“Do you … seek your life outside of yourself in Jesus Christ?”
Our salvation is the work of the God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Throughout our lives (and even before!) they work with us and in us and for us to give us complete salvation. We can distinguish several aspects or “steps” in our salvation. Traditionally, this list is known as the ordo salutis, or “order of salvation”.
The Bible teaches us that God “chose us in [Jesus Christ] before the foundation of the world.” His plan to save us is older than the world. This is called our election. Election is purely God’s work, not based on anything we have done, or on anything God knew we would do. When God saves us, it is a decision he made freely, based purely on his goodness and grace.
The gospel of Jesus is an invitation to salvation. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!” This message is printed and the Bible, preached from pulpits, and proclaimed by evangelists and missionaries. Through it, the Lord calls people to himself.
Many people do not listen, because they are stubborn in their sin. They are, as it were, deaf for the call of the gospel. They hear it and think (or say): “No, thank you very much, but I don’t need this. I am fine on my own; I don’t want or need Jesus.”
The external calling—just hearing the gospel—does not save people. It must be combined by a special, internal calling by the Holy Spirit; so that stubborn, “deaf” unbelievers actually start hearing and changing their attitude toward God.
Nobody believes in God unless the Holy Spirit has changed him/her in a special way. Jesus said to Nicodemus (John 3:3): “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” The idea of being born is a powerful picture. It emphasizes that we need a new kind of life, that is spiritual instead of purely earthly, focused on God instead of stuck in sin. And being born is not something we actively do; God by his Holy Spirit does it to us. In theology, we call this work regeneration.
The Canons of Dort, III/IV.12, summarize beautifully this mysterious work of God:
This conversion is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive, so highly spoken of in the Scriptures, which God works in us without us. But this regeneration is by no means brought about only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a mode of operation that, after God has done his part, it remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not regenerated, converted or not converted. It is, however, clearly a supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious, and inexpressible work. According to Scripture, inspired by the Author of this work, regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or the raising of the dead. Hence all those in whose hearts God works in this amazing way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe. And then the will so renewed is not only acted upon and moved by God but, acted upon by God, the will itself also acts. Therefore man himself is rightly said to believe and repent through the grace he has received.
On one hand, regeneration is purely the work of God. On the other hand, it is closely connected to the calling of the gospel, as well as to our response of faith. It would be wrong to sit back and do nothing, because you’re waiting for the Holy Spirit to start the work.
Conversion, or repentance, means turning away from sin and turning to God. It is something we do; something the gospel insist that we must do. You could say that regeneration and conversion are two sides of the same coin: regeneration is the work of God’s Spirit, and conversion is our faith-response to it.
But conversion is not a one-time thing. Even after we are born again, there are many things in our life that need change. Even when have turned to God, we often fall into sin. It is important and necessary that we repent of these sins. In that sense, we must be converted over and over.
Read Heidelberg Catechism, LD 33 q&a 88-90. How does it define the two parts of conversion?
Conversion or repentance is a matter of attitude—we should be really sorry for our sins and be humble before God. But it is also very practical. Turning to God means living a life that is dedicated to him, a life that is holy and worshipful and reflects his love.
To be justified means: to be made right. Believers are made right with God through the work of Jesus Christ. His perfect sacrifice covers up our sin and guilt. The gospel promises that those who believe in Jesus, will be saved. They are justified through his body and blood.
Justification is a legal term. Picture a court of law, with a strict judge. A criminal is brought before him. If he is guilty of crime, the judge will condemn him. In a way, we stand as guilty criminals before God as the Judge. But if we have faith in Jesus, God will judge us not on the basis of our crime, but on the basis of Jesus’ perfect work. Therefore he declares us righteous—we are justified.
When does justification take place? Some people point at our election, when God from eternity decided to save us through Jesus’ sacrifice; that suggests “justification from eternity”. More concretely, when Jesus died on the cross, he completed the sacrifice needed for our justification. Most often we emphasize that we are justified from the moment we have true faith. “Justification through faith” is a key theme in Romans and other books of the New Testament.
Justification is about how God views us. But when we are saved, we also must and will live a new kind of life. God not only declares us righteous, but the Holy Spirit makes us actively righteous, makes our lives holy in practice. We grow in love and obedience for God. We grow in understanding and wisdom. We grow in our worshipful attitude, in our holy living, in our loving care for others.
This growth in holiness is called sanctification. All Christians, no matter how old, are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This growth in holiness is a very practical way to recognize that God is indeed at work in you, and that you are saved.
As long as we live in the here and now, “in the current evil age” (as Paul calls it), our faith is imperfect, our sanctification incomplete, and we must be converted daily. But in the end, God will complete the work he began in us. When the Lord takes us to himself as we die, we will be released from all sinful tendencies. Finally, when the Lord returns, he will not only declare us innocent, but also set us free from all that is wrong. We will be glorified, changed into perfect human beings who live on a perfect new earth.
Glorification is the final step of God’s work of salvation in us. As you see, salvation is not a one-time event; it is a work of God throughout our lives and beyond, consisting of several “steps”.