Are you saved? I remember hearing those words the first time I went to a non-denominational Christian Bible chapel. Here I was, a young adult Christian raised in a Roman Catholic home. I had no idea what they were talking about. The Catholics I knew never spoke like this. Am I saved? Gee, I don’t know? What does that even mean? Are these people crazy speaking to me like this?
I think to properly understand this a person needs to really apprehend what they need saving from, if anything. The well-meaning Christians who asked me this question were simply inquiring if I had come to believe Jesus is my Savior, something I didn’t understand at the time (at least that way of saying it). What they wanted to know was whether I had taken account of my sin nature, discerning that those sins needed reconciling, and come to the realization that I needed a Savior, in this case Jesus. In other words, acknowledging I wasn’t a perfect person, I had moral blemishes, but there was a standard of perfection available to help me. In my case, yes, I had come to the realization that I was a sinner and that only through the work of Jesus, not my own, could I enjoy fellowship and eternal life with God. In that regard I had come to believe I did need saving, and that somehow Jesus was the mechanism behind that salvation.
For starters, let’s put our Google Earth glasses on and zoom out a little and speak about the idea of salvation history, or maybe better yet, the salvation story. This is not just a human story or human history, for it is much bigger than us. It begins with a God, by nature a necessary being, who created the universe we live in. A God beyond space, time, and immaterial, among many other attributes. Immensely powerful is this God, yet personal. Personal because a choice was made to put all of this into existence, for God needn’t do or need anything. And it gets even more personal as we’ll see in a little bit.
The Judeo-Christian salvation story includes everything in the previous paragraph, but where it diverges from other worldviews is that there is this odd belief that God actually cares for the people He created, even though they may not care for Him. Within this salvation story God has put in motion throughout human history special people who have been chosen with the task of revealing messages by Him, prophecies, on God’s desire for His people. This singular God chose men and women throughout history to be something like gatekeepers, or torch-bearers of covenant promises. This God also reveals a moral code in this covenant agreement, and a queer promise to be faithful to this covenant even when the people He shares His promise with are not faithful to Him. And these people are ridiculed and discriminated in numerous ways because of this monotheistic God named Yahweh, who is also worshiped within a panoply of gods by neighboring cultures.
With this moral code comes an idea of punishment for those who don’t adhere to it. It would appear this God takes the sins of His people very seriously (Psalm 50) and that people are guilty of trespassing God (Rom 3:9-18). Within the Judeo-Christian salvation story God is even seen as being regretful of His decision to create mankind and so delivers a catastrophic flood that destroys all of humanity, save a small remnant (Gen 6:5-8). And while God’s punishment is judged and delivered swiftly, both harsh and permanent, it is also strangely longsuffering as well (Gen 15:12-16, Ezek 33:11), with illusions that all will be judged on the last day (2 Cor 5:10).
This singular God also makes claims that blood is somehow very necessary and important in this covenant agreement and that “life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11). He says this blood makes atonement, yet this God, unlike the chosen race’s neighbors, doesn’t demand our blood. His wrath is stayed in the interim as animal’s are sacrificed in our place (Lev 16) for the sins we’ve committed. Yet these animal sacrifices are only coverings, or types, of the true, once-and-for-all sacrifice much alluded to in God’s first covenant agreement (Heb 10:11-12). For God promises us this new covenant with a prophet named Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-32) and speaks of a suffering servant through the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53). This suffering servant, unbeknownst to the faithful of the original covenant, would be their access, their way of salvation to a right relationship with God again.
So God’s longsuffering continues. And as time goes by God’s covenant people start fading from the God of their prophets and fathers, getting expelled from the promised land they had shed so much blood to gain, eventually getting another chance to come back and inhabit it. This God is always faithful, and when people least expected it a baby was born to a common woman in Judea (Gal 4:4). This is where the Christian salvation story diverges from the Jewish story. And somehow this boy grew into a man, proclaiming a relationship with this Hebrew God that nobody understood was possible (John 17). This man, Jesus, makes outrageous claims of being one with God, and being the only way to God (John 14:6). But strangest of all, He makes messianic claims that for some reason He must suffer and die for the sins of not just the Hebrew people, but all people (Matt 26:27-28, Mark 10:45). This is in stark contrast to what the Jews had understood the traditional role of the Messiah to be.
Now this is where the story ends for most people who have led lives of integrity, justice, repentance, and credited with performing acts that seemingly were miraculous. The reason being is historically our race has exterminated people like this, and this Jesus was no exception as He was truly crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem around 33 AD. However this story is different, for the followers of Jesus proclaimed Him miraculously risen from the dead, just as Jesus had predicted. Not only did they proclaim Him risen (for there was no body to be found where He was placed in the tomb), but they risked bodily harm, many becoming martyrs, proclaiming this man’s claims to be true and that the salvation of humanity could only be found in Him (Acts 4:12). This is astonishing knowing these claims took place in the very location of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified! And these followers have left us credible claims of their experience in what is called the New Testament scriptures of the Bible.
This is the salvation story known by Christians. This is not the story of human history, which prides itself on continuing to progress toward an end state it can’t define or agree on. The Christian salvation story has God very much involved in human history, demonstrating a clear end state for all humanity, yet allowing the freedom of moral agents to make decisions on their eternal fate. Some of the unshakeable tenets of the Christian salvation story is it deals with an objective moral entity, namely God, who has grounded our moral obligations and duties in Himself. And it deals with how we come up short in regards to our moral obligations and duties towards Him. It deals with how we alienate ourselves from our Creator and the reconciliation that has taken place on His behalf, not ours. It exposes how much our Creator loves us and to what lengths He went (even though we may be confounded by it) to take on the punishment we deserved. It provides a human (though yet divine) element of a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who is relatable to our life in that He suffers, and not a God who sits back and watches us destroy ourselves. Because this salvation story ends with believers being united with their God it provides purpose, meaning, value, and hope for our lives that is beyond this life, and therefore ultimately relevant.
The idea of salvation in Christ is closely aligned with the forthcoming Atonement post in that salvation is part of the work of Christ, in fact it should be argued it is the most important result of the death of Christ, as Jesus Himself says in John 12:27 and Paul says in 1 Tim 1:15 “…that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”(NRSV) The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth makes no sense outside of the work of salvation. There was a reason He came. This reason wasn’t just to perform miracles and preach to large audiences a message of hope. The true purpose was to die so that sinners wouldn’t have to pay the punishment for their sins. God reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5:18-19).
When I was undergoing my discernment as to the truth of my worldview and what sense I could make of it, the idea of how my moral misgivings mattered really came into play. I understood I was a decent person, but still a person prone to lie, cheat, steal, and look out for myself. How does one account for such behavior? After all, if this was just my biological predisposition and I was, as Dawkins put it, “dancing to my DNA”, why did I feel so guilty? Why did I feel like I ought, or ought not, to do something? In my case it was having to reconcile the moral obligations of this life and my utter failure in so many circumstances that really helped me understand the Christian view of salvation and what Christ truly achieved on the cross.
If you recall I mentioned I was raised in a Roman Catholic family and understood that Jesus died because He loved me, but I didn’t really understand salvation. I didn’t understand what I needed saving from. I truly thought when I was younger that if I was good enough I would just go to heaven. As an adult I saw the folly of my thought. If I was good enough, then it was me that won my salvation, not God, Christ, or anybody else. If I won this with my merits then why did Jesus come in the first place? This divide in my thought took a while to square but it became abundantly clear that I could never do enough good things to merit heaven (Eph 2:8-9). How did I know this? Well it was quite easy when you don’t know what the bar is set to? How would I ever know if I had done enough, had given enough, or was nice enough? What about all the other blemishes of my character? What about all the days in my life where I put so many things ahead of God? A person when reflecting on this can quickly come to the conclusion of how selfish they really are! Think about how much control you really have in your life, how you have no control of how your body even sustains itself, why your internal organs move with purpose, why you have conscious thought, etc…! And how many of us go through the day not even giving thanks to our Creator for allowing this miracle to take place! So as I continued my journey I thought if God did exist (which I felt very strongly He did), then my moral shortcomings had to be dealt with somehow. But how was this slate going to be wiped clean?
The answer simply is Jesus. He wiped it clean. In the Book of Acts the apostle Peter is standing in front of the very same people who accused, abused, and led Christ to Pontius Pilate to be executed; the members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin! Yet Peter boldly exclaims “(T)here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, NRSV) Jesus Himself famously says in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (NRSV) The letter of First Timothy 2:5-6 says “(F)or there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all…(NRSV)
The Atonement post spends a large amount of time dealing with how Christ effected this salvation, but the point is that Jesus won for you what you could not gain for yourself. He took the punishment we deserved because of our manifold decisions to alienate ourselves from God. He did this so we would not be punished for them. That is the essence of salvation through grace; being saved from the just deserts of your sins. Solely wrought by God through Christ. Perhaps some excerpts from Hebrews 2 will help. The author writes in verse 10 “(I)t was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. ¹¹ For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.” And then continuing in verse 14, “(S)ince, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to hep angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (NRSV)
An excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans is appropriate here as well (5:6-9). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”
Salvation is unique to Christianity because of how it was attained. There are other worldviews we’ve spoken on where an individual supposedly goes to a nice place in the afterlife because of how they have lived their life. Now while a Christian would agree that living a morally good life is important, it is not what saves you. Only in Christianity do you have this rather bizarre idea of God sacrificing Himself in the form of a man for the salvation of His creation. Certainly many find this too bizarre to be true, but it seems like the evidence surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus paints a different picture. The evidence, as we have looked at in previous posts seems to entail that it wasn’t just possible this happened, it was highly probable. So if our moral actions in this life truly matter, and God exists, how would we go about reconciling our relationship to Him? Again, how would we know if we had ever done enough good works, said enough “Hail Mary’s”, given enough, etc…? There’s just no way; we would never have peace. What Christ provided on the cross was this peace, a peace Paul speaks eloquently about in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians.
Here Paul says “(B)ut now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law (Mosaic) with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups (Gentiles and Jews) to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have once access to the father. (Eph 2:13-18, NRSV)
It is the knowledge of this work why Christians should have peace in their lives, not concerning themselves about working their way to heaven. In a way the gift has already been presented to you. You just have to accept it, take possession of it, and open it. This is where your free choice comes in. Salvation is not compulsion.
Now since the way has been opened, what does the biblical data tell us about how we accept this gift of salvation? In his letter to the Roman church Paul tells us in chapter 10:9 “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And then again in verse 13, Paul, quoting from the book of Joel, says “(F)or, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”” God’s grace through Christ is available to all, but accessed and effective to you as an individual only if you ask for it, which comes through God’s Holy Spirit. It is through the conviction of the Holy Spirit we understand our depravity and the need for God’s mercy. Like was stated in the last paragraph, salvation is a gift for you to freely accept or reject, God will never compel a free relationship on you. Read that sentence slowly again one more time. God will never compel a free relationship on you.
By now we can understand a little better some key fundamentals to God’s salvific plan.
One, we needed saving. We are morally reprobate people who by our words, thoughts, and deeds have separated ourselves from communion with God.
Two, God required a punishment for our trespasses to Him. This may not be palatable to some, but our trespasses have consequences. We certainly know they do with relationships in our earthly life, why would our relationship with God be any different?
Three, God requires this punishment to be a blood sacrifice. This aspect is certainly not inviting or agreeable to many, but we all can understand the importance of blood and what the sacrifice of an animal or a human means for a greater good.
Four, God did not ultimately require that blood sacrifice to come from us, our children, or our animals. The second Person of the Triune Godhead took that on, Jesus of Nazareth, or as the world would come to know Him, Jesus the Christ.
Five, the atoning act of Christ’s sacrificial death saved us from the punishment we incurred and deserved by expiating our sins, i.e. purging our sin record; by propitiation of our sins, i.e. placating the wrath of God. He also saved us by ransoming His life away, as we were set free from the bondage of sin with Christ’s death. Finally, His victory over death, which was His Resurrection and crowning glory to reveal to us He was who He said He was and that not even death could hold Him.
Six, what this means is that salvation is open to all of humanity, if we just confess our sins to God and accept His gift of salvation into our heart. It’s free, it’s non-discriminatory. He accepts all sick people into His hospital. Can you put your trust in Jesus? Will you allow yourself to be humbled and understand your need for salvation? What is the alternative? In regards to this question an alternative that has to be faced then is what are our moral obligations and duties? Are they really a product of random evolution, or are we somehow held accountable for our behavior? Maybe we don’t need saving, maybe we are just fine as is? Maybe we really are perfect and not wanting in our moral condition? Maybe we can save ourselves?
Perhaps we can be well reminded by Paul in 1 Cor 15:14-19 where he says “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
And finally there is the author of Hebrews who warns us “how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,…” (Heb 2:3, NRSV)
What seems reasonable to you? I know I’m not perfect, I fall short. So how am I held accountable for these shortcomings? Is there no hope that I can be forgiven? My friend, you have been forgiven. Your soul has been saved. Jesus paid it all, He paid for your freedom. My prayer for you is that you will trust in the Lord Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit and His gift of salvation to work in your heart.