In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, Toby is being legally deposed in relation to his ex-wife’s pregnancy. At one point, the attorney deposing him asks “how pregnant is your ex-wife?” Toby’s response is something like, “the way I understand it, pregnancy is binary, you either are or you’re not.”
And this is the way we typically understand salvation. You’re either saved or not. There aren’t degrees of salvation. And at one level, I agree. Our status before God is not determined by our merits. We don’t have to achieve something to be declared saved. But we can be more saved than we are today. It’s not simply a binary category.
OK, relax. Let me explain. Salvation would be a binary if it only related to the issue of personal guilt and eternal reward. In or out. But salvation refers to so much more than that. Salvation refers ultimately to God’s renewal of all things which will be complete at the end of the age. While we can belong to that age right now, we don’t yet experience the fullness of that reality. And in between now and that time, Paul says we are “being saved,” or we are being “transformed from one degree of glory to another.” This means, among other things, that it is possible to experience the saving work of God in our lives in greater and greater ways.
Put another way, the problem with sin is more than just guilt. Sin is a power that distorts all of reality, that keeps us from living lives full of God’s intentions. Salvation, then, would be more than just forgiveness, but also the healing of our lives from the destructive effects of sin and death. It’s possible for me to experience my salvation today in ways more rich and full than I did yesterday.
The way the Reformers talked about this was in terms of regeneration. First, one is justified, then one is sanctified. But this isn’t quite right. As N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and others have pointed out, all the metaphors for salvation have both a now and not yet sense. We are justified now, but we will also be justified at the end of the age. We are made holy now, but we will also be sanctified at the end of the age. All of it happens now, but won’t be fully realized until the end of the age. Salvation is always happening to us.
Here’s the thing. God expects that his saving work will make us better. The problem with the old “Reformed” view in its popularized forms, was that it wasn’t clear why the church or ethics were important if you’d already been “saved.” And if salvation isn’t by works, why does how you live ultimately matter?
But salvation is about how we live. We’ve been invited into a new way of life under a different set of powers. This is God’s work too as he provides the environment through which our lives more fully embody his grace over time. This isn’t simply for our good, but for the good of all of creation which is groaning in longing for the revealing of the children of God. Creation’s renewal is tied to our own. As we live more fully in the salvation offered to us by God, it benefits our neighbors and our neighborhoods, and the ultimate shape of God’s glory becomes more evident. God’s grace will create better lives for the sake of a better world.
Now, God doesn’t love us one whit more if we’re living more fully into his salvation, just as he doesn’t love me more than my atheist neighbor. I am loved completely just as I am. But God does expect that I will be more saved in the future than I am today, and that I will live a life that will stand the scrutiny of the final day.