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sal· va· tion—noun
- the act of saving or protecting from harm, risk, loss, destruction.
- the state of being saved or protected from harm, risk.
- a source, cause, or means of being saved or protected from harm, risk.
- Theology: deliverance from the power and penalty of sin; redemption.[i]
Spiritual salvation defined
The often–misunderstood term salvation is commonly associated with theology. However, the more general use of the term, also referred to as saved, simply means “a deliverance from danger.” The newspaper headline following the Titanic disaster states that, of the 2,170 people on board that fateful night, 868 were saved.
Spiritual salvation defined
Applying the word salvation in the theological realm, the danger from which we need deliverance is spiritual in nature and is rooted in a condition of spirit caused by a thing called sin. The distinctively nasty thing about sin is that, like cancer, it aggressively metastasizes, taking on a life of its own, which is why it requires aggressive treatment or it will kill the patient. The Bible states that this sin condition is hereditary. It is passed down in full strength by the parents of every human being and, unless ultimately remedied, the result is eternal separation from God. It is commonly believed that the definition of sin is limited to deliberate violations of religious or moral rules. Although this is true, sins are more broadly defined in the Bible as any thought, word, or deed that “misses the mark”—the mark being God’s righteous standard. This is an archery term, suggesting that we have missed a target’s bullseye.
The more important point is that, although individual sins routinely violate divinely established religious or moral principles, their very existence points to a deeper cause rooted in the “fallen” (fatally flawed) nature of man. Originally created without a propensity to sin, Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden resulted in a crippling of their inner spiritual faculties. Immediately following their act of defiance, they became afraid of God, ran from His presence, covered themselves up, and blamed Him for their self–inflicted catastrophe.
Sadly, this predilection “package” has been handed down through the millennia to the present day in the form of a spiritual nature that seems to be spring–loaded to the sin position. Anyone with children knows that they have never had to teach their offspring how to lie, strike their siblings, or demand their own way—these just seem to come naturally. In fact, the universal parental responsibility has always been to teach their children not to do these things.
A person who has not been saved from this inherited spiritual condition is considered “lost” by God and in need of divine intervention. Bear in mind, this “lost–ness” is not a reflection of the person’s intrinsic value or importance—they are just out of place and unavailable to God’s kingdom purposes. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard pointed out:
Think of what it means when the keys to your house or car are lost. They are useless to you, no matter how much you need them and desire to have them and no matter what fine keys they may be. And when we are lost to God, we are not where we are supposed to be in his world and hence are not caught up into his life…We are our own god, and our god doesn’t amount to much. When we are lost to God, we are also lost to ourselves: we do not know where we are or how to get where we want to go.”[i]
Presently, God is graciously permitting mankind to live life independently of him. This “grace period” is intended to give them time to choose their eternal destiny—either with him in his kingdom or away from him on their own—a most uncomfortable option indeed. Willard warned:
Thus no one chooses in the abstract to go to hell, or even be the kind of person who belongs there. But their orientation toward self leads them to become the kind of person for whom away–from–God is the only place for which they are suited. It is a place they would, in the end, choose for themselves, rather than come to humble themselves before God and accept who he is. Whether or not God’s will is infinitely flexible, the human will is not. There are limits beyond which it cannot bend back, cannot turn or repent.
The biblical remedy for this lost–ness is to abandon all self–saving efforts, turn to God, accept his prescription for salvation, and be willing to accept his kingdom rule. Although all spiritual seekers have a role in their salvation, the entire process is initiated, carried out, and concluded by God himself. This was made necessary because man was rendered spiritually incapacitated by his inherited sin condition and therefore unable to save himself. This applies to all men, regardless of their relative “goodness” or “badness” in the eyes of their fellow–men, from Mother Teresa to Joseph Stalin.
Lewis Sperry Chafer, author of the book Salvation, expanded on this point:
Salvation is the result of the work of God for the individual, rather than the work of the individual for God, or even the work of the individual for himself. Good works are evidently made possible by salvation; but these good works, which follow salvation, do not add anything to the all–sufficient and perfect saving work of God.
The Problem That Salvation Addresses
At this point, it’s important to define the problem that spiritual salvation addresses. To be just a little facetious, if your problem is needing something to do on Sunday or getting “a little religion” into your life, any old religious system will do. Take your pick. But if you have come to realize that your problem rises to the level of being seriously alienated from an all–powerful and holy God, that’s another situation altogether. C. S. Lewis observed:
It is after you have realized that there is a real moral law, and a power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with the power—it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.[ii]
We’re not talking about a casual chat about a trivial matter. When Titanic was listing and rescue seemed distant, the wiser passengers sprang into action, knowing that time was running out. They didn’t argue about the seemingly extreme action of abandoning ship, nor did they debate the seriousness of their dilemma. They knew something had to be done—and done quickly. Likewise, with spiritual salvation, when God begins exercising people about the personal spiritual peril they are in, trivialities go out the window. For most people, this often requires a jolting paradigm shift that dramatically revises their entire outlook about themselves and where they stand with God. John Stott wisely pointed out:
If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves up to His, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding holiness of the glory of God and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are, namely, “hell–deserving sinners,” then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.[iii]
We often hear the phrase “when I’m gone”—particularly among the elderly, in anticipation of their ultimate demise. But exactly what does “gone” mean in this context? One prevailing view is that we simply cease to exist and that we “go on” in the minds of our survivors, if we go on at all. Such a view is often accompanied by a sense of tragedy and melancholia.
But is death, as we know it, the end of it all? Short of divine revelation, who could know? Although the world may be silent on life after death, scripture is overflowing with the subject and with its profound effect on everyone who has ever lived. The Bible divides humanity into two groups:
- Those who are saved, describing such people with words like beloved, eternal life, sons of God, like Christ, called, under grace, free from the law of sin and death, in the spirit, kept by the power of God, and Citizens of heaven.
- The divine estimate of those who are not saved is considerably darker, described by words like lost, perish, condemned, under the wrath of God, blind, in the powers of darkness, and dead in trespasses and sins.
Because of the scripture’s rather black–and–white view of this, most of the world chooses to ignore such writings, relying instead on science or fellow human beings for guidance, but not without considerable risk.
In his book Salvation, L. S. Chafer wrote:
Men are not said to be lost in the eyes of their fellow–men, or as measured by the standards of the institutions of the world. They are lost in the sight of a holy God, with whom they finally have to do, and under the conditions that exist and are effective in a larger sphere. In like manner, men are not saved by an adjustment to the estimates and conclusions of the limited world of fallen humanity, or by what seem to be reasonable or unreasonable…To be saved, one must see himself as God sees him, and adapt himself to the divine principles of another world, which principles have been faithfully recorded in the written Word.[iv]
Are the stakes in this matter truly so high? A blunder in this life can cost us our money, happiness, or even freedom, but the problem only lasts a few decades at most. Consider, though, a mistake that can never be reversed, the consequences of which you must live with for all eternity. We have been born into a world that is bound by space and time, and it defies imagining that a state of being without such constraints could even exist.
To most people, the word death means a singular event at the end of a person’s life, which is over once and for all. But scripture describes a much more sobering event which follows a person’s physical death: our “first death” results in the separation of our spirit from our body, and we are then faced with a “second death,” which results in the separation of our spirit from God, eternally—a most unpleasant notion. Here is how the book of Revelation puts it:
I saw a Great White Throne and the One Enthroned. Nothing could stand before or against the Presence, nothing in Heaven, nothing on earth. And then I saw all the dead, great and small, standing there—before the Throne! And books were opened. Then another book was opened: the Book of Life. The dead were judged by what was written in the books, by the way they had lived. Sea released its dead, Death and Hell turned in their dead. Each man and woman was judged by the way he or she had lived. Then Death and Hell were hurled into Lake Fire. This is the second death—Lake Fire. Anyone whose name was not found inscribed in the Book of Life was hurled into Lake Fire.[v]
Obviously, that “second death” is something any thinking person would do well to avoid. Unfortunately, all too many of us have spent a lifetime putting off any discussion of these things, believing that somehow it will go away. Although we may treat this subject somewhat flippantly, God most certainly does not.
In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard warned:
We should be very sure that the ruined soul is not one who has missed a few more or less important theological points and will flunk a theological examination at the end of life. Hell is not an “oops!” or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God. Outer darkness is for one who, everything said, wants it, whose entire orientation has slowly and firmly set itself against God and therefore against how the universe actually is. It is for those who are disastrously in error about their own life and their place before God and man. The ruined soul must be willing to hear of and recognize its own ruin before it can find out how to enter a different path, the path of eternal life…[vi]
Ultimately, if we insist on holding on to our inner darkness, outer darkness is sure to follow. That is why the scriptures so often call us to repentance. In the Greek of the New Testament, this is the word metanoeo, which means “to think differently or afterwards, i.e. reconsider.” Literally, we are called to a new mind on the matter of what makes us tick and how we are intended to fit into God’s universe as he created it.
The world’s crazy quilt of religious choices
Our discussion of spiritual salvation would not be complete without a cursory review of the alternative approaches to the subject by the world’s major religions.
Religion has been migrating, mutating, metastasizing, merging, morphing, and multiplying in the thousands of years since man arrived on the scene. Some religions disappear for a while, only to reappear in another form, hundreds of years later. All but one of them holds to the idea that human merit and demerit count for something in the hereafter and that it is by good works that a person eventually achieves “salvation.” That single exception is Christianity.
The website gotquestions.org has compiled a helpful summary regarding the approach that popular religious systems take on the all–important question of salvation. Their summary, entitled “How to get to heaven—what are the ideas from the different religions?” opens with:
There appear to be five major categories regarding how to get to heaven in the world’s religions. Most believe that hard work and wisdom will lead to ultimate fulfillment, whether that is unity with god (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i) or freedom and independence (Scientology, Jainism). Others, like Unitarianism and Wicca, teach the afterlife is whatever you want it to be, and salvation is a non–issue because the sin nature doesn’t exist. A few believe either the afterlife doesn’t exist or it’s too unknowable to consider.
Derivatives of the worship of the Christian–Judeo God generally hold that faith in God and/or Jesus and the accomplishment of various deeds, including baptism or door–to–door evangelism, will ensure the worshiper will go to heaven. Only Christianity teaches that salvation is a free gift of God through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), and no amount of work or effort is necessary or possible to get to heaven. [vii]
In summary, “Only Christianity teaches that salvation is a free–gift of God through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), and no amount of work or effort is necessary or possible to get to heaven.” Christianity differs from all other religions in excluding church membership, religious rites, good works, or human efforts of any kind as qualifying factors. Not that those things are bad—they just won’t solve the problem facing us.
To illustrate: if you had cancer, would it be good to eat broccoli? Yes, it’s a good thing, but it won’t cure the cancer. The cancer needs heavier medicine. So it is with religion—is it good to pray a prayer? Respond to an altar call? Go to church? Be baptized? All good—but not sufficient. The only thing that will wipe away sin is the blood of a perfect substitute.
Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.[viii]
The Definition of a True Christian
It should be obvious by now that, when it comes to becoming a Christian [that is, spiritually saved], we are not talking about the church you attend or any religious ritual that you may have experienced. Simply put, becoming a Christian is a matter of life and death, involving profound inner transformation so momentous that Jesus referred to it as being “born again.” The result is quite literally, a change in species. You were born the first time “in Adam,” the head of a fatally flawed gene pool, and now, through spiritual rebirth, you are placed “in Christ,” emerging as a totally different class of human. This came as something of a shock to those who first heard about it, especially the religious crowd who dogged Jesus’s every step. Listen to this lively exchange:
There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God–pointing, God–revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re–enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born–from–above’ talk?” Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind–hovering–over–the–water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.”[ix]
The Apostle Paul emphasizes the difference between the two kinds of person this way:
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.[x]
The person who has not been born again is said to be in the flesh, and the person who has been born again is said to be in the spirit. If you are in the flesh, you are still considered to be in Adam’s family tree. Alternatively, those who are in the spirit have been transferred into the family tree of Jesus Christ. You either have the Holy Spirit or you do not. And upon that single criteria depends your eternal destiny.
Adam’s sinking ship
I want to introduce you to a helpful salvation paradigm which compares the Titanic illustration to our need to be rescued from a far worse peril. In two illustrative passages of scripture, God divides all of humanity into two spiritual species—the old original human species, headed by our progenitor Adam, and a brand new species of man, headed by Jesus Christ, “the Last Adam.” The old human species can be compared to Titanic, and the new species can be compared to the lifeboats that took the Titanic survivors to safety. With that introduction, here is how the Apostle Paul describes the arc of human history, from its earliest beginnings:
The death–dealing sin, the life–giving gift
You know the story of how Adam landed us in the dilemma we’re in—first sin, then death, and no one exempt from either sin or death. That sin disturbed relations with God in everything and everyone, but the extent of the disturbance was not clear until God spelled it out in detail to Moses. So, death, this huge abyss separating us from God, dominated the landscape from Adam to Moses. Even those who didn’t sin precisely as Adam did by disobeying a specific command of God still had to experience this termination of life, this separation from God. But Adam, who got us into this, also points ahead to the One who will get us out of it.
Yet the rescuing gift is not exactly parallel to the death–dealing sin. If one man’s sin put crowds of people at the dead–end abyss of separation from God, just think what God’s gift poured through one man, Jesus Christ, will do! There’s no comparison between that death–dealing sin and this generous, life–giving gift. The verdict on that one sin was the death sentence; the verdict on the many sins that followed was this wonderful life sentence. If death got the upper hand through one man’s wrongdoing, can you imagine the breathtaking recovery life makes, sovereign life, in those who grasp with both hands this wildly extravagant life–gift, this grand setting–everything–right, that the one man Jesus Christ provides?
Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right.
All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.[xi]
Scripture declares that although Adam (and our genetic attachment to him) brought nothing but death to the whole human race, God had long ago prepared a “lifeboat” for mankind whereby anyone could “abandon ship,” leave Adam’s sinking vessel, and take refuge in Christ. These passages also warn that spiritual salvation is not optional, if you want to live eternally, any more than getting off Titanic was not optional for those who wanted to survive that terrible night. After the ship struck the iceberg, it was just a matter of time. Likewise, after Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, it was just a matter of time for each one of us who would follow.
This then is the genius of God’s gospel message, his good news: anyone who wishes to be saved from “going down with Adam’s ship” can do so by finding and boarding God’s lifeboat of Christ. God’s remedy to the great dilemma of Adam’s rebellion is not just trying to fix the First Adam. Instead, he has given us an entirely new Adam, one who is without sin, into which we may “enter,” by faith. The result is a new species of man, formed in Christ. Put another way, we are born imprisoned “in Adam,” who is our spiritual birth parent, and we need to be transplanted into an entirely new family tree, which has a decidedly better genetic heritage. And that is exactly how God pulled off the greatest “prison break” in history, “springing us” out of Adam.
A brand–new life
Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: one man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.
Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you.[xii]
It has been said that the very definition of a short–term strategy is “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” That defines religion in many ways. I am defining religion as any action, process, ritual, or attitude which seeks to fix up the “old ship.” Not to be disrespectful, but it doesn’t matter how much lipstick you put on the proverbial pig—it is still a pig. Adam’s “ship of state” is sinking, no matter how many coats of paint you apply. The only viable alternative is to get off while there’s time. Remember what happened to those who chose to take their chances aboard that great ship in 1912.
Some might be tempted to accuse God of being unfair. After all, holding us all responsible for Adam’s sin feels like we’re being punished for something out of our control. But what if God had a remedy, equally out of our control, and made it freely available to all of us? That brings us to the heart of the Christian value proposition:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.[xiii]
But first, there are a few “inconvenient truths” to face.
We all start out passengers on the same ship
Of course, we weren’t there when Adam sinned (though, to be honest, we’ve all had our share of bouts with sin). But neither were we there when Jesus Christ voluntarily put himself in harm’s way as a substitute for each one of us, when his time came. Although we didn’t sin in the exact way Adam did, we did our part later and could be considered “unindicted co–conspirators.” Yet we have been indicted, and our charge sheet is posted publicly. The Epistle to the Romans leaves no room for ambiguity:
So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it:
There’s nobody living right, not even one,
nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God.
They’ve all taken the wrong turn;
they’ve all wandered down blind alleys.
No one’s living right;
I can’t find a single one.
Their throats are gaping graves,
their tongues slick as mudslides.
Every word they speak is tinged with poison.
They open their mouths and pollute the air.
They race for the honor of sinner–of–the–year,
litter the land with heartbreak and ruin,
Don’t know the first thing about living with others.
They never give God the time of day.
This makes it clear, doesn’t it, that whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin.[xiv]
No Time for procrastination
In the Introduction to this book, I wrote:
“Up to that fateful moment, my day seemed ordinary enough—just getting the results from some medical tests. But then time froze, as I saw the doctor’s clipboard with my name and social security number at the top and the word cancer at the bottom. In an instant, that dreaded word morphed from an abstract concept to a stark reality. Nothing would be the same again. Although I was a Christian at that time, this called for a depth of faith that, frankly, I was unprepared for.”
This might sound silly, but suppose on that disquieting day, my doctor had just come into the exam room and embarked on a lecture about all of the available cures for cancer in modern medicine? I’m pretty sure, I would have interrupted him at some point and interjected, “Why are you talking to me about cancer? Go talk to someone who has the problem—not me!” But this isn’t the way he approached the subject. Instead, he first showed me the lab results, with the dreaded diagnosis prominently displayed. I could have responded, “Gee Doc, that’s kind of negative. You guys are always talking about diseases. Don’t you have anything positive to say?” I could also have said, “I don’t have any symptoms, nothing appears to wrong, I feel fine.” But then we know that cancer is often asymptomatic—at first.
But of course, I did no such thing. My instinct for self–preservation was working just fine. After all, the good doctor was doing me a big favor, warning of a potential life–threatening disease and offering to do what he could to help me. But the point is, I needed to know that I had a problem before I would sit still for a discussion about possible cures. Nothing focuses the mind like being faced with your own mortality. Suddenly cures for cancer became VERY interesting to me.
Likewise, in the spiritual realm, you and I are called upon to agree with the doctor [God] that we have a problem which is so serious that he had to go to great lengths to cure it. Then, and only then, are we ready to look around for potential treatments. Salvation begins when we acknowledge the problem. Then the question boils down to this: Is there a cure that stands up to the disease?
The three “tenses” of salvation
(Special note: I am greatly indebted to Lewis Sperry Chafer’s classic book entitled, “Salvation” for inspiring the outline of the next five pages.)
The quality of God’s spiritual salvation offered in Jesus Christ vastly exceeds any charge that could be brought against the sinner from any quarter. His salvation pays the penalty of our past sins, breaks the power of our present sins, and removes the presence of sin in our future eternal state. As someone said in a commercial, “If you can find a better deal anywhere else, take it.” Note the sweep across time and space of the gift of this “so great a salvation.”
Past: Saved from the guilt and penalty of sin
Out of the darkness and into the light
When you were stuck in your old sin–dead life, you were incapable of responding to God. God brought you alive—right along with Christ! Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s cross. He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.[xv]
God loves you. He knew you were helpless to save yourself, but there you were, dragged down by the weight of sin, guilt, and enslavement to dark and hostile powers. He also knew that, aside from him, there was no one in the universe who could cure the problem. Remember, the “problem” included the lethal combination of our personal sins committed throughout the duration of our lifetimes, but also our inherited sin condition that took effect from the moment of our conception in the womb. Only He could rescue us, and the personal cost for him to do so would be incalculable. He did so anyway, and the victory was complete.
Present: Being saved from the power and domination of sin
If ever there was a man who should have had a “handle” on sin it would have been the apostle Paul. After all he wrote upwards of two thirds of the New Testament, had a personal interview with the risen Christ, and was responsible for the spread of the Church throughout the middle east. Yet here are his own words about his personal struggle with sin:
I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.
But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. [xvi]
So, if Paul struggled with sin, even after receiving the Holy Spirit, you can bet that all Christians will face the same internal “brawl” with the “flesh” that remains with us until we are set free from those, “parts of me that covertly rebel.” In this, we need help, divinely powerful weapons that only Christ can provide.
No “double jeopardy” with God
With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being–here–for–us no longer have to live under a continuous, low–lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law always ended up being used as a Band–Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.[xvii]
In our blindness, we believed that we could be “good enough” to wipe away our sins and somehow set things right with God. We had no idea of the dimensions of the problem. As I mentioned in the introduction to this book, in my battle with cancer, there were many quack “miracle cures” offered. But alas, cancer wasn’t going to give up that easily. Likewise, sin isn’t about to loosen its grip without a fight. And Jesus came to fight that battle for us, as our substitute—our champion. Finally, the dark powers and the claims against us had met their match. A final glorious victory released us from bondage and freed us to belong to God.
Future: Yet to be saved from the presence of sin and into the presence of God
A future every bit as secure as Christ himself
What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand–new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.[xviii]
This is no remote, unfeeling “force” or “thing.” This is a God who cares and invests and gets involved. He took it upon himself to deal with sin and its effects so thoroughly and permanently that we can look forward to an eternal future completely free from sin’s presence. He promises to protect us and to give us a life that is whole and healthy.
There are at least three options when we are faced with personal character problems in our life—conform, reform, or transform. Anyone can do the first two, either by going along with the crowd or engaging in self–actualized reform programs—seeking to change ourselves from the outside. Transformation comes from the inside and results in lasting and permanent change. It is a work of God and cannot be faked or imitated. Look at what God promises to do for anyone willing:
What we were…
But don’t take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.[xix]
Before connecting with God and his promises, we were in the dark about God and how he works. We were strangers to his promises. We had no idea about the deeper meaning of his relationship with Israel nor what that had to do with us.
What we have become…
What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. But that’s also why the world doesn’t recognize us or take us seriously, because it has no idea who he is or what he’s up to. But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God. And that’s only the beginning. Who knows how we’ll end up! What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him. All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready, with the glistening purity of Jesus’ life as a model for our own.[xx]
God didn’t just stop at saving us. No, he brought us into his own family. Now, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we have—by faith—been brought into God’s “inner circle,” understanding him person to person and being let in on his plans and intentions for the universe.
No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews solemnly warns:
For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.[xxi]
A generous offer for you personally
God is recruiting volunteers now to join him as family members and partners in the loving fellowship of those taking part in the most exciting adventure that our earth–bound minds can imagine,
“Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.”[xxii]
Frederick Buechner wrote:
If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.[xxiii]
Further, we don’t have to wait to die to commence this heavenly life but, upon being born again, we experience inner spiritual transformation that immediately revolutionizes our lives in the here and now.
My new position as a believer
From the least to the greatest, all Christians [“believers”] are brought into a new relationship with God that is founded upon the word of God—not upon how they might feel or upon anything they might do. Those new positions are:
- Not experienced (with the emotions).
- Not progressive (they are instantaneous).
- Unrelated to human merit (they stand on Christ’s merit alone).
- By nature, eternal positions.
- Only known through divine revelation.
Christians must carefully distinguish between the things that are true of them based on their new standing, and not on the ups and downs of their daily life. As believers learn very soon, their life in the world can severely test the truth of their profession. Bouts of sin, severe disappointments, tragedies, and persecution often challenge what they believe, especially what they believe about themselves. That is why staying in the scriptures and gathering with fellow believers is so mission–critical.
To illustrate, I had a friend who was a fighter pilot stationed in Alaska at a time when Cold War tensions were still high. His squadron was often “scrambled” at random times in all sorts of weather to test the pilots’ ability to survive a potential combat situation. He related that the most challenging exercise of all was ascending into a thick fog bank that obliterated all visual references to the ground, resulting in severe disorientation. He shared, “You would be surprised at how your seat–of–the–pants impressions can lie to you. You’d swear you are upside–down, or rapidly descending, when in fact you are flying straight and level.” So, pilots were drilled to ignore visual cues or “gut feelings” and to instead focus on their instruments and to believe what they showed—despite all evidence to the contrary. This was so difficult, even for these seasoned pilots, that they would often “cheat” by hanging their dog tags outside their uniforms. If their dog tag was “hanging” straight up, they knew they were upside down.
Likewise, the Christian life is lived largely “by the instruments” of God’s word, which contains countless promises that may not be obvious amid the din and stress of daily life. Like those pilots, believers need to ignore the disorientation of day–to–day life and fix their eyes on what God says about them.
(Special note: I am indebted to Lighthouse Ministry International (www.lighthouseministry.org) for the following list of scriptures below)
Here is a sampling of “readouts” that should be on every Christian’s “instrument panel” regarding what is true—right now—of every believer, from the least to the greatest, before God:
I am accepted
- I am not an accident. I am God’s child. (John 1:12)
- I am not a stranger. I am Christ’s friend. (John 15:15)
- I am not condemned. I have been justified. (Romans 5:1)
- I am not alone. I am united with the Lord, and I am one spirit with Him. (1 Corinthians 6:17)
- I am not valueless. I have been bought with a price. I belong to God. (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20)
- I am not on my own. I am a member of Christ’s body. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
- I am not a sinner. I am a saint. (Ephesians 1:1)
- I am not an orphan. I have been adopted as God’s child. (Ephesians 1:5)
- I am not ignored. I have direct access to God through the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18)
- I am not God’s enemy. I have been redeemed and forgiven of all my sins. (Colossians 1:14)
I am secure
- I am not under judgment. I am free forever from condemnation. (Romans 8:1, 2)
- I am not “randomly selected.” I am assured that all things work together for good. (Romans 8:28)
- I am not in bondage. I am free from any condemning charges against me. (Romans 8:31f)
- I am not on probation. I cannot be separated from the love of God. (Romans 8:35f)
- I am not unstable. I have been established, anointed, and sealed by God. (2 Cor.1:20–22)
- I am not exposed and vulnerable. I am hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
- I am not uncertain. I am confident that the work that God has begun in me will be perfected. (Philippians 1:6)
- I am not a “rolling stone.” I am a citizen of heaven. (Philippians 3:20)
- I am not weak. I have not been given a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)
- I am not lost. I can find grace and mercy in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
- I am not abandoned. I am born of God, and the evil one cannot touch me. (1 John 5:18)
I am significant
- I am not dull and ordinary. I am the salt and light of the earth. (Matthew 5:13,14)
- I am not a wild weed. I am a branch of the true Vine, a channel of His life. (John 15:1, 5)
- I have not been passed over. I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit. (John 15:16)
- I am not a lost soul. I am personal witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 1:8)
- I am not just a physical body. I am God’s temple. (1 Cor. 3:16)
- I am not an underling. I am God’s co–worker. (2 Cor.6:1)
- I am not homeless. I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realm. (Ephesians 2:6)
- I am not “a mess.” I am God’s workmanship. (Ephesians 2:10)
- I am not an outsider. I may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Ephesians 3:12)
- I am not weak. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
That spellbinding line from Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream” transfixed a nation in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. His emotional refrain stirred a longing that lay deep within all human hearts—to be “free at last.” Although Dr. King was referring to the enslaving effects of racial discrimination, it reminds us of an underlying reality for people of every race, creed, and color. Whether we admit it or not, all of us are enslaved to something just as odious, dictatorial, and all–pervasive—the “tyranny of self.” Here is how one Bible scholar explained it:
There can be no real happiness in the heart, where self is enthroned. If you would have peace, you must seize, bind, and never again let loose, for self is the cruelest tyrant, the deepest shadow, and the blackest blot that darkens life. To be rid of the despot, you must begin by placing others first in all your thoughts and actions; at this the coward drops his head; he hates another to be first. Next, give him no thought or consideration at all, and though at this neglect he cry out piteously, heed him not, for now is the time to bind him hard and fast with the cords of forgetfulness; then cast him far behind, and be careful to allow neither the call of pain nor pleasure to entice you into loosening one jot or tittle of his bonds, or, once set free, the monster will rise again, hydra–headed, and, towering above all else, enfold and crush you within his clutches, until you are no more free, but a slave, bound hand and foot, in the deadly meshes of over–mastering self.[xxiv]
The reason we aren’t aware of it is that “the self” is us! Have you ever noticed that the one thing our eye cannot see is itself? So it is with our inner self. If salvation is anything, it is a release from having to answer to and satisfy the continual demands of that self. Blessed riddance. Salvation frees us—not only from having to attend to our self’s every need, demand, and whimper but also from having to present to God a “righteousness of our own” through religious observance, good deeds, and meritorious services. These things have never been sufficient to achieve right–standing and peace with God, who has a much better idea. He unconditionally offers the righteousness [right–standing] of Jesus Christ as a free gift! In one of the most freeing verses in all of scripture, Paul triumphantly declares:
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.[xxv]
Imagine being set free forever from the demands of the law and from the threat of eternal consequences for failure to live up to its demands! That is why it is called, “so great a salvation.” Are you tired of the struggle? Looking for rest? Then prepare yourself for a surprise. In the world, the message is “grow up, stand on your own two feet, take responsibility, work hard, get serious.” Jesus warned against making things so grown up and complicated when it comes to approaching God:
I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.[xxvi]
What is a child, if not dependent, trusting, and expectant? And look, no more worries about that “Boogey man” called Death:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?
It was sin that made death so frightening and law–code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God![xxvii]
NOTES: Chapter 5. Salvation: Necessary or Optional?
[i] Willard, Dallas. “Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul.” Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002. N. pag. Print.
[ii] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan Pub., 1952. Print.
[iii] Stott, John R. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006. Print.
[iv] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Salvation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1917), 10.
[v] Revelation 20:11–15 The Message (MSG)
[vi] Willard, Dallas. “Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul.” Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012. N. pag. Print.
[vii] “How to Get to Heaven – What Are the Ideas from the Different Religions?” GotQuestions.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
[viii] 1 Peter 1:18–19 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
[ix] John 3:1–6 MSG
[x] Romans 8: 9–11 NASB
[xi] Romans 5:12–21 MSG
[xii] 2 Corinthians 5:14–20 MSG
[xiii] Romans 5:12, 15 NASB
[xiv] Romans 3:9–20 MSG
[xv] Colossians 2:13–15 MSG
[xvi] Romans 7:14–25 The Message (MSG)
[xvii] Romans 8:1–4 MSG
[xviii] 1 Peter 1:3–5 MSG
[xix] Ephesians 2:11–13 MSG
[xx] 1 John 3:1–3 MSG
[xxi] Hebrews 2:2–4 NASB
[xxii] 1 Corinthians 2:9 NASB
[xxiii] Buechner, Frederick, and Brian D. McLaren. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
[xxiv] “The Tyranny of Self.” The Tyranny of Self. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Aug. 2015.
[xxv] Philippians 3:7–11NASB
[xxvi] Matthew 18:3–5 MSG
[xxvii] 1 Corinthians 15:57 MSG