Is our salvation transactional, unilateral, relational or a combination of these?
“Faith is like the hand of the beggar that takes the gift while adding nothing to it.”
Is the salvation of mankind a bilateral transaction in which God does His part and it is now up to man to do his part, or is it a unilateral transaction in which God saves all without the necessity of any response on man’s part? Some would argue that we shouldn’t even be using such mechanistic, forensic terms since salvation is a relational matter, not a legal one.
God’s Unilateral Provision of Salvation is Transactional – not Relational
While it is certainly true that salvation’s primary purpose and end result is a restored relationship, the relationship of the redeemed with their Creator and Judge wouldn’t have even been a possibility if Christ hadn’t first unilaterally carried upon Himself the sins of the world in order to pay the redemptive price for our sins which had caused separation between us and God (Isa 59:1-2). 
We see numerous references to just such a transaction throughout Scripture. Paul said, “for you were bought with a price,” referring to the precious blood of Jesus which was shed for the remission or forgiveness of our sins (cf. 1Cor 6:20; Col 1:14; Matt 26:28; 20:28; Heb 9:22; 1Peter 1:18-19).
The eternal Son of God took upon Himself humanity in order to bear our sins in Himself as the Last Adam, thereby redeeming us through the shedding of His pure innocent blood on our behalf (2Cor 5:21). The transactional, substitutionary nature of Christ’s salvation of mankind is emphasized in 1Timothy 2:5-6 where Paul says:
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom (antilutron) for all, to be testified in due time.” (1Tim 2:5,6)
Paul here presents the Man Christ Jesus as the only Mediator between God and man who gave Himself a ransom (antilutron, “a substitutionary redemptive price”) for all. This word rendered “ransom” in English is from the Greek antilutron – anti meaning “instead of or in substitution for” and lutron, “redemptive price.” The innocent blood of the God-Man, Christ Jesus, was presented to the Father, thereby procuring the eternal redemption of all humanity (Heb 9:11-15).
Many today mock the truth of Christ’s substitutionary death in which He bore the penalty for our sins on our behalf, seeking to reduce Christ’s atoning sacrifice of Himself on the cross to nothing more than a moral example for us to follow. But according to the Scriptures His precious blood made propitiation to God for our sins. As our High Priest He presented His own blood in the heavenly Holy Place. As the writer of Hebrews states, “with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).
While it is common today to hear Progressive authors mock the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement of Christ, that is precisely what is presented to us in the Scriptures. Jesus presented His blood to God as payment for our sins. Paul says, referring to Christ’s sacrifice: “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood” (Rom 3:25). The precious blood of Jesus was more than sufficient to make propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2:2).
To mock the holy transaction by which God unilaterally procured our redemption through Christ’s own shed blood, calling His substitutionary death “a mechanistic, legal fiction,”  is tantamount to denying the Lord who bought us and counting the blood of the covenant shed for the remission of our sins as a common thing (2 Peter 2:1; Heb 10:29).
I consider with more detail the subject of Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement in my book: “The Ways of God,” and in my blog: “Did Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross change God’s Attitude towards Us?” Also in my blog, “The Early Fathers and the Penal Substitutionary Atonement” I show that the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement was not a later invention contrived by John Calvin, as some claim, but was central to the Early Father’s understanding of the atonement.
Clearly, in Scripture our salvation is seen to have been made possible through a unilateral transaction carried out by our triune God. Even as Adam’s sin brought condemnation and death upon all, the Son of God became the Last Adam in order that through His one righteous act He might bring justification and life to all:
“Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.” (Rom 5:18)
The Appropriation of God’s Unilateral Provision of Salvation is Bilateral
Some Inclusivists argue that since Christ died for all, then all were unilaterally saved, justified and made alive 2,000 years ago at the cross. However, while it is true that provision was made for all at the cross, and before Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father every knee will have bowed in humble submission to Him as Lord and Savior, the salvific work of the cross is not applied to the individual until the Good News of salvation is received by faith. There is an “already” and a “not yet” in the outworking of God’s plan of salvation since it will require ages for every knee to willingly bow to the lordship of Christ, freely receiving God’s gift of righteousness by faith. As the writer of Hebrews says:
“You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him.” (Heb 2:8)
If subjection to Christ was by divine imposition, or if His salvation was automatically applied to everyone without the need for each individual to come to an end of themselves and personally and willingly receive that salvation which only comes through Christ, there would be no need for such a long interval of time between the moment when Christ cried from the cross “it is finished” and when all will have finally been irresistibly drawn to Him, resulting in God becoming all in all.
Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” (Jn 12:32). The first part of this verse is the “already.” He was already lifted up 2,000 years ago upon the cross. But the second part is the “not yet.” Christ by His Spirit has been drawing men unto Himself, each in their own time, and He will continue drawing all unto Himself until all will have finally bowed the knee, confessing Him as Lord and Savior. At that time, and only at that time, God will relationally become all in all (1Cor 15:28; Eph 1:10).
The provision of salvation made at the cross was a unilateral transaction within the Godhead between the Father and Christ, the Last Adam. However, the application of Christ’s provision of salvation is bilateral in the sense that it requires the free response of each individual, personally appropriating God’s free gift of salvation by faith.
However, the term “transaction” is an inaccurate term to describe our necessary response, often intentionally employed so as to present our response to the Gospel as something mechanical rather than personal and relational. A more accurate term to describe our necessary response to the Gospel would be “reception,” instead of “transaction” (Jn 1:12).
Throughout the entire New Testament we see the need for our response of faith in order to be saved (Rom 3:25-26,28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:24-25, etc.). When Jesus commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature He said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16; cf. Jn 3:18). When the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he had to do to be saved, Paul didn’t tell him that he was already saved at the cross, as some do today, but rather said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). Paul says: “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:21). In Romans 10:9,10 Paul emphasized the need for a genuine faith from the heart in order to be saved, saying:
“if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Rom 10:9-10; see also James 2:19 for an example of mere mental assent which does not result in salvation).
The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that the gospel is of no benefit to those who do not believe. He said: “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” (Heb 4:2). Is the gospel good news? Yes! But it is of no benefit to anyone until they believingly receive it for themselves.
Some Inclusivists, such as Don Keathley, insist that there is no such distinction as the saved and the unsaved – that all were unilaterally saved at the cross and it is therefore unnecessary for one to subsequently be saved in order to receive God’s eternal life. He says: “Believing has nothing to do with being saved, Christ is the Savior of ALL men, everyone is saved…”  However, throughout the New Testament the distinction is repeatedly made between those who are saved and have eternal life and those who still need to respond to the gospel in order to be saved, receiving God’s life. The Apostol John clearly distinguishes between those who presently possess God’s life and those who are yet dead in their sins. He says:
“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” (1John 5:11-13)
John here makes a clear distinction between the saved and the unsaved: Those who have the Son, have eternal life, whereas those who do not have the Son, do not have life. And how is it that we come to have the Son? John elsewhere tells us that we come to have the Son and His eternal life by personally receiving Him:
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
John says that all those who receive the Son by faith have been born of God unto life eternal. All those (and only those) who have received the Son have the Son and therefore possess His own eternal resurrection life as their very life (Col 3:3-4; Gal 2:20).
The Faith which receives God’s Salvation is not Meritorious
Strangely, in spite of the many Scriptures which say otherwise, some argue that since salvation is by God’s grace alone apart from works, then faith could not be necessary since faith is a work. However, this argument fails on more than one account. In the first place, rather than faith being presented in Scripture as a work, it is presented as the opposite of works. Paul presented faith as being antonymous with works on numerous occasions:
“But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Rom 4:5)
“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Rom 3:27-28)
“knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal 2:16; cf. Rom 3:28; Gal 3:2; Eph 2:8-9).
Saving faith has no merit. It simply receives the salvation which God unilaterally provided for us and offers to all as a free gift of His grace. To quote Thomas Chalmers, “Faith is like the hand of the beggar that takes the gift while adding nothing to it.” A beggar makes no contribution to the gift. Neither does he do anything to deserve it. He simply receives what is being freely offered to him, just as the repentant sinner receives by faith God’s free gift of salvation offered to him by grace through faith alone.
Not only is faith seen to be antonymous with works and therefore in no way contributing to our salvation, but also we see that true saving faith is itself a gift of God’s grace and not of ourselves (Eph 2:8-9). I develop this theme in more detail in my book: “The Universal Solution,” as well as in my blog: “The Faith of Jesus.” In Acts it refers to believers as “those who have believed through grace” (Acts 18:27). Paul says that we “hope by grace” (2Thess 2:16).
Our fallen condition is such that we not only would not come unto Christ for salvation, but we could not come to Him unless we are drawn unto Him (Jn 6:44,65; 14:16-17; 3:3; 1Cor 2:14). It is said of the religiously pious Lydia that “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). If the Lord had not opened her heart, she would have continued to be just another religiously pious unbeliever like many of us were before we came to saving faith in Christ. Saving faith is a gift of God:
“For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ… to believe in Him….” (Phil 1:29)
The word translated “granted” is charitzomai which is a derivative of the Greek word for “grace” (charis), indicating that it was graciously given to us to believe in Him. We cannot even boast in our faith since it was given unto us to believe by God Himself. That is why Paul says that all boasting is excluded with saving faith (Rom 3:27).
So, we see in Scripture that the provision of our salvation was a unilateral transaction carried out entirely within the Godhead 2,000 years ago at the cross. However, the personal appropriation of that salvation is seen to be bilateral, requiring our voluntary participation, receiving God’s salvation by faith.
However, even the faith we exercise unto salvation is bilateral since it must be granted unto us to believe and receive God’s unilateral provision of salvation. While one must believe in order to be saved, we only believe because we were first drawn by God and graciously given faith in order to receive that salvation. The good news is that all of mankind, each one in his own time, will be willingly and irresistibly drawn unto Christ, bowing the knee to Him, confessing Him as Lord (Jn 12:32; 1Cor 15:22-23; Php 2:10-11).
 There are some today who argue that our sins do not separate us from God. I consider this view in my blog: “The Blurring of Biblical Distinctions.”
 Bradley Jersak: https://www.ptm.org/salvation-three-perspectives-brad-jersak
 Keathley, Don. Hell's Illusion (p. 100). Don Keathley. Kindle Edition.
Don Keathley also says: “There was never a time when you were not in Christ. That’s where you were created… This will change your world. We need to see every person also created in that position. That eliminates all the them and us… That eliminates all the boasting that says, ‘well I invited Jesus into my life as my personal Savior and you didn’t. I made wise choices on my behalf and if you’re smart, you’ll be like me and do what I have done. And if you don’t, you’re ‘gon ta hail.’” (Don Keathley. Unmasking the Gospel. Video 29:10).