In part I, we saw that the sine qua non of Christianity, as taught by the Apostles, is the salvation of individuals from God’s wrath against their sin by their repentance and faith in Christ. In parts II and III, we saw a fuller biblical account of these doctrines. Now we will see the mechanism that makes God’s forgiveness of our sins work.
How it Works
“How can this be?” you might ask. “Why does salvation come only from trusting Christ?” There is a mechanism that makes it work, and this mechanism requires a bit of theology. We can only give here a brief introduction to the very long discussion that would be necessary fully to establish this doctrine.
But please note: The mechanism of how God saves is different from the fact that God does save. Even if you cannot fully grasp, or agree with, the mechanism, the fact remains that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as the Bible repeatedly emphasizes. The Christian believer begins with just enough understanding to have faith in Christ, and then this faith seeks greater understanding, in the words of Anselm.
The basic reason Jesus saves is that he takes the punishment for sin that we deserve. Therefore our debt to God, caused by our sin, is paid in full, so we no longer need to pay it. Furthermore, Christ also gives us His (perfect) righteousness.
Concerning our standing before God, and using a mathematical analogy, not only does Christ remove our “minuses,” he also gives us his “plusses,” and these plusses make us worthy to receive God’s favor and enter Heaven. But not all people receive these benefits; only those are saved who, as discussed above, have true faith in Christ.
How Jesus saves is expressed most succinctly in II Corinthians 5:21:
He [God the Father] made Him who knew no sin [Jesus] to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God.
[Note: This passage alludes to the doctrine of the Trinity of God: There are three distinct persons who are God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and yet there is only one God. Giving a full defense of the Trinity doctrine would make an already-long essay become far too long, so the interested reader is directed to other places where he can study this idea. For now, consider the words of Christian apologist Greg Koukl: “The doctrine of the Trinity is a solution, not a problem:” The Bible refers to three distinct persons as being God while also maintaining repeatedly that there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity resolves this apparent contradiction.]
Our sin debt was paid at the Cross when God the Father placed our sins on Jesus (“He made Him…to be sin on our behalf…”), and then Jesus took the punishment that these sins deserved by suffering and dying in our place. The debt he paid was the entire sin debt for a vast multitude of people, and so only a man who was also God could have stood up to the tremendous force of all this punishment: In the words of Nahum 1:6:
Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him.
At the same time, only a man could have paid the debt because the one who pays must be of the same type as the one who owes. In the words of Hebrews 2:17:
Therefore He [Jesus] had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
[Propitiation = making favorably inclined; appeasing; conciliating.]
Thus it makes sense that Jesus had to be both man and God, the incarnated second Person of the Triune Godhead. That Jesus was a man is evident from the fact that he was born and died, that he ate, slept, and became tired, and so on.
That he is also God is attested to in, for example, the fact that Jesus is frequently called “Lord” (a title reserved for God alone), the fact that Jesus received worship when only God is to be worshipped, and the fact that Jesus forgave sins when only God can forgive sins.
Consider also the beginning of the Gospel of John which reads:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [Emphasis added]
A short time later, John identifies the Word as Jesus Christ (John 1:14—17.)
Jesus’ deity is also attested to by Titus 2:13:
…looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus…
Not only does Jesus take away all of our “minuses,” but he also gives us all of his “pluses.” The theological name for this is “imputed righteousness:” Jesus’ righteousness is “imputed” (credited) to us. This imputation is taught in II Corinthians 5:21 cited above:
… so that we might become the righteousness of God.
It is also taught in Philippians 3:8,9:
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. [Emphasis added.]
This, then, is how Jesus saves: if you have repented and put your trust in him, he takes your sins upon himself, and the punishment he received takes the sins away. Not only that, but his righteousness, which is perfect, is credited to you.
But not all Christians understand this clearly. Many Protestants of the Evangelical variety will say that to be saved you must “receive Christ,” or “ask Jesus into your heart,” or “make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior” or perhaps “pray the sinner’s prayer.” These phrases may be regarded as abbreviations for what it really takes to be saved: repentance and faith in Christ. But the problem with the sloppy Evangelical language quoted above is that it can give people the impression that getting saved means doing something, that is, undergoing some sort of “initiation ritual.” Many people who are not Christians, who do not attend church or read or believe the Bible, have received a false assurance of their salvation because they once engaged in one of these rituals. So we must be careful not to mislead: “Asking Jesus into your heart” does not make you a Christian. Repenting of your sins and having faith in Christ make you a Christian.
Recall that, as described in Part II, in the Reformed tradition the three parts of the basic gospel message are called guilt (our sinful standing before a holy God), grace (God saves us by forgiving our sins if we repent and have faith in Christ), and gratitude.
The basic meaning of this gratitude is best expressed by question and answer 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?
Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.
We are saved through faith in Christ. But salvation does not only mean going to Heaven rather than Hell after we die; the gospel is not just “fire insurance.” The Bible makes clear that the believer in Christ receives many spiritual benefits: indwelled by the Holy Spirit, adopted as a son of God, granted access in prayer to God the Father, and many other benefits.
Mr. Average Non-Christian thinks that Christianity teaches that following a set of rules determines whether you go to Heaven or Hell. Of course that’s what he thinks; that’s how the non-Christian world operates. But following God’s rules is properly a result of salvation, not the cause. The basic impetus to be morally good comes from the new nature God imparts to all believers, our gratitude to God for freely saving us in Christ, and our desire to honor God by doing good as he commands.
Concerning the new nature, recall II Corinthians 5:17, which reads:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
On the other hand, if someone claims to be a Christian but shows no evidence of it in the form of, shall we say, moral improvement, this is good reason to believe that he is not a Christian. Only God knows whether he is trusting Christ for his salvation, but if someone continues to live like Hell, so to speak, then we are justified in treating him as a non-Christian who needs to hear and believe the gospel. Better safe than sorry.
This is the end of part IV of this series. In part V, we will summarize the basic message of Christ and discuss how to find a good church.