An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
There are not too many subjects that make for more enjoyable study than the doctrine of salvation. We Christians are happy to talk about it anytime, and we are eager to have all questions answered.
I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and that’s our topic for today. We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett about his new book, 40 Questions about Salvation.
Matthew, welcome, and congratulations on your new book!
Well, thank you very much, and thank you for having me on.
What’s your goal in this book – what are you hoping to contribute? And what audience do you have in mind?
Well, 40 Questions about Salvation is a book I wrote, not necessarily for the scholar, though I do hope scholars enjoy it and really find it helpful for their students, but actually it’s a book I wrote more for pastors and beginner students and also those in the church. The title of the book, of course, the book leads you through 40 questions which means that it’s a lot of questions. So, each chapter is brief, but still in-depth enough to answer some of the most difficult questions on the topic and give readers an introductory level understanding of the most important aspects of salvation. So that’s a little bit about who I wrote it for.
You asked about the goal of the book – I think that I would say that the goal of the book is really to help students, churchgoers, pastors walk away from it having not just a more in-depth understanding of salvation, but also a more holistic understanding of salvation. I think that for most Christians, they probably understand one or two or three aspects of salvation, but once you start to open the Bible and dig into it, you realize actually there’s a lot here. So, this book, 40 Questions about Salvation is really meant to give you a whole scope or a bird’s eye point of view so that everything from election to perseverance and glorification, you walk away understanding the whole scope of salvation much better.
Let’s pick up on that. In a sense salvation is a simple concept to understand. But on another level it’s a huge, complex term. What is salvation?
It’s a hard question to answer, because you’re right – even though we tend to use the word in a very specific sense. In Scripture it’s used in all kinds of ways, really, and in a variety of ways that complement each other and focus on different aspects of God’s work of salvation. We could say in its broadest sense, salvation simply refers to being rescued from danger. So it’s a concept we’re very familiar with just in our human experience. And in Scripture salvation refers to being rescued from the wrath of God, sin, and the devil, himself. All three of those are threats to us and so salvation then means that we have been rescued from these and reconciled to God. We’ve escaped the punishment we deserve for our sin, eternal condemnation, and, on the flipside, now we enjoy all the benefits of salvation that Christ has won for us.
Now you’ve kind of hinted at this in what you said, the word salvation – we tend to use that in popular Christianity typically to refer to, say, our conversion. Someone might say, “Oh, I remember when I was saved.” Or they might ask, “When did Christ save you?” Or, “When did you first experience salvation?” Those are ways that we tend to talk.
Yes, and the biblical writers speak that way too.
That’s right. So, there’s truth to that. We don’t want to deny that because the New Testament and the Old Testament both, at times, refer to salvation in that sense, as that initial moment when God saved you. Or we could speak of that initial experience when, to pick up on Paul’s language, you were transferred out of one domain into another, from darkness to light, from the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God. But, that’s not… and maybe this is what’s most surprising, I think, to many Christians… they discover, and they will discover as they read this book, that actually salvation refers not just to that initial moment but is far more encompassing. At times Scripture can refer to salvation as a past event, not just a present event; and then at other times it can refer to it as a future reality. So, you’ll see both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. You think of Paul, for example, in Romans 5, or you could skip ahead to Romans 13, you begin to see salvation used even in the same book. Or you could look at Ephesians, the same thing is present and sometimes in the same book you see salvation used in all three tenses, past, present, and future. And that’s a reminder to us that when we talk about salvation we’re not just referring to what God has done, but also what he is doing presently, and what he has promised to do in the future, as well.
So it’s a comprehensive term and the details of that are what you work out in the book, right?
That’s exactly right. In the book, the 40 questions basically revolve around those three tenses. And so we look at what we would call the past, or the doctrine of election in which, in eternity before the foundation of the world, God elected us in Christ Jesus to be saved and to be his children. But then the book also transitions to the present, in which we look at what exactly has or does happen when the Holy Spirit is at work, sometimes behind the scenes, even, to call and to regenerate someone who is spiritually dead, to bring them from spiritual death to spiritual new life. And what happens when faith and repentance are present for the first time? And so, the book moves from our new birth and our calling, to the doctrine of justification, our right standing before a holy God. And then it transitions from that present reality even into sanctification and perseverance. What then does the Christian life look like now that we’ve been born again? Now that we have a new status in Christ, what then does it mean to live out our life as a follower of Jesus, as one who is sanctified and consecrated, set apart as holy? And then, of course, the book concludes by looking at the future. If God has, in eternity, chosen us; and if, on the basis of the work of Christ, the Spirit has regenerated us, called us, justified us and is sanctifying us, well then, what is ahead? And there we talk about, not just our perseverance in the faith, but also, our future glorification and what that entails, as well as the New Heavens and the New Earth. The book really works through that progression or process in order to give the reader a very broad sense of God’s work in salvation. What it does, is it really leaves us in awe of the great work God is doing. The great work he has done already in us, and then also the great work that he is going to do, that he’s promised to do and promised to fulfill in the future.
Essential to understanding the nature of salvation is understanding the need. That’s the first section of your book. Explain the need that Christian salvation addresses.
Ironically, I think this is probably the most basic and the most evasive issue that we still face today. It’s the most basic issue because when you open the Scriptures it’s impossible to get around the fact that Scripture paints mankind, and us included, as those who are sinners, as those who stand condemned before a holy God. It does this throughout the entire storyline of Scripture from Adam to the Last Adam. The entire context of redemption assumes the fact that redemption is needed, that salvation is needed in the first place. And that, of course, assumes that we are fallen in Adam. Paul makes much of this in Romans 5, as he talks about our identity in the first Adam, as those in Adam who are guilty and who even have a corrupt nature and therefore are characterized by a type of spiritual inability. And Paul will also refer to the fact that not only are we spiritually unable, but we are depraved. There’s a pervasiveness to our depravity so that every aspect of our being is tainted by sin. In other words, there’s no part of us that somehow escapes sin’s effects. From this point Paul then moves to Christ, to show us our great need for a new Adam, a last Adam, a second Adam. One who is going to represent us and give us a new standing, one in which we’re no longer guilty but justified, and one in which even our nature is being renewed into the image of Christ.
Now, I also said it’s the most basic, but it’s also the most evasive. What I mean by that is that even though this is so basic to the storyline and to our human experience, we know sin to be a reality within us. And when we look at the world we know it to be a problem in the world in which we live. And yet, at the same time, (and Paul talks about this in Romans 1, and Romans 2) it’s something that we continually will not, and really, we refuse to come to terms with. Outside of Christ we suppress the truth about God, we reject the creator and instead make idols out of the creation. And in this suppression of the truth we really persuade ourselves and convince ourselves that we are really not that bad, or we’re really not as bad as the next guy. And Paul, basically, in a book like Romans, well, Paul won’t have any of that. He has some very, very, sobering words when he quotes from the Psalms and says, “no one is righteous, not one.” And he removes any excuse that we could appeal to and leaves us just completely naked in our sin before the throne of God.
The book actually begins on this really depressing note because unless we can understand our predicament, our awful predicament, we’re never going to understand, appreciate, value, or cherish the salvation that God brings. And in many ways, I think that is our problem today – both in the church and outside of the church we really don’t have a deep, sobering understanding of the reality of sin and the wrath of God, and because of that, Christ is really not all that beautiful, in the end.
Salvation then must address what we are, what we do, the consequences of all that, and our standing and position because of it. And this all finds its answer and remedy in Union with Christ. So talk to us about that. What is union with Christ, and how is it central in salvation?
You know, that’s such a big question. When I was writing the chapters on union with Christ I thought to myself several times, I think I could write an entire book just on this. Originally, I had, I think, one chapter on union with Christ and I just thought, well, this is impossible. And eventually it led to two chapters on union with Christ because I realized in the first chapter I needed to just talk about some of the basics and the imagery that Scripture used and then in the second chapter I then moved to talk about the theology. Well, if this is how the Scripture talks about union with Christ, what does that mean for salvation? So, in the first chapter I discuss some of the biblical language, and there’s a lot, just to be honest. You could drown in it. Scripture talks about those who are with Christ, those who are through Christ, those who are brought into Christ. And, at other times it will use imagery to talk about the body of Christ or, sometimes it talks about union with Christ or being united to Christ as a Temple, a building, a marriage. Other times it refers to union with Christ as receiving new clothing. You think of Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 15, and many other passages. So all that to say that the metaphors in Scripture are very, very, rich. And when we get to that question, what does union with Christ have to do with our salvation, before we can even get to the specifics of salvation as we know it, we’re also presented in Scripture with material that says there is even much before that point. So, there’s the source of union with Christ and that’s God’s election in eternity. That is the source by which we are united to Christ. It’s not something that is accidental; actually, this was planned by God before the foundation of the world. We could even talk about the basis of union with Christ which, of course, would be the work of Jesus Christ. Both his perfect obedience to the law and his sacrificial death, his suffering in order to pay the penalty for our sin – that would be the basis.
But then, we could talk about if that’s the source in the basis, what then does it mean to be united with Christ in what’s called the application of salvation. In theology we like to neatly divide things up. And so we might talk about, on the one hand, election, which is in eternity; but then we talk about not just salvation planned, but salvation accomplished. And by that term we are referring to the work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection – salvation or redemption accomplished. But then, and this is what the book spends the majority of time addressing, we can talk about salvation or redemption applied by the Holy Spirit. And that has much to do with the Holy Spirit taking what Christ has purchased, what he has won on our behalf and applying it to us in everything from our regeneration to our conversion to our justification and sanctification. One of the points I make is that when we talk about union with Christ, it encompasses the entire application of salvation. So, it might be tempting, for example, to put union with Christ at one specific point in that application. Maybe we want to put it, say, after justification, or before justification. I tried to hold off on that temptation, because if we do that, I think that tends to narrow union with Christ when, in reality, Scripture describes union with Christ as encompassing all of our salvation. So, when we talk about effectual calling and regeneration, that’s when we are initially united with Christ. We could then say appropriate and even continue to live out this union through faith. We are justified in union with Christ; we’re sanctified; we persevere in union with Christ; we’re even said to die in Christ and to be raised in Christ; and, one day we will be eternally glorified in Christ and with Christ, as well. All that to say, union with Christ – this is why I say it’s such a rich concept because, depending upon what aspect of salvation we are referring to, union with Christ not only comes up, but it actually frames the entire discussion.
There’s no part of salvation that we have except as we have it in union with Christ. He’s the Savior and we enjoy salvation because we are in him.
I think I could also add … I’m painting here with a broad brush, of course, but I think I should also add that that doesn’t mean that union with Christ doesn’t look different, depending on what aspect of salvation we’re talking about. For example, when we talk about the difference between justification and sanctification, well, union with Christ comes into the discussion. So that, I think, on the basis of many of Paul’s letters, for example, we can say that there’s a certain priority that Paul gives to what we might call the legal or the forensic or the judicial nature of our justification, so that for Paul it seems to be the case that our legal standing is what is going to undergird the relational aspect that comes in sanctification. This has been, really, I think, at the roots of our debates with Rome. Rome wants to see these two as combined and mixed with one another whereas the Protestant reformers said, “We don’t want to divorce them; but at the same time we need to distinguish between the two, recognizing that if we don’t have a right standing, new legal status on the basis of what Christ has done, and then all the relational or mystical or sanctifying aspects of that progress in holiness, well, that has no grounding.” It’s interesting even in some of these discussions how union with Christ plays a significant role so that we can talk about the importance of being justified in union with Christ as that which really sets the foundation for than being sanctified in union with Christ.
In Part 3 you focus on the divine initiative in salvation, and you address matters related to the doctrines of election, calling, and the new birth. I’d love to spend an entire interview here, but can you just sketch this out for us briefly?
Yes, well, there’s a lot there, isn’t there that could be sketched out? I’ll try to keep it brief.
In 30 seconds or less! (laughing)
It’s almost impossible, really. But when we talk about the beginning of salvation, or maybe we could talk about salvation planned, and then salvation applied. In election, for example, here we have salvation planned in eternity. This is sometimes a doctrine that Christians are fearful of. Maybe they’ve heard all types of caricatures about election; but really, it’s one that the apostles continually turn to for great comfort. Paul, for example, in Ephesians 1 makes much of election because that’s what’s going to actually set the scene for what he’s going to say about justification and how we are not justified by our works, but we’re justified through faith alone. Well, Paul, in a passage like Ephesians 1, describes how, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, that means that before the foundation of the world, God elected you. He chose you in Jesus Christ, and he didn’t do this on the basis of something he foresaw in you, whether it’s works or even faith itself. As if his choice is somehow conditioned on something man does or something man is, but rather his choice is purely by grace alone. It’s gratuitous in the strongest sense of the term. In theology we call this unconditional election. That simply means that God’s electing choice isn’t made on the basis of something we do, but it’s unconditional. It’s grounded purely on his mercy and grace and his love for us.
From there, how do we see that election manifested? Well, it’s manifested when the Holy Spirit calls us and regenerates us. For example, when we talk about calling, you could think of a passage like John 6:44 and other verses, where Jesus makes much of this and will say that unless the father calls you to the son, then no one can come to me. What’s Jesus doing? Well, he’s putting the emphasis on the divine initiative. This is ultimately a work that God must do. He must be the one to call you. And, in theology, this is labeled effectual calling. It’s not a calling that can be resisted or one that’s going to fail but rather it’s successful. When the Father calls, he accomplishes that which he set out to accomplish.
This of course leads to regeneration in which, we think of a passage like John 3 and Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus in which Jesus explains that you must be born again by the Holy Spirit. And the language Jesus uses here of new birth is an imagery that conveys that, again, this is God’s work. This isn’t a synergistic process. By that we just mean a cooperative endeavor in which God, well, he might set his grace out there, but then it’s up to you to decide whether you’re going to accept it or resist it and his grace can fail, and that sort of thing. But rather, in regeneration, we are passive. We are, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:1, we are spiritually dead, in fact. And so what we need is not just the offer of grace, we actually need a supernatural, monergistic work in which God brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life. And it’s in this new birth that our very nature is then renewed, reoriented, everything from our mind, to our heart, to our affections, to our will, so that previously we may have hated Christ, now we have new affections for Christ. And it’s this new birth that then produces, results in, causes the faith and repentance that follows. Though we are passive in regeneration, the new birth, because we’ve been born again by the Spirit, well we are then enabled to trust in Christ, to repent of our sin and that, of course, is called conversion.
In Part 4 you come to the doctrines of conversion, justification, and adoption. What are these chapters all about, and how do they fit at this point in your discussion?
Well, when we talk about conversion, justification, we could even mention adoption, as well, this then becomes typically what we are referring to when we talk about… Maybe we might say something like, when we turned to Christ, or when we first trusted in Jesus Christ – this is what Scripture has in mind. That, as a result of being born again, we are convicted of our sin, we are moved by the Spirit to repentance. And we are, on the flip side of that coin, repentance is not alone it is accompanied by trust in Jesus Christ as our sole and only Savior, as the only one who can redeem us. This is what makes up conversion, that conversion experience. And this is why many theologians have said regeneration must, logically speaking, precede conversion even though, in our experience, it seems to happen all at once. Logically speaking, it must precede conversion because until we have that new life we can’t repent and trust in Jesus. But having been born again, that repentance and trust in Jesus is really just the beginning. Because, as the New Testament talks about, it’s through such faith, a faith that is a gift from the Holy Spirit himself, it’s through this faith that we also receive a new standing. So when we talk about, for example, regeneration, we have in mind a regeneration of our nature; but when we talk about justification, we have in mind our status before God. Our legal standing which, prior to Jesus Christ, our legal standing is one of condemnation. We are under the wrath of God; we are guilty; and on that basis, we deserve condemnation. However, through faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done we are then given a new status. And so, Paul will make much of this to say this new status is not something that comes from our own good works, it’s not even partly through our faith and then partly through good works. He says, no, it’s through faith alone in Christ alone. So, justification, that new standing we have in Christ, well, the basis of justification is the work of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. But, the instrumental cause, as some theologians have called it, is faith itself and Paul goes to great lengths to say we’re not justified on the basis of our faith and works; rather, we are justified through faith alone on the basis of what Christ has done alone. These are the great solas of the Reformation. Solus Christus, Christ alone and Sola Fide, faith alone. And so justification, as a result of being declared right with God, we then have a new identity, a new status in Jesus Christ. In the Protestant heritage we’ve also referred to this as the great exchange, because justification not only refers to the fact that our sins have been forgiven; but that we have received a righteous standing in Jesus Christ and from Jesus Christ. So, think of it this way: this is exchange – on the one hand Christ as our representative, as our Last Adam, has taken our guilt, our condemnation, and paid the penalty for it and so we then are forgiven. But, he has not only taken away our sin, we are actually given something in exchange, something of his, and that comes through his obedience. So in his life he lives a perfect, spotless, righteous life of obedience to the Father and upon faith in Jesus Christ we then receive that pure, perfect standing in Jesus Christ. Our sin is taken away, but then we receive, by God’s grace alone, that righteous standing in Jesus Christ. So that not only does God say, “you are forgiven; you no longer are guilty,” but then God declares us righteous. And that is the good news of justification.
In Part 5 you discuss the doctrines of sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. Again, explain the progression of thought that brings us to this point, and sketch these ideas out for us just briefly.
Sanctification is different from justification, isn’t it? When we talk about justification we typically have in mind a legal status. We could call it forensic in nature. You think of a courtroom, for example. We should also add that this is something that is instantaneous. It’s not a long process, it’s instantaneous, it’s God’s declaration of a new status in Christ. But when we talk about sanctification, that’s a little bit different. If justification is something that occurs exterior to us, then sanctification is something that occurs within and it’s progressive in nature. It’s something that involves the changing of the entire person. Justification means we are declared righteous. Well, sanctification has to do with being made righteous in which we die to sin and we are made alive in the sense of being formed more and more into the image of Christ. In common biblical language this is called holiness. This is an important difference to keep in mind because justification is an instantaneous, once for all, completed act that has ongoing results and benefits; but sanctification is different. It’s lifelong, it’s progressive, it’s a process and it’s not going to be complete until our final glorification. On the other hand, while justification is not based on our works at all, well, sanctification does involve the believer working. Now, I need to qualify there because we’re not performing good works in order to somehow merit our right standing; no, we already have that in Jesus Christ. Rather, the believer works, but only because God works in him. And so even sanctification we could say is by God’s grace.
I think one other difference is noteworthy. Justification on the one hand means that all believers, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what class you are, what age you are, all believers have the same status in Jesus Christ. Sanctification, though, because it’s a process, that means that believers are on a road, they are on a journey in which they are progressing towards holiness and maturity. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s two different tiers of Christians, you know, those who are the super holy ones and those who are less holy; but it does mean that for someone who just came to know Christ, they are at the beginning of that journey in which there is much maturing to do. Whereas, hopefully, Lord willing, someone who’s been a Christian for 30 years, they have been molded by the Spirit for the last 30 years into the image of Christ in a way that shows that type of maturity.
So, these are some of the differences between justification and sanctification. And yet, at the same time we should not divorce the two from one another. Doing so can have some dangerous consequences.
We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett, author of the new book, 40 Questions about Salvation. It’s a really excellent overview of the biblical teaching about salvation, and we hope it gets wide use. Buy a handful of copies and spread them around your church!
Matthew, thanks much for talking to us today.
Thanks for having me.
Editor’s Note: Here are the other books in this “40 Questions” series:
- 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, Robert Plummer
- 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, Thomas Schreiner
- 40 Questions about the End Times, Eckhard Schnable
- 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, Benjamin Merkle
- 40 Questions about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, John S. Hammett
And here are some other titles by Dr. Barrett:
- Reformation Theology
- God’s Word Alone
- Owen on the Christian Life
- The Grace of Godliness
- Salvation by Grace
- What is Regeneration?
Buy the books
40 Questions About Salvation