Jesus made many claims about himself, about God and about the world. Of all of these claims, the most well known is that he is the savior; that he offers salvation to the world. Even without realizing the full scope being the savior of the world, it is easy to see that this claim is a tall order. Jesus’ method of accomplishing this through the cross was surprising to those in the past and bizarre for many today. Yet the salvation of Jesus has far reaching effects to the nature of man and his final destiny, the right to justify sinners, the regenerate spark of life he brings to believers and the personal relationship with those who accept him, all brought about by his atoning sacrifice. It is my hope to express my personal theology of Christ as Savior in the following pages that would align accurately with the Bible.
Before we understand salvation and what that does, it is crucial to understand the need for salvation. Indeed, a man will not leave his house with emergency rescue crews unless he truly believes that the supposed storm is threatening enough, let alone real. Many people do not respond to the story of God’s salvation because of their unconvinced attitude that they are, in fact, lost. It is said that people are truly good deep down, and only go astray because of society’s negative influences or because they aren’t listening to their heart.
I wonder then, how did society become bad? It is as if society was some foreign agent and not made up of people. Or as the satirist Steve Turner wrote, “We believe that man is essentially good. It’s only his behavior that lets him down. This is the fault of society. Society is the fault of conditions. Conditions are the fault of society” (Turner, 42-44).
The Bible provides the best explanation for humanity’s experience: humans are lost and evil. This is a part of our very nature. Paul brought this out, pointing to Adam. “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (New Living Translation, Romans 5:12). This sin entered the world, passing from generation to generation. Again, Paul states, “Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners” (Romans 5:19). This sin is a part of our nature. It is inherent, not merely a choice. So we do not mistake this as inconsequential, because everyone is guilty, Isaiah likens our condition to filthy rags, or used menstrual cloth (Isaiah 64:6).
This sinful condition is not just inherited; we all chose to sin. “All have sinned. All fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Even out best efforts at being good are subpar and infected with selfishness, greed, jealousy, etc. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (New International Version, Isaiah 64:6). What’s more is that we aren’t even seeking God and his goodness. As the psalmist writes, “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3). The Bible holds no confusion on this point: humans are lost and evil.
Rationally then, it would not make sense for God to send His Son, Jesus to the world on the mission to “seek and save the lost” if we were not lost (Luke 19:10). Despite this, the consequence humankinds’ evil nature and resulting destiny has recently become unpopular and thus under debate with American culture. Surely a loving God would not send His beloved children to hell. Is anything too great for God to do? If He does “not want anyone to perish” then they surely won’t (2 Peter 3:9). In efforts to blend the Biblical view and our modern palette, it has been proposed that God’s love is so irresistible and great that people will eventually chose to be saved by faith in Jesus, even after death.
The words of scripture show these views to be in error. Indeed, God is loving and kind, but that does not negate his other attributes. He is also righteous and just (Psalm 50:6, Psalm 45:7, Luke 18:19). If a mother sees two of her children in a dispute and one becomes violent, severely injuring the other child, would the mother not be cruel if she merely smiled at them and not disciplined or punished the guilty? Or if a judge makes the decision to let a rapist and murderer go free, claiming “love” as his motivation, would he not be considered corrupt? If we see the obvious limitations of sprinkling love over everything to the detriment of justice in our human society, can we really expect God to make that error? In truth, we find that there are consequences to our sins: death (Romans 6:23).
True, God does not want any to perish as we are told in 2 Peter 3:9, however, this does not mean that no one will. I want to eat potato chips with chip dip every night, but that does not mean I will. I have the power to go to the store and buy chips and dip, but I also wish to be healthy. Eating like this would go against this other characteristic of mine. I do not mean to belittle God’s desire for the salvation of humans to the level of my craving for potato chips (great as that is now that I have been talking about them), rather I wish to show that there are different senses of God’s will.
The truth is the kindest person who ever walked this planet spoke plainly about the destiny of the wicked. Jesus talked about this destiny as “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” (Matthew 25:30). The evil will be “weeded out” and “thrown…into the blazing furnace” (Matthew 13:40-42). It might be more palatable for our modern culture if there was some end in sight where the wicked will have served the completion of their time or at least they would be annihilated and thus have no more suffering. Alas, this is not the truth we hear from Jesus. “Then they will go away to eternal punishment…” (Matthew 25:46). This destiny is never ending.
There does not seem to be any indication that there are opportunities for the wicked to leave this terrible fate once they have been judged. Jesus’ parables give warnings of people being caught “off guard” by the return of their master. The returning bridegroom shuts the door and does not open it again despite the pleadings of the unprepared wedding party (Matthew 25:12). The returned master punishes the wicked servant and throws him out with the hypocrites because he thought he had time to set things in order before the judgment (Matthew 24:51). In another parable of the rich man and Lazarus, there is no question that the rich man would rather be in paradise. He even asks Abraham to send Lazarus to quench his thirst because he was in such agony. Abraham indicates that each person is rightly placed; Lazarus in paradise and the rich man in Hades. Abraham also replies that there is a chasm between them and even if Abraham wanted to, he could not cross (Luke 16:19-31). If there was a way that the rich man could have gotten to paradise, it seems very strange that the story ends this way. That is why it is said, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15). Hell is not an idle threat, nor the “time out chair” for those who were caught unawares. We cannot ignore the prevalence of the Bible’s warnings, “ready or not, here I come” to ease the blow for our audience.
If the story were to end here, it would indeed be sad. Yet, by God’s grace it does not. God knew the trajectory we would take if we embraced sin. He even warned Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he would surely die (Genesis 2:17). Even before Jesus came, it was prophesied by the prophet Isaiah a way for atonement. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Who was this one to take on the iniquity or sins of the world?
God’s plan was to send Jesus to offer Himself as a substitute for sinners. Paul explained, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood-to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). Because God is just and good, there needed to be payment for the sins of the world and so there was: through Jesus Christ. So, God made a way whereby He acted according to His nature to be good and yet merciful. He could not just wink at the atrocities committed by sinful humans. No, he had to shed blood in order to forgive (Hebrews 9:22).
This sacrifice had to be perfect and guiltless, and thus could not come from a wicked human. My brother once took my punishment when we were children. I had done some stupid thing like pick on my sister and so was sentenced to early bedtime without dessert and watching a favorite TV show, ALF. My brother stepped in and convinced my parents that he would be willing to take my punishment for me. They agreed. I rejoiced. I got dessert and the TV show, while my brother went to bed. Now, this arrangement would not have worked if my brother was guilty of the same thing and sentenced to the same punishment. My parents would certainly not allow me off the hook if my brother was already going to bed early. It was only because he was innocent of any crimes (for that evening, anyway) that he could pull this off. And so it is with Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Saving us, meant he had to die in our place. This substitution was not just for those who were alive at the time. Nor was it only for those who would come on this earth after. He died so that all would have the gift of eternal life, including those hundreds and thousands of years before Jesus hung on the cross. “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26). So even though those beforehand did not know specifically how God would save them, God knew and allowed those who had faith in Him to be saved through Christ’s sacrifice.
It is by faith in Jesus that a person is saved, not of their own good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Many people, unfortunately, miss this crucial point about salvation. They think that they are saved because of their good works. If they can just do more good than bad, then God will weigh it all out and find that if the good outweighs the bad, they will be innocent. This proves no truer in our imperfect human society than it does with God. If I take my car and speed 90 mph down the highway and slam into another car, the police, other driver and judge will care very little if I have had a perfect driving record up to that point. The deed has been done and nothing will take that away. Reckless driving and damaged cars cannot be repaired by a few years of perfect driving record. Likewise, sin cannot be removed by good deeds.
Faith is the key. Abraham, many years before Jesus walked on the planet was declared righteous, not because of his work of circumcision, but because of his faith (Romans 4:11, 22). So it is with us, “…not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).
This faith in Jesus gives us right standing with God, or justifies us (Romans 5:1, 9). The term justification is a legal term, meaning that a person is no longer counted guilty by the court. We can stand before God in full confidence, without guilt or shame because we have been justified. “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Before being justified, we were enemies of God and God’s wrath was upon us (Colossians 1:21, Ephesians 2:3).
Even if we were justified, and received Christ’s atoning sacrifice and had Christ as our mediator before God, we would be unable to have eternal life and live the Christian life. Once a person puts their faith in Jesus to save them, they not only receive forgiveness and a right standing before God, they are infused with the very regenerate life of Christ. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
A judge may be satisfied that a criminal’s penalty has been justly served. The judge may then declare the person innocent and free to go but the declaration of innocence does not fix the terminal illness inside the person’s body. That person needs new life. In the same way, those of us who have been justified through faith in Jesus still rely upon the power that rose Christ from the dead. That is why the resurrection is so important for us, who may be forgiven, but unable to raise the dead. “Though Christ suffered physical death he was raised to life in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18). “Death could not hold him down, rather Jesus conquered death through the power of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). As Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
My parent’s faith in Jesus as their savior was clear to me as a child and when they asked if I wanted to trust in Jesus as my savior, I was eager to do so. My father led me in a prayer, confessing my sin and asking Jesus to forgive me and come live with me. As I grew up, I came to realize how much I could not measure up to God’s standard. I began to see how quickly my ledger was filling with debt to others and to God. I knew I could come before God and confess my sins, and he was willing to forgive me but there came a crisis for me later on where I was not sure if I could really trust in Jesus as my savior. Because of my continued disobedience, I was no longer confident in my salvation. One of my big causes of doubting my salvation was my seemingly multiple personalities. I could make the decision to follow God and be eager to do so for that day, but then if temptation came my way, I would forget about that and act as though I did not know Jesus. I would look back on my behavior in tears and bang my head against the wall, sometimes literally, and ask “Why?” “Why do I keep on doing this?” “Why would God save me?” “Did I really even have faith if I continued to sin?”
It was at this point when I was confronted with the realization of the magnitude of my own propensity for sin that God led me to a great truth. I was on a mission trip, taken away from normal circumstances and immersed in God’s word, God’s people and service for God. That acted as a magnifying glass for the duplicity I had been living. I acted out dramas, sang songs and served people, hoping that they would come to know Jesus and be saved from their sins. Yet, my sins were haunting me, driving me to despair and fear. I became convinced that if I died, I was going to be cast away from the one I said I followed. I lost my appetite. I lost my easy going attitude. I lost my sense of humor. As soon as I was alone, the fears and guilt overtook me and I could only weep. My friends wondered what was wrong with me and tried to cheer me up, but I could only pretend to be at ease. My mother, who was a leader on the trip thought I had a chemical in balance that we would take care of when we got home. Medication or changing my nutrition could take care of this, she hoped. But she prodded my dad, also on the trip, to pull me aside and to have a conversation.
With difficulty, I named my sins and told him how awful I was. I didn’t think I was a Christian and surely would go to hell. My father, however, gently said that he had also sinned but that God’s grace is bigger. That changed my world. When I was very young, I knew Jesus could forgive me but my sin exceeded my childhood understanding of naughty things such as not cleaning my room and hiding my vegetables at dinner into desires and deeds I would be too embarrassed to talk about. I knew God’s grace was enough to take care of the little things, but surely, I reasoned, there is a limit to God’s grace. Afterward, my youth pastor read the words of Paul in Romans 7 that became very relevant to me, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25)!
It was when I realized that no matter how wretched I was, God’s grace was still bigger. I now had hope that this marvelous grace was in fact not just for those who were pretty good people. His grace was for wretched sinners, murderers, adulterers, thieves, liars and me. I had mistakenly thought that I had to earn the right to be forgiven. Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but I thought I needed to work my way to a level where I would deserve to be forgiven. If I could be good enough, then God’s grace was for me and He would love me. But God’s grace undeserved, so by nature, we cannot deserve it (Romans 5:2). Once I realized God was willing and able to save me, I had a great desire to please him. I not only knew I was free from the penalty of death but found myself with greater ability to live for God.
Jesus is more than just a nice man in an old story to make people feel better as they decorate buildings and themselves with crosses. Jesus was the only one who could accomplish the amazing salvation for us. The salvation of Jesus has the power to change the destiny of mankind despite their evil nature. His atonement demonstrated his love for us while satisfying the penalty of our sins. His salvation means we have been justified before God through faith without having to earn his favor. The salvation of Jesus gives us new life from the same source that raised Christ from the dead. Because Jesus is savior, I can personally know God as my father.
Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, Inc. 2011.
Life Application Study Bible. New Living Translation. Second ed. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2007.
Turner, Steve. “Creed,” originally printed in his book Nice and Nasty. London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1980. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias in Can Man Live Without God?. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.