Why is Exodus the best illustration for understanding the nature of Christian salvation? What lessons can we learn from it? Will people’s claim – “Once saved, always saved” – hold any water if held against this divinely appointed illustration? What does the word "saved" imply? Why should we persevere along the narrow path after we have entered the narrow gate?
Christians rejoice in God’s “Salvation” but are divided into several camps based on their understanding of the doctrine of salvation. The central question is, Does human responsibility play any role in salvation? Some deny it any role. They say that salvation is entirely God’s sovereign act. Some others disagree. They seek to bring in human responsibility without questioning God’s sovereignty. This disagreement leads to another important question, Can a person be ‘lost’ after he is ‘saved?’ More important, does the Bible declare any one to be “saved”? Isn’t salvation a thing of the future—when we will be spared from God’s wrath (the consequence of sin) and from the very presence of sin? How can someone be said to have “arrived” the moment he sets out on a journey?
Are you ‘saved?’
When I was a teenager, I asked a pastor, Is it possible for a Christian to be lost after he is saved?
He asked me, “Are you saved?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, that settles it. If you are ‘saved,’ you cannot be lost. Otherwise, how can you say that you are ‘saved’?”
I remember that conversation clearly because I was unable to question him any further at that time. Everything seemed to depend on that one word—saved. The word seemed to have a certain finality to it. It was as if the act of salvation was accomplished fully.
How do people get ‘saved’? We were shown verses that were plucked from their contexts, and therefore, appeared to be formulae by which people may be ‘saved.’ The Baptists were happy with Mark 16:16 that said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved ….” Those who baptised infants took hold of the second half of that verse – “… but whoever does not believe will be condemned” – because they imagined that their unwillingness to get baptised after trusting in Jesus would eventually be excused! Many Evangelicals settled for Romans 10:8-10. Here is New Testament scholar Prof. Dunn’s translation of that passage:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith which we preach.
Because if you confess “with your mouth” “Jesus is Lord,” and believe “in your heart” that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the “heart” belief is exercised for righteousness, and with the “mouth” confession is made for salvation … James Dunn’s translation in James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, ed. Bruce M. Metzger et. al., Word Biblical Commentary Vol 38B, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988).
Evangelicals read this passage as a sure shot formula for being “saved.” They make people repeat a “Sinner’s Prayer” by which the sinner confesses his faith in Jesus’ resurrection. He is also made to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Those who repeat the prayer are assured that they have been “saved” or “born-again.” This is a classic case of abuse of scripture. A couple of verses are plucked out of context and used as a formula to initiate people into the Christian faith.
Is Romans 10:9-10 a ‘formula’ of salvation?
St. Paul never intended these verses to be treated as a formula that initiates people into the Christian faith! Romans 10:9-10 is a part of Paul’s discussion (beginning from 9:30ff) regarding Jewish failure to obtain God’s righteousness through the Lord Jesus. Paul then contrasts the Jewish religion and the Christian Way. While Judaism says, “… a man may live if he does them [God’s statutes]” (Lev 18:5), Deuteronomy 30:12-14 makes things appear much easier! There is no inherent contradiction between Lev 18:5 and Deut 30:12-14. Both passages were understood by Jews as encouraging obedience to the Torah, their religious Law. However, Paul interpreted the latter passage as a pointer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
I cite Deuteronomy 30:11-14 here:
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach.
It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’
Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’
But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. (Emphasis added)
Unlike Jewish rabbis, Paul claimed that this “word” which was “very near” was none other than the “word of faith” or the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preached.“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith which we preach. – Rom 10:8b That was a radical interpretation of a popular Jewish text!
The “heart” and the “mouth”?
As a part of that radical reinterpretation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14, Paul weaved the central tenets of the Christian faith into its phrases! The word was in our “heart” and in our “mouth”! That’s why, in Romans 10:9-10, Paul went on to interpret that passage in terms of the heart and the mouth, saying, ‘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.’ We must not divorce this verse from the passage in Deuteronomy. If it had not been for his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14, Paul would have said nothing about the believing in the “heart” and confessing with the “mouth”! That’s why Prof. Dunn placed the words heart and mouth, in his translation of Romans 10:9-10, within quotation marks.“The ἐν τῷ στόματί σου, like the subsequent ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ σου, should be in quotation marks in translation, since Paul is clearly picking up and expounding phrases from the preceding quotation.” James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary Vol 38B.
Just a “belief” and a mere “confession”?
Was the gospel something just to be “believed in the heart” and “confessed with the mouth”? No! Why, in the first place, was the Word placed in our mouth and in the heart? So that we “may observe it,” says Deuteronomy 30:14. Therefore, the gospel is not just about a belief and a confession! It’s about obedience too. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, highlights the need for obedience. It renders Deuteronomy 30:14 as:
But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart and in your hands, so that you can do it. (Emphasis added)
Paul was very familiar with the Septuagint. Why didn’t he mention anything about the hand in Romans 10:9-10? Paul cited Deuteronomy 30:12-14 partially, like other Jewish rabbis would have done in a similar circumstance, in order to drive home his central point—that is, to highlight the “simplicity of the Gospel scheme of salvation” as well as its efficacy as compared to what Judaism offered.Adam Clarke, Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible.
Clearly, while writing Romans 10:9-10, it wasn’t Paul’s intention to prescribe a ‘formula’ by which people may be ushered into Christianity and then declared ‘saved.’ Faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the confession of Jesus’ lordship were integral parts of early Christian identity. It was their creed, not a formula. Therefore, Paul used those two elements – the faith in resurrection and the Lordship of Jesus – while appropriating Deut 30:12-14.
Christians confessed Jesus as Lord all the time—not just once in a “sinner’s prayer” to get “saved.” That “confession” was not just about uttering something verbally. It was about the overall profession of faith through words and actions, just as Barnes says,
He who in all appropriate ways professes his attachment to Christ shall be saved. This profession is to be made in all the proper ways of religious duty … It is impossible that there should be true belief in the heart of man, unless it should show itself in the life and conversation.Albert Barnes and James Murphy, Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments. (Emphasis added)
Jewish “Works” Versus Christian Obedience
Christians might quickly conclude that the difference between Judaism and Christianity, as seen in Romans 10, is that the former is all about “doing” while the latter is all about “believing.” Such a conclusion can lead to Christian anti-nomianism, which is an opposition to all sets of rules and regulations. They oppose anything that faintly resembles any kind of “doing.” Sadly, they don't realise that the “doing” that Paul opposes is a very special kind of “doing”—a persistence in the Jewish religion as if the Messiah had not come in the person of Jesus! Therefore, these Christians, in their eagerness to combat “legalism,” went to the extent of fighting against rules and regulations in their schools, universities and workplaces! “We are not under the Law,” they declare! They don’t know that the expression – “the Law” – is just another way Paul referred to Judaism!
The real difference between Judaism and the Christian Way is regarding faith in Jesus the Christ—particularly faith in Jesus’ resurrection and in His Lordship (as Messiah). Those who rejected Jesus continued with their “doing” (observance) of the Torah. In contrast, those who believed in Jesus began a new journey marked by repentance, water baptism, and a life of obedience to Christ. If the “word” that was “near” the Jews was indeed the gospel, that gospel has to be believed (“in your heart”), professed (“in your mouth”), and obeyed (“in your hands). It is not a once-for-all event. It is a life-long journey.
What might appear to be an argument for “faith” and against “works” is in fact not an argument against Christian obedience that proceeds from faith. Romans 10 is an argument against Judaism and its faithless religiosity. Phrases such as “works of the law” and the “the law” must be understood as references to Judaism—not as referring to any set of rules out there. If we fail to acknowledge this, we will end up advocating an empty faith and a hollow profession that are devoid of obedience to Christ. Such a Christianity is “only-believe-ism.” It goes against the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Faith without external evidence (works) is dead!What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. – James 2:14, 20, 26
Whoever professes Jesus Christ as “Lord” has to have an “an attitude of subserviency and sense of belonging or devotion” towards that Lord.James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary Vol 38B. Jesus, unlike any other ‘lord,’ has a name higher than all other names. Addressing Jesus as “Lord, Lord,” without obeying Him would only result in damnation!Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:21-23
Although Paul leaves out the hand (referring to actions) of Deuteronomy 10:14 in Romans 10:9-10, he does refer to the need for obedience in other passages such as Romans 6:15-23. Notice how important it is for a person to become a slave of God and of righteousness after he has been set free from his slavery to sin. The “free gift” of eternal life does not land in the lap of those who persist in sin; it is “the end” (the result) of a life of sanctification! There is no place for “easy-believe-ism” in true Christianity!
15What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Rom 6:15-18,22-23 Emphasis added.
No, Paul wasn’t promoting ‘legalism’ or ‘works righteousness.’ The obedience he insisted on is a vital part of the gospel of grace he proclaimed! Those who lead a life of slavery to God as a part of their sanctification cannot boast about it because they were admitted through a “narrow gate” on to that “narrow path” because of God’s grace. Their sins had been forgiven freely through God’s grace in Christ. That grace teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and to worldly lusts, and it instructs us how to lead a godly life in the present age, says Paul to Titus.For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age … – Titus 2:11-12 NKJV What a far cry from today’s preachers who preach “easy-believe-ism”!
The warning in the last verse cited above (Rom 6:23) about the wages of sin is addressed to ‘believers’ even though we like to use it just during evangelism to warn the ‘unbelievers.’ Eternal life remains a “free gift” and the necessary condition to receive it is to be freed from slavery to sin and to turn oneself into a slave of God in Christ. That isn’t legalism. That indeed is the true expression of faith in Jesus Christ. Faith without this obedience is dead.
“Unto Salvation”—not “saved”
Now that we have seen why Paul spoke about the heart and the mouth, it is good to ask ourselves, Did the apostle Paul ever say that a sinner would be ‘saved’ the moment he says, “Jesus is Lord”? What does Romans 10:9 say? “… you will be saved.” It’s in the future tense! The salvation that is promised is a deliverance from God’s wrath on the day of judgment, points out Schreiner. (The Greek words shouldn’t be a problem; their English transliteration and meaning are given within parentheses.)
The future tense σωθήσῃ (sōthēsē, you shall be saved) should be construed as a genuine future as is typically the case when Paul uses the verb σῴζειν (sōzein, to save …) although in Pauline thought the blessings of the eschatonThe terms eschaton and eschatological are used in theology to refer to the final blessings associated with the wrapping up of God’s plan in the Messiah for the world or humanity. have been inaugurated in the present evil era. Those who confess that Jesus was appointed as Lord at his resurrection will be saved from God’s wrath on the eschatological day of judgment … Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998). Emphasis added.
It should then be clear that no one gets “saved” by praying the “sinner’s prayer,” making a confession before God about Jesus’ lordship. The biblical way of receiving Jesus is through water baptism. In the early church, the initial confession of faith was made in the context of baptism. Even today, those who declare their faith and make a confession must be baptised. [Instead of issuing altar calls to people, preachers should extend an invitation to repentance and water baptism as the apostle Peter did on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:37-38) Listen to my talk on ‘How to be born-again’]
Instead of telling new believers that they got “saved,” we can tell them that they are born-again Christians and that they have been “justified.” (Rom 5:9) They just got started out on a pilgrimage to receive their final salvation. They “will be saved.” It is this hope of being saved that serves as a “helmet” in our “spiritual armour.”“But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:8 Hope is central to Christian salvation. That’s why Paul said, “we are saved by hope.” (Rom 8:24) If you had not noticed that verse before, you are not alone. Most Christians are too accustomed to “saved by grace” slogans that they fail to notice verses that talk about “saved by hope” and “saved through sanctification.” The Apostle Peter too praises God who “has begotten us again to a living hope” and is keeping us by His power to receive His “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 NKJV)
What about Romans 10:10? It expands and explains 10:9.
For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (NKJV. Emphasis added)
Several versions take the liberty to “help” readers understand what “unto salvation” might mean. The verse thus gets translated in a way that suits Evangelical belief and practice!
For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (NIV. Emphasis added.)
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (ESV. Emphasis added.)
The difference between the KJV/NKJV and the NIV/ESV is clear. The NIV and ESV make it appear as if a person is “saved” as soon as he makes a confession. It’s as if God’s action of saving that person has been completed in every way! Matthew Henry, like many others, claimed: “by confession we … come at last to the full possession of that to which we were entitled.”Mathew Henry, The Matthew Henry Commentary: Complete and Unabridged. (Emphasis added.)
How true is that claim? Does any one reach the “full possession” of God’s salvation the moment he believes and makes a confession? Does Romans 10:10 actually say that we get ‘saved’ in an instant? Was Paul not referring to the fullness of salvation a Christian would receive at the end of his pilgrimage on earth? John Wesley thought so. Take a look at Wesley’s comment on Romans 10:10.
For with the heart - Not the understanding only. Man believeth to righteousness - So as to obtain justification. And with the mouth confession is made - So as to obtain final salvation. Confession here implies the whole of outward, as believing does the root of all inward, religion.John Wesley, John Wesley's Notes on the Bible.
Wesley’s view – that a complete profession of faith in word and deed would lead a sinner to his final salvation – is in line with the New Testament’s teaching on this subject. The word “saved” is usually used in the future tense or in the present continuous tense.
Prof. Dunn, in his scholarly analysis of the text, reaches a similar conclusion. “The εἰς σωτηρίαν (‘unto salvation’)” in Romans 10:10 “clearly looks to future eschatological fulfillment.”James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary Vol 38B. The terms eschaton and eschatological are used in theology to refer to the final blessings associated with the wrapping up of God’s plan in the Messiah for the world or humanity. In simple terms, when Paul says, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,” he refers to the final salvation that a believer sets out to receive.
New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce’s commentary too is in agreement with this view. He squarely places “salvation” in the future. In his own words:
… believing and confession are inseparable, and justification and salvation—here with an eschatological reference (‘unto righteousness … unto salvation’)—cannot be distinguished.F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Nottingham: IVP, 1985).
Besides, Bruce went on to say that just as “belief” and “confession” are inseparable, justification and final salvation are indistinguishable! Could it be that justification too has a future element in it? Why else would Paul say, “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith”? (Gal 5:5)
Colin Kruse too concurs with Dunn and Bruce. He says, “In Romans salvation is from the wrath of God and for a share in the glory that is to come.” Indeed, Kruse too placed God’s offer of salvation in the future for those who follow Jesus Christ.Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, D. A. Carson (ed.), The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
We Will Be Saved!
How then do we answer the question we asked initially: Are we saved? The answer is, We are being saved; we shall be saved.
Take a look at these verses too. These talk about salvation in the future tense.
… angel … said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’
– Acts 11:14 NKJV
He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. – Mark 16:16 NKJV
So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” – Acts 16:31
And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ – Acts 2:21
For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:13
If the above verses referred to the promise of salvation to those who were yet to believe in Jesus, the following verses speak to believers. Along with the reference, I have included the tense, voice, mood of the Greek verb translated as “will be saved.” In some instances, the word for salvation is in the noun form. However, it obvious that the salvation envisioned in those verses was still in the future for the original readers.
- “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved”. – Matthew 10:22. Future Passive Indicative
- “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” – Romans 5:10 Future Passive Indicative
- “If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” – 1 Corinthians 3:15 Future Passive Indicative
- “But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation”. – 1 Thessalonians 5:8
- “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” - Hebrews 10:39 NKJV
- “Putting away therefore all wickedness, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation” - 1 Peter 2:1-2 NKJV
- “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;” – Philippians 2:12 NKJV
- “… stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God”. – Philippians 1:27-28 NKJV
When will the Believer be “Saved”?
The final salvation promised to the believer is a total deliverance from the presence of sin and from God’s impending wrath on Judgment Day. That day was referred to as the day of the LORD.
- “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” – 1 Corinthians 5:5
- “… we shall be saved from wrath through him.” – Romans 5:9
- “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Thess 5:9
- “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” – 1 Peter 1:5
Why were we told, “You’re saved”?
Why were millions of Christians told that they were “saved” soon after they declared their initial faith in Jesus Christ? It was probably because of two reasons:
- A misunderstanding of the Aorist Tense in Greek; and
- A misinterpretation of the Perfect Tense
The Aorist Tense
How can we explain colours to the blind? Trying to explain the aorist tense to English readers is as difficult as that. “The English reader need not concern himself with most of these finer points concerning the aorist tense, since in most cases they cannot be rendered accurately in English translation,” says the Blue Letter Bible! Still, we need to be aware. The aorist tense
“is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar action; that is, the concept of the verb is considered without regard for past, present, or future time. There is no direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations.”The Blue Letter Bible.
Two instances of the word “saved” used in the aorist tense are 2 Timothy 1:9“… who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began …” and Titus 3:5. It is worthwhile to examine the passage in Titus 3 which, in the original, is written as poetry.
4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us— not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the baptism of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
Just because the word “saved” was rendered in [English] simple past tense, we should not assume that the act of salvation was completed in totality in the past. Just the “concept” of the verb is to be considered. In the discussion on the perfect tense (see below), we will get to see precisely what aspect of God’s salvation was already perfected. For now, observe the words in red colour. After saying that God “saved us”, Paul limits himself to describe the actual process of spiritual new birth or regeneration. It happens through water baptism and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. Apart from receiving this spiritual new birth, the new believer was “justified” by God’s grace. It is these two things that happens – in a grammatical perfect sense – in the life of those who respond to the gospel and get baptised. And on such, God pours out His Spirit in abundance. Repentance, spiritual regeneration of the believer through water baptism by the Spirit, and Holy Spirit baptism—these formed an integral initiation experience for new converts in the early days of Christianity as recorded in Acts of the Apostles. When Paul says, “He saved us,” he was referring to these miraculous experience of initiation granted by God. But the final salvation was yet in the future. We see this more clearly in Ephesians 2:1-11, which we shall examine soon.
The Pauline statement that best illustrates the completion of justification (in aorist tense) and the still incomplete salvation (in future tense) is probably Romans 5:9.
“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him [Christ].” – Romans 5:9
Justification is described as something that has already happened in the life of a baptised believer. (There were no ‘dry cleaned’ believers back then!) Those who have thus been justified (and born-again) can safely declare, “We will be saved from God’s wrath.”
We should also note that not all Greek aorist verbs are translated using the English simple past tense. Some of those words have indeed been rendered using the future tense. Here are a couple of examples. During the first universal Church Council, the apostle Peter said,
“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved [Aorist Passive Infinitive], in the same manner as they [Gentiles].” – Acts 15:11 NKJV Cf. John 3:17.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [that] faith save [Aorist Active] him? – James 2:14 NKJV
The Perfect Tense
Perfect tense in Greek indicates a completed action, just as in the case of the perfect tense in English. There are just two instances of the Greek word σεσῳσμένοι (sesosmenoi, meaning “saved”) in the perfect tense in Pauline epistles. These are found in Ephesians 2:5 and 2:8. In all other cases, Paul uses the future tense or the present tense while using the word for salvation. This unusual departure from that established practice to use the perfect tense made a few scholars doubt the authenticity of Ephesians as a Pauline epistle.J. L. Houlden, Paul’s Letters from Prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970 cited by Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, ed. Bruce M. Metzger et. al., Word Biblical Commentary Vol 42, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990).
Also, Lindemann, A. Die Aufhebung der Zeit: Geschichtsverständnis und Eschatologie im Epheserbrief, (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1975). Lincoln disagrees with them. According to Lincoln, “the difference between Eph 2:5 and the undisputed Pauline letters should, then, be carefully noted, but not exaggerated …”Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, ed. Bruce M. Metzger et. al., Word Biblical Commentary Vol 42, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990). On the contrary, Evangelical Christians have been exaggerating the importance of these two verses because they keep taking these out of their literary context. To make matters worse, they wilfully downplayed the powerful witness of Scripture regarding the future tense of salvation in order to give false assurances of finality to believers.
I think that we can explain this unusual usage without questioning Pauline authorship if we interpret these two verses in context. Let us examine the immediate context of these verses.
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
4But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
This is a magnificent account of what God did to Ephesian readers of this epistle. It follows Paul’s worship and prayer in the preceding chapter. Paul describes how his readers were spiritually dead, controlled by evil forces, worldly influences, and by their own sinful lusts. Paul was reminding them of their state when he first ran into them in Ephesus during his missionary trip (Acts 19). He shared the gospel with them. They believed. Paul then baptised them. They got one with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. They received the Holy Spirit when Paul prayed for them. God made all the difference! God made them alive with Christ in the waters of baptism. That was spiritual regeneration or the experience of being born-again! Paul describes this experience in Romans 6 and in Titus 3:5. He calls it the baptism of new birth in agreement with Jesus’ teaching in John 3:5.
As we read this passage, we feel the breathless pace of Paul’s passionate description of this great miracle of spiritual regeneration. Paul pauses, as if to take a quick breath, and says, “by grace you have been saved.” Indeed, the reference is to a finished work—but he’s certainly not referring to the totality of salvation! He is referring just to the work that God had done in his readers, namely, the work of “making them alive” and “seating them in heavenly places with Christ.” In verses 8 and 9, Paul repeats his assertion that the miracle of new birth was accomplished in the Ephesians by the grace of God: by grace you have been saved. Continuing his description of spiritual regeneration in verse 10, Paul describes those believers as God’s workmanship. They were fresh off God’s production line the day they were baptised.
Therefore, the two statements that talk of “saved” in the perfect tense refer just to spiritual regeneration.
Apart from these verses in Ephesians, Christians refer to John 5:24 to assert that they are “saved” once and for all in an irreversible manner. That verse is Jesus’ declaration to Jews of His time,
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” – John 5:24 NJKV
This verse indeed says that a follower of Jesus Christ gets to experience eternal life in the here and now instead of having to wait until after death. Jews looked forward to receiving blessings such as the resurrection and eternal life. They saw these by faith in the distant future—at the consummation of the age when their Messiah would reign over them. But Jesus assured them that the blessings of the future were available to them in Him in the here and now.
Based on John 5:24 or John 11:25-26, will any of us dare to declare that a Christian will never die? Does not John 5:24 say that believers have “passed from death into life”? Does not John 11:26 say, “the one who lives and believes in me will never die”? Are we foolish enough to claim that there is now no distinction between the present and the eschatological realization of God’s promises?
In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Ridderbos sheds some light on how we should treat these declarations by Jesus:
… what follows in eschatological language is transferred from the future to the present … The distinction between present and future is not thereby canceled out …, but eternal life does begin qualitatively in the present. Death also gains a different content than what it usually has for humans: already in this life it is experienced as a passage to true eternal life and thus loses its all-threatening, ultimately critical character for the future. It is no longer ahead of a person but behind him or her.Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel According To John: A Theological Commentary, trans. John Vriend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). Emphasis added.
In John 5:24, Jesus described the experience of a born-again Christian who moved from the domain of darkness to the domain of light and life. Baptism offers us a definite point of transition. The moment one joins himself by faith to Christ’s death and His resurrection, in the waters of baptism, he passes from death into life. He experiences divine, eternal life. He does not fear death. Yet, he is likenend to a newborn babe who has to grow unto salvation (1 Peter 2:1-2). A Christian who experiences eternal life does not transcend time. Jesus did not cancel our temporal existence on earth. We continue to live as pilgrims in a body that is susceptible to ageing, sickness, and death. We look forward to the redemption of our body. Until that happens, salvation is not irreversible. We live rejoicing in our hope, paying heed to every warning given to the Church. On the basis of John 5:24, if Christians behave as if they have already reached heaven, it is only a matter of time before they realize that they are still on earth.
Other occurrences of the perfect tense of the Greek word for “saved” in the New Testament occur in the Gospels. All except one refer to healing. The exception refers to forgiveness of sins. Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who believed in Him.
48 Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” – Luke 7:48, 50
The word “saved” here refers to the state of being forgiven. Was she ‘saved’? Yes, in a limited sense. Why? Because she’s still on a journey. In a similar incident, in John 8, Jesus said to another woman,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord,” she answered.
“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Take note of this: Jesus did not tell the woman, “I have forgiven you. Your faith has saved you. Once saved, always saved. Your sins of the past, and the sins you might do in the present or in future have been taken care of. Go, live a worry-free life.” Her past sins had been forgiven by Jesus. If she sinned after that, she would have had to return to Jesus to seek forgiveness. One confession and one instance of forgiveness does not give anyone the label “saved and secure.” It is a start of a new journey that should be undertaken well. That leads us to our next topic: The Exodus.
God’s Perfect Illustration of Salvation
Good teachers use visual aids and illustrations in their lessons. God, being the Best Teacher ever, uses the best visual aids, mnemonics, and illustrations in the universe to teach us valuable lessons. God is sovereign and almighty. In order to teach us how His plan of salvation would unfold, he created an illustration using an entire nation as if the lives of those people were like play dough in His hands. It was not a short-term exercise. God’s grand illustration took several centuries! He went to such lengths so that the Church, God’s people, would be left with no excuse if she refused to learn her lessons.
The nation that God used to create a graphic illustration was none other than the Hebrews. God engineered a famine in Canaan and sent Abraham’s descendants to Egypt. Those Hebrews became a nation of slaves. They served Egyptian Pharaohs for four hundred and thirty years. God raised up a saviour – Moses – to lead them out in the most unusual of ways. They journeyed through a vast, barren desert for forty years before entering their “rest” or “Promised Land.” God was still not done with His illustration. Many centuries later, He declared through Psalmist David,See Hebrews 4:7 in Psalm 95 a new invitation to enter His “rest.” (Ps 95:7-11)
Apostle Paul, through the Holy Spirit, understood that this story of the redemption of a Hebrew slave nation was enacted on a vast canvas for the sake of the Church! Many things that happened in the life of that nation pointed to a spiritual reality. Their life was a shadow. The Church today lives in the reality to which those shadows pointed!
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. … Now these things happened to them as examples”
– 1 Cor 10:1-4, 11
I shall list out the events in the life of those Hebrews and the spiritual lessons they illustrate for us today. For the sake of precision and clarity, I stick to the Scriptures instead of inventing my own set of correspondences.
- The Passover Lamb represented Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Just as the observance of the first Passover brought about freedom from slavery, the death of Jesus set in motion the liberation of sinners from the domain of sin and the devil. Cf. John 1:29, 36; 1 Cor 5:7
- The Hebrews were commanded to rid their camp of leaven or yeast before slaughtering the Passover lamb. They observed the Feast of the Unleavened Bread for a week. The Church is commanded to be free from the leaven of sin because Christ our Passover lamb was sacrificed for us. The Feast of Unleavened Bread represents the holy life a Christian should lead till the end of his life. Cf. 1 Cor 5:7
- The crossing of the Red Sea represents water baptism. Israel was baptised into Moses. Christians get joined to Christ through baptism. Cf. Gal 3:27
- The manna that Israel ate in the desert represents the spiritual food that is available to God’s people today.
- The miraculous provision of water to Israel represents the “spiritual drink” that is available to the Church today. The rock that was struck by Moses to yield water represents Christ who was stricken for us.
Why did Paul list out these correspondences between the Exodus and Christian life? It was because he wanted to warn Corinthian Christians using Israel’s example. That nation was “redeemed by the blood of the lamb.” They were even “baptized.” In the language of Evangelicalism, that nation was “saved.” And yet, “God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the wilderness.” There were six hundred thousand men above the age of twenty years in that massive Exodus. Only two of them reached the “Promised Land.”
Therefore, St Paul warned the Corinthians:
Now these things became examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did.
Don’t become idolaters as some of them were; …
Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes.
Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall.
This is precisely what many of our Christian brethren do not wish to hear. They teach about salvation after ignoring the lessons borne out by the Exodus!
Let me ask you, Were the Israelites “saved” the moment Pharaoh released them on Passover night? Yes, in a limited sense. They were still in Pharaoh’s territory.
Were the Israelites “saved” after they crossed the Red Sea, having been “baptised” into Moses? Yes, much more than they were earlier. They were out of Pharaoh’s territory. Pharaoh and his armies lost all their claims on them. In fact, the captors were wiped out! But Israel was far from their “land of milk and honey.” They were in a scorching desert! Their salvation was still ahead in the future.
And finally, when they stepped on to the western shore of Jordan, after forty long years, could they say, “We are saved”? Yes, indeed.
All who set out from Pharaoh’s Egypt thought they had been “saved.” They behaved as if none of their misbehaviour or sins was going to affect their chances of entering the Promised Land. They were terribly mistaken!
Jude, in his short epistle, reminded his readers how God “saved” a people and then chose to destroy them. He was talking about this very Exodus that stands as a grim warning to the Church.
I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. – Jude v.5
The Greek word for “saved” (σώσας) used by Jude is in the aorist tense. It is impossible to render it accurately in English because we do not have an aorist tense. Even with that limitation in expression, the simple past (“saved”) makes sense because God had indeed set the whole nation free from captivity and had set them on course to the Promised Land. This rescue was an act of God’s grace. They were “saved” by grace! They had done nothing to deserve this liberty or a new destination. And yet, in order to remain in that grace, they had to continue in faith—faith in God’s promise about a “land flowing with milk and honey” even though all that they could see around them was a howling desert. They failed miserably. They behaved badly. They sinned against God and His servant Moses. Some of them even wanted to chart their own course. God made sure that each of them perished in that desert.
That history is recorded as a warning for us who claimed to be “saved”, “baptised”, and “filled in the Holy Spirit.” If we do not consider the future aspect of salvation; if we do not let the hope of salvation govern our life and our priorities; if we cease to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, we will perish in the desert of this life. That brings us to our next topic: our present “desert life” in which we are “being saved.”
We are ‘being saved’
God regenerates sinners and places them on a path to obtaining salvation. While they look forward to their final salvation, the New Testament refers to them as those who are ‘being saved.’ The present experience of ‘being saved’ is referred to in these verses.
And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved [Present Passive Participle] – Acts 2:47 NKJV
1 Cor 1:18 in the King James Version might make one think that Paul and his readers were “saved” in the absolute sense.
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved [Present Passive Participle] it is the power of God. 1 Cor 1:18 KJV
The Greek word (σῳζομένοις) translated as “are saved” is a participle (verbal adjective) in the present tense, in passive voice. It’s not the perfect tense we’re used to in modern English. It’s similar in tense to the Greek word translated “perish” in the same verse. Those who reject the gospel are perishing one by one as they die. They do not perish the moment they reject the gospel. The KJV renders the phrase accurately – as “them that perish” — not as “them that perished.” It’s an ongoing reality. The word “saved” appears to speak about something that is perfectly in the past. But the word “are” just before “saved” is a giveaway. It’s similar to the present continuous tense in English. We are being saved. Modern versions, including the New King James version translate the word as “being saved.”
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved [Present Passive Participle] it is the power of God. NKJV
A Life Of Hope: waiting to be “saved”…
Christian life is a life of faith and hope lived out in love. Hope of receiving salvation and a share in the glory of God is so vital to Christian life that Paul said, “we are saved by hope.” (Rom 8:24) A Christian who does not nurse a longing for salvation is going nowhere. Such a carnal Christian is too comfortable on earth and his life’s are longer dictated by eternal values. Paul lamented that such Christians were “enemies of the cross.” (Philippians 1:18-19)
The apostle John looked forward to sharing the glory of Christ. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”(1 John 3:2) It is this Christian hope that fuels a desire in us to be holy just as God is holy. “And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (1 Jn 3:3)
Paul rejoiced “in the hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2) At the same time, he had a healthy fear of God’s judgment. It was one of the factors that motivated him to share the gospel with the world. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ … Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men …” (2 Cor 5:10-11) The hope of receiving salvation, including heavenly rewards, spurred Paul on in his ministry.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. … I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14
A Christian’s hope, along with brotherly love, is what sets him apart from the rest of the world. Our friends and neighbours might get curious about our hope. We are commanded: “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15)
The Scriptures command Christians to do several things as they wait for their final salvation. A few of these are listed below.
- ‘Grow unto salvation’ by eschewing sin and feeding on God’s Word (1 Peter 2:1-2)
- ‘Work out your own salvation’ with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)
- Be eager to do ‘good works.’ Be an example of ‘good works.’ Devote yourself to ‘good works.’ God prepared the ‘good works’ for us beforehand (Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14; Eph 2:10)
- Be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:13; Jude v.20)
- As obedient children, be holy just as God is holy (1 Pet 1:14-16)
- Strive for spread of the gospel in unity. Do not be terrified by your adversaries; your boldness is a proof of their perdition and of your final salvation (Philippians 1:27-28)
- Do not draw back (backslide) to perdition; continue in faith (Heb 10:39)
- Hold fast the confidence [before God] and the rejoicing in the hope until the end (Heb 3:6,14; 10:35)
- Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12)
- building yourselves up; pray in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. (Jude v 20-21)
- Pull the lost out from their sinful life; hate their sin; keep yourself pure (Jude 22-23)
- Run the race of your life to win the prize – an imperishable crown. Run with self-control. Keep your body and its passions under control lest you be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27) And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Tim 2:5)
- Be sanctified. God has chosen you to be saved through sanctification. (2 Thess 2:13; 1 Thess 5:23)
I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. Perhaps, you could make a more comprehensive list to help you in your spiritual pilgrimage.
The Scriptures do not say that born-again Christians are “saved” in the fullest sense of the word. The consistent witness of the New Testament is that those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ “will be saved.” Salvation is presented as an eschatological reality. It is this hope that Christians embrace when they put their trust in Jesus. In just two verses in Ephesians do we find the Greek word for “saved” in the perfect tense. The context tells us that the word refers to experience of spiritual regeneration that the Ephesians had experienced. We must exercise caution while interpreting the Greek word for “saved” in the aorist tense because English does not have such a tense. In conclusion, the New Testament does not say that any Christian is perfectly “saved” so as to be incapable of being “lost” again. The apostolic advice to Christians must not be ignored: those who think they remain standing should beware lest they fall! Let us perfect holiness with godly fear and trembling, holding on to the hope of salvation until we cross “the Jordan” of death and enter the “Rest” God has kept in store for us.
About the author
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers; he also runs a small business. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Please obtain author’s permission before creating derivative works (translations).