June 24, 2012 by

Is Salvation a Done Deal?


Categories: theological questions

A quick caveat to start this post: it’s about theology. If you prefer not to go there, you can skip this post and wait for the next.

This post was inspired by my blogger friend Linda, who recently posted about the differences in theology between the Orthodox and Protestant views of atonement (or as she puts it, the eastern and western views). I began to leave this as a comment on her blog, but realized it was sort of a tangent on a different point she was making, which was that today’s evangelical view tends to overemphasize our alienation from God, rather than His plan of reconciliation (which overall I agree with). I also thought the tangent itself might warrant its own discussion–so I decided to create a post about it here.

As Linda clarified her own beliefs, I was particularly struck with how she described a concept called “transactionalism”:

If you…, then God… Typically stated, IF you repent of your sins and believe Jesus took the punishment on your behalf, THEN you can be saved.

What God has done in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself is an accomplished reality. It is not a transaction contingent upon your response.  Your response does not in any way affect God’s stance toward you. His gift is unconditional; faith is not the action that makes it a reality.

Repentance is not self-condemnation; it is to turn and to see things in a new way. This will occur when one comes to experience and understand the love of God. Faith, acceptance, and belief are vital to how we grow and experience life with God as we encounter the reality of His kingdom.

There are a few things about this quote that ring true with me–but not all. If salvation and atonement are truly a “done deal,” and if it is not a “transaction contingent on our response,” then we can draw that line all the way to universalism, which basically says everyone will be saved in the end, no matter what we believe or how we behave. All roads lead to God. I know of a number of (former) evangelicals and emergent folks who have drawn just such a line, and I’m sorry, I can’t go there with them. Jesus made it far too clear that He is the only way to the Father, and if any old belief system will do, then there really was no need for a Bible to begin with. (Why would God waste His time and ours revealing Himself in Scripture if it didn’t really matter, and we’d all figure it out in the end anyhow?)

At the same time, I do understand how the “if you-then God” mentality underscores alienation, and I think at heart, that’s wrong, too. I do think the Scriptures make it clear that Christ redemption is in effect a completed work, that Christ’s sacrifice was “once, for all.” (The Scriptures also indicate that the process of redemption working out in our lives is an ongoing effect of that completed work, but that’s for another post.) Jesus Himself said that we can’t even approach the Father unless the Holy Spirit first draws us. The “if you-then God” mentality doesn’t really work because our sinful state has left us helpless and powerless to make the first move. If there is a transaction involved with salvation, then God must be the initiator of the transaction, not the other way around.

So what I see is that these belief systems are two ends of a spectrum, both of which swing the pendulum too far in one direction. I think the truth may lie somewhere in between. To illustrate, let me use a rather primitive analogy:

Let’s say someone knocks on my door, and says, “Congratulations! You’re the contest winner, and you’ve just won a brand new Porsche! Here are the keys.”  I look out the door, and I see the Porsche parked by the curb. I look at back at the guy, smiling at me, the keys in his hand, just waiting for me to take them.

Now, as of this point, that Porsche is mine. I had to do nothing to obtain the full rights to said vehicle. All the benefits of Porsche ownership are mine for the taking. But regardless of all this, I will never know nor enjoy the benefits of Porsche ownership unless I do one thing. I have to take the keys.

My point is that I believe that God, in fact, has completed His act of redemption in Christ, and all the benefits of that redemption are surely ours without our having to earn them. But He has also given us free will, and we must freely choose what He offers in order to benefit from it. Anything else would construe a violation of the free will He gave us, the same free will that empowered man to sin in the first place. “If you…then God” is admittedly backwards. God already has; now it’s our turn to respond. But I believe without a response, the benefits of salvation just sit there. We have to take the keys if we’re going to drive that car.

Let’s apply this idea to how we tend to think of “eternal life” only regarding the afterlife, rather than participating in divine life right now (another thing Linda touched on in her post). I completely agree with the concept that eternal life is not simply about heaven or hell–eternal life begins now. But assuming this is true (and assuming, again, that atonement/salvation is a completed work), have you noticed how many people on earth do NOT partake of that divine life? If it were an automatic thing, why isn’t everyone enjoying the benefits of salvation right here and now? My belief is that they do not partake because whether out of ignorance or rebellion–for whatever reason–they have not “taken the keys.” If this dynamic is true in this life, why would it not be true in the next?

Now, I realize that (as is the case with so many theological subjects) this idea probably raises more questions than it answers. What about young children who simply have no knowledge or understanding of their alleged sinful state? What about people around the world who have simply never heard the gospel, who have grown up under a completely different worldview and have not even had the opportunity to “take the keys?” Is their lack of response a one-way ticket to eternal punishment?

The short answer is, “I dunno.” 🙂 The longer answer is that God is just; God is love; and God knows the hearts of people (including children). I think theology is important, but as I’ve said many times, I’ve come to hold my own theology loosely. I think God is big enough and wise enough to know when someone’s heart is turned toward Him, even if their knowledge base of Him is limited (or even if that person’s situation doesn’t fit neatly into my theological beliefs). Let’s just say I’m glad God is the One who gets to make that call.

That said…it doesn’t change the fact that when He reveals His will to us, we are accountable for that knowledge, and it calls for a response on our part. It also doesn’t change the fact that for all the love God extends to us, there will still be some people who shake their fist in His face and want nothing to do with Him. We do have a free will, and some use that free will to reject God utterly–and I believe God honors that freedom of choice. There have been far too many examples of people in history who consciously moved toward evil and refused to repent for me to believe that everyone will be saved in the end. This is also one reason why I can’t join with some of my emergent brethren in questioning the existence of hell. We might be surprised at the end of the age to discover who is (and is not) saved, but that doesn’t mean God will override mankind’s freedom to choose Him or reject Him. (And don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone would choose Him if they only knew the truth about Him.)

So…to sum up my thoughts on this:

Is salvation a done deal? Yes.

Is there still a transaction involved?


We have to take the keys in order to drive the car.

That’s what I think, anyhow. 🙂

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

10 Responses to Is Salvation a Done Deal?

  1. Linda

    Great post. Hopefully I can respond as clearly as what you’ve expressed. I enjoy discussing these ideas, and it is okay with me if we don’t agree, but I think we are close to agreeing on many concepts, except I don’t really understand how unconditional atonement leads to or is the same as universalism.

    God’s action of reconciling mankind in Christ demonstrated scandalous love toward enemies, sinners, the ungodly and the undeserving with a one-sided benevolence that is difficult for us to grasp – an unconditional gift, not just the possibility of salvation.

    Jesus is the only way that we could be reconciled to God. Scripture is an important way that we learn the story of God’s plan to redeem the world. I do not believe that all roads or belief systems lead to God. A belief system, including Christianity, is hollow if it is not leading a person to share life with God.

    For the most part, I don’t believe the if/then gospel sounds anything like “Congratulations! You’re the contest winner.” The really good news is, “You are loved and embraced by God the Father, period.” The transforming love of the Father, the indwelling life of Christ, and the ongoing ministry of the Spirit empower the journey of living out the reality of reconciliation.

    I don’t see this as a once and done deal. The Father is always pursuing and the Spirit is drawing all mankind. They are active in lives in many ways. For those who have awakened to God’s love, there is an ongoing growth in participation in divine life. All of life is the moment by moment opportunity to live in the light of this reality.

    Why doesn’t everyone enjoy the benefits of salvation now and why do so many people on earth NOT partake of divine life?

    These are really good questions. I agree that we have agency in participating in what God has provided. Yes, you can shake your fist at God. You can also say a sinner’s prayer, complete the transaction, and never experience sharing life with God during your journey on this earth.

    I believe that the contractual gospel hinders spiritual growth because the transactional message doesn’t present salvation as participation in divine life. Partaking of divine life is not an automatic thing, but that does not negate the unconditional nature of God’s saving act.

    I think the unconditional gospel makes a difference in the freedom and assurance that we experience in Christ. It also makes a huge difference in how we approach others. Although we may not know where they are in their understanding and knowledge of God, we start with the assumption of their inclusion and acceptance by the Father, and we can then encourage them in the love of God.

    The reason for Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf was because we were completely helpless to reconcile ourselves to God. If any part of the plan of redemption is dependent on us, it has an inherent fatal weakness. For me, this is the bottom line of why it is important that we do not communicate transactionalism in the gospel.

    • Wayward Son Post author

      Hi, Linda,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response; pleasure to be discussing these things with you.

      First, just to clarify, I said that I believe you can draw a line to universalism from the idea that salvation/atonement is not contingent on our response–I did not intend to suggest that everyone (including you) is drawing that line. I think I’m just particularly sensitive on this issue because a few years ago there was a prominent pastor in town who took an inclusion approach all the way that direction.

      As I think about this, I wonder if “transaction” is a misleading word to use to describe what I’m talking about. It seems that the word “transaction” might connote you-do-this, then-I’ll-do-that. In my view, a transaction is as simple as gift given-gift received, or a transfer of something from one person to another. A gift by definition is unmerited and undeserved, but the gift must be received for the “transaction” to be complete. I’m not even suggesting what that might look like; just as some have said a “sinner’s prayer” but not really experienced conversion, I believe many have *not* actually spoken those words, but God has seen a receptive heart in them. It just seems to me that while we cannot possibly earn atonement or prompt it, we still must give God our “yes” in some way in order to partake in what He offers–just as simply as if I give you a book, you won’t have the book unless you reach out and take it from my hand.

      In thinking this over, I’m also reminded of Acts 16, when the jailer reached out to Paul and said, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s response was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I can’t help but notice that Paul didn’t say, “You don’t have to do anything–it’s all been done on your behalf.” Redemption had certainly been accomplished for the jailer, but the act of believing was what caused him to enter into that redemption.

      So that being said, I completely agree that the offer of reconciliation is unconditional, and it does sound like we’re saying pretty close to the same thing. I guess I’m not as hung up on the idea of a transaction because in my view, a transaction is as simple as saying “yes” to God’s gift. I hope this rambling makes sense.

      I’m honored to be the recepient of your longest blog comment. 🙂 And don’t worry about the italics. I still use the *asterisk* version of highlighting because I’m scared of html. 😀

      • Linda

        Jeff, I do understand what you are saying about about the gift metaphor and the role of response in our experience of the gift.

        What I am particularly sensitive to (not saying you are doing this) is salvation perspectives that infer a contingent transaction and that limit the concept of salvation to a decisive moment. Because this is the overwhelmingly common protestant/evangelical message, it is an uphill battle to express the gospel in a way that overrides this default perspective.

        Jesus’ answer to “What must I do to be saved?” was “Sell everything and follow me.” When these questions are read through a transactional lens, we miss the bigger picture. To be rescued from the world and its powers, we must turn, and keep turning, to Christ and trust in His life, death, and ascension for the grace to live the new, divine, eternal life.

        Just as being filled with the Spirit is a continuous process, being saved is also continuous. We were saved, we are saved, we are being saved.

        Anyway, that is why I’m hung up on the idea of transaction. It’s a pleasure to have this discussion with you also.

  2. Linda

    Sorry, I messed up the italics. I only intended to italicize your questions that I quoted. BTW, this is the longest blog comment I have left, ever! Sorry. 🙂

  3. Kansas Bob

    I do think that the proposition is that simple. A simple yes to the gift of the Holy Spirit – not that it is all that simple.. many won’t take the keys because they do not trust the giver or feel like they won’t take the gift because they feel the gift has strings attached.. or maybe they feel like they need to work for their Porsche.

    An unrelated issue – who ever said that anyone is born immortal? Apart from a spiritual birth (after a natural birth ala John 3) I do not see human immortality in the bible.

  4. Rey

    Hello and thank you for discussing this openly. I am a Christian who understands that it is the Almighty God that begun and accomplished all that He had decreed to be one time in eternity. My question to you on the part of free will is, if mans will is free then why can’t he accomplish everything he sets out to do? You see to have a free will you have to be perfect, and i think you’ll agree that no man is. The biggest mistake that is made by man about God is that he beleives that God thinks just like him. You see God cannot think. If He could think then He could not know everything, He would have to deduce in His mind looking for an answer or a result. The point is that “He” God, is the answer. Man centered theology puts man on the throne, always looking for credit or a reward. God centered theology is God being the reward and He gets all the credit. Man cannot take credit for anything he has ever done. Man can only make with what God has already created. Man lives in a life of discovery, always wanting credit for what they claim to have made, when in fact it has always been there. You see man discovered the peices and put them together through trial and error. God spoke and it was done and not “doing”. The gift of salvation is something that was accomplisehd before the creation of man. Man always falls, but he can only fall downward. The gospel of Christ Jesus is the simplest proclamation that is made to man through the Holy Scriptures. The problem is that man is blind to it unless God Himself with the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit illuminates the mind of man so that it can be properly seen an understood. Thank you for this opprtunity.

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