WHAT IS SALVATION?
Written by Doug Ponder on May 19, 2013
What’s the Problem Here?
There are very few people who can look at the world and see nothing wrong with it, nothing that is in need of change, nothing that needs improvement, nothing that needs salvation. (And those who do say everything in the world is the way it should be ought to have their head examined.) Just about everyone agrees the world is not the way it’s supposed to be.
What needs to change? That depends on who you ask.
Karl Marx seemed to think the key problem in the world is economic systems, like capitalism, that create class warfare, envy, and alienation. What is needed, he thought, is a classless society. The way to get there is communism. Thus communism “saves” you from the horrible effects of capitalism, and brings the “salvation” of a society without economic class of any kind.
Plato thought the main problem of the world is ignorance. People are like prisoners in the cave of their ignorance, happily watching the shadows of reality instead of understanding reality as it truly is. The result of this ignorance is vice, improper habits, thoughts, and attitudes. The solution to vice is virtue, and the way to get virtue is knowledge. Thus knowledge “saves” you from ignorance and its vices, and brings you the “salvation” of virtue instead.
Buddha saw all the suffering in the world and concluded that the problem is whatever causes the suffering. If there were no desires, he reasoned, there would be no suffering. For you can’t have unmet desires if you have no desires at all. The way to reduce desire is through destruction of the self, the slow killing off of anything that makes you you. This leads to nirvana, which literally means extinguished, as in your life is extinguished. Thus cycle after cycle of self-denial leads to a decrease of desire and suffering, which yields the “salvation” of your personal existence being snuffed out like a candle.
Many people today seem to think that what is wrong with the world is unhappiness. Unhappiness is the result of restrictions in our lives that prevent us from becoming happier than we are. Some see poverty as the ultimate restriction to happiness, thus they are “saved” from unhappiness by money, which releases them from the restriction of poverty. Others, taking a page from Plato’s playbook, see ignorance as the primary restriction to happiness. Thus they are “saved” from unhappiness by education, which frees them from their ignorance in order to better themselves in some way. Finally, there are some who see rules, laws, or morals as the main restriction to happiness. “If only we were totally free to do as we like,” they say, “then we would be happy.” Thus they are “saved” from unhappiness by the overturning of any law, rule, or moral that hinders them from doing as they like.
Certain types of religious people, those who see themselves as devout, moral, and upstanding, tend to think the biggest problem we face is acts of evils committed by people other than them. The religious types are good, in their own eyes, and others who are not like them are evil, bad, and problematic. The whole world would be a better place if God removed everyone unlike them. “That sounds like heaven,” they say. And they mean it, literally. Salvation in heaven means being rescued from the evils of others to enjoy a paradise they earned for themselves.
Salvation as Defined by Jesus
Jesus saw things differently than all of those groups. He said that the biggest problem facing the world is sin, which results in every kind of vice, every form of selfishness, and even death itself. But the solution to sin is the gift of life in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thus, according to Jesus, life in him saves us from sin and all of its consequences, including death.
The word for “rescue from sin and death” is salvation.
The Scriptures teach that salvation is God’s work. “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). That means it isn’t something that we can do or earn for ourselves, contrary to what many people think.
Those who think our main problem is unhappiness due to a lack of education, lack of freedom, or lack wealth, try to earn “salvation” for themselves through lots of schooling, the changing of laws, or hard work, respectively. But when they get what they thought would save them from unhappiness—a new degree, a new freedom, a dream house on the lake—they find satisfaction to be fleeting. It’s like sand slipping through their fingers. Instead of concluding that they have misdiagnosed what is wrong with the world, they double down on their efforts: another degree, even more freedom, a much nicer house. But none of it works.
The religious types who think our main problem is evil people try to earn salvation by being good. If they are religious Christians, they may say that they are rescued by “faith alone,” but live as if they are rescued by being nice, by working hard, by following the rules, and by treating others like they want to be treated. That is because, deep down, they still believe that God owes them something for all their good behavior. Though they would never say it, they think they have saved themselves from the fate of all evil people by being better than them.
(As an aside, it’s really hard to be an honest religious person. You can’t go on forever pretending like other people are what’s wrong with the world while knowing your own sins as well as you do. That’s why work-hard-be-good religions produce quitters and self-righteous hypocrites. The honest ones give up. They quit trying, because they know they’ll never be good enough to earn salvation. The dishonest ones become hypocrites who trade one sin for another that is easier to hide. On the outside their lives look prim and pristine, but on the inside they full corruption and decay, and their hypocrisy eventually produces an arrogant self-righteousness that really does believe that they are better than others.)
If Jesus is right, however—if sin really is our biggest problem—then we should know we can’t save ourselves any more than a leopard can change its spots. (For how can someone who is sinful by nature change the core of who he is?) We need God to forgive us, to cleanse us, to heal us, to change us, and to make us new. And that’s precisely what he does in Jesus. Jesus brings salvation.
United with Jesus, Adopted as Heirs
The language of being “in Jesus” or “in Christ” is found throughout the New Testament. It was Paul’s way of talking about union with Christ, which is the way we receive salvation from sin and death. Those who trust in Jesus are united to him by the work of the Holy Spirit. To be united to Jesus means that “our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Moreover, we are said to have “died with Christ” (Rom. 6:8) and to have been “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:4). Paul says, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5).
How can this be? For those who depend upon Jesus, God graciously allows his life to count for our life and his death to count for our death. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, but haven’t, and died the death we deserve to die for sin, but won’t because of him. “He became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). To be “found in Jesus” means that we can’t claim to have any righteousness of our own. Instead, we recognize that our only hope is the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith in Jesus (Phil. 3:9).
More than this, we are told that salvation in Jesus means that we also receive adoption as sons and daughters of God. We now have God as our Father (Gal. 4:5), Christ as our brother (Rom. 8:29), and the Spirit as our Helper, Comforter, and Advocate (John 14:16). And if that were not enough, God makes us heirs to his eternal kingdom where there is no sin, no death, no sickness, no sorrow, only life and joy and peace.
For Your Consideration
1. No matter what is you think you need in order to be happy, I can find millions of people who already have it but are still miserable. What makes you any different from them?
2. If you are tempted to think that God will accept you, love you, and forgive you because you’re a good person, how does your life measure up to Jesus’ life? Why should you be the standard, instead of him?
3. What are some implications of believing that are who are united to Jesus by faith freely receive the salvation that he accomplished on our behalf?
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 Twitter @dougponder.