Saved from what?
Good question. You might not feel that there is anything “wrong” with your life or even see the need for “salvation”. You could be quite happy with how things are and your life could be ticking along quite nicely. All fair points. But there is a problem we all face: Death. It doesn’t matter who you are – king or pauper – death will eventually come knocking on your door: it could come as the death of a relationship, a relative or a business but ultimately it will come as your own physical death. Considering how much time and effort we spend on careers, retirement packages, family, education and so on, it’s quite surprising how little time people spend considering their own end, particularly since it is the only thing on that list that comes with a 100% guarantee of certainty.
The Bible is clear in its teaching that death is a crossroads at which a judgement will be made of our lives and based on this judgement we will end up in one of two eternal states (there is no option to choose ceasing your existence and fade into black: heaven or hell. The choice of which path we take, can only be made this side of death. Think of it like a fork on a motorway with unfamiliar exits that you are approaching at 70mph late at night. It’s dark and raining and you’ve not had enough coffee. You see the signs telling you its 300, 200, 100 yards to the next exit. You strain your eyes looking out into the hazy night against the glare of oncoming traffic and you try to make out what is being said on the overhead road signs. Your satnav is bleating in your ear with some contradictory directions you know are wrong because in your hurry to get on the journey you neglected to update the maps with the new road layout after the roadworks were completed (and how you wish right now that you’d done that!). One direction will lead to your destination, a warm bed and a good night’s sleep. The other is literally the road to hell, with no u-turns and no further exits. It’s not a decision you can get wrong.
How will the judgement of our lives be made and who will make it? According to the Bible, a complete record of every thought, word and deed in our lives has been kept by God and each one of us will stand a searching trial of every second of our lives on that fateful date. Our records will be pulled and compared to the standard that God has set for all beings in his creation. At this point (at which it’s too late) we’ll suddenly realised that we will not be judged based on our intentions (i.e. that we had intended to take the right exit). Or on our own standards (i.e. that we thought we could do a u-turn at some later point). We will each be compared to the sinless and holy creator of the universe: the immortal, eternal, all powerful God. Because of the “woolly” idea of Jesus we have been sold since Sunday school i.e. of a helpless Jesus who can’t help but love us, we have no concept what this judgement day might be like. Look at how the scriptures describe the Christ we will encounter on that day:
Then I turned to see who was talking to me, and when I turned I saw seven gold lamp stands. Among the lamp stands there was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash around his chest. His head and his hair were white like wool, in fact, as white as snow. His eyes were like flames of fire, his feet were like glowing bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of raging waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His face was like the sun when it shines with full force. When I saw him, I fell down at his feet like a dead man. (Revelation 1)
Just the sight of the judge entering the court will cause us all to fall down as if we were dead. And only then will we begin to realise that our lives will be compared against the Life. We will realise that sin is not just a little “mistake” we made when we failed to pay for that item at the bottom of our trolley at the supermarket. It’s every time we fall short of the standard of the perfect Man, who is Christ.
None of us think we are terrible people but the problem is we are all using our own standard of measurement. But we will be measured against the perfect standard of God i.e. perfect obedience to all 613 commandments in the Old Testament – not just on that day, but from the day we were born until the day we die, without missing a beat. Let’s for a minute make the false assumption that God will let us off 603 of them and focus only on the Ten Commandments, which are the most important and at least vaguely familiar to most people that have heard even a trivialised rendition of the Biblical account. I’ve listed these below as a reminder (and added a simple “modern” interpretation to put them in context):
|You shall have no other gods before me (dedicated yourself to the worship of God and put him above every person, possession or idea in this world)|
|You shall not make for yourself an idol (sorry, no decorative Buddha statues in the garden and no loving your new sports car more than God)|
|You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God (no blasphemy)|
|Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy (set aside time regularly for prayer and devotion)|
|Honor your Father and Mother (honour your parents in thought and deed, at all times)|
|You shall not murder (no killing of others with thoughts, words or deeds)|
|You shall not commit adultery (no sexual relations outside of marriage)|
|You shall not steal (no taking of things that don’t belong to you, big or utterly insignificant)|
|You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (no lying or misrepresenting to truth, even with the smallest white lie)|
|You shall not covet your neighbor’s house (don’t envy your neighbour’s new sports car or your work colleague’s pay rise and promotion over you)|
|You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife (don’t envy your neighbour’s new wife)|
I think we all think we are good people – that is, until we realise that we will be measured against the above standards, not our own. As if that were not bad enough, we are not even given the luxury of thinking of transgressing these laws (cf. Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”). The more we consider these laws, the more we realise just how damned we are, so what shall we do to be saved from the consequences?
Saved by religion?
As you may already know, there are thousands of religions in the world today and a handful of what researchers would call the “major world religions”. These religions all attempt to direct us into the “10 things” we must do to get to heaven/nirvana/paradise, but unless they can address the issue of how to deal with sin first, they miss the fundamental point, because sin is that insurmountable wall or chasm that stands between us and God. It is this alienation from God that has continually brought the world into a state of moral depravity, inequality and injustice. It is a vicious circle: our sin separates us from God; and the further from God we are, the more directionless we become and the deeper we fall into sin again.
Most religions will lament our powerlessness over sin; some try to side-step it; others still try to deny it. With the exception of Jesus Christ, no one demonstrates a clear ability to tackle it head-on and deliver us from its tyrannous rule to truly reconcile us to God. Religion has no power or ability to save us. Consider this: If God occupies the higher dimensions (higher than the four we occupy), what technology do we possess that would allow us to traverse these dimensions and commune with God? Are we going to build a spaceship (or a Stargate) to pierce the barrier of space-time and somehow travel to heaven? Are we going to create a mobile phone that can patch into the throne room of God? Perhaps one day these technologies will exist, but one thing we can be certain of is that they don’t exist today and religion certainly doesn’t possess the “spiritual technology” to connect us back to God. Crawling on my knees up a thousand steps or chanting or obeying commandments are simply a hopelessly inadequate vehicle for crossing the chasm between heaven and earth. If we just get logical about it, these religious practices don’t even have wheels, let alone wings and could hardly transport us from this earthly realm and pierce the “dome” of sin that surrounds us. So many people in the world today are frustrated by religious systems that tell them that they can please God if they can just keep on following these 10 steps or those 10 commands. The futility of this approach just becomes more and more apparent the harder we try.
Saved by doing good?
Perhaps there is a points system whereby our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds and based on the balance of these cosmic scales, God decides whether we are fit for heaven or not. At least this approach deserves some merit for its logic in that it relies on God to provide the means for us to get to heaven, provided that we have paid the “price” to get in.The question we face is how many good deeds will it take to tip the scales in our favour? Let’s consider what it takes to get into heaven, by God’s standards: Heaven is a place ruled by the perfect law of God and therefore no sin will ever be tolerated there – no matter how small. Jesus set the standard of what compliance to the law of God means: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire… “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27 – 28). The standard is thus perfection, not only in our actions, but in our thoughts and words too.
There are many Muslims who are very sincere in their search for God, but they find themselves trapped in an asphyxiating religious construct that is so demanding that no man can faithfully adhere to it. This is exactly the same kind of system that the Jewish people are bound under – loosely identifiable as “religious legalism” which means your life’s acts (good and bad) are placed on a scale and weighed up. The fundamental problem is that on these cosmic scales, there can be only good deeds and not one single bad deed, thought or word. If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse: the “good” deeds that you are not counted as grace but as debt: “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” (Romans 4:4). What does this mean? It means that if you decide to choose the route of relying on good deeds to get to heaven, you are placing yourself under a burden of obligation to prove that you have paid your debt back. Your and my debt is so vast that not all the money in the world could pay it back. The only way to pay the price is if somebody with infinite resources were to gift it to you. “What were Abraham’s experiences concerning this question of being saved by faith? Was it because of his good deeds that God accepted him? If so, he would have had something to boast about. But from God’s point of view Abraham had no basis at all for pride. For the Scriptures tell us, ‘Abraham believed God, so God declared him to be righteous.'” (Romans 4)
Saved by myself?
The Beatles dreamed of a world free of religion, where people just went about doing good (“Make love, not war”). Noble ambitions indeed, but some decades later the Beatles are (mostly) dead and an honest assessment of our progress on this route would not yield a positive answer. It is certainly not for a lack of trying: we all (at least most of us) try to be better people and we try to improve ourselves and live better lives. There’s a bit of a problem though: we are our own worst enemy because our very nature is pulling in the opposite direction, despite all our good intentions. The Apostle Paul delivered this commentary on it, based on his own experience in life: “I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn, I can’t make myself do right. I want to, but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway.” (Romans 8: 18-19;24) When it comes to attaining salvation, we will be judged by God’s law, and His law is perfect so no (imperfect) man can ever hope to faithfully and fully fulfil it, because no man is perfect – ask any Muslim, Jew or Christian and they will be quick to admit this dilemma.
Think about this for a minute, if perhaps you consider yourself to have lived a “good” life so far: have you ever hated someone or even just called someone an “%$^%^*(!!” out of frustration? The law says that to hate someone makes you no better than a murderer and a law breaker (Matthew 5:21-22). Have you ever stolen something – however small? You have broken the law and you will be judged by God for it (Exodus 20:15). Have you ever lied, lusted, cheated, deceived or slandered? The list goes on. Whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in just one (small) point, is guilty of breaking it in its entirety (James 2:10). Think about it like this: you may be a conscientious and safe driver who adheres to the speed limit your whole life and then in the last year before your license finally expires you are caught speeding on the way to hospital to see if a grandchild was OK after a sports injury – but not only were you speeding, you caused an accident in which a person was killed. Will the law exonerate you on grounds of your past driving record or compassion for your situation? I doubt it. Because God is just, he has defined a just law by which all creation is governed. Law breakers must and will be punished because if they were not, then the law would no longer be just. If you choose to save yourself, it means you will stand alone as the accused on that day, with no advocate to represent yourself. You will have to defend the merits of your every action, thought and desire before a holy judge that can see right through you and has a High Definition video of your whole life from birth to death and has reviewed it in minute detail to expose every sin.
God’s law exposes the depths of our depravity and no man will stand justified before it. If our only hope of being reconciled to God is that we must first meet the demands of His righteous law, we will fail and fail and fail again. There is another way, that you can have not only an advocate to represent you on that day, but also someone who is both willing and able to pay the price for your release. “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation (the substitutionary ransom payment) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
Saved by Jesus?
What gives Jesus, uniquely, the right to step in and deliver us from sin and reconcile us to God? Because He was fully God and fully Man, He alone could exercise authority over sin, deliver us from its power, and restore us to God. We know He was God because He not only claimed divinity (that is, equality and oneness with God) but He also demonstrated it through the works that He did. Both Abraham and Paul realised that they could not make themselves acceptable to God through their good works; they both realised that they would never be able to meet the righteous demands of His law. Then they saw God’s solution: By God’s grace, he has opened to use the way of faith, which means we no longer have to depend on ourselves or religion to save us, but we put our trust in Jesus Christ as the one who has not only descended from heaven to reach us, but has suffered the consequences of your and my sin and lastly also completed the return journey by resurrecting from this fallen world and ascending back into heaven. It is by faith in Jesus Christ that we are set free from the enslaving power of sin and death and we are delivered into living a new life by the grace of God. Paul describes it as follows: “…Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:18-25). This might seem too easy an “answer”, almost unfair in that it is not expecting us to do something to make right with God. Indeed, we must do something, but it’s not what we think – there is nothing we can “do” to make God accept us in our sinful state, other than to believe that God has done it all through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross when he was crucified on our behalf for our sins: “Jesus Christ gave (yielded) Himself up to atone for our sins and to save and sanctify us, in order to rescue and deliver us from this present wicked age…in accordance with the will and purpose of our God and Father.” (Galatians 1:4) It was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that paid the price for our forgiveness, so it’s not like God just decided to “overlook” our sins on the day we put our faith in Christ – instead He put the burden and punishment for your and my sin upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ because He knew that no man on earth could carry that burden. Only God could carry such a burden and so only God could have died on that cross in our place. This is the whole point of the virgin birth – had Jesus not been conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a woman (Mary) then he would not have been both fully God and fully man and thus would have been “unqualified” to die for our sins. Let me explain: Because of the attributes of being both God and Man, Christ alone had the power to live a sinless life in full accordance with Gods own laws, yet because He was a man just like us, He alone was able to offer His life fully in exchange for ours – the perfect for the imperfect, the holy for the sinner, the righteous for the unrighteous. In this manner, the price for our “ticket to heaven” was paid and God has gifted it to us. We refer to this as the “Great Exchange”.
I hate to reduce things to a few “steps” or points because there isn’t a formula or recipe for something like salvation, but there are a few important points that we need to understand well to ensure that we don’t just start this journey but end it successfully:
- You need to understand what sin is. Sin isn’t just something that you do. It is the fruit of something that you are. We are all sinners – every soul alive past, present and future. How can I make an assertion like this? You might not consider yourself a bad person as much as most of us would not and certainly not a “sinner”. The problem is that we don’t fully appreciate the state of our relationship with God: every one of us has transgressed God’s laws. Let me help the men amongst us why I say this: “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28). I doubt a man alive would claim innocence in this regard and adultery is a capital offence under God’s law. And for the ladies, perhaps we should consider that Jesus also said this: “Under the laws of Moses the rule was, ‘If you murder, you must die.’ But I tell you that if you are only angry, even in your own home, you are in danger of judgement! If you call your friend an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse him, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” The problem is that we judge ourselves by our own standards of “good and evil”. But God judges us by His standards of good (he doesn’t even need to resort to measure us against a “standard of evil” because by His standard of perfect goodness, I think you’ll agree that not one of us will qualify as “good”). You might think that is a bit harsh. I do too, particularly since I know I’ve transgressed just about all of God’s commands, either willingly or unwittingly. But it’s not my universe and so I don’t get to make the rules. We are (and have been since Adam and Eve) in a defacto state of rebellion against God’s commands. Since the day we first became self-aware, we’ve been constantly kicking against the standards God has set for his creation. This is the definition of sin and it permeates every one of our lives – the “good”, the bad and the ugly amongst us, so to speak:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.
Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practised deceit;
The poison of asps is under their lips;
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
…For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:10 – 23). Sin is a conscious and subconscious choice to live our lives as if we are “God and king”, as if there is no God to whom we must give account to. Unfortunately this is not true and we will have to give account to God for every thought, word and deed across the span of our entire lives and if we fail on just one infinitesimally small point (in our view), we are in danger of the judgement of hell: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident” (Gal 3:10)
- Your sin is a bigger problem than you think. . Sin is what produces the death we witness in our world – b that moral, social or physical. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12). While we are alive on this earth, the connection between sin and death is unbreakable; in other words, your sin will eventually lead to death – both temporal and eternal. “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” (Romand 7:5). It is easy to argue that what I am doing right now (e.g. being unfaithful to my spouse) is not leading to death right now (i.e. I still feel good, even if a little guilty). However, do you really believe that there will be no consequences in the long run? Your marriage will die. Your relationship with your children will suffer. When your life finally ends, God will judge you for your unfaithfulness. Jesus made it clear: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (Matthew 5:30) He is obviously speaking using hyperbole – although only to a point. If it were a life and death situation you would be prepared to chop your own hand off if it meant saving your life? Would you be prepared to do the same if you knew your eternal life was at stake? Do you see your sin in as gravely a light as God does? “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.” (Colossians 3:5 – 6). God is going to destroy the world and everything in it one day and He will do so because of the problem of sin, which He intends to eliminate forever. We cannot presume to cling on to God on that day so that we might be saved, if we still want to cling to our sins at the same time.
- In order to get rid of sin, you need to repent. Sin doesn’t go away with time. It can’t be papered over or covered very well (many have tried and we see this most evidently in the Hollywood culture, where outside things appear beautiful, but on the inside lies all kinds of evil – jealousy, slander, contempt, hatred, fear). In order to get rid of sin, we need to acknowledge it’s presence in our lives (confess) and then turn our back fully on it (repentance). In the book of Acts, we read an account of the apostle Peter preaching to a Jewish audience: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” The word “repent” literally means to “change your mind”. It means that you no longer think that sin is a good or passable thing but you abhor it for what it is in the sight of God – the root cause of all the murder, slavery, rape, wars, genocide and everything else that is wicked in this world. God is completely justified in judging all the wickedness in the world. Jesus told a powerful parable to drive home this point: “There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” We need to choose whether Christ will be the rock that falls upon us and crushes us on the day of judgement or whether we choose to “fall” upon him now and confess and repent of our sins before our time on this earth is up and it’s too late to make that decision. By the power of His Holy Spirit, God is able to transform us by his grace, the moment we repent and embrace Christ: “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4: 17 – 24)
- A sign of repentance is baptism. Being baptised as a baby is possibly one of the biggest deceptions in the church today. Some assume that the sprinkling of holy water on a baby will absolve it of all kinds of evil in life. This is not only illogical, but it would make God immoral. How can God “forgive” a murderer at age 30 just because he was sprinkled with holy water at age one? Unless the murderer first acknowledges the gravity and wickedness of his sin and truly repents thereof, that holy water will do him no good when he faces the wrath of God.The same truth applies to all of us. Once we have understood the above things and repented of our sins, we should be baptised as an outward acknowledgement of the inward change: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:11 – 14)
- Live a life filled with truth and grace. The Bible says something remarkable about Christ: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). The truth we access by applying the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in our interpretation of the scriptures. The grace of God is the fuel that powers our lives as Christians. Something the Bible doesn’t say is that we should try to be a good Christian. In fact, the only time the Bible uses the word “try” it’s in the context of being tried i.e. being tested. Taken together, we should understand that the Christian life is fuelled and powered by the Holy Spirit and this is the only way that we can live victoriously over the power of sin (sin and temptation are not going to leave you alone the day you become a Christian and if you try to deal with them with mere human strength you will eventually fail). The full message of the gospel is grace AND truth. Like two wings of an aeroplane, doing away with either has disastrous consequences. We will cover this section in more detail elsewhere on this site, where we deal with the power of God’s grace.
Salvation is about putting your trust back in the One who designed the highway and laid out the plans (and delivered the SatNav updates post construction!). It is about choosing to lead a life where either you set the agenda and choose the road to travel or where you submit yourself to God and ask Him to show you the way. The core obstacle to salvation is sin – the very nature that dwells in each of us which causes us to presume that we are the gods of not only our own lives but of this world and therefore we get to choose how we will live and what is wrong and what is right. Jesus made it clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:6 – 7)
We are all in need of a Saviour that can deliver us from the weight and snare of sin and deliver on the promise of eternal life free from death.