The Grammar of the Gospel: Salvation as Gift

In a recent conversation about the relationship of divine and human action in salvation, someone used the following analogy.  This person was trying to demonstrate that salvation is pure gift and demands passivity from human recipients.  The magnitude of the gift is so overwhelming that any human involvement in the salvation transaction diminishes God’s glory.

He said that the gift of salvation is like a very wealthy nobleman in the ancient world who purchases the freedom of a slave.  There is just no way that the slave could ever repay the patron, so any effort he would undertake to do so would be an insult to the magnanimous nobleman.

In the same way, humans passively receive salvation from God as pure gift.  Any action on our part is perceived as an effort to repay the gift and diminishes God’s glory as gracious gift-giver.

This analogy makes sense with how Protestant evangelicals tend to regard the salvation transaction and how they might attempt to keep it free of any human merit.  But it doesn’t represent the character of salvation very well.

The relationship of God to humanity and the character of salvation isn’t simply an economic one whereby all actions are payments or fulfillments of debts.  Salvation involves an introduction into a divinely-created reality and human responses can be regarded as participatory.  Furthermore, there are kinds of human responses that embody reception of a gift.

For example, consider again the analogy above from the ancient world.  A wealthy person purchases the freedom of a slave and sets him free.  Does it not bring honor and joy to the wealthy patron for the slave to live into that freedom, to enjoy it to the full, to revel in good company, and to truly fill out all that it means to delight in a good life?

That is to say, receiving such a gift looks like certain actions and patterns of behavior.

Consider another analogy, this one from my friend David Vinson.  A father of two sons builds a business and trains his boys to work in it and understand its various aspects.  One day he turns it over to them, giving it to them as a gift.  Doesn’t it honor him and bring him glory if they work together to share equally in the business, build its capacity, increase its productivity, and bring happiness to their families as they enjoy the profits?  As they do so, they fill out and live into the training they’ve received from their father over the years.  And they increase his fame and reputation as people realize how well he taught his sons.

These analogies are more faithful to the character of salvation in Christian Scripture.  The life-giving and world-renewing Kingdom of God is among us by the power of the Spirit and we enter it, enact it, and receive it through redemptive actions that embody obedience to Jesus.

We confess that we are sinners, we name the good things we enjoy in this world as gifts from God in Christ, we give thanks for God’s forgiveness in Christ, we welcome others as gifts from God, we forgive others, we stop oppressing and manipulating others, we stop the crushing pursuit of social approval, we identify and lay down wearying idolatries.

These are all redemptive behaviors to which God calls all people.  They embody reception of the gift of salvation.  They are not the means whereby we repay God for the gift of salvation.  Such actions, rather, draw upon God’s very life as the Spirit animates us and renews us.

The character of the gift-giver and the nature of the gift God calls us to enjoy determine the manner in which it is received.

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9 responses to “The Grammar of the Gospel: Salvation as Gift

  • Flotsam and jetsam (9/21) « scientia et sapientia

    [...] Salvation as gift: Tim Gombis makes a great point that receiving a gift is not entirely passive; how you receive it matters. [...]

  • jonathan mcgill

    Tim,
    Your thoughts regarding our receiving God’s gift reminds me of an article that started poking me in this direction.

    Edmund Neufeld, “The Gospel in the Gospels: Answering the Question ‘What Must I Do to Be Saved?’ from the Synoptics.” JETS vol 51, no.2 (June 2008)

    He tends to emphasize eschatological salvation over present or past and says that those who belong to God are the recipients of that. However, being identified as one who belongs to God is dependent upon receiving/entering/following after the kingdom via faith-filled obedience to Israel’s crucified and risen Messiah.

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but on the whole I found it helpful and engaging. Check it out if you’re interested.

  • Daniel

    Do you think that Scripture sometimes presents salvation as a reward? I’m thinking about James 1:12 for instance.

    • timgombis

      Yes, indeed. Salvation is the reward for perseverance, especially throughout Revelation. But also in Romans 2 and throughout the Gospels. I’m not sure whether James 1 is eschatological salvation or presently-enjoyed salvation, however. Just haven’t looked at it too carefully yet.

  • Matthew Westerholm (@mwesterholm)

    This is what you get for mentioning your blog in class. :-)

    Can the concept of “concurrence” be of any assistance here (i.e. God enabling and working through our efforts)? I’m thinking of passages such as . . .

    – “work out your salvation . . . for it is God who works” (Phil. 2)
    – “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding” (2 Tim. 2). We think, and God gives understanding.
    – Self-control as a fruit of the Spirit. So that the more the Spirit typifies/controls our lives, the more WE are in control.

    My reading of Paul doesn’t support a dichotomy of righteous activity with an either/or distinction. If we neglect our efforts (passivity), we lazily presume upon God. But if we ignore His initial and ongoing enabling (denying God glory), we thanklessly applaud ourselves. We should follow Paul’s example: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10)

    Yes? No? Sorta? :-)

    • timgombis

      Hey Matthew, you’re welcome here!

      Yes, that is indeed helpful. That’s another way that God’s enabling is highlighted. But these reminders are strategically placed — they become part of the vocabulary of the Christian community as they learn to talk about their own obedience to God. This is how God’s priority in saving is preserved. We don’t mention in evangelism, for example, that no one can come to faith unless God first acts to elect them and activate their faith. We proclaim the gospel and call people to obey Jesus. Then, when they have come to faith, they join the people who give thanks to God for enlivening them and for planning from eternity past the good works in which we might walk. This is part of discipleship — both exerting effort and learning to speak of our obedience as God-enabled and God-powered, life-giving, resurrection power-harnessing action.

  • joey

    1 Peter 1:5
    God “guards” us by “faith.” Who’s faith? It is by OUR faith in him – something we DO. He does not do it without us. (And, of course, Biblical faith is never separated from obedience.)

  • Becky H.

    As you well know, my 10 year old Nick is much more of a deep thinker than I will ever be. His question to us last week after church was this, “If God can just save us all – why didn’t he just go ahead and do that?(meaning regardless of how we respond) I didn’t know what to tell him. I told him to call Dr. Gombis….

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