Just to be up front, I would say the answer to this is (drumroll please . . . ) BOTH. There is no doubt that being saved from our sins by Christ is something that happens on an individual basis when we accept to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, died for our sins, was raised on the third day, and sits at the right hand of God the Father. BUT, do we not forget that there are three parts to salvation? How do we discuss salvation with non-believers? Are we doing a good job? I would submit that salvation must occur at both the individual and communal level.
Salvation consists of justification, sanctification, and glorification. We have probably heard these terms somewhere before, but in rarely in church these days. I used to believe that it was a good thing that these terms are not mentioned because it makes Christianity seem too “weird” or “unrelatable” to unbelievers that we are trying to reach. I feel now, however, that the church should explain salvation, but do so in a way that we can all understand.
Justification is the deliverance from the penalty that we would otherwise receive had not Jesus taken that for us on the cross. Regardless if one believes that “sin entered the world through one man, Adam” as Paul says in Romans, there is no doubt that we are incapable of being perfectly righteous. If you don’t believe me, try it. Try to live for one day in which you do not say, think, or do anything that is impolite, rude, malicious, or just plain bad for someone else. We are justified before God because the only perfect person to walk this earth – Jesus – became like the Old Testament sin offerings and died (hence the term “Lamb of God” or “Agnus Dei”) in our place. Justification is discussed in Galatians 2:16: Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.
Sanctification is the thing that we cannot seem to get right. That is, no matter how hard we strive to be perfect, we cannot do it. Sanctification is the process (and this is important to note – it is a process and not an instantaneous event) by which we try to be more Christ-like. Step-by-step we try to reform ourselves and our lives so that they are more like the way that Jesus lived. Sanctification is NOT obeying the law (or at least because we have to) since we have been saved from the law. Paul mentions this throughout his letters, especially in Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians. One very important thing to note here is that sanctification becomes possible (in as much as it is possible) BECAUSE of justification. Oftentimes we try to become better people on our own to be righteous. This simply isn’t possible. Since we are justified before God (NOT of our own doing, but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection), we embark on the journey of sanctification out of gratitude – NOT necessity to be right before God.
Sanctification is a transformation. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of salvation because we expect that the moment we accept Jesus that we should become saintly people. When we find that we still do the same foolish things that we used to, we get discouraged and want to give up. That is why it is so important to remember that sanctification is a process. This concept can be seen in Romans 6:22: But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.
Glorification is what will happen after Jesus returns and all of the dead have been resurrected. We will all have “glorified” bodies that will have no ailment or blemish. These bodies will be permanent and we will also be righteous in thought and action. It is what we are striving for in the sanctification process and what we ultimately achieve by God’s doing when the old earth has passed away and the new heaven and new earth are brought to be. Paul mentions this in Philippians 3:21: [Christ] will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
So, having said all this, why is it so important that salvation is seen as a communal event? Fast forward through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism, and we find ourselves today in our current post-modern, post-Christian culture. We ask a person if they are saved and if they are not, we turn our noses up and tell them that they better get saved quick or risk hellfire. Isn’t that attractive? Or do we have a better way to speak such an important truth? I believe this attitude came from post-modernism where MY view of truth is right and good for ME. I get to decide what is true and what isn’t because everything is relative. Everything starts to become about the individual and eventually our thinking about salvation is eroded into something that is JUST for me. Like I said before, I do believe there is an important personal aspect to salvation, but that is not the ONY aspect of salvation.
Jesus died for all of our sins. He went to the cross because none of us could get rid of sin ourselves or stand righteous before God. ALL of us who chose to accept this fact are justified. Next comes sanctification. If we are, out of appreciation, to strive to be more Christ-like (which is ironic, I know, because we are incapable of becoming perfect and trying to do so says the Law is better than grace, but yet Jesus was perfect and that is how we are supposed to be . . . ok, I digress) and it is impossible for us to be completely Christ-like then how can we even make any progress in sanctification. This can only happen, I would argue, by living in community with others who are striving toward the same goal. By being accountable to one another and by experiencing salvation together in community, we learn each other’s ways and slowly are transformed into people who genuinely care for others before ourselves. Finally, we are ALL glorified before God and share together in the resurrection and the great banquet in the kingdom of God as brothers and sisters in Christ.
THIS is the kind of community that I would love to see The Crossing be. Just imagine if we lived in community as brothers and sisters in Christ sharing in the salvation that he graciously gave us. Imagine if we did not kick the unbeliever to the curb, but rather, as Christ did, accept their skepticism (after all – who of us is not a skeptic in one area or another?) and walk with them through the process. Yeah, it sounds nice to me too . . .