“and through which you are being saved. if you hold to the words which I preached to you—assuming you did not believe in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:2)
There are two things in particular that I want to highlight about this verse. The first thing is the word sw/◊zesqe (sozesthe), which is the passive form of the verb sw/◊zw (sozo). The verb means “to save” or “to deliver.” Yet, Paul very clearly uses this verb in the passive form which then means “to be saved.” Why do I make an issue about this? It is simply because salvation is something that is worked by God, not us. It is God’s grace and God’s grace alone. Too often we like to think that we bring something to the table in the work of salvation—even if we limit it to our own choice of God, but we must not do so, for were we to contribute to our own salvation, to use the words of Paul, grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6).
At the same time, given that this verb is in the present tense, the implication is that the saving is ongoing. This is one of the thematic things that you will see not only in Paul but throughout the New Testament. We often speak of this as “the already and the not yet.” Jesus sometimes speaks of the Kingdom of God being here (Mark 1:15) and sometimes speaks of it as yet to come (Luke 17:20ff). This verse is another example of this theme; at times scripture talks of us being saved (Ephesians 2:8 ) and at times, as in this verse, the scripture speaks of being saved as if it is an ongoing process.
Jesus, through his life and death on the cross, inaugurated the end times. Things were begun in the sacrifice of Christ, yet will not come to consummation until his return. Why is that? God is still gathering the elect from the nations through history. God’s patience, as Peter puts it, means salvation for all of the elect (2 Peter 3:8-10). In other words, the kingdom is here in the church right now, but until Christ returns in glory, the fullness of God’s kingdom will not be revealed.
On a scaled down level, the same thing can be applied to our own salvation, and for this we have two important Biblical terms: justification and sanctification. Justification is the already. When God brings us to faith, he declares us justified because of the work of Christ. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us (note the language of “impute”—Jesus’ righteousness is not imparted to us for we do not own it, rather it is imputed to us in a declarative way—we stand before God’s judgment seat in the robes of another). Sanctification is the not yet because it is ongoing. It is the language that Peter uses when he speaks of working to “make your election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) and Paul speaks of “working out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12).
Sanctification is ongoing and will not be complete until we are glorified with Christ. God is still doing the work on us in sanctification, just as a potter works a lump of clay into a beautiful vessel, but at the same time, we participate in the process (or seek to resist it). How do we participate? First of all, we seek to grow in our lifestyle, putting to death the sinful habits of our life. Second of all, we seek to learn more and more about God through his word. That word will reveal more and more about our life that we need to clean out or change for the glory of God, so that we might be able to better enjoy him in this world. And third, as these things are an ongoing practice, we do so as part of a believing community, being exposed to the means of grace, we rejoice and suffer in fellowship with others. Lastly, we grow through trial and testing. This strengthens us in our faith often so that we might assist others better in their sanctification.
Never lose sight of the fact that God has begun a work in you and he will not rest until that work is completed—which means he will not allow you to rest in your own sanctification. Paul closes this verse with an interesting statement. What he is implying is that if you are not growing in your faith and sanctification, you may have believed in vain. Does this mean that you can lose your salvation? Certainly not! It does mean, though, that your belief was not genuine to begin with. Remember the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20). There are some seeds that do sprout, even though they fall on rocky or weedy ground. There are some people who will look as if they had a genuine conversion experience for a time, yet, will fall away. These are those that Paul is referring to. In a sense, he is pointedly asking the Corinthians whether they are people of stony or weedy soil.
Does this mean that we stop preaching to those whose soil is rocky, that have given evidence of salvation and then fallen away? Certainly not! We have been given the task of scattering seed; it is the Holy Spirit who works the tiller in the soil. Though the soil may be unproductive at one point, we do not know whether, in the providence of God, that the Holy Spirit will later strip the soil of its rocks and weeds so that the world will find a place to sink deep and productive roots. We are given the joy of participating in the process by scattering seed; we must trust that the Holy Spirit is sovereign in his preparation of the soil.