Salvation: Three Perspectives (Transactional, Unilateral, Reciprocal) – Brad Jersak

“Salvation”(Gk. soterion – Luke 2:20; 3:6; Acts 28:28; Eph. 6:17; Titus 2:11).
Related to: save (sozo); savior (soter).

Remember that moment in Christian history or biblical revelation when the people of God arrived at consensus on what “salvation”meant and how it is achieved? 

Me neither. 

But amid the roiling ocean of competing ideas, opinions and systems, we can occasionally discern currents—popular themes surface through the cacophony and congeal into doctrinal streams. Allow me to identify three visions of salvation that compete for our attention and form our practices. Indeed, one’s image of salvation has formative power in the daily life of faith and prayer, so they are worth pondering.   

I’ll briefly discuss these three points of view:

  1. Salvation as a transactional deal.
  2. Salvation as a unilateral action.
  3. Salvation as a reciprocal relationship.


Metaphors: Legal contract or economic deal-making.
Theological Uses: Atonement theory, intercession, revivalism. 

“If you ________, then he’ll __________.”

Salvation is transactional when viewed through legal or economic metaphors in which God is viewed as a judge whose justice needs to be satisfied or a creditor who needs to be paid. 

In atonement theory, the two metaphors are typically combined as a debt paid through punishment. Only on receipt of this debt is God willing, able and just to forgive.

Prayer is transactional when an individual or group prays right or prays enough to bring about the answer they seek.       

In revivalism, corporate prayer becomes transactional when it calls us to serve up sufficient repentance, prayer, worship and/or unity to bring about a spiritual tipping point that leads to revival. Charles Finney lays out a system in his classic, How to Have a Revival.   

The classic proof text is from 2 Chronicles 7:14

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Transactional religion makes a lot of sense in the context of Old Covenant blessings and curses (e.g. Deut. 28). If we are good, God pays us off with blessings. When we are bad, God pays us back with curses. Because we were not good enough, Jesus had to pay God off with obedience and God had to pay Jesus back with punishment. By satisfying both God’s commands and his wrath, Jesus frees God to forgive humankind. But again, only if they repent and believe (another transaction). 

From beginning to end, transactional religion makes us the subject and God the object. We’re the actors and God is the reactor. Even if the whole transactional system is conceived by God, it is a mechanistic, legal fiction where even “grace” and “forgiveness” are outcomes or dividends contingent on a successful transaction.     

For much of Christian history, transactional religion attained dominance, whether through Catholic indulgences or forensic atonement theories or revivalist preaching. But having been thoroughly burned by bad trips through transactional salvation, reformers through the centuries have pushed back with an emphasis on grace that transcends deal-making and makes God the primary subject, sometimes to a fault. This leads me to our next vision of salvation: salvation as a unilateral action.  


“He ________, you do nothing.”

Metaphors: Augustine and the Reformers’ raising the dead.
Theological uses: Grace alone,monergism” = one-sided operation.

Whether it was Augustine, Martin Luther or John Calvin, they saw through the perils of transactional religion that makes one’s salvation and assurance contingent on human goodness or even our own capacity for faith. They saw how human efforts to amass sufficient merits to pay down their debt of sin or pay off God with good deeds would consistently lead to a deluded self-righteousness or real anxiety and despair.    

They rightly acknowledged that salvation begins and ends with God. They saw that God’s love and forgiveness precede our response. God initiates every saving work prior to our faith or love for him. Christ dies for us while we are still sinners and still at enmity with God (at least for the elect … ahem). 

For Augustine and the Reformers, the foundational metaphor is found in Ephesians 2:

1 As for you, you were deadin your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved

They reasoned that all humanity is born dead (Augustine’s massa damnata)—as if all humankind was already a mass of buried corpses, rotting in one global cemetery. And dead people cannot save themselves. They cannot even respond to God. If they rise, it will only be because God in his mercy resurrects [some of] them from the spiritual grave. And even their response of faith is nothing more than obeying God’s command that we arise and come forth from the tomb. 

Who saves us? In transactional religion, somehow it always came down to us. But in grace alone salvation, we came to understand that Christ is both the author and finisher of our faith. Our salvation was up to him—he was able to do it, he desired to do it and in fact, he did do it! “It is finished!”

I believe “Grace alone” salvation provides a powerful and necessary pushback to transactional religion. That said, whenever we react to systems of spiritual abuse that once personally oppressed us, we need to beware of where the pendulum might swing next. In our reactivity to transactional religion and by totalizing one biblical metaphor, we were prone to tripping into new errors.   

Consider: for good Augustinians (which includes Calvin and Luther), salvation is a unilateral action by God alone. They believed we don’t move one spiritual muscle in the salvation process. I would argue that the collateral damage of this perspective involves three major casualties:

  1. Authentic human agency (not quite the same as freedom, but related).
  2. Authentic trust.
  3. Authentic relationship of willing love. 

The problem with salvation that’s entirely unilateral is that it suspects any response or expectation of a response to God’s love as a legalistic obligation and dead works. As with transactional religion, authentic freedom, trust and love aren’t really involved—either in the fall or in our salvation. While God’s unilateral saving act is a great gulp of fresh air to those smothered in transactional religion, the risk of unilateral grace is that it may negate what every real relationship MUST have: freedom, trust and love—the necessary ingredients for what we’d call a “reciprocal relationship of willing love.”  


“He _________, so I _________.”

Metaphor: Patriarchal or Marriage covenants with an emphasis on divine caregiving and mutual faithfulness.
Theological uses: Freely given, mutually responsive love between the Father and Son (the Incarnation) and between God and his bride (covenant). 

A major reason for theological confusion has been our mistaken notion that God’s “covenants” are legal contracts rather than metaphors describing God’s relationship to his people in terms of a spousal relationship. 

God is forever the faithful spouse, idolatry is seen as a kind of adultery and exile is seen as marital estrangement. When the old covenant was broken, it was treated as a sort of divorce while the new covenant signified a remarriage (to the same spouse, as you see in Hosea). 

While God’s unfailing love and faithfulness are certainly unilateral, the relationship itself was obviously and intentionally never meant to be one-sided. God alone saves us but that salvation is FOR reciprocal relationship and the relationship is intrinsic to the salvation. So John says, “We love him because he first loved us.” 

Thus, when viewed through the prism of covenant monogamy and willing affection, the ravished bride of Song of Solomon sounds nothing like Lady Hillingdon, whose 1912 journal says, “When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.”

So while the “Savior work” rested entirely in Christ’s (the Bridegroom’s) hands, our salvation was FOR something—not some escape FROM some fiery punishment (at the hands of the divine Husband!) but FOR a reciprocal relationship of willing love. 

In fact, as I understand it, we ought not think of salvation merely as a wedding already accomplished for us, but rather, the fullness of an active marriage in which we’re participants. I.e. It’s not just that we were saved but that we are saved. It’s not just that we were united to Christ but that we are in union with Christ. Christ is not only the wedding day bridegroom—he is the eternal husband.

“Finished work” theologies of salvation rightly point to all that was forever accomplished at the Cross and to our new identity in Christ—but they tend to underemphasize how our spousal union with Christ (present and continuous) IS the reason, the context and the ongoing blossoming of our salvation. We weren’t merely saved in the wedding for the marriage—the ongoing marriage itself is the locus on salvation.    


Maximos the Confessor, the great theologian of the human will, reasoned this way (paraphrased by a few of his commentators):

  1. Maximos starts with the Incarnation as an act of saving grace and reciprocal love—God and man are united in the person of Christ.  
  • “Maximus stresses the Incarnation as an effective instrument of salvation, of which the reconciling death is only a logical consequence. The Incarnation itself is the supreme act of divine grace, which carries into effect the saving relationship between God and man… In the Incarnation, God becomes flesh, uniting himself with man in Christ, true God and true man. The act of salvation understood in this way is not a one-sided act so that God, as it were, “forces” his salvation on man. Nor is it a divided act so that Christ as man reconciles God the wrathful Father, but a cooperative act, an act of reciprocity.” 

2. As saving grace and reciprocal love are united in the person of Christ, so too, God in Christ regenerates human freedom, trust and love in an authentic willing relationship between the Savior and his people: 

  • “We are told that God created mankind from pure love. This means that he gave man freedom, for love given without freedom is obsession but it is not love. And love demanded without freedom is a psychosis; it is not love. God created us with love and gave to us that other factor which is essential to love – trust. If there is to be freedom then there also must be choice and the choice is whether or not to love God and trust Him.” 

To simplify Maximos’ major concern, if by human freedom we turned from God’s love and fell, then our restoration must also include the grace-empowered activation of human freedom in a willing return and surrender to God’s love. Only grace makes human response possible, but in Christ and through Christ, a human response follows. And no, this is not ‘works’—it is authentic human freedom in a real love relationship.


I understand the sensitivity to abusive transactional religion that led to grace-alone monergism. I am also pressing the monergists see that grace-alone salvation leads to a reciprocal relationship in which a responsive bride is the norm and her loving faithfulness is not condemned as works. In short, salvation bears this fruit: “We love because he first loved us.” 

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