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): zoë, the eternal, uncreated life that originates in God alone. 

Scripture identifies two types of life: bios, the physical created, mortal life: and zoë, 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 zoë, 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 zoë 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. 

The Everyday Means of Grace

While the classical disciplines of the spiritual life are the foundation for our formation, they are far from the only means. Often God uses the various difficulties and trials we face daily in life to produce in us a kind of patient endurance (James 1:2 – 3). At other times, God uses the interactive exchange that goes on between us and the Holy Spirit to develop a spirit of trusting surrender within us. Or to grow our faith. Then again, God will often use human beings and other physical means to mediate his life to us. All of these things shape us, form us, and make us substantively different people, to the extent we become willing participants in this work of grace. We can stop our growing conformity to Christ at any point. God in his wisdom and sovereign freedom, has given us veto power over our own transformation.

The transformation of ourselves into the likeness of Christ will not be fully completed in this life, for as [C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, 161] Lewis notes, death is an important part of the treatment.” How far each one of us moves forward into Christlikeness here in this life depends upon a whole host of complex factors, not the least of which is the emotional, mental, and psychological package we were given at birth. Such factors can either give us a good running start or handicap us enormously. Even with all the complex interplay between heredity, environment, and other factors too numerous to mention, we still can and should expect substantial movement forward into Christlikeness in this life.

Two Contradictory Sounding Comments

I want to make two comments about this growth in grace”; comments that will sound strangely contradictory but in fact fit together quite nicely. First, in our thinking and living, we need to make generous allowance for infusions of divine grace that produce in us quantum leaps forward. These, as best I can understand, are utterly sovereign acts of God. We in no way cause them to happen, and they seem unconnected to our efforts in any discernible way. These are glorious acts of God for which the only sane response is to fall to our knees in worship, adoration and praise.

My second comment stresses the other side of the coin. We have a part to play in this growing in godliness,” as the Puritans are fond of calling it. Effort on our part is called for. Real effort. Graciously God invites us to work in cooperation with the Spirit through spiritual disciplines appropriate to our needs and through the various other means of grace.

Now this ordinary, everyday means of character transformation lacks the fireworks of the special infusions of grace. Also, to us it seems painfully slow, though the transforming work is always at a rate consistent with the nature of the virtue being sought.

It is easy for us to undervalue this most fundamental means of grace. It appears to be so commonplace, so quiet, so modest, so unimpressive. But it is our primary means of growth. God has ordained it to be so.

Besides, these two realities actually work hand in glove. Our bodies, minds, and souls need shaping and preparing for any special infusion of grace. On our own, we are insufficient receptacles to contain the divine blessings. We would simply burst apart, like old wineskins filled with new wine (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37 – 38). Therefore, we should always value this ordinary way (this intolerably slow way) of growth, for through it God prepares us for things we can hardly imagine: heaven, for example. This is all part of the salvation that is in Christ.

Jesus the Eschatological Prophet

Put simply, [this zōē life from God] is mediated through Jesus’ active, living, functioning presence. Jesus is not only alive and present in the midst of his new covenant people; he is alive and present among us in all his many offices.” To say this is to confess a highly functional view of Christ. At one point, the seventeenth-century Christian leader George Fox exclaimed, Christ Jesus, who was dead and is alive again, and lives forevermore, a prophet, counselor, priest, bishop, shepherd, a circumciser and baptizer, a living rock and foundation for evermore…” This was Fox’s way of expressing Jesus’ multiple functions among his people. Jesus forgives, teaches, guides, comforts, oversees, rules, and so much more. The point is that Jesus acts and works.

John Calvin brought the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king into dogmatic theology. A good deal of theological reflection has been done on Jesus’ priestly office, and some has been done on his kingly office. However, theological reflection on Jesus’ prophetic office is nearly nonexistent. This is unfortunate, for the office of Christ as prophet has much to teach us with regard to salvation as a life.

Oscar Cullmann suggests that, in Jesus’ day, one strand of messianic expectation was of an eschatological prophet like Moses who would teach the people. The key Hebrew passage for this expectation is Deuteronomy 18:15 – 8 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people…” In the acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Stephen quote from this passage, identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet like Moses.

And what is the function of this prophet like Moses?” He is to speak to and teach the people. In the great transfiguration event, the voice from the bright cloud declares, This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:5). The letter to the Hebrews which makes so much of Jesus’ priestly office, opens with the dramatic words, At various times in the past and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Hebrews 1:1 – 2). There we have it; Christ, the prophet like Moses, is to speak and teach; we, his disciples, are to listen and obey.

Meaning for Today

What does all this mean for us today? It means that Christ is alive and active. He continues to speak and teach. His voice is not hard to hear. His vocabulary is not difficult to understand. He will teach us. Now Jesus is a living Savior and the salvation that is in him includes teaching us how to live and re-forming our very selves. Dallas Willard puts it well: I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.”

And so, today, God is calling you and me to accept Jesus as our life. We are to trust Him for all things. We are to band together as his disciples, learning from him how to live and being formed by God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, into the kinds of people capable of this transformed life. This is the salvation that is in Jesus Christ.

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.

Text First Published September 2004 · Last Featured on August 2021