Over the past few years I have had hundreds of discussions about salvation with people from within many different branches of Christianity. One common thing I found from talking to people of many denominations, whether it be Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Church of God, Church of Christ, Catholic, or whatever, is that there is a misunderstanding of Biblical salvation. I’m not saying that all those teach this, I’m simply saying that I’ve heard this teaching from people in all those denominations. Scripture, if read in context, speaks of three types of salvation. Some of you are thinking “Three types? nuh-uh! Thats not what Ive been taught or what my preacher says”. I once thought the same thing. But I urge you to be like the Bereans of Acts 17:11. When you hear any teaching take it and compare it to scripture “examine the scripture daily, to see if what was said was true”. I’ve found that churches often get too steeped in tradition that they neglect to refer back to scripture.
I was having a conversation recently with some friends. I knew what I wanted to say about the three phases of salvation, but couldn’t quite put it all together in words. Ever have that happen to you? I hate it when that happens! But alas, Google to the rescue! I found an article by Steven R. Cook. He manages to do a wonderful job of explaining the three phases of salvation. He writes:
“Once a person is born again, he is saved from the penalty of sin (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 2:5, 8), the power of sin (Rom. 6:11-14), and will ultimately be saved from the presence of sin when God takes him to heaven and gives him a new body like the body of Jesus (Phil. 3:20-21). This truth is related to the three phases of salvation: justification, sanctification, and glorification.
Justification is the instantaneous act of God whereby He forgives the sinner of all sins—past, present and future—and declares him perfectly righteous in His sight. Justification is predicated on “the gift of righteousness” that God freely imputes to the believer at the moment of salvation (Rom. 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Justification before a holy God is possible solely on the grounds that Christ has borne every sin committed by the sinner (Heb. 10:10-14; 1 Pet. 3:18), and as an act of pure grace freely imputes His perfect righteousness to him (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; 1 John 2:2). Justification is always by grace and never by works, as the sinner is, “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
Sanctification is the process whereby the believer moves from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity over time as he learns God’s Word and makes good choices to live God’s will (Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:14-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). The Christian who advances to spiritual maturity does so [with the help of] the power of the Holy Spirit and on the basis of God’s Word daily learned and applied (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18). Sanctification is never instantaneous but is ongoing until the Christian leaves this world and goes to heaven.
Glorification is the final phase of the believer’s salvation experience and occurs when he leaves this world, either by death or by rapture, and enters into the presence of God in heaven (Rom. 8:17-18). The Christian never achieves sinless perfection until he is glorified in heaven, at which time his sin nature is removed and he is given a perfect body (Phil. 3:20).”
I’ve found that the first two phases are often confused, many combining them as one thing. This can lead to a lot of problems, making it seems as though good works has something to do with receiving eternal life. That would contradict the numerous verses about that says receiving eternal life is by grace and through faith, not of works (See: Faith Alone In 100 Texts).
I have heard many famous pastors say “if you are living a life of sin” or doing certain sins, then “that proves you were never saved to begin with” or “that proves that you have lost your salvation”. These theological conclusions come from not reading the verses in context. If read in context, it becomes abundantly clear that neither of those possibilities are possible. We are justified by God’s grace, through faith in Christ. The Greek word for Grace means “a free, undeserved, or unmerited gift”. If something is free, undeserved or unmerited, that means that you can do no works or deeds to receive it. Romans 11:6 says that salvation (context: justification) is by Grace, “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were based on works, then grace would not be grace (a free, undeserved, or unmerited gift)”. So, if we are saved (context: justified) by God’s grace, then works can have no part of that. I hear many say that we have to do good works in addition to that. But if we are trusting in good works as well, then we aren’t trusting in grace, meaning that we are not saved, because we can only be saved by his free unmerited grace. Grace can have nothing to do with works.
Justification vs. Sanctification
To be justified one only needs to receive God’s free gift given by his grace, by believing in Christ as savior. Its that simple. But many people have changed the definition of believe to include works and obedience. The Greek word for believe means “to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to place confidence in”. That means that we think that the fact that Jesus is the son of God and died for our sins and rose again, is true. That means that we are persuaded of that fact. And it means that we place our confidence in Christ saving us from our sins. None of those have anything to do with good works that we do or obedience. Justification is a one time thing, we believe and we receive eternal life. Justification is what most mean when they say they “got saved”.
Sanctification, on the other hand, is the next step. It is an ongoing process in which we, with the help of the spirit become more holy and Christ-like. We try our best to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord by obeying His commands, helping others, and loving Him. This is an ongoing process that starts the moment we believe in Christ. We do all these things because we love God and want to please him. Scripture tells us we get rewards (inheritance or crowns) in the kingdom because we do these things. But we dont do these things with the selfish intentions of getting the rewards, we do them because we love the Lord.
Sanctification, in some regards, is a choice we make. We willingly choose to live a life for the Lord. We are bound to mess up, but we get back up and continue on with our life lived for Him. Because this is a choice, believers can also choose not to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. The Bible strongly warns against this. If it weren’t possible for a believer to live a life that was not pleasing to the Lord, then it wouldn’t warn against it so much. The church of Corinth was notorious for doing this. Paul says they are believers, but they are living a life of sin and vice. They have believed but have never grown. They have eternal life, but when they enter the kingdom they will receive little or no rewards (inheritance or crowns).
These people have, as 1 Thessalonians 5:19 says, “quenched the spirit”, meaning that the ignore what the Holy Spirit is telling them. They are going against their conscience (Romans 7). It also says that it is very possible for their life of sin to bring about quick physical death. The wages of sin, after all, is death. God will discipline these people more harshly than others. His discipline is always with the intention of bringing His children back into fellowship with Him.
It is my assumption that pastors and theologies teach that you have to do good works or obey rules in addition to believing (combining justification and sanctification) because they are afraid that their congregation will take the bad route and live a life of sin. They sacrifice sharing a clear and correct teaching of the gospel of God’s grace for keeping a good congregation that does great things. They reject God’s grace. They deny that it is free. They tack on that one extra step. This isn’t anything new, you see this happening within the first few chapters of Genesis. God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it, you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17). The only thing God told him not to do was to eat from that one tree. Well, then Eve came along and added to what God said. She told the serpent, “God did say ‘You must not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, AND you must not touch it’” (Genesis 3:3). She added the part about touching the tree. This was no doubt a precaution added to make sure you didn’t get anywhere near to eating it. If you cant touch it, how can you eat it? The intentions were good, and it was good that they didn’t touch it, but that wasn’t what God told them. Likewise, people who added the good works and obedience to salvation (context: justification), did so with good intentions, not wanting anyone to even get near to living a sinful life, but they added onto what God says in Hs word, thus changing the gospel of God’s grace to, as Paul says, “a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7).
Living For The Lord
I am not advocating for believers to live a life of sin. I am simply urging people to teach God’s word in context. Many have a hard time grasping the concept of God’s free grace because, as humans, we expect things to be worked for. We work to get paid, we do good things in order for people to like us better, we study hard for a test to get good grades, etc… It is hard for us to imagine that the greatest thing in the world is free and that we don’t have to do anything or work hard to receive it. When I finally understood all of this and how salvation (context: justification) is given freely by God’s Grace and received simply by faith, it opened my eyes to just how great and loving God is and how amazing His grace really is. A proper understanding of God’s grace leads to a greater appreciation of His gift, and urges us to live a life that is pleasing to Him because He is our father and has done amazing things for us.