The Tenses of Salvation and the Meaning of Faith
Presented at the Fall 2000 IWU Religion Division Colloquium
by John Drury
Someone once asked me, “When were you saved?” “Now that is a complicated question to ask a religion major,” I replied. I wish I could have simply said July 6th, 1989, when I prayed the believer’s prayer for the first time. But does that imply I was not saved two minutes before I said that prayer? There must be more to the timing of salvation than just one day, for we were saved a long time ago, are being saved today, and still await final salvation at the end of time. This person’s question revealed to me the importance of reflecting on the timing of salvation. Come along with me to explore the different tenses of salvation and their implications for the multiple meanings of faith.
What is meant by “the tenses of salvation”? The tense of something refers to when it happens: either in the past, the present, or the future. God’s saving work in our lives operates within all three of these tenses. We are saved on the basis of Christ’s death, which certainly took place in the past. The moment of our conversion also takes place in the past. But salvation continues to be alive in us today. And furthermore, salvation will not be complete until we are saved from destruction at the end of time.[i] All these different tenses are what make the simple question, “When were you saved?” so complex.
However, we do not have to remain confused. Something can be learned about the meaning of our faith by discussing the tenses of salvation. We will analyze the subtleties of each tense in turn in order to discover what they each imply about faith. In order to do this, we will look at the three tenses as the have been emphasized by three different theological traditions. From their emphases we will be able to see the significance of each tense of salvation and the impact it had on their understanding of faith.
Tenses, Traditions, and their Impact on Faith
It would seem logical to begin with an examination of the past tense of salvation. Simply, this tense points out that salvation is an act of God performed on Calvary nearly two-thousand years ago. The debt for sin was paid in full by Christ. Therefore, salvation is entirely provided for in the past. Ephesians 1:4 (NIV) reads, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” By His foreknowledge God knew who was to be saved and so salvation occurs even before time began.
The Protestant Reformers emphasized this tense of salvation over the others. Martin Luther and John Calvin preached that God alone does the whole work of salvation. This means that nothing of our own works in this present day saves us. As Calvin puts it, even “faith itself does not possess the power of justifying, but only in so far as it receives Christ.”[ii]
What, then, is the role of faith if salvation is entirely an act of God? With one’s eyes on the past tense of salvation, faith seems of little importance. If God does the saving, why must we believe? The reformed tradition answers this question by pointing out that we are saved by grace though faith.[iii] Faith is the medium through which we receive God’s grace. Faith does not save us; God does. Yet it is by faith that we can realize what God has already done for us. This emphasis on the past tense of salvation is not reserved for Reformed churches alone. Arminians too believe that God loved us before we loved Him. The difference is that humans are thought to have the ability to reject the offer. So whatever the tradition, the key is that God has saved us in the past and faith is the realization of that salvation.
The past, however, is not the only time when salvation is active. There is also a present tense of salvation. It is in the present when salvation is actualized in our lives. We are being saved in this very moment. Although we know that we have already been redeemed by Christ in the past, every day we realize the power of salvation more and more. Many can speak of being saved at a young age, but not really understanding the true meaning of salvation until much later. I know that this is true for me. So salvation cannot be simply a past event; it always remains a present reality.
In the last century, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and a host of other theologians emphasized this present tense of salvation. They focus on the way God interacts with humans in this very moment of existence.[iv] They would contend that God’s saving grace is felt strongest at this very moment, not in the mere memory of what he has done. God is working now.
For these theologians faith takes center stage. Faith is more than just a realization of what God has done. And faith is certainly not just the acceptance of a set of beliefs.[v] Faith is a dynamic state of existence. Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.”[vi] In other words, a faithful person is one who fully invests his or herself into God.[vii]
The emphasis on the present tense of salvation and its implications for a dynamic faith is most significant in its treatment of doubt. Whereas the Reformed tradition tends to make certainty a prerequisite for faith,[viii] a dynamic faith can face doubt in an honest way.[ix] We all have doubts. But we can still invest ourselves totally in God despite them. Karl Barth put it this way: “Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito.”[x] Although God is hidden and we are often confused, we nevertheless commit to trust him. This honest approach to doubt is the radical significance of a present tense salvation and a dynamic understanding of faith.[xi]
The first two tenses of salvation are very accessible concepts. The past tense of salvation is probably one we are all used to hearing about. The present tense may seem like a new idea, but it easily connects to our daily experience. However, the future tense may come across very strange. This tense of salvation is seldom discussed or emphasized. It seems to shatter our confidence and assurance to think of salvation as still to come or contingent on what we do. However, the future tense of salvation is as central to the gospel as any other. One simple question exhibits this well: “From what are we being saved?” We may answer that we are being saved from the bondage of sin or from our alienation from God. Although these are correct answers, they are insufficient. For above all we are being saved from the punishment of sin at the end of time. For all of us salvation will mean protection from damnation when God comes to judge the world.
This may seem a bit daunting and unsettling. But it does not have to be. The future tense of salvation implies that God is moving us all toward a future goal. We do not have to fear the future, because God is with us. We have confidence not only in the saving work of the past but also in what God will do in our lives from this day forward. The early church fathers emphasized this tense of salvation.[xii] Take for instance this quote from St. Basil: “Learn from this, beloved, that the one who begins well isn’t perfect. It is the one who ends well whom God approves of.”[xiii] This focus on ending well incorporates the holy life into God’s salvation of the believer. Salvation includes God’s perfection of His people, purifying them for the final day of judgment. John Wesley, who respected the Greek fathers, also caught on to this idea by speaking of perfection as part of God’s saving grace.[xiv]
What does the future tense of salvation imply for the meaning of faith? It shows that faith is a means by which we can take part in God’s purifying work. Salvation does not end at the moment of belief, but rather continues on until the end of time. God wants to perfect us, both here on this earth and when we get to heaven. And it is by faith that we allow Him to change us and make us holy. Faith is the means to live a holy life.
Three Tenses, One Faith
Having understood these three tenses of salvation and their implication for the meaning of faith, we may now ask what impact this has on our understanding of justification by faith alone, which is the topic of this colloquium.[xv] The multiple meanings of faith ought to outlaw any simplistic discussions of the matter. For instance, justification by faith alone does not simply mean that God does not require good works from us. It actually means the exact opposite: if we have faith, we will do good works. This is illustrated by a passage full of the complexities of the timing salvation and faith:
“... in order that in the coming ages [future] he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus [past]. For it is by grace you have been saved [past], through faith [present] -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works [future] , which God prepared in advance for us to do [past].” (Ephesians 2:7-10 NIV)
Since all three tenses of salvation are clearly present in the scriptures, should they not also be present in our theology? And more importantly, should not their implications for the meaning of faith touch each of our hearts? All three kinds of faith must be present in our lives. We must have the faith to accept the God’s grace which he has shown us before we were even born. We must have a dynamic faith by which we admit our doubts yet remain sold out to God. We must have a perfecting faith, through which God changes our hearts and makes us holy.
If we have a holistic faith that encompasses all of these meanings, then we can confidently answer, “Yes, we are justified by faith alone.” Otherwise, we are selling ourselves short. Furthermore, we are selling God short. Though all He asks of us is our faith, we have seen in this short while that that means He is asking for a lot. Let us be willing to have faith in every sense of the word.
[iv] This emphasis on momentary existence led Barth, Tillich and many others to be referred to as “Christian Existentialists.” See James Forsyth, “The Meaning of Salvation in Christian Existentialism,” Religion in Life 49:3 (1980) 307-321.
[xi] Tillich addresses the problem of faith and reason in Dynamics of Faith 74-98. For an excellent summary of the discussion of faith and reason in 20th Century theology, see A. D. Galloway, “They Set Us New Paths VII; Systematic Theology: Faith and Reason -- An Uneasy Partnership,” Expository Times 100:7 (1989) 244-248.
[xii] Alister McGrath accuses the early Greek fathers of minimizing justification by faith in their emphasis on free will and the goodness in humanity. See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 19. However, it may be better to regard them as having seen justification as part of a larger idea of God’s redemption and perfection of creation.
[xiv] Take for instance Wesley’s famous line that salvation is the “whole work of God from beginning to end.” The implication of a statement like this is that Wesleyan theology is able to accommodate all of the above tenses of salvation.
[xv] It has been noted that although salvation may be a process, justification signifies a very specific historical moment. However, justification language in the New Testament takes on all three tenses as well (cf. Gal. 5:5). Furthermore, speaking of tenses is only illustrative of the principle of a “wholistic” view of salvation, and in now way a rigid way of speaking about God’s acts of grace. Time is relative to God, and so every act of His takes on a certain relative quality with respects to time. Take for instance Eph. 2:6, which claims we have been raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms despite the fact that we are certainly still here on earth. With respect to God, time is not a rigid thing.