Whenever I am asked the question "When were you saved?" I run up against a difficulty. Can salvation be so easily reduced to one specific date? Surely salvation is rooted in the past action of God, continues throughout the present life of the believer, and is consummated at the end of time. Of course, I am courteous enough to not belabor this point every time I am asked this innocent question. But it must be addressed.
I do not desire to answer this question in full here. Suffice it to say that there are three tenses of salvation: past, present and future. Although such an answer requires exposition, this threefold temporal schema ought to be self-evident. Given that salvation is a history of God's action for us and in us, it necessarily admits of temporal tenses. I have dealt with this matter in simple and more advanced ways elsewhere and will continue to do so. But here I am concerned with a different matter: the order of presentation.
The question on my mind is how to present the tenses of salvation. What is the best order of presentation? With which tense ought we begin? With which tense should we end? Which tense should come in the middle?
One might object that this question is irrelevant: "As long as you talk about all three tenses, who cares which order you use? We are talking about the mystery of salvation here!" But it has become clear to me that the order of presentation does matter. Whatever tense is mentioned first is given a slight priority. Whichever tense is mentioned in the middle becomes the hinge. Whichever tense is mentioned last is given finality.
For instance, if one begins with the question, "If you died tonight do you know where you would be?" the future tense is given priority. One might then proceed to discuss the past tense work of Christ as the means toward the end of future salvation. Then one would conclude a call for decision, assigning a certain finality and urgency to the present tense.
An alternative approach would be to discuss the tenses of salvation in chronological order. One might begin with the announcement, "Let me tell you about Jesus Christ!" This gives priority to the past tense. Next one could continue the story of salvation naturally into the outpouring of the Spirit and the experience of salvation here and now. This places the present tense as the hinge between past and future. Then one could conclude by noting future salvation as the ultimate payoff of this history of salvation.
There are a few other logical alternatives. But these are certainly two common outlines for proclaiming the gospel which suffice to make the point that order matters. The problem with both of these approaches (and likely many others) is misplaced emphasis. The first renders the Christ event as a past condition for a future reward guaranteed by a present action. The initiating action of God falls into the background. The second presentation is sensible, but it seems to lack the urgency of the gospel. One simply dangles big picture narrative and waits for another to bite.
My suggestion would be to try the following order: past, future, present. In my mind, such an order combines the strengths of the previous two approaches. First, one would tell the story of Jesus Christ. This gives the proper priority to the past tense action of God on our behalf. Then one would turn from the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the last judgment. Although this seems to be a leap, the two moments clearly go together: "he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of the father from whence he shall judge the quick and the dead." The story of Jesus properly concludes with the claim that he is the Lord and Judge of the universe, the one to reckon with at the end of time. This move preserves the significance of the future ala the first approach. Finally, one would turn to the present tense ("the time between the times") by inviting another to participate in this grand history in light of what has happen and will happen. By ending with the present, one retains the urgency of the first approach.
So that is my modest proposal: next time you are trying to communicate the gospel, move from past to future to present.
Can any one presentation really treat all three tenses of salvation fairly?
Does order matter?
How does my proposed order measure up?
What other orderings would you recommend?