Salvation itself needs to be clearly defined. Is the initial moment of salvation intended, or rather the totality which concludes in the presence of God? Here the three steps of salvation become critical as opposed to merely informative. In his book The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings On Discipleship, prolific author and professor Dallas Willard wrote that “when ‘salvation’ is spoken of today…what is almost always meant is entry into heaven when one dies…This usage of ‘salvation’ and ‘saved’ deprives the terminology of the general sense of deliverance that it bears in the Bible as a whole.” If this is true—which the Bible seems to indicate is so—then the concept of deliverance can be especially clarifying.
For example, consider a hiker who becomes lost on the side of a mountain. He has no cell phone service, no GPS, and an injury that keeps him from going any further. Suddenly he hears the sound of a rescue helicopter overhead. The rescuer spots him, hovers over the injured hiker, and lowers a rescue basket and operator. The hiker is placed by the operator into the basket. Is he saved at this point? Has he been delivered from his distress? Certainly he has been rescued from his current helpless predicament, but the totality of the rescue is far from accomplished. He must now be lifted into the helicopter and be removed from the rescue basket so that he might be treated for his injuries. Are his injuries instantly healed by the medic on board? No, the treating and healing of injuries is a process that must be endured. Now, the helicopter must transport him back to civilization where true care can finally be given to fulfill and complete his healing. Does the helicopter instantaneously arrive at the hospital? No, it must make the journey there, varying its course and speed according to the situations it encounters along the way.
James the half-brother of Jesus rhetorically asked those who questioned a need to show effort in discipleship and sanctification: “are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20) Regarding the balance of God’s work and man’s effort, he continues, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:21-24). There is a significant difference in the word used here than what was previously seen in Paul’s writings, however; James uses “justified” (Gk. dikaioo), which means “to render innocent.” This is the first step of salvation, whereby the sinner in radically transformed on the inside into a saint of God at the moment of regeneration. Is James advocating a works salvation? Is he saying that works can render someone innocent in God’s eyes? Not at all, as he clearly states in verse 22: “faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” The key to understanding this seeming conundrum is the word “perfected”—the Gk. teleioo, which means “to complete” or “consummate.” The works do not save, but rather are an evidence of that salvation.
Car engines direct their spent fumes from the internal combustion process through exhaust pipes. Some cars are very quiet, while others are very loud. Regardless of the sound volume, each produces evidence of their inner workings—grab either tailpipe, and a burn will be the result. The inner process produces an outer result. Genuine salvation manifests itself through Godly works.