Unlike the early Church, today’s American concept of salvation is separated from transformation into Christ-likeness. It probably wouldn’t occur to most modern Christians that transformation is salvation.
Regarding transformation, there’s debate as to whether God automatically does that to you after you’re saved, or whether it’s something that only hard-core believers seek as a desirable, but non-essential dimension of Christian living. Either way, salvation is seen strictly as an afterlife issue; Christian living in ordinary life is seen as a separate issue.
In this view, the definition of salvation is forgiveness of sin so you get into heaven when you die. The only essential connection between salvation and ordinary life is that you must get on the heavenly reservation list before physical death.
Generally, you get on the list by 1.) admitting that you’ll never measure up to God’s flawlessness, and thus need a Savior; 2.) acknowledging that Jesus Christ is that Savior who saves you by simply forgiving sin; and 3.) asking him to “come into” your heart.
If you do that sincerely, you’re immediately placed on the list, and that’s that. You’re suddenly saved and right with God (justified). “I got saved” usually means the end of a sin or merit problem, not the beginning of a process.
Grace is seen as something that happens to you. You contribute nothing to the process but gratitude, and to suggest otherwise somehow steals God’s glory. Even your faith isn’t your own or anything you do, but something God just produces in you. “Transformation” then follows, if at all, as mere behavior modification (Bible study, praising God, etc.) and adherence to various statements of belief. This is considered Christian living, and it’s the extent of transformation for most.
Instead of generating a new kind of life in people, this model creates stone-like passivity that prevents discipleship and passage from “death” to life, the dominant issue in Scripture. American churches are thus full of converts to doctrines, but few disciples to Jesus.
John observed that life “is in the Son” (1Jhn. 5:11) and “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jhn. 1:4) Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life to the full.” (Jhn. 10:10) Conversely, without new birth, a human life remains “dead” in transgression and sin, as Paul put it (Eph. 2:1-6).
The biblical concept of regeneration is about new birth. It leads to a new way of living characterized by love, and it refers to the life you’re living now as you venture further and further into God’s kingdom at hand. Your life then carries forward beyond physical death as a natural outflow.
So the best definition of salvation I’ve heard is, simply, new life with God. The purpose is to regain your place as a ruler-servant under God—not as a raging tyrant or an incompetent nobody, but as an intelligent, trustworthy person like Christ, prepared to conduct everyday life (and beyond) with grace, virtue, and competence.
That requires spiritual re-formation so that the new person and life become more and more compatible with God’s Spirit. That’s transformation, a renewal process that involves both human participation and divine assistance—yoking.
You can recognize the regenerative spark as a new, gripping sense of confidence (faith) in Jesus as the Genius of all creation, life, and knowledge. Scripture phrases it as Christ holding all the “keys.” To merely say that this is true doesn’t constitute saving faith; you must know it as reality.
To know God and His Son is Jesus’ definition of eternal life. Knowledge, not merit, is the foundation of a saving relationship with God. But it’s not the kind of knowledge that merely knows about things. Biblically, to know something is to experience it through interaction. For example, Mary wondered how she could bear a child since she hadn’t known a man, though she certainly knew about men.
Discipleship and obedience to Jesus are central to a new, transforming life. At first, obedience is clumsy and full of errors—child-like. But practice combined with grace enables us to do more and more of what we couldn’t do before. “If you abide in my word, then you are truly my disciples, and you shall know [experience] the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Abiding in his word means to put it into action—living it.
“If you love me, you’ll obey my commands.” (Jhn. 14:15) Obedience is how truth becomes known, which frees you from sin’s control, which enables the regenerated life to take hold. Sinful habits then gradually lose their grip and no longer master you.
So the progression is: new vision of purpose, which sparks confidence in Jesus as the Master of life and truth. This becomes a strong desire to learn from him about life and goodness through discipleship, which entails obedience, practice, and gaining experience.
The result is transformed inner character (heart, will, spirit) like Christ that increasingly shows up in outer behavior and aligns with God’s Spirit. It permeates the whole person and the whole life, eternally. That’s salvation—a concept lacking in modern Christians who hold the “just a sinner saved by grace” and going-to-heaven view.
We’re told that faith, salvation, and transformation are from God, and they are. But if you’re waiting for it all to just happen, re-think. One popular, but disastrous analogy compares Christians to slabs of marble that God chisels into works of art while they sit passively (a very unbiblical idea of surrender).
If that were true, wouldn’t every Christian automatically be like Christ, able to love as he loves and live the way he lives with no effort? But that simply isn’t the case. Without discipleship, we end up with Christian living disconnected from salvation, and not substantially different from non-Christian living.
Scripture never ceases to encourage active engagement and participation with the supernatural in the art of living. Original Christians were doers of the word, not hearers only (Jas. 1:22). Paul teaches us to put off the old person and put on the new (Eph. 4:22-24, Col. 3:9-10).
Peter admonishes, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they’ll keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ [eternal life].” (2Pet. 1:5-8)
In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus gives the bulk of his instruction, he asks, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I say?” (Luk. 6:46) He also warns of hearing his words but not putting them into practice (Mat. 7:26, Luk. 6:49).
Continuing to “work out your salvation” (Phl. 2:12) means ongoing practice. God does His own work, but He also gives the gift of responsibility for ours. Perhaps God has more faith in His children than many have in Him!
Would you agree?