When does salvation happen?
Question: I grew up in a strict, fundamentalist community and our whole goal in life was to get people to pray “the sinners prayer.” Once they prayed this prayer, we believed, they were “saved.” But the vast majority of these people went on living like nothing happened. I’m now questioning if this is the right way to lead people to Christ. So, can you tell me your view of when salvation happens, and how it happens?
Answer: The New Testament describes salvation both as a past act, a present process, and a future arrival point. Also, the biblical concept of salvation isn’t a “rescue (from hell)” thing. It’s a “Kingdom wholeness” thing. It’s about entering into a life giving, Kingdom building relationship with Christ.
It’s best not to put the question of “when salvation happens” into a legal framework (like a court of law). It’s better to rather frame it in a covenant framework. “Getting saved” isn’t like signing up for an insurance policy (the legal framework). It’s like getting married (the covenant framework).
Salvation (= kingdom wholeness) begins with a covenant pledge and it grows as one lives out that pledge day by day.
We are the “bride” of Christ, betrothed to Jesus. This begins with our “I do.” We grow as we live this pledge out every day — the bride “making herself ready.” And someday our groom will come back for his bride and we’ll “consummate” the marriage eternally.
When I have an opportunity to “lead people to Christ,” I explain to them what I just told you. If they are ready, I simply lead them in a short prayer in which they confess their sin, ask for forgiveness, and pledge their life to Christ. It’s no different than a pastor leading two people as they enter into marriage vows. But I explain to them, very carefully, that this is not a magical “rescue prayer.” It is a marriage vow. Their pledge only has as much meaning as they give it every subsequent moment of their life.
Given how prevalent the “magical rescue” understanding of the sinner’s prayer is, I now consider it irresponsible to have people pray it unless I have time to clearly explain to them what they’re being asked to do, and what the cost is. They’re surrendering their life! This shouldn’t be entered into frivolously. I worry that many today give lost people a false assurance that they’re “saved” because they prayed a “magical,” meaningless, prayer.