for all the elect, those whom God chose from the foundation of the world to be his adopted children.
Brothers and sisters, God has given us a great salvation in Christ. May we pay very careful attention to this gospel and never drift away.