Theologians sometimes speak of three “tenses” of salvation – past, present, and future. Holy Scripture teaches that 1) we have been saved, 2) we are being saved, and 3) we will be saved. Making these distinctions can be helpful when discussing the doctrine of salvation with non-Orthodox Christians. They were helpful for me, especially as I came to understand the real possibility of apostasy (more on that later).
It’s not just a black-and-white question of whether a person “is saved” or not. Rather the more complex and interesting question is whether or not someone has entered upon the process of salvation, and whether they will continue on that path to the end. Here are several texts from Scripture referencing each tense of salvation and a bit of commentary to explain each one.
Past tense salvation:
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? (Rom 8:24)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)
But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. (2 Tim 1:8-9)
Notice here that salvation is spoken of in the past tense. It’s something that happened previously in our lives. And it is based “not on anything we have done.” Faith is the only requirement for this initial point of salvation. And baptism is God’s “delivery method” of this initial salvation (1 Pet 3:21), received by faith alone. But notice that St Paul says in Rom 8:24 that we do not yet possess the fullness of salvation; we hope for it. For “who hopes for what he already has?”
Present tense salvation:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (2 Cor 2:15)
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor 3:18)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil 2:12)
Here the emphasis is on God’s salvation in the present tense. Protestants commonly refer to this process as “sanctification.” But notice that the text says “being saved.” Salvation is not only a past event but also a present process, a progressive journey in which we participate. We are called to actively cooperate with God’s ongoing work in our life, working out our salvation with fear and trembling. But we can only make progress in the “working out” of salvation in Jesus Christ and by the grace of the Spirit.
Future tense salvation:
All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22)
By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:37)
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:12-13)
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (John 10:9)
God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom 2:6-7)
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)
The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. (Rom 13:11)
This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:4-5)
Notice here that salvation is described in the future tense. All the faithful who persevere “will be saved” in the future, at the Final Judgment. Notice also that the basis of this final salvation is not merely faith alone, but the entire life lived. Jesus says that it’s our “words” which will form the basis of our final justification or condemnation. Paul says the same thing in a different way: “the doers of the law will be justified.” This means that, when Christ judges all men on the Final Day, he will render his judgment based on people’s “words” and the deeds of their life. So, let us not let our love grow cold!
Does this judgement “according to works” do away with faith? Not at all. Faith is what connects us to the life of God. It is only through faith in Christ and the Spirit’s power that we can live transformed lives. As Christ promised, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit. For without Me you can do nothing” (John 15.5). It is only by God’s grace that we can bear fruit; we must stay “plugged-in” to the power source. But God will judge our actual lives, the actual fruit we bear. How we “work” in this life determines our eternal destiny, like a farmer who works hard and reaps a beautiful harvest. The apostle Paul says it like this:
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. (Gal 6:7-9)
“In due season,” that is, at the Final Judgement, we shall reap a harvest of eternal life, if we “sow to the Spirit.” This means that we are called to cooperate with God’s work in our lives through “well-doing.” The deeds of our lives have a real bearing on our eternal destiny. This is why St Paul confessed to straining forward to what lies ahead, and pressing on toward the goal for the prize (Phil 3:13-14). Salvation has a future tense, and it’s not guaranteed for those who have begun the process in the past, not even for the Apostle.
God’s people experience three tenses of salvation: past, present (progressive), and future. And while distinct in explanation, these “tenses” form an organic unity in one’s spiritual experience, unless the process is resisted. The saving grace of God’s Spirit fills us in the past through our faith and baptism, in the present by the Eucharist and lives of loving obedience, and will do so in the future when he raises us from the dead.