Let’s make no mistake, the salvation we receive is complete at that moment of acceptance. There is nothing more we need to do. It is finished. As Paul reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;” (Ephesians 2:8, NASB95) We won’t be any less saved on that first day of salvation then the day we die or Christ returns. But that is not the end of the story.
In many ways, that moment of coming to Christ, of receiving His grace, love, and salvation is not the end of the journey but the beginning of one. Not a journey of being more saved, but of working out that salvation in all aspects, events, and circumstances of life. James wrote, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26, NASB95). And Paul wrote, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12–13, NASB95) We must always see those verses within the understanding of completed salvation.
In this seeming conflict between experiencing salvation as a gift of God and needing to work out our salvation, we arrive at a truth. In this time between new birth and Christ’s return, salvation (like God’s Kingdom) as the quality of “already, but not yet.” All who accept Christ are saved, but the fullness of that salvation is not yet experienced.
Acknowledging this “already, but not yet” character of our life in Christ answers several questions. Why prayers are not always answered? Why do we still struggle with sin? Why do some live in poverty while others experience wealth? Why are we still subject to disease and physical death?
Let’s take answered prayer as an example. We see God answering prayer, that much is certain. But why doesn’t He answer all prayers? As we grow in Christ, as we walk this journey, as our hearts and attitudes change from self-centered to Christ-centered, our prayers change. That’s part of “working out” our salvation. We grow towards praying according to God’s will and desires instead of praying our own will and desires. Many pray for God to change their life circumstances, but only a few pray for God to change them. There is no magic formula here. God does answer, although it is not always according to our desires or wishes.
Our salvation is complete in Christ, but the degree to which it impacts our life; influences our choices, and changes our outlook is not yet fully realized. We do truly begin our new life in Christ like a baby and grow into all that our new life in Christ is about. A baby is completely formed and completely human. Yet, they are not fully functional. Babies learn and grow as they are nourished and cared for. Even when mature, we still grow (in many different ways), learn, and change throughout our life. Likewise, we are to continually grow in Christ.
Paul prayed this for the Ephesians. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14–19, NASB95)
We are completely saved in Christ, yet we grow into experiencing and applying that reality.