Salvation As Transaction or Transformation?
The Abiding Relevance of T.B. Maston
By Brian Edwards
Minister of Students
First Baptist Church—Carrollton, GA
The scene is all too familiar. The setting is not particularly important, as it could be a Sunday morning worship service, a revival, a youth camp nightly meeting, or any number of venues. A speaker steps up onto the stage. At some point during the message, the speaker will strike hard with an array of condemnations on how the worshippers that are gathered together are living their lives (incorrectly, of course). Next, worshippers come face-to-face with their sin through a highly-charged, somewhat manipulative description of how great and mighty God is and how incompetent and needy humans are on their own. This is supposed to be good news.
Then, the pressure is turned up. The speaker, knowing much of the audience is feeling emotionally vulnerable, challenges the not yet-born again in the crowd to accept the gift that Jesus offers them by dying on the cross and thereby cancel out the effect sin has on their lives. All they must do is walk the aisle during the invitation time and pray the sinner’s prayer to receive forgiveness of sins. That is all that is seemingly required of them. Walk the aisle, say a prayer, and go to heaven. Or perhaps more importantly, not go to hell.
No mention is made of the impact that decision is to have on the new Christian’s life in the days, weeks, and months to come. Throughout the diatribe, salvation is termed as a transaction, in which salvation is compared to something similar to making a deposit into a checking account. Just as one would deposit money into a bank to be assured it would be held in an account, so the sinner can be assured of a future in heaven by simply repeating some words in a prayer that the speaker up on stage recites.
The scene is all too familiar. The particularly distressing aspect of this scene is that it causes worshippers and far too many Christians throughout Christendom to view salvation simply as a transaction. There has to be a better way.
How Did We Get Here?
Before we venture into the waters of changing our soteriological lenses, the previous scene begs the question: How did we get here?
Bill Leonard, Dean of the School of Divinity and Professor of Church History at Wake Forest University, traces this idea of salvation as transaction to the revivalism of the American frontier and to the theology of Particular Baptists. These two strands, reasons Leonard, relied heavily on justification, over against sanctification. By overemphasizing justification, the conversion process was shortened to appeal to mass audiences. Then, as this became normalized in the church, salvation began to be packaged as simple plans that were easily understood, such as salvation as a transaction, or “transactional conversionism” as he terms it.
Salvation as a simple transaction waters down the good news of the gospel. While we must not forget that salvation includes the forgiveness of sin and the acceptance of the grace of God offered to us through Jesus, we must be careful to not reduce salvation to a mere formula, something that looks good on a tract but stops dangerously short of encapsulating the complexity and mystery of the good news that is offered through the kingdom of God. Simply put: there must be a different way, a transforming way.
A Transformational View of Salvation
Such was the thought of T.B. Maston. Maston, Professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for over forty years, wrote extensively throughout his teaching career and retirement, publishing numerous books and journal articles. Maston believed salvation should affect every area of the Christian’s life. He reasoned that a salvation that simply rescues someone from hell and provides an entrance ticket to heaven, yet does not affect the way life is lived this side of heaven, is inadequate and unbiblical.
In his book, Why Live the Christian Life?, Maston set forth his theology of salvation perhaps as clear as anywhere else. Maston believed that finding salvation in Christ meant more than reciting a simple, compact sinner’s prayer. Just as the New Testament uses different phrases and ideas to describe one’s union with Christ, so we must broaden the umbrella of our understanding of salvation to more than a mere formula: “The test of our lives is not so much what we believe about the historic Jesus as it is our relation to the resurrected Christ.”
To find salvation, or as Maston put it, to experience union with Christ, two things must happen: God reaching out to humanity and humanity reaching out, or up, to God. Maston was quick to point out, though, that salvation is not simply a one-time experience; rather, it is a process of justification, sanctification, and glorification. Our salvation, our entrance into the spiritual kingdom, is, in fact, never complete: “We are saved in all tenses. We have been saved, are in the process of being saved, and shall be saved.” Salvation should not be understood as something that takes place overnight, like a bank transaction; salvation is a process, a journey.
Maston wrote extensively for Baptist state newspapers, particularly the Texas Baptist state newspaper, Baptist Standard. In these articles, he specifically connected with laypeople and applied his theological stances to the people in the pews. Throughout numerous articles, he drove the point home that the Christian life is a paradox in that the more we mature in Christ, the more we will realize how far we are from Christ on our constantly challenging journey. Maston believed that while we should be assured in our salvation, we should also be cognizant that wherever we are along our own journey, we are, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 3:1, still “babes in Christ” because our Christian experience “is both an achievement and a process.”
This process moves along as we are daily and continually transformed to the image and the likeness of Christ. We become more like Christ as we both enjoy fellowship with God and as we “bear fruit,” to borrow John’s term from John 15:16. The Christian experience is more than the vertical relationship, one’s relationship with God. Being in union with Christ should affect all areas of our life, including our horizontal relationships: our relationships with others. As we bear fruit and live in right relationships with our neighbors, Maston reasoned, we become more like Christ. In other words, salvation is not simply a transaction; salvation is about transformation.
Changing Contexts, Abidingly Relevant Principles
One of T.B. Maston’s most famous phrases was: “abidingly relevant.” Maston believed the Christian life is abidingly relevant, no matter the time or the context. Similarly, Maston’s soteriology is abidingly relevant. While one might not agree with every strand of his theology of salvation, his overarching themes speak volumes to his day, to our day, and will remain relevant for years to come.
To find evidence of this, one need look no further than the current threads of theological thought challenging the notion of transactional salvation, those who attempt to debunk the myth that salvation is only about putting one in right relationship with God for the purpose of receiving entry into heaven. The Emerging Church Movement is one such thread.
As well, there are scores of theologians carrying on and furthering the work of Maston today by speaking to the same issues. The late Robert E. Webber, early church and worship guru, for example, believes that conversion should not be reduced to simple formulas. The Christian faith is about a belief system but also about ethical transformation through behaving and belonging to a community. Salvation and evangelistic efforts must not be reduced to simple formulas and belief systems that do not include ethical transformation or communal fellowship.
Brad J. Kallenberg, religion professor at the University of Dayton, challenges Christians today to not rush the process of conversion. Kallenberg reasons that even the earliest Christians saw conversion as a time-intensive progression. Those new to the faith, in fact, had a transitional status. Therefore, salvation is a process that takes time, which we, who live in such a fast-paced culture, seem to not have time for.
Ultimately, salvation is transformation, not a transaction. Joel B. Green, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, states that we undergo this transformation as our allegiances and dispositions are changed. Put another way, salvation is living according to another world order, a process of “autobiographical reconstruction.” The process of salvation reconstructs who we are, how we think, what we believe, and the lives we live so that our goal as Christians is to walk as Christ walked.
Salvation as transformation affects the way we do church and our evangelistic efforts. If we take the words of Maston seriously, we will not rush our young people into decisions for Christ they are not yet ready for and do not truly understand. Rather, we will encourage them along their faith journeys, teaching them and helping them grasp the implications of salvation for their rapidly-evolving minds. We will surely hope for and pray for their acceptance of the good news of the gospel into their lives at some point. But our zeal for this experience should not supersede our belief in the priesthood of every believer, no matter their age.
Churches should also be humble and honest enough to admit that they do not have everything figured out. Focusing on transactional formulas and reciting the sinner’s prayer in the correct manner puts forward the notion that salvation is about being able to fully understand all matters of faith. Transformational salvation, on the other hand, empowers Christians to be able to admit that on this side of heaven, we, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “see in a mirror dimly.” The educational programs of our church, therefore, should help prod us along the road of sanctification in ways that foster growth and curiosity, transformation and openness to new discoveries along our journeys.
Leonard, Bill, Once Saved, Almost Saved: Revisiting Baptists and Conversion, Parchman Lectures (Waco: Baylor University, 15 Oct. 2008).
Maston, T.B., Why Live the Christian Life? (New Orleans: Insight Press, 1996), 51-54.
Maston, T.B., “Both/And—Saved, Saved, Saved,” Baptist Standard (12 Nov. 1980), 14.
Maston, Why Live the Christian Life?, 55.
Webber, Robert. E., Ancient-Future Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 66.
Kallenberg, Brad J., Live to Tell (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 70.
Green, Joel B., Salvation (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003), 116.