Does Salvation Have a “Moment”?

As I grew up, the preachers I heard and read referred to “the MOMENT of salvation.” They viewed the inauguration of salvation as an instantaneous event. Much like birth: you can write down the date and time on a birth certificate. It is like crossing a threshold, either you’re in or out. There’s not much gray area.

Maybe that’s why Amazing Grace was so popular: I once was lost, but now I’m found/was blind, but now I see. There’s a BEFORE/AFTER sense to salvation.

Maybe that’s also why Christians can ask, “Are you saved?” There’s a dividing line, a delineating moment. A crisis experience.

I believe that salvation has a moment. That moment is distinguished by faith, or as John Newton put it, “how precious did that grace appear/the hour I first believed.”

This is not to say…

  • that all Christians remember that moment. I don’t. I have only vague memories of it because I was so young.
  • that the moment itself isn’t long in coming. For some, the move to faith is sudden and decisive, like flipping on a light switch. For others, it is gradual, like the coming of dawn. In either case, the light has come. But salvation doesn’t occur until that moment we claim by faith, and trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
  • that there’s no linear aspect after salvation’s inauguration. Our emerging church friends rightly point out that an emphasis on the moment of salvation so often means a de-emphasis on the rest of the Christian life. We must be concerned with both. BUT… initial salvation RESCUES A SOUL FROM CONDEMNATION, so that’s why I believe in the priority of evangelism (getting people saved).

Let’s look at a Scripture or two:

  • “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,” Col 2:6. Notice the two phases in this verse. “As you have received…” There’s the MOMENT of salvation, expressed beautifully in an aorist indicative verb (for you James). A past tense verb, which in this case what’s called a “punctiliar aktionsart”, a “point of time” quality. There’s a point in time when you received Jesus. After that, the verb, “walk” is in the present indicative, referring to the ongoing lifestyle of our post-salvation Christian experience.
  • “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:” Joh 1:12. Again, the moment of salvation is captured in the aorist (timeless) verb, “received.” It is proper to ask whether or not a person has received Jesus. In this case, John explains what he means by receiving Jesus: Believing on his name. Faith alone in the person and work of Christ. You receive him by believing in him, trusting in him, and relying upon him. When the word believe is coupled with the preposition “in” or “on” you have one of the strongest expressions for trust.
  • ““I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Ga 2:20. When was Paul crucified with Christ? At the moment of his salvation. Here, the verb is in the perfect, passive, indicative. The perfect tense indicates an action that was completed in the past, once for all, with abiding results. After that, he can say, “Christ lives in me, and the life which i now live…”
  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,” Eph 2:8. I much prefer the old KJV translation here; modern English has gone away from the conventions on translating perfect tense verbs. The old KJV reads, “for by grace are ye saved.” The main verb, “saved” is put in an English past tense, and the helping verb, “are” is put in the present. Why? To differentiate a perfect (completed) action from past action. English doesn’t do this very well. “Saved” is in the perfect tense… an action completed in the past, with abiding results into the present. “Are saved” expresses both perfectly, don’t you think? We could translate… “for by grace you were saved in the past with the result that you are saved now and will always be saved…”

Salvation is more than inviting people to be active in the church. It is more than welcoming lost people into community with Christians. It is not something we grow into, though we grow toward it. Still, at the end of the process, there must come a crisis. There must come a full dawn. That moment of we first believed. That moment we crossed the line, whether we remember it or not.

That’s why, in one sense. all Christians have the same testimony, like the father said of his prodigal son: “‘It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”” Lu 15:32.

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12 thoughts on “Does Salvation Have a “Moment”?

  1. We certainly agree that there is a “moment of decision” that must occur in every human life.

    We end up using different language to describe it, however…

    I do believe that the language we use has important consequences in peoples lives.

    I prefer the language of discipleship (not the least because it is the language that I see Jesus using) because the emphasis is on sustained and regular ‘moments of decision.’ Certainly this implies a first decision before others can take place; and I would never want to take away the sweet moment of conversion, but what people are converting to is precisely a life of trusting Jesus.

    I like the conceptual framework of ‘centered-set’ thinking as opposed to that of ‘bounded-set.’ (I think I commented on this dichotomy before…)

    It seems to me that Jesus was not so interested in in-grouping and out-grouping, nor in drawing lines in the sand for people to cross, but rather inviting them to follow Him. (Moving toward a central point as opposed to crossing over an external boundary.)

    This ends up having a big distinction between the way you and I discuss salvation; an invitation to a life as opposed to a single transaction, a process instead of an event; and (at least in my own experience) a serious distinction in terms of an experience of God’s salvation and grace. I was ‘saved’ but my life revolved around my addictions and perversions.

    Of course there is still a place for urging ‘conversion’ in a centered-set framework; instead of getting people to ‘cross the boundary line’ we are urging people to begin orienting their lives towards Jesus. “Come, follow me.”

    I believe that this places the proper emphasis on the conversion experience, without inflating it to the whole of salvation. What do you think? Are we invited to be Jesus’ disciples? Or something else?

  2. Bill…

    This is a great question, and, to facilitate the topic for edification, I would like to ask respectfully whether or not you may consider re-wording your question to, “Does the calling of God have a moment?”

    The question you posed is relevant — no question — however, when a person accepts Christ as their savior, we have to infer that THAT person received the calling of God. That is why they get baptized — i.e., to declare their testimony to the world of their salvation experience.

    Our response is great joy. Jesus tells us that there is great rejoicing among the angels at these moments (when an individual accepts Christ as their savior). We are grateful to our Lord to be his instruments in sharing the gospel with the dying world!

    In the past, Christian theologians have wondered… could someone “accept” Jesus, and then have a second experience (WHATEVER THAT IS) that would, in effect, be the calling of God unto salvation? It just seemed that sometimes “something happens” after the so-called event of accepting Jesus as savior… i.e., a second crisis occurred. Crisis here is defined as something significant (usually personal, subjective experience) affecting the person’s walk with the Lord.

    Here is an example. Sam Smuckatelly has been a Lutheran since he can remember when he was born. He was baptized, and was studying the Bible in youth group throughout high school. Then when he was attending church one morning during his college years, SHAZAM!, he understands and then comes to know the Lord by faith in a way that he never experienced in his life. (We are not talking about tongues or charismatic stuff here.) In other words, Sam Smuckatelly was under the distinct impression that he was “saved,” and he still believes that he was always saved — however, he can testify to anyone today that (up until his college years) he did not know the Lord in the sense of knowing the Lord. His crisis experience in college was the “turning point.”

    By the way — the Book of Hebrews is addressed to the Sam Smuckatellys of the world — i.e., if you call yourself saved, then it follows that you are someone who is called. Or, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:19 — ‘Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His”…’ The problem for us is that nobody knows who the Sam Smuckatellys of the world are, and NO ONE has a right to question anyone’s salvation, because a Prodigal Son and a Sam Smuckatelly sometimes are indistinguishable. That is why the Book of Hebrews is so difficult to interpret – we confuse the Prodigal Son (backsliding Christian) for the Sam Smuckatelly (unsaved “so-called Christian”). The Book of Hebrews is talking to both! with particular emphasis on the latter.

    I am not trying to paint something here that will be black-and-white to you. What I am saying is, let us not lose focus to preach the gospel to the lost no matter what — our mandate is to share the grace of God wherever and whenever we can. Our analysis of theology should never impede our dsire to reach out to ANYONE with the grace of God.

    So the conundrum here is that there are so-called “Christians” today who are getting saved (an easy example to illustrate would be a Lutheran pastor, an Anglican priest, or Baptist youth leader). That confuses us, because we thought (and even THEY thought) that they always knew the Lord!

    Thus (and this blog entry is starting to get too long) there appears in places of Scripture, that God’s sovereignty is the deciding factor on whom to call unto salvation. (As to whom God calls, that is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.) Our job is to preach the gospel to the farthest places of the world seeking the lost, the broken, the needing, the hurting. The motto of Dallas Theological Seminary is “PREACH THE WORD” (2 Tim 4:2).

    So this is the rub. We plant the seed, we water, but it is God that “giveth the increase” as Paul said (1 Cor 3:6). This topic should not disturb us, but make us sensitive to the Spirit of God and his voice in the preaching of the word (such we “hear” the voice of God in “calling”). By the way, the whole doctrine of “calling” is an important part of understanding that our salvation cannot be lost.

    Sorry for the length of this blog entry.

    Grace,
    Joe

  3. Steve:

    I think the terminology might be different, but the concepts are still the same. Col. 2:6, for example, bears the idea of discipleship without using that term. Likewise, Gal. 2:20 does the same thing. Whatever terms we proffer in conversation will depend on what we are talking about at the outset. Are we focusing on what comes after we received Christ? Then it would be best to talk about discipleship. But if we are talking about the time we receive Christ, then I think we would want to talk about salvation just as Bill has done.

    Joe:

    Your proposed question is a separate blog entry. The focus here was on the moment that salvation takes an effect. However, it’s a good question. I would like to say, in response to your Lutheran analogy, that they do not typically believe, so I am told from a Lutheran, in a moment of salvation as described above in Bill’s post. They get baptized as babies and not after they have a conversion experience. Their idea, as I am sure you are aware, is that baptism invokes God’s saving work on the child as though they are saying, “We are entrusting this child to you, God; raise it up in the way that it should go.” Their idea is different from our understanding, so I would be careful to draw up analogies between their salvation theology and baptism practice with our theology and practice.

    Bill:

    Good exegetical insights.

    ~James

  4. James,

    The Lutheran analogy was that some Lutherans (like some Anglicans, like some Baptists, like some Catholics, like some Methodists, like some Evangelicals, etc., etc., etc.) find their “salvation experience” sometime later in their so-called “Christian” life.

    My point really did not have anything to do with denominational theologies, and I hope I did not confuse anyone by using denominations to highlight examples.

    Grace.
    Joe

  5. Joe:

    I see your point. It’s a good one too. But in the situation of those Lutherans who do have a later “conversion experience” should be understood against the backdrop of Lutheran theology, since it is out of that context that they have their conversion. This backdrop is different than ours, so we should be careful to understand their experience in light of their theological foundation and not our own. This point is what I was trying to get at in my previous comment. And I don’t think you confused anyone.

    ~James

  6. These are all great comments–really thoughtful and thought provoking. I would love to sit down at Starbucks with all of us together. That would be fantastic!

    Steve–I’m totally with you except for a couple of things: when we invite people to discipleship, they hear “salvation by works” or “salvation by my commitment to God.” In other words, they have no framework from which to envision a salvation by grace through faith. Even the best disciples in Scripture were screw-ups, yet very few seekers get that. Instead, the burden of discipleship and following Jesus seem insurmountable to them, and feel like paying a high price for what Scripture calls a free gift. So, my question so you would be how you invite people to “follow Jesus” but still keep the burden of our followership on the shoulders of Christ?

    My second question would be this: is there a point at which a person who is not doing very well as a disciple would actually own salvation? You should know that it was I who brought Frost & Hirsch, and their centered-set analogy, to Simpson University first. So I know and appreciate the analogy. Yet, at the same time, there’s a great benefit to the bounded set analogy as well. Are you erasing that line? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. I want both analogies to hold. A bounded set analogy only would be what we’ve criticized as “fire insurance.” But a centered set analogy only would be legalism: you’d never be certain that you were “close enough to the center” to have confidence of salvation. At what point can a person be assured of the forgiveness of sin, the guarantee of heaven, and the rebirth?

    My third question is how does a gospel centered on discipleship highlight the centrality and effectiveness of the Cross? Where is the cross in the centered-set analogy? More practically, Steve, how do you weave the benefits of Calvary, and the substitutionary death of Christ into your message of salvation? I would like to hear what that sound likes, and I think it would go a long way toward helping us understand each other.

    Joe–the calling, even for a Calvinist, would precede salvation. It is the mechanism that leads a person to the moment of faith. I think that under your example of the Lutheran Christian who suddenly meets God, there are two possibilities. 1) The person was not saved to begin with, and became saved, an actual Christian for the first time; or, 2) The person was saved at some point, couldn’t put is finger on it, but later received his ASSURANCE. He was already saved, but now, for the first time, actually felt saved and knew it. This is assurance, and often follows salvation. It happened for me that way. Though I was genuinely saved as a child, I an a second experience–my assurance–as a teenager. Great comments, Joe. I think your proposal that Hebrews is about a guy like Sam is excellent and something I’ll consider next time I teach the book (it has been about 15 years…).

    James–You’re brilliant.

    Bill

  7. Oh my, I think God must have burdened your heart to write this blog as it has been on my heart for the past several days/week.
    I have been in several discussions where the topic has been how salvation is a process that is only fully realized once we stand before God and are finally “saved” from His eternal judgment. Until then we are to persevere in our faith and “if only” we persevere in our faith will we be able to stand.

    This blog has helped tremendously. I understand people feeling unworthy to claim salvation by simple faith, but perhaps the real humility is to accept that God really is THAT GOOD.

  8. I picture “salvation” as being bought-I do mean bought- (through the cross of Jesus) from death unto life. That is definitely a moment, to be sure! One moment, you’re dead, the next, you’re alive. Praise God! Since I don’t believe we become “dead” again and need to be “alive” again, it pinpoints a precise time, to me.

    That moment of true belief, faith, trust HAPPENS – and I agree one just might not remember the exact moment, especially if done as a young child. (I’ve always had a terrible time describing my “spiritual birthday”)

    Dr. G, we must have grown up in the same church!!! (a couple of decades apart, I’m sad to say!) Except I’ve never lived in Chicago.

    I also think of “discipleship” as the “just grow up” period in a Christian’s life.

    Great, meaningful blogs! Thanks!

  9. I would disagree that people hear “salvation by works.”

    For starters, it doesn’t seem to be a problem Jesus had when he made discipleship a pre-requisite for salvation (if you dispute that He did this, then that would be an obvious starting point for our conversation, but I take it as a given that He did indeed do so…)

    Secondly, I think we (Westerners) have the opposite problem; we hear “grace” and think it means “passivity.” Our problem is not that we think salvation comes to those who earn it, but that we think salvation comes to those who are actively working against it (or perhaps simply indifferent to it), merely because they have mumbled a few religious phrases in an emotional state. To this I would reply with Jesus words concluding the sermon on the mount. (Matthew 7:21)

    When you ask about a ‘framework from which to envision a salvation by grace through faith,’ I wonder what that framework is for you? For me that framework is, precisely, discipleship unto Jesus. I don’t understand any other way you could receive grace, except to receive it; and that is what I mean by discipleship. My simple definition of discipleship is ‘a willingness to receive from Jesus everything that He is offering us.’

    Which brings us to your question: “how you invite people to ‘follow Jesus’ but still keep the burden of our followership on the shoulders of Christ?”

    I tell people all the time, “God simply wants us to respond to what He is doing.” “Just say, ‘Yes,’ to God, and He will take care of everything else.” I am constantly inviting people to allow God access to their heart. I do my best to explain that discipleship unto Jesus is about our earnest decision to trust Jesus, not about anything else. Discipleship is about a commitment to receiving from Jesus, not about making things happen, ‘becoming righteous,’ or doing religious deeds. It is about trusting Jesus to act in our lives (ie, having the faith to allow His grace to save us!). I never really point people to actions, but to faith. I just recently had a conversation with a young, single, pregnant woman, who has shared repeatedly about her faith and love for Jesus. My question for her was, “Do you trust Jesus? Do you trust that what He says is true wisdom for blessed living?” I didn’t tell her that Jesus wants her to be righteous, but that Jesus wants her to trust Him! Thats discipleship!
    As to your next question, I don’t think I am ever in a position to judge when someone is trusting God and when they are not. But the simple answer is, it isn’t about the fruit that is produced, but about the tree. Is it alive? Healthy? If we are giving God access to our heart, He will produce the fruit in the fullness of time. Often times discipleship is viewed in terms of ‘Christian education’ which is more like tying apples onto a dead tree; instead, I want to invite people to let Jesus fill them with life; the fruit comes on it’s own. (But it sure doesn’t come those who refuse it, no matter how much they speak Christian…)

    As to the centered versus bounded: It seems to me that a centered set approach, by definition, could never be prone to legalism. In a centered-set approach you would never ask whether you were ‘close enough’ to the center; that is a bounded set approach (ie you must be so close to the center, as demarcated by certain boundaries; avoiding certain sins, participating in certain religious activities, etc.). Centered-set thinking would ask questions like, “Are you moving towards Jesus, or away from Him?” “Are you learning how to trust Jesus in more areas of your life?” Bounded-set is interested in crossing boundaries, centered-set in orienting towards the center; this frees us from any shell of legalism that misses the real heart issues. The only real ‘yes or no’ question in a centered-set approach would be, “Have you made Jesus the center point, or not?” This would be the moment of ‘conversion’ where the individual stopped running away (or even tangentially), orienting around a different centerpoint; and is now in the ‘orbit’ of Jesus. And it is this point (when we first begin to trust Jesus in any capacity) that is the moment when God begins to work His salvation into our lives. (As for the ‘guarantee of heaven,’ you gotta read Surprised by Hope.)

    My third question is how does a gospel centered on discipleship highlight the centrality and effectiveness of the Cross? Where is the cross in the centered-set analogy? More practically, Steve, how do you weave the benefits of Calvary, and the substitutionary death of Christ into your message of salvation? I would like to hear what that sound likes, and I think it would go a long way toward helping us understand each other.

    On your third question: Again, I have a hard time seeing how one could highlight the centrality and effectiveness of the Cross without the pre-requisite of discipleship!

    You ask, “where is the cross in the centered-set analogy?” If Jesus is the centerpoint then it gets the exact emphasis that Jesus places on it! His explicit statements about discipleship and the cross, as well as His symbolic and powerful actions (not least the Crucifixion itself!) are impossible to ignore if He is the center, but quite easily pushed aside if we approach salvation from a bounded-set approach.

    Discipleship is simply a willingness to receive what Jesus is offering! What is He offering? The defeat of evil in the world, and the restoration of all things! What is the means of that defeat, and what is the foretaste of that restoration? The Crucifixion and Resurrection! So discipleship is allowing Jesus’ defeat of evil, and restoration of creation become a reality in our lives!

    Love the chat!

  10. I would disagree that people hear “salvation by works.”

    For starters, it doesn’t seem to be a problem Jesus had when he made discipleship a pre-requisite for salvation (if you dispute that He did this, then that would be an obvious starting point for our conversation, but I take it as a given that He did indeed do so…)

    Secondly, I think we (Westerners) have the opposite problem; we hear “grace” and think it means “passivity.” Our problem is not that we think salvation comes to those who earn it, but that we think salvation comes to those who are actively working against it (or perhaps simply indifferent to it), merely because they have mumbled a few religious phrases in an emotional state. To this I would reply with Jesus words concluding the sermon on the mount. (Matthew 7:21)

    When you ask about a ‘framework from which to envision a salvation by grace through faith,’ I wonder what that framework is for you? For me that framework is, precisely, discipleship unto Jesus. I don’t understand any other way you could receive grace, except to receive it; and that is what I mean by discipleship. My simple definition of discipleship is ‘a willingness to receive from Jesus everything that He is offering us.’

    Which brings us to your question: “how you invite people to ‘follow Jesus’ but still keep the burden of our followership on the shoulders of Christ?”

    I tell people all the time, “God simply wants us to respond to what He is doing.” “Just say, ‘Yes,’ to God, and He will take care of everything else.” I am constantly inviting people to allow God access to their heart. I do my best to explain that discipleship unto Jesus is about our earnest decision to trust Jesus, not about anything else. Discipleship is about a commitment to receiving from Jesus, not about making things happen, ‘becoming righteous,’ or doing religious deeds. It is about trusting Jesus to act in our lives (ie, having the faith to allow His grace to save us!). I never really point people to actions, but to faith. I just recently had a conversation with a young, single, pregnant woman, who has shared repeatedly about her faith and love for Jesus. My question for her was, “Do you trust Jesus? Do you trust that what He says is true wisdom for blessed living?” I didn’t tell her that Jesus wants her to be righteous, but that Jesus wants her to trust Him! Thats discipleship!
    As to your next question, I don’t think I am ever in a position to judge when someone is trusting God and when they are not. But the simple answer is, it isn’t about the fruit that is produced, but about the tree. Is it alive? Healthy? If we are giving God access to our heart, He will produce the fruit in the fullness of time. Often times discipleship is viewed in terms of ‘Christian education’ which is more like tying apples onto a dead tree; instead, I want to invite people to let Jesus fill them with life; the fruit comes on it’s own. (But it sure doesn’t come those who refuse it, no matter how much they speak Christian…)

    As to the centered versus bounded: It seems to me that a centered set approach, by definition, could never be prone to legalism. In a centered-set approach you would never ask whether you were ‘close enough’ to the center; that is a bounded set approach (ie you must be so close to the center, as demarcated by certain boundaries; avoiding certain sins, participating in certain religious activities, etc.). Centered-set thinking would ask questions like, “Are you moving towards Jesus, or away from Him?” “Are you learning how to trust Jesus in more areas of your life?” Bounded-set is interested in crossing boundaries, centered-set in orienting towards the center; this frees us from any shell of legalism that misses the real heart issues. The only real ‘yes or no’ question in a centered-set approach would be, “Have you made Jesus the center point, or not?” This would be the moment of ‘conversion’ where the individual stopped running away (or even tangentially), orienting around a different centerpoint; and is now in the ‘orbit’ of Jesus. And it is this point (when we first begin to trust Jesus in any capacity) that is the moment when God begins to work His salvation into our lives. (As for the ‘guarantee of heaven,’ you gotta read Surprised by Hope.)

    On your third question: Again, I have a hard time seeing how one could highlight the centrality and effectiveness of the Cross without the pre-requisite of discipleship!

    You ask, “where is the cross in the centered-set analogy?” If Jesus is the centerpoint then it gets the exact emphasis that Jesus places on it! His explicit statements about discipleship and the cross, as well as His symbolic and powerful actions (not least the Crucifixion itself!) are impossible to ignore if He is the center, but quite easily pushed aside if we approach salvation from a bounded-set approach.

    Discipleship is simply a willingness to receive what Jesus is offering! What is He offering? The defeat of evil in the world, and the restoration of all things! What is the means of that defeat, and what is the foretaste of that restoration? The Crucifixion and Resurrection! So discipleship is allowing Jesus’ defeat of evil, and restoration of creation become a reality in our lives!

    Love the chat!

  11. Steve: Great job in describing your beliefs! I think I’m finally coming to an understanding of what you’ve been trying to say all these months! Thanks for taking the time to put it more clearly in words!

    It has been interesting to read just how Christians can describe their Christianity! Amazing, really….and confusing. You guys have really put the light on what salvation, discipleship, sanctification mean to you. Thanks, again.

    I truly don’t think any of the responses above has doubted the faith, belief, and trust needed to become “born again.” Possibly, there’s more doubt/confusion in the faith, belief, and trust needed to rest in “Christ in me, the hope of glory!” Christ can save us, no problem. Can He live through us? Is that the rub?…..

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