Salvation isn’t just what Jesus did; it’s what God does.
When it comes to Christ specifically, salvation, meaning ‘healing’ or ‘rescue,’ is a word that functions with two complementary but different meanings.
Understood against a large canvas, ‘salvation’ refers to what Jesus does (or did) through his life, death and resurrection. More particularly, ‘salvation’ also refers to what God does today to heal us of Sin; that is, ‘salvation’ refers to how God extends the benefits of Christ’s work to us in the present.
I would argue the only way to avoid such confusion is construing salvation as a work, not of God or Jesus in isolation from one another, of the entire Trinity.
As Trinity, God worked salvation for us through incarnation, cross and resurrection.
As Trinity, God works salvation (healing, rescue) for us through the Holy Spirit.
Put in trinitarian terms, salvation is both past and present. It’s a work of both the Son and the Spirit.
As a work of the Son, salvation can be defined in terms of Christ’s act of atonement and refers to the way in which Jesus‘ birth, life, death and resurrection reconciles a sinful humanity to God.
While this work of the Son properly encompasses the breadth of Jesus‘ story, oftentimes atonement more narrowly refers exclusively to the Cross.
When Christians say ‘Jesus saves,‘ for instance, they usually mean ‘Jesus atoned.‘
Atonement is a sacrificial term owing to the Levitical holiness codes in the Old Testament. In Christian terms, it denotes the way in which Jesus (his life or death or both) is an expiation, an expungement, for humanity’s sin. As I tell the confirmation students each year, atonement refers to how Jesus makes us ‘at-one‘ with God, a God we’d estranged through our sin.
Christ achieves this at-onement irrespective of the rest of the course of human history. As the darkening skies, the torn temple veil and the quaking earth in the Gospels‘ Good Friday scenes suggest, there is an objective status to Christ’s work on the Cross. In some real way, the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus all the way to the Cross determines how God henceforth regards humanity.
That the penalty of humanity’s sin is reconciled, however, does not mean that humanity is fully restored to the life God originally intended.
It may be the 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4-giveness
but that does not mean you are a transformed person.
Forgiveness alone does not make you who God made you to be. Forgiveness instead makes it possible- it frees you- for the work of the Spirit (grace) to restore you so that, over time, you may resemble Christ.
The work of the Son is objective, true, and perfect. It is continued and perfected in us by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes available in the present the work of the Son in the past.
You can see this Trinitarian flow in the chronology of the Gospels themselves. After Good Friday and Easter, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples (to whom all is clearly forgiven) and breathes his Spirit upon them.
Soon, having received the Spirit, the disciples, heretofore dim-witted, sinful and cowardly, bear a striking resemblance to Jesus himself.
Having been reconciled they’ve been restored to lead Jesus‘ life for themselves.
As a present work of the Spirit, salvation can be defined in the very terms Jesus used the word: as healing, rescue, restoration from sin. This is the way Jesus speaks in Luke 19 when Christ invites himself to Zaccheus‘ house. Jesus‘ hospitality and welcome of a dreaded tax collector and Roman collaborator changes Zaccheus‘ heart such that Zaccheus willingly gives up his ill-gotten fortune. In response, Jesus declares ‘salvation has come to this house today.‘ In other words, Zaccheus right then and there has experienced healing.
Salvation as a work of the Son refers to what Jesus says ‘is accomplished’ on his cross. It’s the work that is true regardless of my own belief or faith. Salvation as a work of the Spirit refers to how I access and appropriate the Son’s work in my present life. If the work of the Son is what is objective about salvation then the work of the Spirit is that part of salvation that requires my response.
Already you may be asking: If the work of the Son (on the Cross) is definitive, perfect and objective once for all, then what of those who don’t believe? Who never come to the faith or who do not take it with sincerity?
That specific question is best answered later but understanding salvation as a work of the Spirit allows you to answer part of the question now.
Namely, if one does not appropriate salvation in their present life then- no matter the question of how God will ultimately judge them- they are living an impoverished life. They are living (settling for) a life less than what God desires for them.