Editor's note:

The inter­state high­way I reg­u­lar­ly dri­ve has a large bill­board with the ques­tion, If you were to die tonight, which would it be: Hell or Heav­en?” The bill­board uses some sig­nif­i­cant graph­ics and con­tains a toll free num­ber to call. I’m sure the spon­sors of this bill­board mean well. How­ev­er, they neglect a very large part of the mes­sage Jesus pro­claimed when he announced the good news, Repent for the king­dom of God is near” (Matt 4:17). Per­haps a bet­ter ques­tion for the bill­board might be, Are you enjoy­ing the ful­ly sat­is­fied life?” Jesus came announc­ing the good news, that the king­dom of God is avail­able now. It’s for both this life and the next. In this arti­cle, Richard Fos­ter makes it clear that the mes­sage of sal­va­tion is about all of life — real life. As Richard describes it, it is a life of unhur­ried peace and pow­er,” of God’s over­rid­ing gov­er­nance for good,” and of abid­ing uncon­di­tion­al warm regard we feel for all peo­ple.” He writes, The goal of sal­va­tion is not to get us into heav­en. Prop­er­ly under­stood, heav­en is not a goal at all, but a des­ti­na­tion… Heav­en is only a glo­ri­ous byprod­uct of some­thing far more cen­tral.” Yes, sal­va­tion is a life, a full, sat­is­fy­ing life.

—Marvin Norlien

Jesus and the ear­ly Apos­tles preached a sal­va­tion rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the kinds of sal­va­tion being preached today. They spoke of a life in the king­dom of God encom­pass­ing all of human exis­tence, both here and hereafter.

This under­stand­ing of sal­va­tion stands in stark con­trast to the two views of sal­va­tion that reign supreme today. The first is a the­ol­o­gy from the right, which thinks in terms of sal­va­tion pri­mar­i­ly in terms of heav­en after we die. The sec­ond is a the­ol­o­gy from the left, which under­stands sal­va­tion pri­mar­i­ly in terms of social and eco­nom­ic lib­er­a­tion on earth. These frag­men­tary half-gospels miss the heart of the sal­va­tion that is in Jesus Christ, which is a rad­i­cal­ly new life — a dai­ly life we received from God. 

A New Order of Life 

The sal­va­tion that is in Jesus Christ is a new order of life. St. Paul writes, There is there­fore now no con­dem­na­tion for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spir­it of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:1 – 2, empha­sis added). Paul is here using a very spe­cif­ic word to iden­ti­fy our life which is hid­den with Christ in God” (Col 3:3): zoœeœ, the eter­nal, uncre­at­ed life that orig­i­nates in God alone. 

Scrip­ture iden­ti­fies two types of life: bios, the phys­i­cal cre­at­ed, mor­tal life: and zoœeœ, the spir­i­tu­al uncre­at­ed, eter­nal life.… No won­der Dal­las Willard com­ments, the sim­ple and whol­ly ade­quate word for sal­va­tion in the New Tes­ta­ment is life.’”

This helps explain why the dom­i­nant mes­sage in Acts focus­es on Jesus’ res­ur­rec­tion rather than on his death. While the cross was nev­er far from the think­ing of the preach­ers of Acts, the accent was always cen­tered on the res­ur­rec­tion and the life that comes from him. 

The Dar­ing Goal 

… But first we need to under­stand clear­ly the dar­ing goal of the sal­va­tion that is in Jesus Christ. And I must begin by stat­ing flat­ly what the goal is not: The goal of sal­va­tion is not to get us into heav­en. Prop­er­ly under­stood, heav­en is not a goal at all, but a des­ti­na­tion.… Heav­en is only a glo­ri­ous byprod­uct of some­thing far more cen­tral. Sal­va­tion is a life, and when we have this zoœeœ, phys­i­cal death becomes mere­ly a minor tran­si­tion from this life to a greater life. Since, in Christ we become unceas­ing spir­i­tu­al beings with an eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great uni­verse, we can look for­ward to greater expres­sion of this life in heav­en, but our focus should be upon the new order of life we now have in Jesus Christ. The real issue is not so much us get­ting into heav­en as it is get­ting heav­en into us. 

… The dar­ing goal of the Chris­t­ian life is an ever-deep­er re-for­ma­tion of our inner per­son­al­i­ty so that it reflects more and more the glo­ry and good­ness of God.… You see, this life, this zoœeœ that comes from God and is the sal­va­tion that is in Jesus Christ, is a char­ac­ter-trans­form­ing life. 

Puri­ty of Heart 

This fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion of the self begins with the work of God upon the heart — and for good rea­son, for the heart is the well­spring of human action. 

… When we are deal­ing with this heart-work,” exter­nal actions — this set of eth­i­cal prac­tices or that set of obser­vances — are nev­er the cen­ter of atten­tion. Spe­cif­ic actions are a con­se­quence, a nat­ur­al result of some­thing far deep­er, far more pro­found. The scholas­tic max­im, actio sequitur esse, reminds us that action is always in accor­dance with the essence of the per­son who acts. 

… We are — each and every one of us — a tan­gled mass of motives; hope and fear, faith and doubt, sim­plic­i­ty and duplic­i­ty, hon­esty and fal­si­ty, open­ness and guile. God knows our hearts bet­ter than we can ever know our own. God is the only one who can sep­a­rate the true from the false; he alone can puri­fy the motives of the heart. But God does not come unin­vit­ed. If the cham­bers of our heart have nev­er expe­ri­enced God’s heal­ing touch, per­haps it is because we have not wel­comed divine scrutiny. 

The most impor­tant, the most real, the most last­ing work is accom­plished in the depths of our hearts. 

Progress in Life Formation 

Now, I want to express a word of encour­age­ment to you at this point. We can have real­is­tic hope for gen­uine progress in char­ac­ter trans­for­ma­tion. This needs to be said today, for many peo­ple have sim­ply giv­en up on any move­ment for­ward in the spir­i­tu­al life. Some­times despair is the prod­uct of the­olo­gies of per­fec­tion­ism to which we know our lives do not mea­sure up, so we feel our sit­u­a­tion is hope­less. Oth­er times it is the prod­uct of the­olo­gies that sug­gest that any real change must await anoth­er dis­pen­sa­tion or that, since we are clothed in the alien right­eous­ness of Christ,” we should not expect any indi­vid­ual regen­er­a­tion of char­ac­ter. The first group needs to under­stand the val­ue of progress in the spir­i­tu­al life; the sec­ond group needs to under­stand that Christ’s pow­er to save is nev­er sep­a­rat­ed from his pow­er to make holy.

The sal­va­tion that is in Jesus Christ is not lim­it­ed to the for­give­ness of sins; it is also able to over­come sin’s domin­ion in our dai­ly lives. Charles Wes­ley stat­ed this truth quite well in a line of his famous hymn O for a Thou­sand Tongues to Sing”: He breaks the pow­er of can­celled sin, He sets the pris­on­er free; His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.” 

Grace, Grace, and More Grace 

Now, all of this new life comes to us by the grace of God.… Grace is the action of God bring­ing to pass in our lives good things that we nei­ther deserve nor can accom­plish on our own.… Grace is of course, unmer­it­ed favor,” but the form it takes is not usu­al­ly as cred­it” to our account. No, the form it most com­mon­ly takes is an inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship between God and us: God’s ini­ti­at­ing action and our respond­ing action. And the trans­form­ing results of this dynam­ic inter­play are all from God, all the work of grace. We know that we have done noth­ing more than to receive a gift. 

But, do not mis­un­der­stand; there are things for us to do dai­ly. Grace nev­er means inac­tion or passivity. 

… You see, the oppo­site of grace is works, but not effort. Works has to do with earn­ing, and there sim­ply is noth­ing any of us can do to earn God’s love or accep­tance.… But this grace and this life pro­pel us for­ward into sub­stan­tial spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, where we will find our­selves engag­ing in effort of the most stren­u­ous kind. As Jesus says, we strive to enter through the nar­row door” (Luke 13:24 empha­sis added). And Peter urges us to make every effort to sup­port your faith with good­ness, and good­ness with knowl­edge, and knowl­edge with self-con­trol, and self-con­trol with endurance, and endurance with god­li­ness, and god­li­ness with mutu­al affec­tion, and mutu­al affec­tion with love” (2 Pet 1:5 – 7 empha­sis added). 

The Foun­da­tion­al Means of Grace 

In his sec­ond epis­tle, Peter calls upon us to grow in the grace and knowl­edge of our Lord and Sav­ior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). The foun­da­tion­al struc­ture for this growth in grace involves a train­ing of the body, mind, and spir­it by means of the dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life. These dis­ci­plines are the God-ordained means of grace” for becom­ing the kinds of per­sons and the kinds of com­mu­ni­ties that can ful­ly and joy­ful­ly enter into abun­dant liv­ing. These means involve us in a process of inten­tion­al training…in god­li­ness” (1 Tim 4:7).

What are these spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines? Oh, they are many and var­ied: fast­ing and prayer, study and ser­vice, sub­mis­sion and soli­tude, con­fes­sion and wor­ship, med­i­ta­tion and silence, sim­plic­i­ty, fru­gal­i­ty, secre­cy, sac­ri­fice, cel­e­bra­tion and the like. These well-rec­og­nized activ­i­ties are ways by which we, along with gen­er­a­tions of Chris­tians, quite lit­er­al­ly present our bod­ies as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice” to God (Rom 12:1). And God takes our lit­tle offer­ing and pro­duces changes with­in that we can hard­ly imag­ine or hope for. Through a life-long process, we become, lit­tle by lit­tle, with time and expe­ri­ence, the kinds of peo­ple whose lives nat­u­ral­ly and freely express love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, and self-con­trol” (Gal 5:22 – 3). This, too, is the sal­va­tion of the Lord. 

This arti­cle is an edit­ed ver­sion of Sal­va­tion is for Life” by Richard J. Fos­ter and was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the jour­nal The­ol­o­gy Today, Vol 61. Octo­ber (2004) 297 – 308.

Originally published September 2004

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