THIS AIN’T PAINT BY NUMBERS
Written by Doug Ponder on May 3, 2015
Confused about Salvation
Redemption is a rescue event. It’s not a follow-the-leader, connect-the-dots, do-it-yourself, paint-by-numbers ordeal. In other words, salvation is not saving yourself but about being saved.
To some people this is obvious. The holy Scriptures teach this point thoroughly and repeatedly. But great confusion remains about salvation in part because the most commonly used illustrations make it seem like something else entirely: “The cross is a ladder to heaven.” “Jesus is a bridge that lets us cross the great divide.” “Jesus is God’s life preserver, which you grab hold of by faith.”
Not only do the biblical writers not use those images, but those illustrations also greatly obscure the true nature of our salvation. Consider what God has said about our condition apart from him: we are “slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:20), “separated from Christ… having no hope and without God” (Eph. 2:12), and “every inclination of the thoughts [our] hearts was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). And Paul sums up our sorry state when he writes, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
Dead people don’t climb ladders or walk across bridges. They can’t grab hold of a life preserver. We didn’t have “little hope,” we had no hope. We didn’t need a push in the right direction or inspiration or assistance. We were not drowning in our sins; we were floating facedown in the water, not breathing. We were dead, and dead people don’t need help; they need resurrection.
Redeeming the Illustrations
So if you want to go on insisting that the Jesus is a ladder to heaven or that the cross is a bridge that spans the chasm between sinful people and a holy God, then at least you should update the illustrations to make them match what the Bible actually teaches. Try these on for size:
The cross is a ladder from heaven, not so that we can climb up (for we could never do that), but so that God could climb down to rescue sinners—which is exactly what he did (Phil. 2:6-11).
Jesus is a bridge that spans the great divide—once again, not so we could get to God, but so that Jesus bring us to him: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
And instead of a life preserver that we must grab hold of, Jesus is the lifeguard who dives into the water (at great risk to himself) in order to pull our lifeless bodies back onto the surf. He then gives us spiritual CPR and breathes new life into us (Gen. 2:7; Ezekiel 37:5; John 20:22).
Stay Humble and Keep Preaching
Yet God doesn’t save us by magic, zapping people at random like lightning bolts from the sky. Instead, God tethers his saving work to the good news about Jesus. That is why the apostle Paul says, “The gospel… is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). And how are we brought to belief? Paul tells us this, too: “Faith comes through hearing the message about Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
This means two things. First, if “believing in Jesus” were something we could take credit for then we would have a reason to boast about before other men. “We believed, and you didn’t.” But that’s not how things work with God. In fact, he explicitly tells us, “Where is boasting? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27). “It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God… so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8). And so when we meet Christ, we will have him to thank even for our faith. For Paul says that salvation “does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16). The ultimate end of this kind of thinking is extreme humility. For it means that we have come to faith only because of God’s mercy, having been born in a time and place when we would hear the gospel and be brought to faith by grace.
Secondly, this means we must share the gospel. Since God has chosen to connect his saving work with the gospel—and only the gospel—then no one will be saved unless the gospel is preached to them. As Paul says, “How can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” (Rom. 10:14, NLT). I like that translation of Romans 10:14 because it reminds us that “preaching” (how the second-to-last word is usually translated) is not just what a pastor does from a pulpit. The word preaching means proclamation, and that happens every time one of God’s people share the good news about Jesus with a friend or family member or co-worker or neighbor. In other words, you cannot smile someone into the arms of Jesus. They can’t run him because they are dead, remember? They need new life, spiritual resurrection, and that only has one source: the God who has placed his power in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:16).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.