Salvation: past, present, future 


James, Part 9

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created… Therefore, put away all the filth and evil in your lives and humbly accept the word planted in you, for it has the power to save your souls. 

James 1:18, 21

The introduction to James’s letter makes it clear that he is writing to people who have put their faith in Jesus and have been regenerated (born-again). In verse 18, James affirms they had experienced “birth through the word of truth,” and he identifies them as examples of God’s grace and goodness (“first fruits”). Then we come to verse 21, where salvation is described as something yet to come. “Humbly accept the Word,” James says, “because it has the power to save your souls.”

This is a confusing statement to Christians who have been taught that salvation only refers to the new birth. Jesus described the new birth as “eternal life” and promised anyone who trusted in him would never perish. The doctrine of the eternal security of the believer (sometimes referred to as “once saved, always saved”) is one of the most important concepts in the Bible. It allows Christ-followers to move forward boldly, knowing they will never be forsaken by God.

So why would I need to be saved in the future if I already possess eternal life?

Good question. We will explore James’s answer in detail next week, but James is not alone in his understanding of salvation as something which believers will experience in the future (at Christ’s return).

  • The apostle Paul reminded the church in Rome that, “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here, so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11-12).
  • Hebrews 9:28 says Jesus, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
  • The apostle Peter says, “In his great mercy God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).  

What do these passages teach us? They teach us that we sometimes define salvation too narrowly. It is a much broader subject than most Christians realize–salvation is another word for deliverance, and that deliverance can be physical or spiritual or both. Sometimes salvation refers to something we were delivered from in the past; sometimes it refers to something we will be delivered from in the future; and sometimes salvation is spoken of in the present tense because, in a sense, it is ongoing. To determine how the word is being used in a particular text, we must look at the context.

  • The word is often used in the past tense. A popular verse in Ephesians 2 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” For me, that happened in 1963, and I can remember the day like it was yesterday. The Holy Spirit had been chasing (and finding) me for weeks. I came to believe that only Jesus could deliver me from myself and the mess I had made of my thirteen-year-old life. I came home from school one day, threw my books into the middle of living room, fell on my knees, and asked God to forgive my sins and save me. He said “Yes,” and in that moment I was delivered from spiritual death. I was reconciled with God, not because of anything I did, but because of God’s gift–the salvation purchased for me by Jesus on the cross.
  • Scripture also speaks of salvation in the future tense. We have already looked at three of the many passages that point to the deliverance God’s people will experience when Christ returns.
  • Salvation is also spoken of in the present tense because it is ongoing. While we have been made right with God for eternity, we are not out of harm’s way–we still live in a broken world, and we’ll have trials and temptations until the day we die. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “give us today our daily bread” and “deliver us from the evil one.”

Our salvation is a God-initiated process that we have been given a small role in. Paul discusses our part and God’s part in Phillipians 2:12. He tells the believers in Phillipi, “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.”

  • God’s part in the process of salvation is to forgive us, give us eternal life, reconcile us to himself, justify us, redeem us, sanctify us, and eventually to glorify us. In other words, God does all the heavy lifting. Every aspect of salvation is powered by God.
  • Our part is to trust Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purpose in our life. We are to “work out” our salvation. The Greek word used there refers to “bringing to the surface” what God has wrought inside us.

James discusses what bringing our salvation to the surface looks like in verses 22–25. We’ll look at that next time.

Next: The mark of genuine Christianity.

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