We never get past the gospel. What saved us in the past, when we
were still in our sins—fallen sons of Adam by nature—was the
grace of God in the gospel. Nowhere is that put more succinctly than in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
But the New Testament can also speak about our salvation in the present tense—we are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15)—as well as in the future tense—we “shall . . . be saved” (Rom. 5:9).
There is only one salvation and one way of salvation. What occurred in our past, works itself out in the present, and comes to consummation in the future is all of a piece. Justification now leads to glorification then (Rom. 8:29–30).
True, some talk unadvisedly about being “saved again,” as though salvation could be lost one day and regained the next. In truth, some who speak this way were never saved in the first place. They had made a decision, but it was just that—a human decision and not a sovereign, life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit “from above” (cf. John 3:3, 5). Others who speak this way may have been converted but never acquired the fullness of assurance that should accompany it; when they did, it felt like a new birth all over again.
Why, then, does the New Testament speak of salvation in three tenses? The answer lies in considering what happens in salvation. Initially, at the point of regeneration, our sins are forgiven— entirely and completely. We have been delivered from sin’s penalty. Through faith, we are reckoned to be righteous—as righteous as Christ is. Then, there is sanctification—a process whereby we are being delivered from sin’s power. Ultimately, in heaven, we will be delivered from sin’s presence. John Stott has argued that when Paul reasoned with Governor Felix about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25), he was pointing out the three tenses of salvation.
At every stage—justification, sanctification, glorification—we come with empty hands, seeking mercy from our heavenly Father. Even at the point of our obedience as Christians—we are to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)—we do so only because God works “in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). And when we enter the pearly gates of heaven, wisdom will dictate that we show our empty hands and say with Edward Mote: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.”
The moment we drift away from the gospel, we perish. But if we remain on the narrow gospel way, it brings us all the way home.