October 22, 2020

Salvation Stories

What is salvation like?

Not, What is salvation?  What is it like?

Comparisons, though incomplete, are good.  They enable us to comprehend things we’ve never seen or experienced; they enable us to generalize and categorize.  They underlie almost all human understanding of God, whom we can’t experience in the same way we do created things.  Jesus frequently spoke using comparisons; so do modern thinkers.

Recently I’ve seen three common similes concerning salvation.  They all contain aspects of the truth, but inevitably each falls short of the complete truth.  I want to look at them in order to understand better what salvation is like, and to know what we have to do to be saved.

God the Merciful Judge
First, we’re like a man who enters court charged with a crime.  He is put in the dock.  The evidence against him is presented, and it is damning evidence.  The jury of his peers deliberates and brings forth a verdict of guilty.  The judge pronounces the sentence — death.  For a moment a hush falls over the courtroom.  Just as the spectators sigh, clear their throats, and get ready to leave, the judge says, “But — I choose to count you innocent of the crime that has been proven against you, and you are free.  Go and break the law no more.”  The accused — now the forgiven — flushes with an incredulous relief.  He babbles incoherent thanks to the judge who freed him, then he leaves the courtroom a free man.

This is a powerful and wonderful image.  We can easily picture a courtroom and imagine how we would feel condemned to death.  This story illustrates the absolute power of God over our fate and reminds us that there will be a judgment, and that we won’t look good on that day.  We can imagine the feeling of being set free, declared innocent, let off the ultimate penalty.  Let’s keep this image in mind.  It’s a good one.

But if our only image of God’s relationship with us is this courtroom scene, there’s a danger.  We may well forget to live with God day by day.  The criminal was set free; now he can do what he wants.  But a freed criminal has to learn to live a new life, to change himself and all his habits in order to live as a free man in fact, not just in name.  This comparison vividly illustrates the moment of forgiveness, but it tells us nothing about our life from that point.  If God is only the judge who pardons us, then what is our ongoing relationship with him?

God Our Life
In the second story, we’re like a woman who’s always on the brink of death.  She must breathe every few seconds to stay alive; anything that interferes with her breathing will kill her in minutes.  She has to eat and drink frequently to stay alive.  Without food she’ll be dead in a few weeks, without drink in a few days.  Each breath, each meal is a reprieve from death.  She may occasionally delude herself that the meals are of her own providing, but she knows that the air she breathes is nothing but a free gift, beyond her control.

This story isn’t even a comparison, it’s just a statement of fact.  We are all that woman, exactly.  The paragraph describes our life.

This second story completes the first in some ways.  We are not only forgiven our offenses, we are given the very means of life.  We can’t just walk away free from God the Judge and do what we want.  Without him we can’t walk; we can’t live.  Our salvation is not only a one-time tearing up of a charge sheet.  Our salvation is a minute-by-minute relationship with the only source of life.  Salvation in this sense is never done.  Jesus’ work for us is done, but our life with him is not, nor will it ever be.  He is our daily sustenance.

Even this second image, however, is not all the truth.   Before we need air and food and water, we need life.  Dead people can’t breathe or eat or drink.  And we are, in fact, dead in sin.

God the Resurrection
In the third story, we’re like Lazarus. Actually dead.  Stinking.  Beginning to decompose.  There is no life in him, no power to change his condition.  He is entirely at the mercy of the death that comes through sin.  Then he hears a voice calling from outside, calling his name.  He gets up — not through his own strength, but through the strength of the call.  Trailing his grave clothes he lurches blindly to the entrance of the tomb.  Even there he needs the door to be opened for him.  And then light, and joy, and welcome are waiting for his vile self outside the tomb.

The Christian life is not just pleading in front of a judge; it’s not even the daily inhaling of grace.  It is nothing until Jesus hauls us from the tomb.  If we ever forget that, then we delude ourselves that we have power to feed ourselves, power to walk out of a courtroom and live a free life.

Which Is Our Story?
Several commenters recently raised questions about our salvation, how it works and how we work.  The dialogue is usually conducted as a faith-versus-works, Calvin-versus-Arminius dispute.  These disputes are foolish.  They usually arise because people have adopted different stories of salvation.  Those who claim that salvation is a change that comes in the twinkling of an eye berate those who understand salvation as a lifelong choice of life over death, and vice versa.  You can — or can’t — lose your salvation.  You should — or mustn’t — participate in confession and the sacraments.  Advocates of the courtroom drama, when they hear people talk about salvation being a lifelong process, think that the Judge’s power and faithfulness are being questioned.  The life-long-process people worry that a Gospel of one-time freedom will lead to stagnation and libertine living.  Those who focus exclusively on the resurrection story can’t accept that anyone has anything to bring to the relationship with God, while others say that we can choose to turn to him or from him.  No single story tells us the whole truth.

So—what must we do to be saved? The answer involves going backward through the three salvation stories told here.

At first, we can do nothing.  Unprovoked grace calls us.  If you are thinking at all about God and wondering how to love him and serve him better, then you are hearing him calling you from the tomb.  He is calling you to a unique moment of salvation, to resurrection, to the beginning of a new life.

Then the newly resurrected life consists of learning to breathe, eat, and drink God.  Of being with him every moment.  Of absorbing his grace and mercy into ourselves and being slowly transformed as we do so into his likeness.  It’s a life of constant re-turning, of learning to recognize the difference between health and morbidity and learning to prefer health to morbidity.  At any moment we may choose to cut ourselves off from the source of life, and then we begin to die, even if we don’t sense it right away.  This salvation is not a unique moment, it’s a lifelong relationship with the Lord of life.  It can been breached, as can any relationship; but through God’s grace it can be healed.

We’re resurrected; we’re living in relationship with God; these are a “means of grace,” as the prayer book has it.  But there’s more.  There’s “the hope of glory.”  When we come to stand before the Judge, knowing we were dead in sin, knowing we chose death so often in our walk with God, we still have hope.  It was he who called us to life and he who sustained us in that life.  He’ll tear up the charges against us, having already fulfilled the law himself.  This third salvation is accomplished in a moment of grace, as was the first salvation.

But which one of these three is more important, which is less?  Which is first, and which is last?   These are meaningless questions to ask of a God beyond time.

All I know is this:  I have been saved.  I am being saved.  I will be saved.  Amen.


  1. Thank you Damaris! It encourages me to hear others have came to the same realization. I am afraid to even mention this view of salvation, for fear of being labeled a blasphemer.

    • Dear Allen
      I really don’t want to start anything, but I wonder if you would be willing to to expand on those you feel would label you a blasphemer. I ask because while I appreciate very much the way Damaris brought to life this way of looking at “salvation”, it really is simply a restatement of a very common view. Salvation is justification, sanctification, and finally glorification. At least among my circles this is THE orthodox way of delving into what it means to live out a christian life.

      • Not speaking for Allen, but I believe that I have experienced that of which he speaks.

        For many, salvation can only be spoken of as punctiliar (at a moment in time). Something like: “I got saved January 22, 2003”. To speak of salvation any other way causes a problem for these people.

      • In many evangelical circles, the view of Christianity is
        1) Justification = Salvation : Something that happened at a particular point in time. You must be able to name the time
        2) Sanctification – Is an extremely simplified view titled “How to be a better xxxxx in xxxx easy steps”
        3) Glorification – Never gets mentioned

        Even in my own family, to say that salvation=justification, sanctification, and glorification is considered heresy. And, to say that sanctification is anything more than being a better nuclear family is considered heresy.

  2. Great post, Damaris! I too, agree: “I have been saved. I am being saved. I will be saved.” I think of it like Jesus plucked me from the ocean while I was drowning and put me in a boat. So, he saved me. But, we are still on a turbulent sea. Jesus is rowing me toward the shore, so he is saving me. We will make it to the shore and I will have been saved.

    • I recall an older saint who once, at testimony time, got up to announce he’d been saved 5 times. I knew what he meant – exactly what you describe. But because of his tradition, couldn’t find words to express it other than in terms of particular events and coming forward at the invitation.

  3. Excellent post, Damaris.

    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1:3)

  4. Great post. I think parables and stories are a great way to shed light on the gospel of Jesus.

  5. Thank you….I needed that.

  6. This post reminds me of Paul’s words when he wrote that salvation isn’t a sprint it’s a marathon. (I don’t know about you but I’m a horrible runner, so thank goodness God is there to carry me every step of the way!)

  7. The courtroom story is the one that I hear most, but in quite a different way.

    When death is pronounced the judges son steps forward and says “I will take the punishment in his place.” This would be the “penal substitution” theory that I grew up with. Some have mentioned the “Christus Victor” model as an alternative, and I would be interested to know how that “story” would look.

    • Then the judge, as he’s about to sign the sentencing papers, notices something in the paperwork.

      “Says here you’re in the 101st — that right?”

      “Yes, your honor. That’s my unit.”

      “So you’re Airborne. Still in the unit?”

      “Yes, sir.”

      “My son was in that unit. He was killed in that unit. My son’s death was enough. Are you ready to stay with the 101st?”

      “Yes, your honor.”

      “All right then. You’re free to go, as long as you stay in the 101st.”

    • I’m probably not explaining it well, but the way I see “Christus Victor” working is.

      Sin entered the world, and humanity was a prisoner to it; in life, and also in death.
      God sent Christ into the world to redeem it, he was victorious over sin, and he was victorious over death.
      Now, through, and because of that victory; and through, and because of Christ: there is a way for us to be victorious over, and escape, sin and death as well.

  8. I really like the broad outlook on this issue. Isn’t that how we are called to study scripture? Assuming a perspective is biblical and valid, it should be incorporated and contemplated, not touted as the one gospel truth. The former leads to a well-rounded theology an grows our collective understanding. The latter option leads to division and a certain ‘denominationalism’. Thank you for the post. Very edifying.

  9. Yes! The thief on the cross gives us similar insight. He did not say “save me”. He did not say “forgive me”. He said “remember me!” And that makes all the difference.

  10. Great post. Great last line. Wonderful!

  11. A great post.” Arguments are usually between grace and works. These arguements are foolish.” If we are saved, then we should live like we really love Jesus. Salvation is an ongoing process in our lives.

  12. Salvation is like a little boy who was playing in the mud in his back yard. His Daddy saw how dirty his boy was and called to him to come into the house and get cleaned up. The little boy continued playing in the mud, though, because it was such fun, and his Daddy called him again. And again. Finally his Daddy went into the back yard himself, took the boy out of the mud, and carried him into the house, where he took him to the bathtub and washed all the mud away. The Daddy wanted the boy to get dressed so they could drive into town together. (The Daddy wanted to get the boy an ice cream cone, but he didn’t tell him because he wanted it to be a surprise.) The little boy wouldn’t get dressed, however. He just wanted to stand by the bathtub and tell everyone how dirty he had been.

    (This is probably not the best analogy for salvation, but I heard it way back in 1973 and have never forgotten it.)

  13. What an ecumenical evangelical approach to salvation!…
    Having been a catholic monk, having been exposed to OSAS, having experienced my daily struggles and weaknesses, I do know all three ‘salvations’…
    As a former roman catholic, my only criticism is that the attitude of saving one’s own final salvation (the third one that is) by good works while fearing losing one’s salvation is NOT biblical in my humble opinion…
    I mean if it would be or if I would have to take Rome’s word for it, why bother leaving the only church where I ever felt at home to start wandering through the desert of denominationalism???
    I am sure every reader of this article by Damaris Zehner will have his or her own remarks….
    But: what a deeply honest statement.
    Amen, amen, amen.

  14. Ok to clarify my last statement a bit more:
    – theologically I am a calvinist (seen from God’s eternity);
    – psychologically I am a catholic (seen from our human perspective);
    – I am NOT roman i.e. I reject the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that it’s only through their bishopry and priesthood that we can receive forgiveness for our temporal and mortal sins through the sacraments of that church (Eucharist, Confession).

    I guess that what I call catholic also could be labeled as arminian.

    In other words I am a calvinist arminian ecumenical evangelical…. Our dear Lord as a sense of humour!

  15. as=has

  16. Some excellent insights. One reservation though.

    The whole post sounds just a wee bit like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

    The statement that “They all contain aspects of the truth, but inevitably each falls short of the complete truth.” presumes that you sit perched far above the whole issue and are able to see clearly the various parts of the whole in order to proclaim the shortcomings of each view. I guess my only reason for mentioning this is because I think there are often times when well-meaning people espouse what seems like the high road or the proverbial “third way” but in actuality set themselves above it all, possibly from a creeping sense of pride that they may even be unaware of. I didn’t get that from this post. I sensed humility. But it is something to be aware of. I haven’t pondered salvation in these categories before so I think what you say here is quite interesting. But maybe one way IS the right way. Maybe 2 ways, or all as you suggest. Or maybe there are eleven ways to view salvation. I simply don’t know.
    Again , my only reason in commenting in this way is so that when we share our reflections we remember to try hard to express them with humility. Statements like “No single story tells us the whole truth.” is quite categoric sounding and itself implies “the whole truth.”

    • I’ve found in courtroom practice, that invariably different witnesses will have slightly different stories based on their perspective. One may have seen a red car speeding, another saw the accident, still another was situated with a clear view of the drivers. When presenting evidence, it is rare to rely on a single witness in order to obtain a comprehensive view of the facts.

    • It could well be possible that would you mean by the “no single story tells us the whole truth” attitude equals what nowadays is being referred to as postmodernism.
      The idea since the nineties (at least that I am aware of) made up by some philosophers that we have somehow evolved from modernism and the age of reason to somehow ‘new’.

      • Post-modernism is simply the recognition that reason does not lead to objective truth — in that “reasonable minds can differ” about the ultimate questions regardless of them both employing rigorous reason. The history of philosophical discourse I think bears this out as a reality, yet the post-modernists were the first to say that the emperor has no clothes on that issue.

        However, that recognition opens to two possible pathways (at least). One pathway is that empiricism (which is currently the dominant way of “knowing” in a definitive way in our culture) is itself limited, and that there are other ways of knowing which are more effective at reaching certain kinds of truth, particularly concerning the ultimate questions. Another pathway, and the one that most of the post-modernists have taken, is that empiricism is still dominant, it’s just that the ultimate meaning taken from empirical observation and analysis is not objectively determinable by reason, but is instead subjectively determined by reason and experience.

        Post-modernism opens the door for Christianity to critique much of the modern, provided we don’t do it in the way of the post-modernist philosophers.

  17. Let me clarify something. I believe there is one truth and one way. I don’t believe, however, that any one person is capable of seeing the entire truth or the entire way, if for no other reason than that we live in time and truth is eternal. I’m no more capable of seeing the complete truth than anyone else, and far less capable than many. These stories are not exhaustive. They’re just three examples out of many possible ones. In writing about them I wanted to get to one possible root of the ongoing disputes I mentioned in my post.

    And I would shudder to think of myself as postmodern. To me modern means anything after the fall of Rome.

    • Plus let me just go on record here as scorning the nonsensical construction of the word “postmodern.” It makes as much sense as “subnadir” or “supraultimate.” Bah.

  18. Christopher Lake says

    As a Catholic who has returned to the Church from Calvinist Protestantism, I can agree with most of what Damaris writes here. My only disagreement would be that, from the Catholic perspective, one *can* truly have known God, in a saving way, at a point in time, and then make the choice to turn away from Him and lose one’s salvation.

    This view was obviously anathema to me as a Calvinist, but now I understand it to be exactly what in described in certain of the “warning passages” in Hebrews, chapter 6. I can say that I have been saved by Christ, and I can say that I am being saved by Him– but if I say, without *any* kind of qualification, that I *will be* saved by Him, then from the Catholic view, I am engaging in presumption. Those who persevere to the end will be saved.

    I hope and pray that, by God’s grace and my cooperation with that grace, I will be among those who persevere to the end. I know that there is no ultimate hope in the world, so I trust that I will not abandon my profession of faith and my living out of that profession, but I must continue to live it, however imperfectly. Again, I used to be a Calvinist, so I understand how wrong this view seems to many. The Bible persuaded me of it. I’m not meaning to start a theological firestorm here. Just sharing another perspective. 🙂

  19. Christopher Lake says, “I can agree with most of what Damaris writes here. My only disagreement would be that, from the Catholic perspective, one *can* truly have known God, in a saving way, at a point in time, and then make the choice to turn away from Him and lose one’s salvation.”

    Did my post imply disagreement with your point? I didn’t mean it to.

    • Christopher Lake says


      What I perceive as “disagreement” might just be a matter of describing things in different ways. I’m not sure. As a Catholic, I can affirm, personally for myself, *almost* everything that you say here:

      “All I know is this: I have been saved. I am being saved. I will be saved. Amen.”

      I can’t say that I *know* I will be saved, though, because I *could* choose to decisively turn away from God and forfeit my salvation. From the Catholic point of view, for a person to say that he/she *knows* that he/she will be saved is close to presumption, because we don’t completely know our own hearts, which could, at some point, choose to completely reject God.

      Will I completely reject Him? I certainly don’t think so. I have experienced the despair of life without God, and there is no sensible reason that I would wish to return to that darkness. I don’t absolutely *know* that I will continue to walk with God though (and walking with Him is necessary to my salvation). I trust that I will.

      My ultimate hope is in God, not in my own strength. He will certainly give me the grace to continue following Him. However, I do believe that He allows me the choice to reject Him, in an ultimate sense, even after truly knowing Him and following Him for years. I don’t have a great fear of this happening, but the possibility reminds me not to become too at ease with my sin, as sin can lead to sin, in a deepening process, if one is not careful. .

  20. Sorry if I started a stir from what really was, I think, a sincere sharing of some good and helpful personal insights.

    Sometimes I think what people refer to as dogmatism on the part of either individuals or groups is grossly overstated. People have strong convictions it’s true and at times I suppose this can cause division. But personally in my sphere of experience I see much tolerance and interaction. Among individuals outside church walls and even within. You’ve heard the saying that unity in the church does not have to mean uniformity. I think we need to emphasize this axiom more. The stressing of personal distinctives is just that, personal. It conjures up the many (I feel) false antitheses that the postmodernists love to trot out so as to provide the proper (deconstruction) remedy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever say that they had anything like a total or exhaustive grip on the truth, or God. If they did they would be claiming to know exhaustively the mind of God, which would make them God, wouldn’t it?. We are all strung a little differently, and God, I think, speaks to us all a little differently and so one group may choose to accentuate or emphasize some aspect of theology which speaks to that particular group. But this isn’t the same as saying “I’ve got it all pinned down.” which is what I hear many postmodernists accusing the church of. End result? Violent (figuratively) overreaction=philosophical postmodernism.

    I am unashamedly a modernist. I do not seek perfect, exhaustive knowledge. But rather a God-guided, reasonable, justified confidence from which I can proceed and, God-willing, grow in sanctification.

    Hope I’ve made some sense and not detracted from the original points made.

  21. Are you saved?” asks the Fundamentalist.

    and the Christian I am responds:
    “As the Bible says, I am already saved (Rom. 8:24, Eph. 2:5–8),
    but I’m also being saved (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12),
    and I have the hope that I will be saved (Rom. 5:9–10, 1 Cor. 3:12–15).
    Like the apostle Paul I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12),
    with hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ (Rom. 5:2, 2 Tim. 2:11–13).”

  22. Damaris,
    You bring up many good points about salvation, especially that the ‘way of salvation’ has a past, present progressive, and a future tense. However, it is rather presumptuous to say that because salvation was initiated that it will reach its intended conclusion, from initial salvation to final salvation/glorification. The contingent issue is the ‘present progressive’ aspect, one must be “in Christ” at the time that one meets one’s conclusion of temporal life. To hold that grace will be effectual into the future regardless of one living in a relationship that bears witness to the transforming grace of God is to cheapen the sacrifice of grace and the power of grace. Salvation is not given that we might have eternity while excusing away a life pattern that failed to depend on that grace in life. Our understanding, and it is a critical one, is that Jesus was fully human. He is the example of what it means to live in relationship with God. His sinlessness is not because He is divine; it is because of the power of God which can be lived out in every person.
    Yes, we must live in the real expectation of final glorification and that means that we must be attentive to our continual acquisition and His ongoing offer of progressive transforming grace that we would reveal His completeness/perfectness/holiness through our lives.
    So, I must say: He saved me; as I allow His grace to transform me, I am being saved; and in full hope of the power of His grace and my assent to it, He will save me.