Of any promise that has ever been made, the greatest is the offer to live forever with every desire fulfilled. So goes the fairy tale…and they lived happily ever after. So also is God’s promise of salvation!
The sting of death reminds each and every one of us that life doesn’t extend endlessly, and it also ends in pain. That hurts. In order to survive, even temporarily, we invent all sorts of ways of trying to get around that truth. But there is no escape.
Salvation is about hope in what shouldn’t be possible. It is about a surviving chance at beating death and living without pain in blissful existence. It is not about evolutionary progression, as if with enough time and enough technology and smarts we could eventually get everything right.
The problem of our temporary condition is not simply about material decomposition. It is about rebellion against our Creator. Sin has permanently damaged our hope in anything better. And we have all sinned.
However, in spite of complete failure, we still have hope. That hope, that most desired promise of all, is found in Jesus Christ who entered our time and space as a child born through a virgin. As the tangible presence of God, he took on our humanity, accepted the wrath of God against our sin, completely paid that debt by dying on the Cross for all who accept him as their Lord and Savior, and then rose from the dead back to eternal life. His offer, the promise of salvation, is to gift that possibility of being raised from the dead to a never ending and completely satisfying life.
The Christian doctrine of salvation, offered to repentant believers in Jesus—those who believe in all that he represents, says and has done—is like a fairy tale come true. It couldn’t get any better than that; to live forever and to live well. No more war, no more abuse, no more pain or death, not even a tear drop. Totally happy and fulfilled.
This is the answer to every tragedy in the news. Salvation is the promise that overcomes every twisted political promise. This is what we all desperately need and want. The salvation of Jesus is the answer to everything. It even answers the groaning of creation, beyond human desire. There is nothing else that can compare to salvation. Come Lord Jesus, come!
So long as we stay clear of the details, everyone will agree that salvation is a prize worthy to be desired. It seems unthinkable that something so amazing can become so divisive. As history records, however, many Christians have lost their lives at the hands of other professing Christians over differences regarding this promise.
One of the major reasons for these differences is that Scripture says things about salvation that appear confusing. For example, there are passages that speak of salvation as past tense, like “you have been saved”, whereas there are other references that are spoken of in future tense, like “you will be saved”. So which is it? Time is not the only difficulty.
Understanding what causes salvation to be gifted to a person is another huge issue. In fact, there are endless potential challenges to rightly describing this amazing promise. This is not the place to highlight all the problems, but it might be worth shedding some light on an amazing pattern that could greatly help toward reconciling our hope of salvation.
Just as there is only one biblical meaning to salvation, so there is only one way of salvation: that offered through faith in Jesus. That way, however, appears within Scripture in a three-part pattern. Although there are specific words that the Bible often uses to reference these parts, writers also just used the verb “being saved”, in its various tenses and forms, leaving the context to show which stage was being referenced. The labels for these parts are less significant than understanding how and why the Bible speaks differently about salvation formation.
For the sake of clarity, we will use the biblical terms of justification, sanctification, and glorification to identify the unique parts of salvation evident in Scripture. Just as the word salvation has been defined over the years in ways not consistent with Scripture, so have each of these three. They will be given a short definition here, but their deeper meaning should be sought through studying all the evidence for them in God’s word. This pattern is found throughout the Christian Bible. It is everywhere. This is not some sideline observation or periodic reference.
In fact, this is not simply a revelation about salvation either. That great promise—salvation—puts the good news of the gospel into a word for which we hope, but this three-part pattern is how the entire gospel is presented in Scripture. The gospel of Jesus is first about what he has done on the Cross. That is justification. Thereafter, we are called to live, follow, and obey. That is sanctification. What makes it all good news, is that there is a fantastic end game to this whole, challenging experience we refer to as life. That is glorification.
The red, blue, and pink colors will be used to help show the Justification, Sanctification, Glorification pattern in a brief sampling of passages. These can be identified using similar terms as:
Foundation, Process, and Culmination
what Jesus has done, what We should do, and what will Result
Passover, Pentecost, Paradise
Past, Present, and Future
Sacrifice, Grace, and Promise
Divine Life, Developing Life, and Eternal Life
Cross, Church, and Celebration
Hell, Here, and Heaven
Faith, Love, and Hope
Jesus’ first coming, Spirit’s coming, and Jesus’ second coming
Justify, Sanctify, and Glorify
Justification is the legal foundation of being declared righteous by God as a result of accepting what Jesus did on the Cross.
Sanctification is the process of taking those set apart for God through justification and transforming them into the holy likeness of Jesus.
Glorification is when salvation is fully realized in those raised from the dead to eternal life in the Kingdom of God at the return of Jesus.
Salvation involves all three of these. There are other terms, like restoration and redemption, that rightly speak of additional aspects of salvation, but the above three provide a framework for understanding what salvation is and why it is spoken of in terms that often appear at odds. It is these terms that are spoken of differently, not salvation.
By way of clarification, these biblical terms are being presented here as category labels and not as words used in sentences. This distinction can help answer why scripture can interchange the words in some passages, like using justification to speak of something that fits under the category of sanctification. Biblical words can have multiple dictionary meanings–like often seen with the words law or sleep–but each passage reveals the intended meaning in how it is presented in the context. These labels, therefore, are identifying the contextual use, rather than the specific word choice.
In this way, when Paul writes “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ…”, he uses the word justification, but because the context clearly shows he is referencing something that believers are seeking and participating in, it fits under the category of Sanctification. When Scripture states, “You have been sanctified”, it uses the sanctification word, but because it is past tense, spoken as if it has already been completed, it actually fits under the category of Justification. This difference is simply a way of recognizing the original teachings as presented and not in any way as a change to what was taught.
These categories are presented here as a helpful way of recognizing the stages referenced within salvation, but they were not identified by Scripture writers as categories with these labels. The words were certainly used then, but their various meanings need to be found in the way each writer used them in the context of what they actually wrote. Meanings should be found in contextual use, rather than in generic dictionary lists. That is what is being shared here.
Those who get caught up in trying to force a singular meaning to biblical words, without considering the contextual differences of subject, focus, different time periods, different writers, etc, will end up promoting weird and unsustainable doctrines. In contrast, those who assume the words are completely interchangeable and no distinction needs to be made at all, will err in understanding (for example) the differences between salvation being a gift and in being judged by our deeds. The words can be somewhat interchanged in use because they overlap in meaning and all reference salvation.
So, for example, when a passage speaks of being saved as something already done in the past, it is referencing justification and not the other two parts. In the exact same way, whenever Scripture speaks of what our Lord did on the Cross, the paying of the penalty of sin, or of putting faith in what he has done for us, it is speaking of that part of salvation known as justification. Believers get saved here, simply by accepting Jesus in faith. This is what saves us, as a promise toward what is only completed at glorification. This should not be confused with sanctification.
Again, by way of explanation, when a section of Scripture is speaking of either the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in a person or of our own efforts at obedience, it is specifically addressing sanctification. The present tense activity of God through the Spirit always leads this process, but it also involves all New Covenant commands to believers. In other words, anything that speaks of current activity, either by God or by us, is always pointing at sanctification. The activity of the Church fits here. Transformation and growing into the likeness of Christ fits here. Obedience fits here. Good deeds fit here. Repentance, bearing our cross, showing mercy, and loving others all fit here under this part or stage of salvation. Rewards and treasures in heaven (additional for those saved) will be earned here, but this should not be confused with justification which establishes salvation purely as a gift.
Perhaps you can recognize why these three are in some ways like stages of salvation with justification as the foundation and start, sanctification as the growing part, and glorification as when it all finally comes together. Whenever the word of God speaks of our “hope of glory”, it is a future tense reference to this final, glorification part of salvation. All previous references to being saved are all about the promise, but when Christ returns, he will bring the complete reality of salvation. That is when the declared saved, who are being transformed, are finally saved and glorified.
Consider Peter’s reference to these three:
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow”, “for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls”. 1 Pet 1:10-11, 9
And look at Paul’s very clear summary of salvation into these three categories:
“He saved us…so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life”. Tit 3:5,7
When speaking to the Ephesian Christians, the writer reminds them that everyone starts off with a very big problem.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world”. Eph 2:1-2
It is in that very human context that salvation is offered to those who recognize their horrible position and are willing to devote their lives in faith to Jesus. This is justification.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. Eph 2:8
To those who have been granted this amazing gift of salvation, God expects that they learn how to live in line with the promise. This is sanctification.
“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received”, “because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does”. Eph 4:1; 6:8
The hope of salvation is for those who look forward to it, for, as the Word declares, “who hopes for what he already has?” Through faith in Jesus, then love for others, comes hope of salvation. This is biblical glorification.
“in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory”. Eph 1:12
This is how salvation works. Each are distinct parts of an undivided whole. Salvation cannot be rightly understood without recognizing the role that these three parts play in revealing the truth of what God has offered. What the gospel professes is what salvation offers. They speak of the same truth, which means that to know the Christian gospel is to carefully teach how the good news is revealed through justification, sanctification, and glorification. Everything about the New Covenant gospel and salvation pass through one of these.
Take a look at how the writers of Scripture address these three parts of salvation and the gospel—justification, sanctification, glorification—even within in the same passage.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us”. Rom 5:1-4
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness [Greek word here is sanctification], and the result is eternal life”. Rom 6:22
“That 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 it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved”. Rom 10:9-10
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. 1 Cor 15:2-3
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away…And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. 2 Cor 3:16-18
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints…I keep asking that God…may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe”. Eph 1:13-17
“But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel”. Col 1:22-23
“and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator”, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory“. Col 3:10, 3-4
“All this [your Christian growth and expression of love] is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God for which you are suffering.” 2 Thes 1:5
“from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”. 2 Thes 2:13-14
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good”. Tit 2:11-14
“he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. 2 Pet 1:9-11
“But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life…to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory”. Jud 1:20-24
The entire New Testament could be tri-colored this way, showing how widespread this three-part pattern exists. By reviewing every statement in Scripture according to whether it speaks of something related to justification or sanctification or glorification, we are far better able to grasp the biblical meaning intended. Ignoring or missing these distinctions will cause error and continue to push the abuses that have been so common between denominations in trying to understand and teach the truths of God’s word.
Within the Protestant realm, this missed pattern directly led to Luther claiming that the book of James shouldn’t really be in Scripture, because it speaks of things very differently than Paul’s teachings in the book of Romans. The differences do exist, but the reasons are because Paul was specifically teaching on how a person actually gets saved—that is justification. James doesn’t write anything about the sacrifice of Jesus, and so he is not addressing justification. His entire letter is focused on instructions to Christians that address sanctification and glorification, something Paul also writes extensively about. Both writers are in complete agreement in what they wrote.
Compare James’ reference that “faith without works is dead” with Paul’s teaching that “by this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word…otherwise, you have believed in vain”—they both require sanctification to validate justification. They say the exact same thing, because they both are speaking God’s truth by the leading of the Spirit.
When speaking of things related to justification, God’s word most often uses past tense words because all of the New Testament was written after the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus on this earth. Justification is entirely about what the Lord has done through the Cross. It involves the removing of sin, the demonstration of complete righteousness, the revealing of the Father, the defeating of Satan, the foundation of everything Christian. Putting faith in him is a matter of individual acceptance, a submissive receiving of God’s call, and not something we do or actively participate in. In this stage, Jesus is the Author of our faith.
The overlap into sanctification does extend our faith into repentance, learning, wanting to please him, obedience, and spiritual growth into his likeness and according to his will. This is the activity of the Holy Spirit in transforming sinners, who have been declared to be saints, into living and breathing saints with godly fruit that confirms who we are in Christ. In this interactive stage, Jesus is the Perfecter of our faith.
Many have rejected the passages of Scripture that speak of warnings to Christians, or of actual freedom to choose obediently or disobediently, or of the chance to “fall away”, because salvation is a gift and we have no part in being justified, which is a correct observation but incorrect conclusion. Scripture says what it says, because such options and freedom do exist under sanctification. The work of the Spirit is not about being possessed; He is our guide and our lead, but he does not force himself on anyone.
We can never earn salvation; that is something we can only accept through justification. We can, however, participate in obediently growing into the likeness of our Lord, as part of sanctification. Both stages reference salvation. The first establishes it. The second confirms it. The third unveils it.
Notice Peter’s wording in this regard:
“These [trials] have come so that your faith…may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed”. 1 Pet 1:7
Enduring through trials is part of sanctification which “proves” our gifted faith (justification) in Jesus to be genuine and so will result in glorification. The reason many passages warn believers against willful and continual sin is because, within sanctification, we can refuse the gift. We can’t earn it, any more than we could earn a birthright, but we can treat it like Esau and reject it. Notice Peter’s words again:
“If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them…a dog returns to its vomit”. 1 Pet 2:20-22
The amazing truth of the gospel of grace is that even when a believer slips into sin, the timeless and eternal blood of Jesus remains as a protective covering over those who eventually repent–who continue to walk in the light after coming to faith–keeping them clean and right before God (1 Jn 1:7). Notice the distinction here. That blood does not protect those who come to faith in Jesus, but end up walking in rebellion. It only applies and protects believers who, when confronted with their short-comings, eventually obey what God commands upon someone who recognizes their sin.
Repentance doesn’t earn God’s forgiveness, it simply shows that what God forgave through Christ actually applies to that person. This is why some passages speak of believers doing things in a worthy manner (a sanctification worthiness that shows who we belong to), rather than an absolute worthiness (which speaks of a heavenly righteousness that can only apply to Jesus as revealed through justification). Those who truly belong to God will live a sanctified life, striving to obey, repenting when slipping, loving sacrificially, hoping in the Lord’s righteousness. That is amazing grace!
The question comes up, why then does the Bible speak of being saved as something past tense, if it can’t be relied upon to always be a done deal as part of justification? Fair enough. Let’s first consider God’s direct answer to this issue:
“If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done”. Eze 33:13
When God gives a promise, it is very important to understand everything that is connected to that promise and not take it out of context and assume we have some kind of get-into-heaven-guarantee, what is often taught wrongly to believers, which God rejects as a “license for immorality”. The gospel clearly states that God will destroy those who refuse to “obey the gospel”, which is speaking of our choices under sanctification. Consider the parable of the soils which speak of believers in 3 out of the 4, but with only one group actually finding salvation.
Check out Paul’s teaching on this:
“Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him, if we disown him, he will also disown us, if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Tim 2:11-13
Jesus will never disown himself, but in contrast he states he can and will disown believers who died and lived with him, but who don’t endure faithfully. This is because believers who have been gifted the promise of salvation through justification, still have the freedom to choose whether or not they will obey the Spirit through sanctification. In this way, Christians are encouraged to hang on to their crown and not let it be taken from them by others, like occurred with Judas. It is for this reason that believers are also encouraged to maintain a humble and repentant spirit—a fear of the Lord—and not believe those false teachers who say we can never fail.
But what about the divine promise that Jesus will never lose those given to him by God? That is very true and certainly meant to be encouraging. We know that Jesus specifically revealed that truth as applying to 11 out of the 12 apostles and not to all his followers. Can you prove with Scripture any other names, particularly any Christians today, to whom that promise specifically is declared to apply? Whether anyone likes it or not, the answer is a resounding NO. Sadly, many false teachers use that promise as if they have the right to identify specific names, as if they have seen that heavenly list and it applies to everyone in their audience. We are allowed to speak of salvation applying to believers in more general terms, like to those who live in faith, or those who show the transforming work of God, but specific names should be left to God’s direct revelation and not our personal preferences, assumptions, or judging.
Paul did, at one point in his writings, reference a few specific names as being in the Book of Life, but we would do well to be careful on adding further meanings to this. Paul is offering encouragement to believers who appeared to be living in line with what it means to be sanctified, but he is not also saying they were guaranteed to never lose or fail. Remember, Jesus told his 12 disciples that they should rejoice that their names were written in that Book, but keep in mind that Judas was in that group still and the Lord made no exception at that time about his pending failure. In other words, believers ought to take encouragement from the promise of being written in the Book of Life, but not go beyond that belief to declaring an irreversible guarantee of being saved. The Lord himself, says many will think they will be saved, which means their names are believed to be in the Book of Life, but he shows they were deceived and their personal names do not remain there (Mt 7:21). As scripture indicates several times, names can be erased from that book.
Consider Paul’s reference to this question on who is known to be part of the first resurrection: “God knows those who are his”. 2 Tim 2:19
In other words, we don’t know with certainty who will be saved. God alone knows. Those who tell you that you personally are guaranteed salvation and can never fail, are not speaking God’s words carefully.
We know who saves us: Jesus. We know how one can accept the offer of salvation: faith in Jesus, as part of justification. We know he requires that believers accept the lead of the Holy Spirit and strive to obey him: which occurs as part of sanctification. We also know and joyously hope in the fulfillment of his salvation promise: at the return of Jesus when he raises his faithful to eternal life as part of glorification. We know that our Lord can and wants to do this. We also know that there are many wolves and weeds mixed in the Church and that not everyone who declares faith in him will enter the Kingdom. We know that when it comes time for the review of what each of us has done with our God-given talents (ie: sanctification), “as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away” Lu 19:26. We can speak of what we know; beyond that, we ought to restrain our claims that conflict with what God has specifically revealed. Our assurance is preserved in Christ, as we dwell in him.
Salvation is declared with the assurance, “you have been saved”, because it is founded on what Jesus already has done, not because the promise has been completed yet in glorification. We don’t earn salvation; we confirm it and grow up in it through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and our willing participation in applying what God instructs of us. This is why the Bible repeats our Lord’s sanctification command and promise seven times:
“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. Rev 2:7
“He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death”. Rev 2:11
“To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna”. Rev 2:17
“To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations”. Rev 2:26
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels”. Rev 3:5
“Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God”. Rev 3:11-12
“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne”. Rev 3:21
We do have a guarantee. We do have perfect assurance. We who have accepted Jesus have been justified. Therefore, let’s hang on to that incredible gift. Let’s show our heart’s desire is for him and to be like him. Let’s trust that his Spirit has all the power we need to stay on course and will direct us if we listen, follow and submit. Let’s keep our hope in him, in what he has promised, in his righteousness. Let’s keep our beliefs and assurances in him and do what he says.
“so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him”. Heb 9:28
To the faithful saints: you have been saved; you are being saved; you will be saved!