Christian Basics Handbook
The Gift of Salvation
Be Reconciled to God
The Bible teaches that salvation is a gift God offers us, which we can either accept or reject. Though Jesus paid a high price for it, he offers it to us freely and without obligation to accept, since love and reconciliation can never be forced or bought.
What is salvation?
Salvation in the Bible means to be reconciled with God and declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:18–21), which happens when we are unashamed to publicly state that Jesus rose from the dead and we accept him as our Savior (Romans 10:9, Mark 8:38). It means that we will be with God and all the other saved people for eternity, in peace and happiness. What we are saved from is an eternity apart from God.
Is salvation really only by faith?
In John 6:29, Jesus said that what God wants from us is to trust and accept him. It’s like being born spiritually (John 3:5, 7), but birth is not the end of life, it’s the beginning. We do good deeds because we’re saved, not to become saved. In Romans 4 Paul explains that faith is not a work or deed, and nothing can be part gift and part earned wage. In Ephesians 2:8–9 he states that salvation is by the grace of God, who decided that we only need faith— because if we needed works or deeds, we would boast of saving ourselves.
Consider also that salvation is a change of relationship with God, where we go from being orphans and foreigners to being adopted into his family as children (Romans 8:15, 23, Galatians 4:5). This is what it means to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18–21), and it’s impossible to buy or force reconciliation. Once we’re reconciled, we don’t ignore or annoy the one with whom we have this close relationship; rather, we try to please and spend time with them, from the motive of love. With salvation by faith, we should also show gratitude for what God did for us, paying the price we could not pay for our redemption from evil (Ephesians 4:30, Titus 2:14, Hebrews 9:12).
Put simply, salvation is not a license to sin or “fire insurance”, but accepting God’s offer of adoption and being guaranteed an eternity of happiness with our Creator.
Does God choose who will be saved?
Volumes have been written, and debates have raged for generations, on the question of free will in salvation. We are not going to settle it here, but rather focus on the overarching theme of scripture, which is the love and mercy of God toward a world that rebelled against him and became enslaved and trapped.
There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that God chose which people would be saved, but only that God determined the way we could be saved and knew in advance who would accept his offer of reconciliation. As we just learned in the previous section, love and reconciliation can never be forced, even by God, because only genuine love from us would be worthy of our Creator. And if we had no choice in the matter, then God would be blamed for sin, since we would be robots or puppets God operates. God’s power and sovereignty are not at all threatened by the free will of people.
Every place in scripture that could be taken as God imposing his will on people has to do with particular purposes or missions, not the choice between accepting or rejecting God as our Savior and Lord. Consider 2 Peter 3:9, which states that God does not want anyone to remain apart from him, but rather that all people should change their minds (repent). And in Romans 8:29, Paul teaches that what God arranged in advance is not who would come to salvation, but that those who come to salvation would become like Jesus. John 1:12 clearly states that whoever would put their trust in Jesus would be granted the privilege of becoming children of God, and John 3:16 says that whoever trusts him will have eternal life. Nothing in those passages hints at “winning the lottery” and being picked.
The larger question, though, is this: Does it even matter? Regardless of the mechanics of salvation, it cannot be denied that scripture urges us to make this choice about God. Rather than bicker needlessly over how God reaches out to us, let us unite on the Good News about Jesus.
Can salvation be lost?
Similar volumes have been written, and debates raged, on the question of security of salvation, also called “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved”. But as with the issue of whether God chooses who will be saved, what matters most is the relationship. If it is so weak and fragile that we constantly worry about being disowned and rejected by God, then we must question whether we understood salvation at all. Even as imperfect human beings, we wouldn’t think of disowning our children every time they misbehave. What kind of relationship would that be? After all, scripture tells us that love does away with fear (1 John 4:18), and that our inheritance is kept safe in heaven for us by the power of God (1 Peter 1:4–5).
1 John 5:13 “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
What about salvation before or after the age of grace?
As with the free will issue, places in scripture that could be taken as our need to strive, work, and endure for salvation are either not about the salvation of our souls or are about times before or after the age of grace. Salvation in the New Testament is unique, a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and something never revealed by anyone before Paul (Romans 16:24–26, Ephesians 3:2–9, Colossians 1:26). Never before did God give the Holy Spirit to all believers personally and permanently, and this seems to also be the case in the end times judgments. So the time of secure salvation by faith alone began and will end with the “church age”.
There will be righteous people in heaven from before and after this age, and these too are called “saints” or “elect”. So though everyone in the church is a saint, not every saint is in the church. Making this distinction can help to avoid much confusion in Bible interpretation, especially concerning prophecy of the end times.
Can non-Christians ever go to heaven?
We are commanded to “evangelize”, which means to spread the Good News about Jesus to everyone (Matthew 28:18–20), but if anyone refuses to hear it, we must not try to force it on them (Matthew 7:6, Mark 6:10–11). After all, not even God will do that, and even God will eventually give up on those who refuse to accept him (Romans 1:18–19, 26). But the message itself is quite narrow and specific: in John 14:6 Jesus said that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” So can anyone get to heaven some other way? Clearly not.
Some believe that Jesus is indeed the only way to be saved, but that this does not necessarily mean everyone has to know this but only be good and believe in a God. That is, they believe that Jesus’ sacrifice saved everyone whether or not they knew about it or believed it. Yet the scriptures could not be clearer about the need for personal faith: see John 1:12, 3:16, 36, Acts 2:38, 3:19, and 1 Corinthians 6:9 for example. Surely God has mercy on any who had no chance or ability to accept the Good News, since salvation is only denied for those who knowingly reject God (Mark 16:16, John 3:18).
Yet if salvation is only denied for rejecting Jesus, wouldn’t it be better not to tell them? Remember that Jesus commanded us to tell the world about him; it is not for us to question whether this is a good idea. And what kind of person would adopt a child and never tell the child? How can the child choose freely to accept or reject an offer they never knew was made? Further, what would we do with passages such as Acts 3:17, 17:30-31 which speak of sins committed in ignorance? God may have granted leniency in times past, but things changed when Jesus rose from the dead.
Perhaps the most important point is this: Leave it to God to decide who gets into heaven. Our concern is to obey the clear command to tell everyone about the Jesus who rose from the dead so that we can be adopted by God simply by trusting this Jesus. We are not charged with judging those outside of our faith (1 Corinthians 5:12–13). Just do what scripture tells us to do, because we love God and people (Romans 13:10). If we believe there is any possibilty that people might not go to heaven, it should be our motivation to make sure they hear about Jesus and can enjoy the same hope as we have.