Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Aug 2023

How Can I “Be Saved”?


Ask your average evangelical Protestant what it means to “be saved” and you will likely hear about an event occurring within history, usually in the legal sense of justification, though occasionally incorporating more existential terms of new birth. So something like…

  • “I asked Jesus into my heart and he saved me.”
  • “I believed the Gospel and ‘got’ saved.”
  • “I was born again, and now I am saved.” 

Emphasis here is on a once-for-all event cast either in the past tense (I was saved) or in the perfect tense (I am saved or I stand saved). 

The New Testament does, of course, use the verb σῴζω (sozo) in these senses (e.g., Rom 8:24; 1 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5), but with surprising paucity. Equally as often it uses the verb eschatologically (e.g., if x, then one will be saved in the last day—Matt 10:22; 24:12; 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5; 2 Cor 2:15; 2 Tim 4:18). Other times the Scripture-writers use the verb with a sense of continuing action (we are being saved—e.g., 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). The largest blocks of usage, however, occur either (1) without reference to time (e.g., explaining how one “is saved”) or (2) in the indeterminate future (e.g., if x, then you will be saved—but without clearly specifying whether the immediate future or distant eschatological future is in view).

This disparity of usage means that “being saved” can be a confusing subject—and attempts to reduce “being saved” to any one of these senses can create misunderstanding. For instance, one might say, “Holiness and good works are not necessary for salvation,” and in one sense be quite correct: good works most emphatically cannot earn or hasten our justification, nor can they precipitate our regeneration. But in another sense this statement is incorrect because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14)! At a very minimum good works are an ordained and necessary consequence of our salvation (Eph 2:9–10), and one might even rightly say that every person who is announced to be “saved” in the last day will necessarily have arrived at this point through the crucible of growth in personal holiness.

The Christian publishing market is becoming quite crowded these days with calls to make a place for good works in Christian soteriology. Some of them are troubling; others worth hearing. Approaches such as the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul, observing that the NT is concerned with salvation both as a historical moment and as an enduring, climactic journey, bifurcate justification into two aspects: (1) a provisional justification that is by faith alone and (2) a final justification that is not merely corroborated by, but also based upon good works. In these models, believers are in a real sense justified by works. Some even suggest that one may receive the “first justification” but fail to achieve the “second justification.” These approaches bear uncanny resemblance to Roman Catholicism and at best cling precariously to the outer edges of orthodoxy. They allow no one to say with Paul that “having been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1) or that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Instead, believers advance in their Christian walk through a cloud of uncertainty, anxious that what they are and have received in Christ might one day be lost. This sort of uncertainty has long been used by unscrupulous tyrants to savage and fleece their flocks rather than to shepherd them into the next life. 

The kneejerk solution to these troubling approaches, however, can be as bad as the problem. Still on their long recovery from Romanism, some evangelicals, rather than finding a proper place for good works in Christian soteriology, cast blanket aspersions on the notion entirely. Zeal in the pursuit of good works (for which we have been created) is viewed critically and assumed to be “legalism” or “moralism.” The great doctrine of perseverance in holiness degrades to a divine obligation to preserve professing Christians irrespective of holiness. Sanctification reduces to reminiscing endlessly in song and sermon about what Christ has done for us to the neglect of encouraging believers to act courageously and faithfully upon what God has wrought in us. And the devastating result is an invitation not only for unbelievers to “come as you are” or “just as I am,” but for believers to do the same, and to feel comfortable staying that way.

Sadly, many assume the latter approach to be the essence of being “Gospel-Centered.” It is not. It is a distortion of the Gospel that clings precariously to the outer edges of orthodoxy. 

The point here is not to suppress the legal aspects of “being saved” or to suggest that good works must be accumulated to earn God’s favor. Rather, the point is to recognize the Gospel as much more comprehensive than a forensic transaction to be rehearsed over and again. By God’s grace I have been saved; by God’s grace I am being saved; and by God’s grace I shall be saved—and the Bible spends more time talking about the latter two than it does about the first.

We need a place for good works in Christian soteriology. But we also need greater clarity (and a bit more charity) in our conversations about good works in Christian soteriology. Because engaging in good works and growing in holiness is part of what it means to “be saved.”

6 Responses

  1. I would say you have missed something vital here about salvation. The New Testament believer’s soul is made holy at the moment of salvation. Good works will have no effect upon that. His body will not be made holy until it is resurrected. Good works will have no effect upon that. (See Body, Soul, and Spirit in for arguments) That is not to say good works are not important for the believer. But unless you are talking about a different salvation than as declared in Ephesians 2:7, Romans 10:9, etc., “be saved” in no way depends upon works– contrary to what the title and final statement of your blog implies. Good works cannot be the difference between being saved and not being saved. You need a better argument than that for good works.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Thanks for the interaction. It’s true, of course, that the believer is declared perfectly righteous in justification, having received the righteousness of Christ that can never be improved upon. I also accept Calvin’s notion of an implanted “seed of holiness” received in regeneration (in fact, that’s a big part of my point in the original post).

      I’m afraid I cannot agree, though, that the human immaterial is rendered perfectly holy at salvation as you suggest. The NT sanctification process seems to be concerned at least as much with sins of the soul as with sins of the body. Hatred, lust, envy, and greed (sins of the soul) are at least as serious as, say, murder, adultery, and theft (sins of the body); in fact, with Matthew 5 as our guide, the sins of the soul are regarded as more primary. So, to your point, the sanctification without which we will never see the Lord involves the not only the progressive extirpation of sinful habits of the body and establishment of holy ones, but also the renewal of the mind/soul (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 4:16; Phil 4:8).

      Bill Combs has a published response to a position similar to yours in our journal: Does the Believer Have One Nature or Two? especially pp. 100–103. I have found his treatment helpful over the years.

  2. I appreciate that you replied to my comments. For years it seemed obvious to me that a saved soul can choose to sin, in which case it must be true that a saved soul still has some kind of sin nature, even if the Scripture does not say so directly. Since the Scripture clearly says sin in the Church Age believer originates in the flesh, it must be so that the word “flesh” indicates a sin nature (or whatever we call it) in the soul.
    But that just distorts what the Scripture says; and Scripture surely does not mean something other than what it says. If Paul had meant sin arises in the immaterial part of man, he surely would not have said it was in the flesh, which is the very essence of the material part of man. And since Paul so thoroughly identifies flesh as the source of sin in the believer, those determined to say the soul can sin are forced to assign sinful flesh to be a part of the redeemed, justified, and cleansed soul, which is said to be the very resurrected life of Jesus Christ. This we would find quite unbelievable if we had not been taught it all our lives and learned to defend it. Paul leaves no doubt that flesh in context is part of the body. In Romans 7:18-25; flesh, members and body all refer to the same material part of a person. It is the unredeemed, vile body that is the source of sin in the believer. The sins you point out as sins of the soul are not said to be sins of the soul after salvation; they are sins of the flesh, which is surely part of the body.
    The arguments Bill Combs had against this view were primarily two. It is not orthodox; and it seems to agree with false Greek philosophy that the body is inherently evil. We can dismiss “orthodoxy” when it does not agree with Scripture. And the body is not inherently evil. Adam’s body before he sinned was not evil, Jesus Christ had a sinless body, and resurrected bodies are not evil.
    Progressive sanctification in the Church Age believer’s life is a redeemed soul (new man) learning to live in an unredeemed body indwelt by sin.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Many thanks for replying. I wonder if you’ve given the Combs article a fair reading. He does, yes, point out that the position you are defending is a minority position within Protestant orthodoxy and that its historical roots lie in perfectionist theology (most proximately Chaferianism, which is traceable through Higher Life, Keswick, Wesleyan, and, more distantly, Gnostic expressions of Christian theology).

      However, the substance of his argument is that the Greek term sarx (the most basic gloss of which is, as you note correctly, “flesh”) is demonstrably not reducible to a person’s physical substance. Rather, it speaks to a complex of attributes and functions variously labeled the “sin nature” (NIV), the “remnants/residue of sin” (Owen), “indwelling sin,” etc. IOW, the semantic range of sarx includes a metaphorical usage that exceeds the physical and includes the whole of a regenerate person’s impulse to sin. This may seem a denial of the “plain meaning” of the term, but I would push back, with John Owen, that we do this all the time with another, very similar word, viz., kardia. The very most basic gloss of kardia (heart) brings to mind a physical organ that pumps literal blood, but all agree that the Scriptures routinely use the term metaphorically to speak to much more. Dr. Combs’s argument is that the term sarx is similar.

      The principal warrant for his claim is twofold: (1) the Scriptures routinely speak to the root of sin in the immaterial heart/mind (we don’t obey the great commandment), and specifically disclaim the idea that sin originates in physical impulses and acts (passim, but esp. Matt 5:18–20 and the balance of that chapter), and (2) the fact that NT sanctification is directed firstly to the renewal of the believer’s mind/heart (the immaterial) as logically prior to his suppression of wicked physical deeds and habits (Ps 139:23–24; Rom 12:2; Phil 4:6–8; Col 3:2ff; 1 Pet 1:13–16; etc.).

      Again, many thanks for the feedback. I trust that I was not overly aggressive, but it is an important subject and one on which clarity is difficult to achieve.

  3. I agree with you that this is an important subject; and that clarity, though difficult to achieve, is worth pursuing. I expect you to present your view in the strongest way possible, since I did question its validity. I am happy to discuss this with you in this format, as long as you count that as appropriate.

    I think you are correct to say that I did not really make a good effort to understand your view of salvation. I have struggled for years how to understand how it is that we are to reckon ourselves dead (Romans 6) when we see ourselves as obviously not dead. I have not been impressed with commentaries that cannot answer that. I am looking for a doctrine that accepts the verses about salvation and sanctification for what they SAY. We should not need to say, “This verse MEANS….” It was not until I grasped that the soul is made new at salvation and left in the old body that I could begin to understand how verses mean what they say.

    You reference Combs on the two natures, but he does not really attempt to set forth a comprehensive doctrine. I am left with these questions, for which I do not see answers.
    We seem to agree that a person is made up of body, soul and spirit. Do we agree that before salvation body and soul were united in one nature (“by nature the children of wrath, Eph 2:3)? We surely differ on what happens after that. Combs quotes Packer favorably in saying “the Christian’s total self is progressively renewed and restored throughout the sanctifying process.” So you apparently believe the body starts with some such evil nature and improves from that by an appropriate Christian life.
    Whereas I believe the soul is created new at salvation (resurrected in Jesus Christ by baptism of the Holy Spirit), you believe (I think) that the soul in the believer is unchanged in nature at salvation except that it gains a second (new) righteous nature—”a seed of holiness” you call it. (Or is this seed in the body as well?) Combs says: “At regeneration the believer is changed, but it is not a change of substance. Instead, it is a change in direction, a change in disposition.” So is this new seed of holiness nothing substantive? It is only (what?) a nudge toward holiness. This seed is how the one in Christ is made new so that all things are become new? When Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, is there a change in substance in the soul when it leaves the body? Is there ever a change in the substance of the soul?
    Paul says to the Corinthians that where they were unrighteous, they have been washed, sanctified and justified. (1 Co 6:9-11) Paul links the washing of regeneration with our salvation in Titus 3:5. What exactly was washed? Paul said Christ lives in me. How is that? He says we are risen with Christ and that the risen Jesus Christ in heaven is our life. In the Colossians 2 he says we are complete in Him. How is that true in your view? Paul says he delights in the law of God after the inward man. If the inward man is not equal to the soul, it must be a man inside the soul? Or does it have a body too?

    My view, which I think answers these questions, is that the soul is counted as having been resurrected in Jesus Christ, so that it has the resurrection life of Christ. It is fit to go to heaven. It only needs to leave this yet-to-be-redeemed body to be with God. Combs criticizes this by arguing this view allows no further change in the soul or the body (in this life). Are there verses that directly support this? The verses you reference in your blog for “being saved” are surely not supportive of progressive sanctification. In both cases “being saved” carries the meaning “continually getting saved”. E.g., the foolishness of preaching leads to people getting saved, not the already saved being progressively sanctified.

    From what I understand of MacArthur’s view, I would criticize it also. The new soul agrees with the indwelling Holy Spirit. The body is to be reckoned as dead, so that the Holy Spirit, which has power to raise up a body from death, can move it around to do righteousness. (Ro 8:11) Sanctification is learning to yield to the Spirit instead of to the desires of the flesh (body). Paul says the goal in his Christian life is not to change the soul or the body, but to reach that point at which the Spirit has complete control of his body as if he were resurrected from the dead. (Ph 3:10-11) This does involve new understanding in his mind (vv. 8-10), but that change is not in eliminating sin or the desire to sin. He expresses no hope or means to change the body; he looks for the coming of Jesus Christ to do that. (v.21)
    It should be mentioned that this salvation is accomplished through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which no one experienced before Acts Chapter 2. Truths about the nature of man before that can only be applied to the new man with this in view (Col 3:10). E.g., whereas before sins did proceed from the soul (heart), they no longer do so in the new man.
    I would not oppose the concept of two natures, if we understand that the redeemed soul has only one nature, the new nature, and that the body until resurrection has only one nature, the old nature.