When does salvation happen?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: When Jesus, who was God in flesh, fulfilled God's law by living a sinless life and dying on the cross with our sins, his body died with them… and our sins are forgiven. But I’m confused. When exactly were we saved? At the moment of his death? … or before he died when he offered himself… and where and when was that? Did this occur in an instant, or did it happen over time?

Answer: It will be my pleasure to answer your question today… and it is an interesting one. If I understand you correctly, you want to know when we are saved in relation to the various aspects of Jesus’ sacrifice. But before we dig into the issues surrounding time, I need to correct a misunderstanding you have about Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus did not die with our sins. He died for our sins.

If Jesus died with our sins, he’d still be dead… and that would make him no different than anyone else. You see, all unsaved people die “with” their sins and experience the second death (Revelation 21:8). But Scripture is clear. Jesus died for our sins… and this is of first importance to the Gospel because it’s the only way we could be made right with God.

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:1–3, NIV, emphasis mine)

“For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NLT, emphasis mine)

(See also Romans 3:24, 4:25, 8:3; Galatians 1:4; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 2:2, 4:10)

In English, prepositions are often small words, but they are the key in showing how entities relate to one another. So, Jesus dying “for” sin is one thing. That’s the atonement where Jesus became the final “sacrificial lamb” when he died (1 Peter 1:18-19). But dying “with” sin is another thing. That would take the sacrificial aspect right out of it… and the Bible nowhere uses that terminology. Perhaps you are getting the prepositions confused. Jesus deals with our sins by his dying. But that’s different from dying with our sins as his deal.

Now, the English language is not so kind sometimes… and it is true that things that happen simultaneously can be described by the word “with.” So, Jesus died “with” sin in the sense that his physical death and sin’s metaphorical death occurred at the same instance — at the cross. But these merely happened at the same time… although we cannot say that they are coincidental because they are related… but they are different entities. Sin caused Jesus’ death… and Jesus’ death caused sin’s death. But Jesus could not have died “with” sin because that would form a closed loop, and redemption is linear. But you’re right. This is confusing!

What does this mean for your question? The part where you asked, “…. are we saved when He died with them?” is moot. So, when we explore the crux of your question, how God works the redemption of humankind through time, it will be with the understanding that Jesus was sacrificed for our sins and not sacrificed with them… and that being said, let’s talk about time.

When considering Jesus’ sacrifice, we can’t make sense of words like “when,” “before,” “after” and “instant" without understanding how God relates to time. Most people understand that God doesn’t share the limitations time imposes on us. But few people understand the implications of God’s freedom from — and/or control over — time. So, forgive me; this is going to get a little dense.

Time is part of the physical creation. Therefore, he who created time must also transcend it. So, God would still exist whether or not time (or any other aspect of creation) existed. Therefore, God exists outside of time and he has no necessary relation to it. This is what we mean when we say God is transcendent. Where “other” than God exists, he is outside of it and in control of it.

But both the Bible and nature show us that God is also immanent in creation (Romans 1:18-20). He didn’t just “create and run” … which is the Desist view. He sustains creation (Colossians 1:7) and engages with his children (Joshua 1:9). So, is God inside of time or outside of time? … and if both, how do these work together? We need to look at another of his attributes to unlock this.

God is also omnipresent. He is everywhere! But there’s a certain way that he’s everywhere. He is — and I mean all of him, 100% and undiluted — everywhere at the same time. We call this special aspect of his omnipresence his omnitemporality… meaning that there is no moment when he is not continually present in every other moment. So, what do we have?

The Creator God must be transcendent over all things (including time) to create them… while the Omnipresent God must be present in his creation at every moment. So — and he is unique in this — God transcends time… but at the same time, he is everywhere in it. No one really “gets” this… I mean… he’s God. But our understanding of how God relates to time has been growing.

A little over 100 years ago Albert Einstein rocked the world of Newtonian physics with his discovery that, in spite of what it feels like to us, time was not the thing that was constant in the universe. The speed of light was. But while observers from different viewpoints in the universe would all experience “normal time” at the same time, they would perceive each other’s time as passing differently. This is the Law of Relativity. Time is “relative” to the observer.

What kinds of things affect time? Acceleration, for one. If you accelerated away from earth and approached the speed of light, time would pass the same for you in every second of your journey, so you wouldn’t feel any different and your clocks would all be normal. But if we on earth were able to observe you, your time would be seen to be passing slowly… and if you returned to earth, we will have aged in earth time… so we’d be old. But you would have aged at a slower rate relative to earth, so you would be younger… and our clocks and calendars would no longer be in sync.

Now, the Law of Relativity implies that no one will ever reach the speed of light. That’s the theoretical barrier. But it’s not a barrier to our minds, so let’s do a thought experiment here. If you are experiencing normal time while approaching the speed of light… yet it is slowing down relative to others… what would happen when you reached light speed?

Time — relative to an outside observer — would stop for you… although you would continue to experience normal time. You would still be living your normal life, but relative to other people, you would be living it in a state of timelessness — the “eternal now” … and the eternal now is God’ s native state.

But being God, he can participate in earth time if he wants… or he can act transcendently if he wants. But when he “does” something — like redeem the world — it doesn’t take him any time… and I think through relativity, God has given us a taste of that, too… in theory, anyway. If we achieved the speed of light, time on earth would have stopped relative to us… and if we could interface with earth, we would be like gods concerning time.

Under this scenario, the earth would experience millennia without us expending even one second in the eternal now. So, think of all we could accomplish. From that perspective, we’d be accomplishing projects at the same rate that we did on earth… but from an earthly perspective, we would have completed endless works in no time at all. What this does is take words like “when,” “before,” “after” “and “instant” right out of the conversation when we’re talking from God’s perspective.

Now, God’s capabilities are way beyond any in that thought experiment. My point is that even we mortals can now see that “when” something happens can have multiple answers. If one of us lived in the eternal now and had the power to affect things on earth, and single instant here could represent millennia down on earth.

So, “when” did Jesus die on the cross? Well… “when” is a time question… and time is relative to the observer. So, from God’s perspective — one of transcendence and omnitemporality — Jesus was slain before the foundations of the earth (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8). But from our perspective, it was somewhere around 30 AD (Mark 15).

When did Jesus offer to die for our sins… and when did he do it? All this happened “before” the universe was created (… although I understand that without time, there was no actual “before” … but we’re just talking here.) God knew what volitional beings would do before he created them… and so did Jesus — the Trinity being eternal and unchanging. So, the plan of redemption had to be in place before God created that energetic spec that became the universe… and he knew just when you would freely come to faith at that time, too.

So, from God’s perspective, everything was foreordained… which is different from it being predetermined. But from our perspective, everything is volitional… and perspective notwithstanding, our part in salvation was a function of our free wills. There was a moment in time when we came to faith. That’s how earth-bound life works… and there was a moment in time when Jesus died on the cross.

But his death at the moment here had no time element where it counts — in the heart of God. So, don’t worry about the “when” these things happened. Thank God “that” they happened. Thank God for “the fact of” Jesus’ death… whatever the particulars… and from whatever perspective… and that you have exercised your free will in real-time to complete your part in his plan.

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