What does it mean to be saved and to be assured of salvation? It's to know that after feeling lost and alone, we've been found by God. It's to know that after feeling worthless, we've been redeemed. It's to experience a reunion with God, others, the natural world, and our own best selves. It's a healing of the alienation—the estrangement—we've experienced. In salvation we become whole. Salvation happens to us both now and for the future. It's "eternal life," that new quality of life in unity with God of which the Gospel of John speak—-a life that begins not at death, but in the present. But how does salvation happen?
By grace through faith
Salvation cannot be earned. There's no behavior, no matter how holy or righteous, by which we can achieve salvation. Rather, it's the gift of a gracious God.
By grace we mean God's extraordinary love for us. In most of life we're accustomed to earning approval from others. This is true at school, at work, in society, even at home—to a degree. We may feel that we have to act "just so" to be liked or loved. But God's love, or grace, is given without any regard for our goodness. It's unmerited, unconditional, and unending love.
As we come to accept this love, to entrust ourselves to it, and to ground our lives in it, we discover the wholeness that God has promised. This trust, as we've seen, is called faith. God takes the initiative in grace; but only as we respond through faith is the change wrought in us.
This is the great theme of the Protestant Reformers, as well as John Wesley and the Methodists who followed: We're saved by grace alone through faith alone. We're made whole and reconciled by the love of God as we receive it and trust in it.
This process of salvation involves a change in us that we call conversion. Conversion is a turning around, leaving one orientation for another. It may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. But in any case it's a new beginning. Following Jesus' words to Nicodemus, "You must be born anew" (John 3:7 RSV), we speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ, or regeneration.
Following Paul and Luther, John Wesley called this process justification. Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all those vain attempts to justify themselves before God, to be seen as "just" in God's eyes through religious and moral practices. It's a time when God's "justifying grace" is experienced and accepted, a time of pardon and forgiveness, of new peace and joy and love. Indeed, we're justified by God's grace through faith.
Justification is also a time of repentance—turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God's love. In this conversion we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation through the Holy Spirit "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16).
Growing in grace
Conversion is but the beginning of the new life of wholeness. Through what Wesley called God's "sanctifying grace," we can continue to grow. In fact, Wesley affirmed, we're to press on, with God's help, in the path of sanctification, the gift of Christian perfection. The goal of the sanctified life is to be perfected in love, to experience the pure love of God and others, a holiness of heart and life, a total death to sin. We're not there yet; but by God's grace, as we United Methodists say, "we're going on to perfection!"