On a recent trip, I had the joy of seeing many people make “the transaction”; a conscious choice to embrace the good news of Christ, a choice to believe that Jesus paid the price for their sins on the cross and in so believing crossed from death to life. The scriptural foundation for the transaction is found throughout the New Testament and is maybe best summarized by Jesus Himself in John 5:24, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned but has crossed over from death to life.”
I bring this up because in recent years it seems that an increasing number of Christian authors have sought to downplay the transaction. In the vein of feeling the need to see some fruit to verify belief, these writers question the biblical basis for this one time decision, often accompanied by what we call “a sinner’s prayer”. I think the angst boils down to the intellectual difficulty that reformed-minded teachers have with someone making a decision for Christ and then not appearing to follow through. This reality does not fit their “once saved, always saved” theology so they are forced to conclude that without some fruit to show for it the decision did not really happen.
I think we make a mistake when we interpret the transaction in a “once saved, always saved” vs “you can lose your salvation” debate. I prefer to interpret it in terms of the parable of the sower. And I prefer the term “falling away” (as per Jesus’ example) for those who do not follow through rather than the idea of “losing one’s salvation” as if it happens by accident, like losing your keys.
Falling away is by choice, not by accident. In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9), Jesus outlines four types of soil as a picture of the various responses to the “word of the kingdom”. Let’s go straight to Jesus’ interpretation of the seed that fell on rocky ground. “The one on whom seed [the word of the kingdom] was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt 13:20-21). When temporary happens, it rocks our theological boxes. But it happens.
I had a friend in college who lived in my dorm. After over a year of discussion and prayer and interaction, he prayed to receive Christ. There was no reason to believe he was insincere. However, after a trip home to see his Jewish family over spring break, he told me that he had changed his mind and abandoned the faith. There is no joy on my part that somehow because he made a decision at one time it must last forever so he is really still a believer. There is also no reason to think that his decision was not sincere in some measure. The bottom line: he chose to embrace the faith, but just like the seed in the rocky soil that temporarily flourished, he made a conscious choice to go back on his decision.
There may be some theological disagreement on whether my friend was ever “saved” or instead always had seeds of doubt that eventually led to him rejecting the faith. I like to think of the transaction, when it is sincere, as receiving a ticket to heaven. That ticket cannot be lost, cannot be stolen, cannot be left in a drawer and forgotten. You cannot lose your ticket. It is completely safe and protected. Can you ever, of your own free will, return your ticket and proclaim that you are no longer a Christ follower? For various reasons having to do with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, I lean toward the idea that when temporary happens there were seeds of doubt, salvation never took root, and the transaction was never finalized.
But just because temporary happens, we should not downplay the importance of the transaction. I think it is best to describe salvation as a process. For many, a one time decision often accompanied by a prayer completes the process in several minutes and like the seed that fell on the good soil, they move forward into the Christian life and never look back. For others, they appear to believe with an initial decision only to see the new life never take hold. They do not follow through on their decision and the new life dies before it has a chance to take root. Our prayer is that someday they return and embrace the good news for good. Others make the decision over a long period of time and one day realize without much drama, “I believe”.
The role of the lost is to believe. The role of the saved is to plant the seed. Only in the faithful planting can we be assured that some of the seed will land on good soil.
Does all this suggest we need to see some fruit to confirm one’s decision. I don’t believe that is what the Bible teaches. The message of the New Testament, as amplified by the story of the prodigal father (as Tim Keller points out, it is really the father who is the prodigal since he acts completely out of expectations by unconditionally forgiving his son) is a message of the “beautiful unfairness of grace”. The son, upon his return and repentance, was completely forgiven by the father’s grace with no probationary period to see if he was sincere. There was absolutely no works requirement. His salvation was instant and beautifully unfair. That is how grace works, and it is how our salvation works.
Jesus drives the point home even more directly in the gospel of John where He states over and over that believing in Him is the path to eternal life. The crowd even asks what work they can do to get in. Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus said, ” ‘Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.’ Therefore the crowd said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ ” (Jn 6:27-29). Believe is the operative word. There is only one work required to obtain and confirm our salvation; to believe in the One [Jesus] whom God has sent.
Salvation may be a process, but somewhere along the way a transaction takes place. Somewhere along the way we choose to believe, and by believing we cross over from death to eternal life.