What does it mean to “be saved”? If the reality of our salvation has been brought by Christ Jesus, what should our evangel be?
The sovereignty of our Lord is a wonderful and freeing truth, but our present reality does not currently abide in the divine, celestial realm. We exist in our relative sphere of influence on earth, bound within fleshly vessels. This is a vital point to consider because I concede that the doctrine of free will is the result of lifting our relative position and experience to the absolute. It’s our relative agency being perceived as equal to divine sovereignty, hence the illusion of free will (the belief that ultimately God does not have any hand in our lives) and the insidious belief that we can, by our choosing, cause God to not achieve His own will (1 Timothy 2:4).
Human free will is not a truth, but a perception. If we can grasp the difference between our relative experience on earth and God’s absolute sovereignty and control over our lives, we’ll be well on our way to understanding who Christ really is.
The common objection is that divine sovereignty entails that we become nothing more than robots or puppets on a string. Paul not only affirms the objection, he takes it a step further. Paul would say that robots offer far too much independence from their creators. Instead, he says with an assured grin, we are nothing but clay. If you’ve ever seen how clay functions in the hands of its potter you’ll realize that it cannot even stand without them. Without a potter, clay is just an empty clump of molecules and atoms.
O man! who are you, to be sure, who are answering again to God? That which is molded will not protest to the molder, “Why do you make me thus?” Or has not the potter the right over the clay, out of the same kneading to make one vessel, indeed, for honor, yet one for dishonor? (Romans 9:20-21 CLNT)
And so we return to the difference between our relative perception on earth and absolute, divine sovereignty. Paul’s argument is that God can create and mold whomever He pleases, whether they should be vessels of honor (i.e. those in the body of Christ) or dishonor (i.e. The Pharaoh or even Satan himself). This cannot be dependent on our personal choice, as if it is we who must allow God to mold our lives, since no one can choose (that being to allow or give God permission to) to be a vessel of dishonor against Him. That would be an oxymoron.
And yet throughout the New Testament Paul often gives extortions to the body of Christ to live well and humbly, to not commit sins against God, and to love each other as Christ loves His bride.
There is divine will and agency and then there is our relative perception of the material world, and there is one place in Scripture where Paul paints this in such a profound way.
So that, my beloved, according as you always obey, not as in my presence only, but now much rather in my absence, with fear and trembling, be carrying your own salvation into effect, for it is God Who is operating in you to will as well as to work for the sake of His delight. (Philippians 2:12-13 CLNT)
Paul first extorts his brothers and sisters to carry out their salvation into effect (that is to produce the Fruit of the Spirit and righteousness) and then he immediately qualifies his extortion with divine sovereignty (“For it is God who is operating in you”). On one hand we have our relative experience and responsibility and on the other hand both of these are orchestrated by God who performs the work in us.
I’ve taken this long detour because it is vitally important to understand this point before we can understand what our evangel means. How we should herald salvation to unbelievers.
In Acts 16 we read the story of the Philippian jailer,
Now, requesting lights, he springs in, and, coming to be in a tremor, prostrates to Paul and Silas, and, preceding them out, averred, “Masters, what must I be doing that I may be saved?” Now they say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:29-31 CLNT)
At first glance, this seems to go against what Paul has said elsewhere. In Ephesians 2:8-9 and 2 Timothy 1:9 Paul declares that we have been saved “apart from works” and “not in accord with our acts.” Does Paul have the reality of salvation in mind when he instructs the jailer or the relative experience of salvation? Answer: The experience.
Jesus saved all of humanity 2000 years ago. It has been finished and your salvation, whether you believe yet it or not is still true. Christ’s work procured your salvation, not your own acts. And acts, in this context, includes faith and belief, for Paul notes in Galatians 2:16 that we are justified by “…the faith of Christ” and not our own. The faith that Christ imparts, His faith, is what causes us to realize the truth that He is our saviour.
The Philippian jailer is asking how he could be experiencing this salvation in his own life and this is made evident in the grammar of the Greek verb. The form of the Greek verb in Ephesians 2:9, for example, is complete. A verb is complete when it is prefixed by have, had, or has. It’s a completed action that leaves no uncertainty or questions. An incomplete verb form, on the other hand, is prefixed by am, is, and are (in the present tense) and is modified by the suffix -ing. For example, I could say “I am starving for a good meal.” It is not a complete action because it leaves questions unanswered. How long will I be starving? Was I starving yesterday? Will I be starving tomorrow?
Our verse in Acts uses an incomplete form of the verb. Paul isn’t talking about an absolute, completed truth-like in Ephesians 2:9-but the jailer’s personal experience of said truth. This is how it reads out in the literal Greek,
In effect, the jailer is asking, “What may I do to be being saved?” Or “What may I do to experience this salvation?” and Paul responds by affirming what he already knows to be true (“Just keep believing it and salvation will be now real for you!”) Nowhere in Paul’s latter, following Jesus’ resurrection, will you find the phrase “You must believe in Jesus to actually be saved” (the reason why I’m singling out Paul in particular will be made clear soon). Whenever the question of what a person must be doing comes up, the verb form is always incomplete. The focus is always on our relative experience of this absolute truth. And if it is absolutely true that humanity has been saved, then there can be no room for believing that there are those who aren’t saved or won’t eventually experience the salvation Christ won for all, because our relative experience is constantly ordained by the divine. This truth should rattle the bones of the church and enlighten them to how they’ve tragically misconstrued God.