Explaining Atonement: The Bridge from God to Mankind

I wrote this short paper for a class that I took a year or so ago. It should help you with the message I will be teaching this weekend at 4RC.

“Are you saved?” is a common question. Answering it raises at least two other questions: 1. When is salvation? That is to say, is salvation a matter of the past, the present, or the future–or is it some combination of more than one tense? 2. What is salvation? (To answer this question, you must attend to the full scope of new life in Christ.)

This question certainly brings to the surface one of my favorite topics to discuss. I am planning on articulating a process of salvation that is Biblical. To the well trained reader my perspective will quickly fit into an obviously reformed perspective and way of thinking in historical theology. However, my practical experience doesn’t always fit perfectly well into my theological practice. Therefore, I intend to approach my premise with a great deal of humility and respect for those who see this topic slightly from a different perspective. I realize that I am surrounded by people I respect and love who would not articulate salvation in exactly the same way as I.
I believe that salvation undoubtedly begins with God. Salvation is God’s idea. It is made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. Salvation is made complete by the indwelling of a human being by the Holy Spirit. Although we humans have a great part to play, salvation is and has always been God’s work in and through us. Allow me to illustrate.
Salvation begins with what historical theologians from most orthodox camps of thought call justification. And although there are several definitions of this word and process in the plan of salvation, it ultimately symbolizes God’s work through the cross of Christ to create both the possibility and the certainty of human redemption. In fact, I really should provide some back story before dealing with justification.
Christians believe and accept that God the Father created the world we know. And at the precipice of that creation, God created his greatest creation which is mankind. Men and women were created in God’s image. Within us, lies the essence of God himself. It is this essence that gives us value, hope and eternal joy.
But our sin and rebellion warped, wounded and killed that essence. Mankind literally and figuratively fell from a place of connection to God to a dismal existence of spiritual death, eternal separation from God and ultimate brokenness to our essence and nature.
So when I say that God begins the process of salvation with justification, I mean that he makes right our guilt, separation and pays the penalty for sin. This is ultimately the cause of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Theologians articulate this in various ways. Honestly, I think that several of the well receive views of justification are multiple ways of articulating the same truth. For instance, the perspectives known as Christus Victor, the Ransom Theory and Penile Substitutionary Atonement are all worth while perspectives. I would argue that each has Biblical roots and is helpful in different situations as a way of articulating the atonement and justification of mankind.
Ultimately, the issue is that because of Christ, God makes available, possible and quite possibly certain that men and women are justified before God and sin is forgiven and cleansed. This is the beginning of salvation. And it happened with Christ at his sacrificial death and life altering resurrection.
When Christ exclaimed, “It is finished” while hanging on the cross, He was referring to His work of justification. With His death came our salvation. With His sacrifice came our redemption. With his service came our hope.
Many Christians underestimate the value of our justification at the cross of Christ. They place so much importance on works of action and faith today that they underestimate the great work of action from God himself which is the only true way to accomplish human salvation.
The second stage in the development of human salvation is that of personal salvation. It is also known as regeneration. Literally, the Greek word translated regeneration means reborn or born-again. This word is used twice in the New Testament at very important places in Christian theological development.
The image is of a heart remade or a life restarted. At this point, a person is personally involved in salvation. Different tribes articulate it differently. But for the most part, God regenerates a human heart through which the human being responds with faith which brings about the beginning of grace and personal relationship between that person and God. It is at this point that the Holy Spirit indwells and begins to live inside this saved person. And because of this life begins again.
In many churches, this is referred to as the point of salvation or the moment when someone gave their life to Christ. I would personally argue that regeneration begins with God and happens just before a person expresses faith in Christ. Everything after regeneration that involves the person themselves making decisions and acting on faith is a result of God’s regeneration of their heart.
Many people underestimate the value of regeneration. In fact, I am convinced personally that many churches are filled with moral people who are living out a spiritual journey but without true regeneration. This explains in many ways why we often see such horrific sin and struggle within the church.
As well, many over value a moment of salvation without any emphasis on maintaining a life of faith and action. I have been told hundreds of times that someone has hope in eternal life because one a certain day at a certain time they were ‘saved.’ The problem is in the situations to which I am referring, there was no sanctifying evidence that this was a real salvation. And many people rely on a moment as spiritual and eternal
insurance, all the while, living a life without any real presence and leadership from Christ.
Regeneration sparks the beginning of the third stage of salvation. Although regeneration seems to be an instantaneous and focused moment of salvation, the next stage lasts a lifetime. This stage is referred to as sanctification.
Sanctification refers to the filling of a person with the grace of Christ. Now that the Holy Spirit lives inside of them, they begin to see their practical, personal and physical life affected by the major spiritual changes that are happening inside of them.
They begin to express the fruit of the Spirit. They begin to develop and have the ability to use the gifts of the Spirit. They begin to sense the leadership of the Holy Spirit. They begin to grow in Christ.
Sanctification refers to the human perspective life of the believer. After we meet Christ, we are constantly still ‘being saved.’ Christ is making us like the person we were created to be. We are simultaneously becoming like Christ and like ourselves, or at least the person we were originally created to become.
It is in this stage of salvation that we mature. In this stage we serve as part of the church, Christ’s Kingdom of earth. We make ourselves useful to Him. We lead others to follow Him alongside of us. We help make the world better. We learn. We pray. We worship. We serve. We live a life full of grace, mercy and reconciliation.
During the process of sanctification we learn to confess our sin. We learn to war against our flesh. We learn to lean on one another for support and encourage one another forward. We are daily being saved as we ‘pick up our own cross’ and follow Christ with the details of our lives. And therefore, each new day is a new day of salvation as Christ fills us with grace and makes us into a new creation.
The final stage of salvation is referred to as glorification. Glorification refers to the eternal life in heaven lived out by each and every Christian once their life on this earth is finished. Christians begin glorification either by physical death or once Christ returns for the living and the dead. Either way, once our life on this earth is complete, we begin an eternal life in the perfect place of heaven.
During this time we are gifted a glorified body. There are not great details given in Scripture about this, but we do know that it will be without the kinds of physical limitations we face today. There will be no sickness, illness, weakness or struggle. God will gift us with the perfection he intended us to have from creation.
During this stage many great things are realized. Sin will be no more. Satan will be vanquished. Demons will be powerless and eventually nonexistent. Temptation will lose its hold. Flesh will be replaced. Life will be truly alive.
The Scripture is full of metaphorical language and images of golden streets, gates of pearl and mansions for homes. We are told that all tears will be wiped away. All sorrow will cease. All strife will disappear.
Heaven sounds like a utopian perfect society where God is King, people are happy, healthy and valued and the earth we occupy is made new. Heaven provides open, honest and true connection with our creator and one another. All classes of people will be leveled. Ultimately, heaven is the perfect existence. And it is the end result and goal of human salvation. It is the true and eternal gift from God to us.
It has been a joy to write this paper. I am hopeful that it will articulate things in such a concise way as to help those who have questions about salvation. I know it has been a blessing to me to think about these issues as I have written the paper.