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Conversion & Salvation

The last few weeks have been punctuated by several things that have gotten me thinking about salvation - what is it? when does it happen? can we lose it? how should we talk about it? [Caveat: This is kind of a thinking-out-loud post and not a well-reasoned argument.]

The first happened in a staff meeting a couple of weeks ago. We are working through 2 Timothy, and we came upon verses 2:11-13:

It is a trustworthy statement:
For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him / If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.

My senior pastor introduced what was, to me at least, a novel interpretation of verse 12. Basically, he suggested that there are 2 levels of people in heaven - those who endured and those who did not. The former reign in splendor with Christ, whereas the others are those outside weeping & gnashing their teeth, as Jesus frequently talked about, but are still in heaven. In support of this interpretation, the SP referenced 1 Corinthians 3:15:

If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Those whose work is destroyed apparently did not endure, and thus cannot reign but are still in heaven. Of course, Revelations 21:4 belies this approach - how can their be weeping & gnashing of teeth in heaven if God will "wipe away every tear and...there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain..."? (I did not bring this up in the meeting in an effort to wisely pick my battles - the man has an MDiv from Dallas Theological, ain't no way I'm changing his mind.) He, and a few other people on staff, believe in OSAS - once saved always saved. Once you've put your faith in Christ, you are set and nothing can change that status. I understand the appeal of that position; it does bring a lot of comfort & security to people who are inevitably going to make mistakes and be concerned about their eternal fate. But it is precisely verses like 2 Timothy 2:12 that make me doubt OSAS. Given the biblical language about being co-heirs of Christ, not reigning sounds an awful lot like not being saved at all. The latter part of verse 12 is also problematic; if we deny Him, He also will deny us. Given that these couplets are likely part of a hymn, or possibly a baptismal formula, we cannot take this denial to refer to mankind in general. Moreso when we consider that the other 3 couplets are obviously referring to believers. No, it seems possibly that by failing to endure or by denying Christ, we can forfeit our salvation. Bring Hebrews 6:4-8 and Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 9:27 (if the Apostle Paul fears the possibility of his own disqualification, shouldn't we?) into the mix and the possibility seems even clearer. (Our debate did touch on Hebrews 6, but I need not go into any depth - the OSAS contingent contended that those described were never saved to begin with, whereas I and others thought the language did not really permit that reading.)

This would only be something of an academic debate for me if not for the kid accepting Christ at the 30 Hour Famine. If salvation is not granular, that is, solely determined by a single event or moment in time, what am I supposed to make of this boy's move towards Christ? And, perhaps more importantly, what am I supposed to tell him? Would it be more appropriate to speak of his conversion rather than his "being saved"? What is the relationship between conversion & salvation? If salvation is not granular, and in fact has to be "worked out", then it must be a future event and not something we possess right now. We may possess the assurance of it, so long as we continue on this path, but we can't really own it in the present. Thus conversion is what we experience now and salvation comes later. I know this is what the early church believed, which is one reason why martyrdom was so willingly accepted - to deny Christ in order to escape death would be to forfeit heaven itself.

What are the practical effects & implications of these doctrines? Process-salvation would seem to put a high emphasis on moral excellence, but always runs the risk of straying into a works-based mentality about salvation. This is an obvious wrong, and as we saw with the Pharisees, inevitably leads to legalism and arrogance. Can we find a comfortable balance - truly realizing that is only God who saves, but that we have a part to play? If we can, how do we maintain it? To me, OSAS seems to allow for a high degree of moral laxity. If am saved no matter what I do or say, what is there really to prevent me from doing or saying anything I want? For someone who "got saved" in high school, there is little motivation to work for moral excellence for the rest of their life - there is a carrot but no stick. The standard line is to question whether or not such a person was ever saved to begin with, but had you asked that individual at that time in their life, they would have undoubtedly professed a real and heartfelt faith. How are we, and more importantly, how are they to know whether or not it is real? It seems just as dependent on future conduct as process-salvation. See this from one of John Piper's sermons:

But if, over the next ten or twenty years, John Piper begins to cool off spiritually and lose interest in spiritual things and become more fascinated with making money and writing Christless books; and I buy the lie that a new wife would be exhilarating and that the children can fend for themselves and that the church of Christ is a drag and that the incarnation is a myth and that there is one life to live so let us eat drink and be merry -- if that happens, then know that the truth is this: John Piper was mightily deceived in the first fifty years of his life. His faith was an alien vestige of his father's joy. His fidelity to his wife was a temporary passion and compliance with social pressure; his fatherhood the outworking of natural instincts. His preaching was driven by the love of words and crowds. His writing was a love affair with fame. And his praying was the deepest delusion of all -- an attempt to get God to supply the resources of his vanity.

And yet, were you to ask him right now if he was saved, he would say "yes" despite the fact that he may yet fall away and all his work & ministry have been nothing more than "vanity." So it seems even with OSAS there is a need to live a godly life in order to be sure of your salvation. Thus, they seem to really be the same doctrine except that OSAS might give people false hope to some degree. It seems to me that it would be better to be honest about the possibility of losing one's salvation rather than giving someone comfort with a side of false-hope. But deep down, I want OSAS to be true. I don't want to have to scare the pants off of a kid who is brand new to his faith, especially in light of this generation's almost complete unwillingness to struggle or experience discomfort. Will he simply throw up his hands and walk away because it sounds too hard? I know his response shouldn't determine the content of my teaching on this, but it is very hard to sacrifice someone to be right.

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