What it is — what it is not — and what you have to do about it
Salvation is the process by which God returns people to himself.
Originally, human beings belonged to God. In fact, belonging-to-God was the default condition of all humanity before the first sin ... although all humanity included just Adam and Eve at that time. Nonetheless, those two enjoyed perfect fellowship with God. But when they rebelled against God, they were changed at their core. Where once they enjoyed eternal life, now they were dead in sin. Where once they fellowshipped with God, they now hid themselves from his face. Sin, it seems, had changed their very natures. It destroyed their original purity, yes — but so much more. It changed their lives' default setting from eternal life to death.
If that were the end of the story, then Adam and Eve's misstep would have been a mere cautionary tale. But that's not the end of the story. They not only ruined their lives, but they ruined our lives, also. Just as their single transgression changed their path from eternal life to certain death, so it changed us. All of Adam's progeny would now inherit his sin nature. We, too, were originally born to live, but now we are born to die.
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22, ESV).
Once we understand that we are dead in sin, it's easy to see through one of the most common misunderstandings about salvation. Salvation does not make living people holy. It makes dead people alive. In God's economy, biological vitality does not equal life. Even those who still draw breath are counted as dead until they have been redeemed.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world...” (Ephesians 2:1–2, ESV)
Understanding the default condition of humanity is the key to understanding salvation, for salvation cannot be understood apart from God's plan of redemption. The nature of redemption is to bring back into possession something that has fallen to another. In the case of humanity, we fell from God's possession into Satan's at Eden. Therefore, we need a redeemer to return us to God — and no other process will do! We are no longer held by our original owner, and we won't be until a qualified action is taken. However, none of us are qualified to act because none of us has the correct currency — sinless perfection. God will only accept the currency of holiness to pay for the debt of sin, and humanity has never seen that coin this side of Eden.
Although there are many actions that take place to accomplish salvation, the first action must undo the first offense — Adam's. But by what action specifically? By changing the default setting of death which was passed to every person through Adam's blood. Only in this way can we be restored to God since only by the agency of Adam's sin were we removed from God's possession.
That is not to say that we are otherwise perfect. Far from it! Even if our imputed debt-to-sin were not in play, then any one of our personal sins (even the tiniest) would have removed us from God's possession, too. But the oldest debt must be reckoned first, and Adam's was certainly the oldest. This is the sin that redemption addresses. Redemption restores us to God. And no one can come to God except by restoral. Since Jesus is the only Redeemer of mankind, it is only through him that we are restored to God.
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness...” (Titus 2:13–14, ESV)
Getting a firm understanding of redemption should help reveal another common misconception about salvation. We cannot approach God by reforming our lives, by joining a church, or by giving sacrificially. Redemption is not that easy. Redemption attacks our pride. It is a messy business, too — and bloody — hurtful to God as well as to us. There is only one Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and it is by his blood that we are redeemed... or we are not redeemed at all.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,” (Ephesians 1:7, ESV)
Furthermore, he must do all of it, for we can do none of it. He initiated our salvation because he is merciful—not because we are deserving.
“he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy...”
(Titus 3:5, ESV)
Since we are saved according to God's mercy, it is critical to know how mercy works. Mercy is only for persons who have already been declared guilty, as in the following example. If a criminal in a courtroom said to the judge, "Your honor, I'm innocent! And I throw myself upon the mercy of the court." That would make no sense. Mercy is not an option for anyone who is claiming innocence whether he is innocent or not. If, however, the man was found guilty, then at his sentencing it would be appropriate for him to plead for mercy. Because mercy would be all he had left. That's how we have to see our sin — that we are guilty! And that we have a death sentence hanging over us. Only then does God's mercy apply, when our only other option is death.
So many "Christians" do not understand their peril. The very fact that God applies mercy to save them speaks to their desperate state. God's mercy stays their very deaths! Yet countless people aver that they can reform their way out of death. These are like men standing on the gallows — vowing to quit smoking and to eat better. Self-improvement is a worthy pursuit, but it is folly in the context of salvation.
Once we understand that everyone has sinned and that sin equals death, then it's easier to see through the fallacy that salvation is a self-help/God-help program—designed to optimize your earthly life and to increase your heavenly potential. No. Sinners are dead, and dead can't be improved. On the other hand, a redeemed person is a regenerated person. He is brought back to life, but no longer as the old self who was dead in sin. He is a totally new creature, created afresh in Christ.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)
So far, we've been discussing the basic structures of salvation, and I'll admit that they can sound a little technical. But that foundation needs to be in place so you won't think I'm crazy when I say this. Contrary to what you've heard all your life, "being good" won't get you into heaven.
I know, that sounds counter-intuitive, but it challenges the most commonly held misunderstanding about (Christian) salvation in the world. The thinking usually goes something like this. God watches us while we live our lives. He keeps track of things because there will be a judgment day where we will all stand before him, and then he'll decide—based on our behavior — if we are worthy to enter heaven. This probably sounds familiar to most of you, and it probably feels equitable, too, somehow. But that notion has a problem. It's simply not true.
People who show up on Judgment Day presenting their good behaviors for entrance into heaven will not get in. Only God's children go to heaven. All others, their behaviors notwithstanding, are categorically sinners — and God is never impressed by the works of sinners. Be warned: You must be that new creation to enter heaven, because joining a church, being baptized or working in a soup kitchen are all fool's errands for those who do not already belong to God.
Still skeptical? The following is from the lips of Jesus himself, and it is (in my opinion) the most chilling passage in all of Scripture. It is a picture of Judgment Day, but note carefully just who's going to hell: People who thought that their honorable — even godly — behaviors would be enough to allow them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. But it gets worse. Not only does God dismiss them...he disavows them!
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23, ESV)
In light of the above passage, wouldn't it be wise to make sure that you are approaching God on his terms...and not some terms that seem right in the culture? What exactly is the will of my Father who is in heaven? We've already discussed it. Become a new creature — be born again. You cannot enter heaven until you have removed the death sentence that is connected to the first birth. If that old default condition rules, you remain dead, and you will partake of the second death (Rev. 20:6) unless you act. You must find life — but you must find it on God's terms.
People think that they can "fix" the condition of sin by performing holy acts upon this earth, but those are not God's terms. Unless you've become a new creature, you are categorically unable to perform anything but sin (lawlessness in Mat. 7:23) in the eyes of God. Therefore, any "good-works,"no matter how sacrificial or how holy-looking, that are performed by people who are not God's children are classified as sin! And sin has wages.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 6:23, ESV).
The only way out is through. Jesus himself taught that we will never see the Kingdom of God unless we are born again.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”” (John 3:1–3, ESV)
The scriptures are clear that there are no "good people" in God's eyes. There are only the born again and the lost. Do you think you know an exception to that rule — someone who was overtly holy... even sinless? Your grandmother, perhaps? The late Mother Teresa? Not according to God. Note the word all in the following verse.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, ESV).
Since everyone has sinned, everyone has a problem... but God has a solution. Remember redemption, how Jesus buys us back for the Father? That's God's part of salvation. We need to talk about our part of salvation, because God does not force heaven upon us. God made us with a free will, and we can choose to ignore him or come to him. But if we choose to come to him, it must be on his terms, and here's the first term: You cannot earn eternal life. It is a gift from God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV)
His second term is that you must find eternal life in the right place. It is located in (and only in) his Son Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you "have" Jesus, you have eternal life as a result.
“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:11–13, ESV).
One thing remains: The gift has been given... but it has not been necessarily received.
John 3:16 tells us that God has given his son (and, therefore, eternal life) to the whole world. Why, then, is everyone in the whole world not saved? Because the only ones who actually have the gift are the ones who reached out and took it. If you reach out to receive Jesus Christ, you too will have the right to become a child of God.
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,”
(John 1:12, ESV)
So, how do you do this receiving thing? Let's look at the biblical account of the Philippian jailer who did just that.
“And the jailer... trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...
(Acts 16:29–31, ESV)
Now, the word believe is tricky, because it can mean to make a mental assent, and you must start there, because you must believe the right thing, that you cannot attain heaven by your own devices. But you can't stop there, because the kind of belief that saved the Philippian jailer was the kind where you believe with your whole heart, your whole mind, you whole soul. It was faith. And there is indeed a difference between belief and faith.
For example, when you go to a furniture store to buy a chair, you're probably choosing one by aesthetics, by how it might look in your home. But there's another consideration. Will it hold you if you sat on it? You examine it, pick it up, feel the legs—and finally you decide that if you sat on it, it would hold you. That's mental assent, the low end of belief. But when you actually sit on it, and by sitting on it I mean resting your entire weight upon it so if it failed you would crash to the floor, that's faith! That's the high end of belief, and that's where you've got to be to be saved.
So, how do you actuate this faith? Try out the chair. Sit down, that is, rest on Jesus. Since he did all the work to ensure your entrance into heaven, begin by thanking him for that. Turn your heart to him and tell him something like, "I see now that I could never reach you (God) on my own because of my sin, and that grieves me. But I see your hand of mercy in that you sent Jesus to die for me. I now trust in his sacrifice to cover my sins forever. I thank you for your provision. Now, please help me to live like a child who wants to please his Father."
If you've sincerely worked your way through that heavenly monologue, now you're ready for some dialogue because you've been born again, and the Holy Spirit has taken up residence inside of you. He will help you to pray (That's you talking to God), and he will help you to read the Bible (That's God talking to you). Then you should find a bible-believing church so you can talk to other believers, too. These three conversations are like the three legs of a stool; it's hard to keep your balance with only one or two.
With God, there is always more to learn, but this is enough for now. Remember, if you were sincere in asking Jesus to save you, you have been born again, and you are now a child of God! And like a human child, you may displease your Father — but you can never become un-born. Your spiritual DNA will never change, so you must wind up in heaven no matter what! The only question is how will you feel on that first day? A lot happy? Or a little ashamed? Between those two is the whole of the Christian life. Enjoy!
If this article has helped you make a decision to receive Christ, I'd love to hear from you. Would you send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org ? That would be a big encouragement to me. God bless you.