Salvation Past, Present, and Future
by James Akin
I.”Have You Been Saved?”
This is a question Protestants often pose when they are doing evangelism, but it is a question which takes many people by surprise, including many Catholics. Some people are surprised because they never think about salvation, but Catholics tend to be surprised by it for a different reason. Catholics tend to focus on salvation as a future event, something that has yet to happen. As a result, the Protestant question, “Have you been saved?” can sound presumptuous. But the question sounds very natural to Protestant ears because Evangelicals tend to conceive of salvation as a past event, something that happens to the believer at the very beginning of his life as a Christian.
Both of these conceptions of salvation
“even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (all Scripture quotations NKJV)
Since this passage speaks of salvation in the past tense, something that has been done to us, it is conceiving of salvation as a past reality.
But this is only one aspect of salvation. There is an ongoing aspect to salvation as well, as is indicated in 1st Peter 1:8-9, which states,
” . . . Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving . . . the salvation of your souls.”
The same idea of salvation as something that is taking place presently is found in the writings of the St. Paul as well, for example, in Philippians 2:12 he states,
“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”
Salvation in the Bible is therefore also a pr
“And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.” (Romans 13:11)
“If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Corinthians 3:15)
” . . . deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1Corinthians 5:5)
These verses all speak of salvation in the future tense, as something that will happen to us in the future. Therefore, salvation has past, present, and future aspects or dimensions.
If we were to offer a general definition of salvation, including its past, present, and future dimensions, we would say something like, “Salvation is a process which begins when a person first becomes a Christian, which continues through the rest of his life, and which concludes on the Last Day.” This definition allows the faithful Christian to do justice to all of the Biblical data by saying, “I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved.” It embraces all three of the aspects of salvation which are present in the biblical literature.
II.Other Aspects of Salvation
In addition to salvation as a whole, Scripture also speaks of individual aspects of salvation called redemption, forgiveness, sanctification, and justification. These share the same past, present, and future dimensions that salvation as a whole does.
First of all, redemption is sometimes spoken of as a present possession of believers, which means that they were redeemed sometime in the past:
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7)
“He has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)
These verses indicate redemption was given to the Christian at the beginning of his life with God, when he first entered Christ (“in” him and “in” whom we have redemption). But there is yet a future redemption awaiting us, for we also read in Scripture:
“Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” (Luke 21:28)
“And not only they, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for . . . the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23)
[The Holy Spirit] “is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:14)
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30)
Therefore, redemption, like salvation in general, is something that occurs at different points in the Christian’s life. There are no references in Scripture to redemption as a present process, but given the past and future dimensions of redemption, one may wish to infer that there is a sense in which we are “being redeemed” at the present time.
There are numerous places in Scripture which speak of our forgiveness as something which has already occurred to us. For example:
“In Him we have . . . the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7)
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
” . . . in whom we have . . . the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14)
” . . . bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” (Colossians 3:13)
These passages show that forgiveness is something that has happened to us in the past, but there are also passages which speak of forgiveness as something which we must continue to appropriate. For example,
“And forgive us our debts [present tense], As we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
“And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:15)
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9)
Therefore forgiveness, like the other aspects of salvation, is something which is both a past event and a present process. And we know that this process will not ultimately reach its fulfillment until we finally find mercy from the Lord on the Last Day, when our sins will be firmly, finally, and forever declared forgiven. This is mentioned by Paul when he says concerning Onesiphorus,
“The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day . . . ” (2Timothy 1:18)
As a result, there is a sense in which forgiveness (God’s mercy in this passage) is something that has yet to be realised. Therefore, forgiveness is therefore something which has past, present, and future dimensions.
Evangelicals often place a great deal of emphasis on sanctification as a present process which Christians undergo. However, many in the Wesleyan tradition (Methodistism, Holiness churches, the Church of the Nazarene, and some Pentecostal churches) tend to emphasize sanctification as a single event which occurs in the life of the beliver. Both groups are correct in this. Sanctification is both a process and an event in our lives.
First, let us look at verses which indicate sanctification as a past event in the Christian’s life:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Corinthians 6:11)
“By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
“Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29)
These verses indicate the occurrence of sanctification as a past event in the life of the believer. But it is not only a past event, but also a present, ongoing process, as the following verses indicate:
“Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God . . . For this is . . . your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality . . . ” (1Thessalonians 4:1, 3)
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Thessalonians 5:23)
“For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Hebrews 2:11)
“For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)
(In addition to these passages, see 12:2, 13:14, 2Corinthians 4:16, and Ephesians 4:21-25.)
There is therefore abundant reason to say that sanctification is an ongoing process as well as a past event in the life of the believer. But what about sanctification as a future event in the life of the believer? It is harder to come up with verses for this kind of sanctification, but that such sanctification exists may be easily deduced.
We know from various places in Scripture that we continue to stumble and sin all the way through the rest of this life, but we also know that we will not sin after we have been made perfect either at the Last Day or at our deaths, whichever comes first. Therefore, when that event occurs, we will be made holy in the sense that we no longer sin at all, and since sanctification is being made holy, when this even occurs we will be sanctified. Therefore, there is a future event of sanctification in the life of the believer as well as a past and a present sanctification.
In future sections, we will examine the nature of justification and how it relates to redemption, forgiveness, and sanctification, but here we should note that it, like the other aspects of salvation, has past, present, and future dimensions.
1. Justification in the Bible
First, here are some verses showing justification as a past event:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” (Romans 5:1-2)
“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Romans 5:9)
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (1Corinthians 6:11)
Justification is therefore clearly a past event in the life of the believer. Unfortunately, most Protestants have camped out on verses which imply this and have concluded that justification is a once-for-all event, rather than also being an ongoing and not yet completed process.
But however attractive the single, once-for-all view of justification may be to some, there are serious exegetical considerations weighing against it. This may be seen by looking at how the New Testament handles the story of Abraham.
One of the classic Old Testament texts on justification is Genesis 15:6. This verse, which figures prominently in Paul’s discussion of justification in Romans and Galatians, states that when God gave the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5, cf. Rom. 4:18-22) Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). This passage clearly teaches us that Abraham was justified at the time he believed the promise concerning the number of his descendants.
Now, if justification is a once-for-all event, rather than a process, then that means that Abraham could not receive justification either before or after Genesis 15:6. However, Scripture indicates that he did both.
First, the book of Hebrews tells us that
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)
Every Protestant will passionately agree that the subject of Hebrews 11 is saving faith
But when did he have this faith? The passage tells us: Abraham had it “when he was called to go out to the place he would afterward receive.” The problem for the once-for-all view of justification is that is that the call of Abraham to leave Haran is recorded in Genesis 12:1-4 three chapters before he is justified in 15:6. We therefore know that Abraham was justified well before (in fact, years before) he was justified in Gen. 15:6.
But if Abraham had saving faith back in Genesis 12, then he was justified back in Genesis 12. Yet Paul clearly tells us that he was also justified in Genesis 15. So justification must be more than just a once-for-all event.
But just as Abraham received justification before Genesis 15:6, he also received it afterwards, for the book of James tells us,
“Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:21-23)
James thus tells us “[w]as not our ancestor Abraham justified . . . when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” In this instance, the faith which he had displayed in the initial promise of descendants was fulfilled in his actions (see also Heb. 11:17-19), thus bringing to fruition the statement of Genesis 15:6 that he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Abraham therefore received justification The problem for the once-for-all view is that the offering of Isaac is recorded in Gen. 22:1-18 seven chapters after Gen. 15:6. Therefore, just as Abraham was justified before 15:6 when he left Haran for the promised land, so he was also justified again when he offered Isaac after 15:6.
Therefore, we see that Abraham was justified on at least three different occasions: he was justified in Genesis 12, when he first left Haran and went to the promised land; he was justified in Genesis 15, when he believed the promise concerning his descendants; and he was justified in Genesis 22, when he offered his first promised descendant on the altar.
As a result, justification must be seen, not as a once-for-all event, but as a process which continues throughout the believer’s life. In fact, it is even a process which extends beyond the believer’s life. This is shown by passages in Scripture where Paul indicates that there is a sense in which our justification is still future:
” . . . for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified;” (Romans 2:13)
“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)
Commenting on the second of these passages, the famous Protestant exegete, James D.G. Dunn points out that Paul’s statement alludes to Psalm 142:2 and then remarks,
“The metaphor in the psalm is of a servant being called to account before his master, but in the context here [in Romans] the imagery of final judgement is to the fore . . . Against the view that Paul sees ‘justification’ simply as an act which marks the beginning of a believer’s life, as a believer, here is a further example [in addition to 2:13] of the verb used for a final verdict, not excluding the idea of the final verdict at the end of life . . . “
But even apart from such verses, we could deduce a future justification on theological grounds alone. Protestants place much emphasis on the declarative aspect of justification (i.e., God declaring one righteous) and they have places special emphasis on the legal/courtroom contexts in which this declaration may occur. However, the ultimate and final courtroom declaration concerning the believer does not occur until he stands before God (at his death and at the end of the world). So we may infer that the ultimate and final pronouncement of the believer as righteous does not lie in this life. We certainly are declared righteous by God in this life, but the final, consummating declaration of our righteousness will not occur until our Final Judgement, and therefore our final justification will not occur until this time. As a result, there remains a future justification for all believers.
Now that we have seen that the Bible indicates justification is a process, let us look at what Protestants and Catholics have to say about justification as a process.
2. Justification in Protestant Teaching
As we said, Protestants generally conceive of justification purely as a state rather than also as a process. However, there are a number of recent Protestant scholars, such as James D.G. Dunn, E. Sanders, and Dale Moody, who recognize the fact that it is a process. What most Protestants do not know, even those who keep up with what contemporary Bible scholars are saying, is that some of the early Reformers also conceived of justification as a process in addition to being a state.
For example, the Swiss Reformer Martin Bucer regarded man as receiving a two-fold justification. First he received the iustificatio impii (justification of the impious), or primary justification, in which he was declared righteous before God, and then he received the iustificatio pii (justification of the pious), or secondary justification, in which he was actually made to behave righteously.
But what most Protestants don’t know is that the very first Protestant of them all
“Luther uses the terms ‘to justify’ . . . and ‘justification’ . . . in more than one sense. From the beginning [of Luther’s writings], justification most often means the judgement of God with which he declares man to be righteous . . . . In other places, however, the word stands for the entire event though which a man is essentially made righteous (a usage which Luther also finds in Paul, Romans 5), that is, for both the imputation of righteousness to man as well as man’s actually becoming righteous. Justification in this sense remains incomplete on earth and is first completed on the Last Day. Complete righteousness is in this sense is an eschatological reality. This twofold use of the word cannot be correlated with Luther’s early and later theology; he uses ‘justification’ in both senses at the same time, sometimes shortly after each other in the same text.”
Luther himself wrote,
“For we understand that a man who is justified is not already righteous, but moving toward righteousness.”
“Our justification is not yet complete . . . . It is still under construction. It shall, however, be completed in the resurrection of the dead.”
We therefore see that, even though most Protestants deny that justification is a process as well as a state, many contemporary Protestant scholars, as some of the early Protestant Reformers, as well as the first Protestant of them all, recognized the justification was also a process.