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.

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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 October 2004