So far the apostle has exhorted his readers to put on and take up the following items: the belt of integrity, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of gospel peace which make us firm-footed in battle, and the shield of faith. What else does a soldier need in combat? Well, any solider would be incomplete without a helmet. So the apostle goes on to say that the soldier of Christ is to take the helmet of salvation.
Now, each of these items in the panoply of spiritual warfare stand for spiritual realities that are to characterize the believer in Christ. The belt stands for the integrity of the Christian, the breastplate for his righteousness, and so on. Here, in verse 17, the helmet stands for the salvation that we have in Christ.
There are a couple of questions we should ask of this text. First, what exactly is the apostle referring to by “salvation”? This might seem like an obvious question, but it does bear some reflection. In the Bible, salvation has past, present, and future aspects. The question then is to which of these aspects is the apostle referring.
Thus, when the apostle tells us that we are not saved by “works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5), he is referring to that aspect of our salvation that is past. There is a sense in which every Christian can say he or she is already saved. We are saved in the sense that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Forgiveness of sins is not something we have to wait for, but something which is granted immediately to everyone who believes in Christ as Lord and Savior. We are “now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). Moreover, a new nature and new life is something which is already ours in Christ.
But there is also a present, ongoing aspect to salvation. Salvation is not yet complete, and we have not only been saved, but we are also being saved. This is how we are to understand a number of passages, such as Phil. 2:12, where the apostle tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In that verse, salvation is seen as a work in progress, something that is ongoing. It is connected to past salvation in the sense that the beginnings of this ongoing work of salvation started when we first came to faith in Christ. Paul also refers to this in Phil. 3, when, referring to himself, he says that he is not yet perfect, he has not yet attained to the resurrection of the dead (see verses 11-14). No one can say that he or she is yet perfect. We still sin while we are in these mortal bodies, and so we are always in need of sanctification.
But thank God, that is not all there is to it. There is yet a future aspect of salvation, something which we all await. In some sense, salvation will not be fully perfected until the Second Coming of our Lord, when he will raise the dead and judge all the nations. So, for example, the apostle Peter writes that we are “kept by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). This is what the apostle is referring to in Rom. 13:11 when he says that “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” When we look all around us, and we see the church divided and confused, sin abounding, and problems in every corner of our experience, we can be thankful that God has not finished the story of salvation. The end of all this misery we live in will coincide with the beginning of an eternal rest of righteousness and peace. It is only then that we will be finally and fully saved. In the book of Revelation, it is when the enemy of God’s people, represented by Babylon, is overthrown, and God’s people finally delivered, that we read of a great multitude in heaven crying out, “Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God” (Rev. 19:1).
Again, the question is: to which aspect of salvation is the apostle here referring? Well, since he doesn’t specify, I think it is best to take salvation here as referring to all aspects of it, past, present, and future. A further reason for this is that you cannot take any of these in isolation. What I mean is that if you have been truly saved by a work of the Spirit of God in your heart, then there will be an ongoing, present experience of that salvation in your life, and it will inevitably be consummated in the age to come. There is no such thing as a saved person living with impunity in sin. There is no such thing as a truly saved person living without the fruit of faith in their life. And there is no such thing as a truly saved person who dies and goes to hell in the end. All who belong to Christ will be fully and finally saved. If you have been regenerated, you are being sanctified, and if you are being sanctified, you will persevere in holiness and be finally glorified.
These are important distinctions because there are all sorts of heresies that emerge from seeking to separate some aspect of salvation from the rest. For example, those who want to separate past salvation from its present effects in the heart and life end up advocating for a form of easy-believism that discourages people from getting serious about the sin in their lives. There are still folks around who claim that you can have Christ as your personal Savior, and yet reject him as your Lord. There are others who claim you can be born again and yet bear no fruit in the life that might bear up such a claim. Do you know what the Bible calls this kind of faith? It calls it a dead faith, the faith of devils, a useless faith (see James 2). True faith in Christ is a faith that works. True faith overcomes the world; it doesn’t give in to it or imitate it (1 Jn. 5:4).
Now it’s absolutely true that a believer can fall into sin, serious sin, and sometimes for long periods of time. No one is immune. If that were true, Paul would not have had to write what he is writing to the Ephesians here in chapter 6. Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). Sin can come into our lives with serious and devastating effects, damaging our witness, destroying our relationships, and ending our ministries.
However, I don’t think a true believer, someone who has been truly born again, will live their whole life in sin, bereft of the fruit of faith and holiness. There are two reasons I believe this. First, I believe it because the author of Hebrews notes that God knows how to discipline his children when they sin so that they bear the “peaceable fruit of holiness” (Heb. 12:11). In other words, when a child of God sins, God disciplines them so that they will stop sinning and start obeying. That is the clear implication of Hebrews 12. The other reason I believe this is the fact that the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart is more powerful than the power of sin. This is why the apostle John writes: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9, ESV). Note the universality of that statement: “no one.” Note the power of the new birth: “he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” It doesn’t say he will not sin at all, but that he won’t keep on sinning – the work of God’s Spirit has more staying power than the power of sin, thank God!
Our Lord said it like this: “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mt. 7:17-20).
Another false idea that has been bounced around in the church through the centuries is this idea that you can be truly born again and yet finally lost. I appreciate the fact that those who advocate this can point to many passages that warn Christians of falling under God’s judgment in the age to come. One thinks of the passages in Hebrews, for example. However, the problem with this view is that it again separates what God has joined together: salvation is a unity and should not be torn into the disparate pieces.
How then are the warnings of Scripture to be explained? Well, those who think a true Christian can lose their faith and end up lost forever don’t distinguish between saving faith and false faith. But we have to make that distinction. It is a Biblical one. It’s what the apostle James is getting at when he talks about dead faith. He is obviously not talking about someone who doesn’t “believe” anymore; rather, he is talking about a person whose faith doesn’t do anything, doesn’t produce fruits of holiness in the life. It’s like the faith of devils: they certainly believe in God and Christ, have correct theology and so on, but they are damned. That’s what we mean by false faith. Someone can have this and really think they are a Christian and going to heaven, but they are without the kind of faith that saves. It is to these that the Biblical warnings are aimed.
On the other hand, those who are truly saved, who have saving faith, are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Our Lord tells us, “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:39-40). He goes on to say, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44). Again, hear the note of certainty in these verses: “I will raise him up at the last day.” It’s not, “I hope to raise him up,” but “I will raise him up.” Those who have been drawn effectually by the Father to faith in the Son will be finally saved. That’s what our Lord himself said. This is backed up by numerous other passages, such as Jn. 10:27-29 and Romans 8:37-39. The elect will be finally saved.
Now this is different from those who say, “Once saved, always saved,” but who really mean, “Once made a profession of faith in Jesus, necessarily saved in the end.” That is not what we are saying. Again, we cannot separate the work of Christ in the heart from the life of the Christian. This is why older theologians preferred to say, the perseverance of the saints. Yes, the saints must persevere in faith and holiness in order to be saved (cf. Mt. 24:13). But the point here is that they will, and that this certainty does not ultimately depend upon our own fickle wills but upon the power and promises of God our Savior.
“But,” you might say, “What difference does this all make? These just seem like theological niceties, clever distinctions, and so on, but I don’t see how they can make me a better person or prepare me for spiritual battle.” Well, that’s really our second question that we need to ask of the text. The first was: What is this salvation of which the apostle speaks? The second is: How do we appropriate salvation for spiritual battle and put it on like a soldier wears his helmet for combat?
It means that above all, we need to understand what we have in Christ; we need to understand our riches in Christ. This is very important. You need to understand your resources. You need to know that you can meet the enemy and defeat him. And that’s where salvation comes in. Charles Hodge wrote in his commentary on this passage, “That which adorns and protects the Christian, which enables him to hold up his head with confidence and joy, is the fact that he is saved.” We put on salvation like a helmet by understanding what it means to be saved in the first place. It is because we are saved that we can meet the devil and his legions to begin with. It is our salvation that has armed us, so to speak. We need to know what weapons we have as saved people.
The problem is that we can get discouraged in the battle, and begin to think we have far fewer resources at our disposal than we really do. You can begin to get the Elijah syndrome. That is, you can become paralyzed by the feeling that you are all alone in the battle and that you are having to do this completely in the power of your own strength and in the light of your own understanding. And when you have made a few mistakes and when you come up short a few times, it’s easy to descend into this mindset. And you become weary in the battle and you begin to think about giving up. It’s a bad place to be: it’s incapacitating, debilitating, and paralyzing spiritually.
How do we get out of there? First of all, you need to understand and really believe that when God saved you, he equipped you with everything you need to defeat the enemy. That begins with his work in your heart. It’s easy to look at our hearts and see them as the playgrounds of Satan and to forget that “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). You are never alone, nor are you ever out-gunned, because there is never a day that the Lord is not working in you and through you. It is true that you may be small and insignificant, that your talents may be small, and your reach limited. But know that if our Lord could take a few fish and loaves of bread from the hands of a boy and feed five thousand people with it, he can bless you no matter how small you are.
In this connection, the apostle Paul wrote, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, and the reason for this is that he is there empowering you and equipping you. How are we strengthened? We are strengthened by the power of God (Eph. 3:16). We are kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5). It was the power of God that saved you in the first place (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:5) and it is the power of God that keeps you there. The apostle himself confessed that though he and his fellow workers were “weak” yet they were able to “live with [Christ] by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4). Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God “would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power” (2 Thess. 1:11). God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power (1 Tim. 1:7).
Of course, God’s power does not look like the power of the world. It is a power in smallness, strength in weakness, just like the Lord. Nevertheless, it is the power of God, a power that will overcome all that opposes it in the end.
Then we need to remember that God never gives up on his children. We are surrounded every day by false promises and false people. Our world is full of false hopes. At the beginning of WW2, our troops in the Philippines really believed that their government would rescue them. Nevertheless, they were left at the mercy of the enemy – not because their government wanted to leave them there, but because at the time it just couldn’t intervene. But God never gives up on us; he never leaves us or forsakes us. This is why the apostle was able to write that he was “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until [bring it to completion at, ESV] the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). God did not start a work of grace in your heart only to let it rot and go to waste. It took to blood of his Son to begin that work, and you can be sure that he will not despise the value of his blood.
In the same way, the psalmist was able to pray, “The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth forever: forsake not the works of thine own hands” (Ps. 138:8). Note the confidence with which the verse begins: the Lord will perfect, or fulfill, his purpose for us (cf. ESV). The reason why we can be sure of this is because his mercy and steadfast love endure forever, are never failing. And thus the prayer, which does not arise out of doubt, but out of hope: “Forsake not the works of thine own hands.”
Thus, fundamentally, I see in this verse a call to hope. This is a call to hope in the sure fulfillment and completion of that salvation which God has already begun in us. Heaven is in the heart of every believer. This becomes especially clear when we compare our text with a similar text in 1 Thess. 5:8, where the apostle writes, “But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” Here the apostle makes it explicit: that which is our helmet is the hope of salvation. Thus, the primary focus of the Christian is on what God has promised us in the future. Though we are not to forget the realities that are already true in us, we are to be constantly looking forward to the fulfillment of salvation in the age to come.
We can focus on the blessings of the age to come because we can be sure of the blessings of the age to come. All the pain we endure in this age is temporary at best. The blessings of the age to come are eternal. We are not “saved” in this world in the ultimate sense of what it means to be saved. Our salvation is closer than when we first believed, but we have not embraced it yet. Our full salvation is yet future. So don’t put your hopes on this world and this age. God does not intend for you to. To do so is to sabotage your hope. That does not mean he will leave you alone in this age. It does not mean he will forsake you. It does not mean that there is one moment when his grace is withdrawn from you. But it does mean that the fullness of the blessings of our salvation are yet to come. And by God’s strength and power we can endure to the end because it is worth it.
This is the point of Hebrews 10. The audience of that letter was on the verge of quitting. So the author reminds them of the hope of salvation: “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward” (Heb. 10:32-35). How do you endure the hard things? How do you stay strong in battle? By not casting away your hope, the hope of our final salvation – that we have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. Put on the helmet of salvation!