Every religion has their idea of salvation. This word usually refers to some altered or improved state of being in this life, or a new existence of some kind after death. Every religion, we have learned, has a different name for "salvation":
- The Taoists call it balance (ying/yang)
- Buddhists refer to it as nirvana
- Hindus call it Moksha
- Islam speaks of paradise
No matter what other religions call it or how they describe its experience, they all share a similar pathway to their own concepts of salvation.
In all religions, except Christianity, salvation is achieved by some kind of human effort.
For example, Buddhism requires meditation, knowledge and self-denial to reach its salvation goal. Islam demands that its adherents practice and maintain the five spiritual exercises if they wish to arrive at paradise. These are only two examples but all other religions (aside from Christianity) demand some form of moral or religious law keeping in order to become worthy and acceptable to a higher power and thus saved. The basic premise is always the same:
- Mankind is flawed and subject to death.
- God or a higher power/force provides the knowledge and method to improve this flawed condition and ultimately escape death in some way.
- That knowledge and method is mediated by religious leaders who teach and maintain the spiritual discipline to eventually be "saved."
- If the individual works hard enough, trains well enough, is zealous enough in his practice of religious customs and rules, he will win the prize: salvation.
Except for customs and names, this has been the pattern for obtaining salvation outlined by most of the major religions in the world throughout the history of mankind. Christianity's idea and approach to salvation is completely different.
Christianity and Salvation
Christianity begins with the same premise concerning mankind's general condition.
Humans are flawed, subject to moral failure and physical suffering and death. The Bible, which reveals Christianity's view on human salvation, teaches that the source of this condition is mankind's sinfulness. Paul, the Apostle, summarizes this idea in his epistle to the Romans when he says:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
- Romans 3:23
And then he declares what the consequence of this sinfulness is:
For the wages of sin is death,
- Romans 6:23a
In another epistle, John the Apostle, describes what sin is:
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
- I John 3:4
In the book of Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet explains in more detail the effect that sin has on us and why it leads to death:
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
- Isaiah 59:2a
So if we were to summarize these few verses about sin and its effect we could say that:
- Sin is disobedience to God's will.
- Everyone at one time or another sins.
- This disobedience separates us from God.
- This separation ultimately leads to our physical death as well as our spiritual suffering because our spirit cannot be at peace or experience joy if it is separated from the Spirit of God in whose image it was originally created (Genesis 1:26).
Let me give you a visual example of this phenomenon:
Let us say you have a plant. The main stem is God and the leaves are people. So long as the leaves are connected to the plant they are alive and produce more leaves and blossoms, etc. But if I were to separate a leaf from the main plant by cutting it off, what would happen? It would look the same, have the same color, even keep its freshness for a while.
However, after a time it would dry up and die. That leaf would turn brown and eventually become dust, not capable of renewal. The main plant, however, and its leaves would continue to live and bloom.
This is not a perfect example but it does demonstrate the process that takes place through human sinfulness and the need for salvation (which is another word for "rescue"). We are born sinless and joined to God who brings us into being and sustains our physical and spiritual lives. Eventually we sin. We disobey His commands and laws concerning moral and spiritual behavior. In doing so we separate ourselves from Him and become subject to further moral decay, physical death, and a spiritual separation from God after death.
The problem here is that once we are cut off from God, we do not have the ability to reattach ourselves to Him, and thus are doomed just like the dead leaf cannot reattach itself to the plant. This is the essential difference between Christianity and all other religions. Other religions believe and teach that human beings are able to reattach themselves to God through human effort of some kind:
- Gaining religious knowledge and insight.
- Practicing religious disciplines such as worship, meditation, secret rituals, pilgrimages, etc.
- Some try to achieve it through extreme denial of human appetites, or food restrictions, etc.
Whatever the culture, tradition, or religion, the method is the same, an attempt to be reunited with God by human effort in order to avoid suffering, death, and the separation of the soul from its natural place with God. Christianity is unique in that it reveals a method for rescuing man based on God's actions and not human effort.
The Bible teaches how God "rescues" or saves us from the death caused by our separation from Him due to our sins. Here is how it works:
1. God pays the moral debt we owe Him.
Each sin we make, each law we break creates a moral debt we owe to God. This moral debt is the cause of our guilt, shame, fear of death, and judgment because we know we are guilty. We cannot repay this moral debt because we are polluted by sin and cannot produce the sinless, perfect life required to remove a lifetime of imperfection and sin. God pays the moral debt through Jesus Christ, it is in this way that God "rescues" us. Paul, the Apostle, explains it this way:
6For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
- Romans 5:6-11
This passage explains and points out certain features of the Christian religion:
1. Why did God take on a human form in Jesus Christ?
Only a perfect life could be offered for the moral indebtedness of man and only God in the form of man could accomplish this perfect life.
2. Why did Jesus have to die in order to obtain this forgiveness for man's moral debt?
Death was required because according to God's spiritual laws, human sinfulness could only be atoned for through death.As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says,
And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
- Hebrews 9:22
A perfect life was required to make up for the imperfect life of mankind destroyed by sin. God takes the form of a human being, Jesus Christ, and offers this innocent and perfect life as a sacrifice to pay the moral debt of sin for all of mankind.
3. How does the sacrifice of one pay for the sins of all?
If Jesus were only a man, a good and holy man, his sacrifice could atone for himself or another. One man pays for one other person. But because Jesus is God, has a divine nature - the value of His life and thus sacrifice is different.
As God, the sacrifice of His divine life is able to pay for the sins of all mankind.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
- I Peter 3:18
4. What was the role of the Jewish people?
God chose one man, Abraham, and from him He created a special people. He gave them their religion, a country, laws, and formed their culture and history (read about this process in the Old Testament). The reason for this was to provide a religious, cultural, and historical stage on which He would appear as Jesus Christ. His purpose was to offer His life for the sins of mankind; the Jewish people were the vehicle used to make His human appearance and be the first to be offered salvation.
5. What is the role of the Bible?
The Bible is the inspired account of God's plan to save humanity through Jesus Christ. It records the beginning of the world but then focuses in on the forming of the Jewish people and continues to tell their story until the appearance of Jesus and follows with the eyewitness accounts of His death, burial, and resurrection. It ends with the history of the forming of His church and the spread of Christianity in the 1st century.
Its main theme, however, is the salvation of mankind through Jesus Christ. Paul the Apostle summarizes this idea in writing to a young minister when he says,
and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
- II Timothy 3:15
And so, Christianity presents a unique way to deal with the consequences of human weakness and moral failure. Not by human effort and religious practice or attempts to achieve moral perfection, but God offers Himself through Jesus Christ as the payment for the debt of sins. In Christianity, God rescues us from death, from separation, from condemnation, because we do not have the power to do so. This is not to say that humans have no participation in the rescue. We do offer something to God, but it is the only thing we truly have to give to God and that is our faith.
This brings us to the second important teaching in the Bible concerning this subject.
Salvation is offered to man based on faith, not human effort.
In Christianity God does what is impossible for man, pay the moral debt for sin, and man does what is humanly possible, he trusts God. This is the sum of salvation. God offers man rescue from death and separation caused by sin and man believes and trusts in God to accomplish this on his behalf. This beautiful reconciliation is described in various ways in the Bible.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
- Romans 5:1
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
- John 3:16
If I were to go back to my example of "separation" with the plant used earlier in the chapter; in Christianity it is as if God takes the cut-off branch and reattaches it back to Himself. People do this with plants and damaged trees all the time, it is called grafting. They cut a wedge and reattach the severed branch and hold it in place with some kind of wrapping.
In the same way God grafts us back into Himself and the element that holds us into place, so to speak, is faith. This is the key doctrine of the Christian religion: salvation by faith through grace. In other words, because of God's kindness (grace) He offers us salvation (rescue) based on our faith in Jesus Christ and not based on personal goodness or human effort.
Paul the Apostle says it this way:
21But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;
- Romans 3:21-22
Of course there are many facets and details to the Christian religion I have not mentioned here and will discuss in our next two chapters, but the issue of salvation and how it is produced by God and received by man is the core teaching of the Bible and Christianity. Now there are some questions that naturally arise from this teaching and what most of us already know about Christianity.
What is faith and what exactly are we to believe?
Belief, by simple definition, is to accept something as true. In Christianity we accept as true that Jesus Christ is the son of God. When challenged to believe, Peter, one of the Apostles, demonstrated the essence of Christian belief when he said, "You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God." in Matthew 16:16.
There are many other teachings and details of the Christian faith that one must know and understand and believe, however, for salvation's sake, the essential belief is what we believe about Jesus Christ. Of course this belief includes our trust that His death pays for our sins and our faith in Him makes us right before God.
What about repentance and baptism?
In the Bible, faith is almost always associated and accompanied by repentance and baptism. Repentance refers to a change of heart. A turning from disbelief and sin to belief and a desire to please and obey God. The English word, baptism, comes from a Greek word which means to plunge or immerse in water. In the Bible those who believed in Jesus expressed that faith through repentance and baptism.
For example, When Peter the Apostle preached about Jesus' death and resurrection he encouraged people to believe and when they responded to him and asked how they were to do this, he said,
Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
In another passage Paul describes what was said to him before he was baptized by a man called Ananias,
Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.'
- Acts 22:16
To summarize, God offers salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We accept that sacrifice for our sins by faith, that is, by believing that Jesus is the Son of God. And we express that faith, according to God's command, in repentance and baptism.
Who can become a Christian and when can a person be baptized?
Jesus answers this question when He spoke to His Apostles recorded in the gospel of Mark,
15And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:15-16
Jesus Himself says that the good news of salvation is for everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptized is saved, no exceptions based on color, race, education, gender, social position. However, He also makes clear that those who refuse to believe have no alternative way to be saved. This means that when we come to belief - then we should not hesitate to express that faith in the way God intended, through repentance and baptism.
As we close this lesson on salvation, let me encourage anyone reading this message to believe in Jesus and trust in the way of salvation that only He offers. If you have not yet expressed your faith in repentance and baptism then please do so as soon as you can.