I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The story is told of Brooke Foss Westcott, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Church of England bishop, being approached by a zealous evangelist. (Accounts differ as to whether it was a member of the Salvation Army or an undergraduate student, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story.) ‘Are you saved?’, Westcott was asked. To which he apparently replied, ‘Ah, a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?’ – and went on to cite three forms of the Greek verb ‘to save’, indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three was in mind. ‘I know I have been saved,’ he said, ‘I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.’
There’s a temporal span to our salvation, which embraces past, present, and future.
Having just written of God’s love being ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5), Paul reminds us where that love was so clearly demonstrated in the past – in Christ’s death on our behalf, when we were powerless to save ourselves. If God went to such cost to reconcile us to himself, even when we were his enemies, we can be confident he’ll finish what he has started. All this is grounds for assurance in the present, encouraging us to rejoice for what God has done in Christ.
Paul moves with ease from the past to the future to the present. And it’s helpful that he does. Some of us may be certain that God worked in us in the past, but find it difficult to see his hand on our lives right now. Or we might worry whether things we have done in the past disqualify us from his service in the present. Or our current struggles and suffering can make it hard to see the certainty of our future hope. But Jesus has the whole of our redemption wrapped up – then, now, and forever more.
And it’s all of grace. At every stage – past, present, and future – we come with empty hands, seeking mercy from our heavenly father, recognising as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 that we ‘work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling’, knowing that ‘it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’.