God continually delights me with His timing. Recently, I arrived home late from a trip. I was tired from a long day of speaking followed by an even longer day of travel. On the way, home I stopped at the fitness center to get a quick workout. Serendipitously I encountered a man I had not previously met. As we discussed current events, he indicated that he had always viewed man as being fundamentally "good." He admitted that life experiences had caused him to doubt his original conclusion. He had reluctantly concluded that man has a fatal flaw and a sinful nature.
Although he didn't know it, he was agreeing with what the Bible says about man. In Romans, Paul cites numerous Old Testament texts to affirm that no one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God, no one does good (3:10-18). He concludes: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Man is not only a sinner by nature; he is a sinner by choice (Romans 5:12). As John Revell wrote in "Sinners — In Desperate Need of a Savior" in the last issue of SBC LIFE, "Sin is not merely an action, it expresses the heart and attitude of the person who is acting — a heart that is defiant and hostile toward God."
The tragic consequence of sin is succinctly stated by Paul in Romans 6:23a: For the wages of sin is death. Death indicates a spiritual condition as well as a physical one. Man, who is created in the image of Holy God, chose to sin, and thus separated himself from Holy God — a separation that will have consequences in the present life and the one to come.
Now, hear the good news — though Romans 6:23 concludes that the wages of sin is death, it goes on to reveal that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Sinful man needed a sinless Savior. In his article, Revell also observed, "Jesus came from sinners (Matthew 1:1-17), to sinners (Luke 5:25-30; 19:5-7), for sinners (Luke 5:31-32; 19:10)." When Joseph was informed of Mary's pregnancy, the angel declared, She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The name Jesus means "Yahweh is salvation." Salvation is God's provision for man's most desperate plight: sin.
The Basic Concept and the Old Testament Background
In its most basic sense, salvation involves the act of saving someone from harm or death. For example, in Psalm 44:4 (ESV) the word "salvation" is used in reference to saving Israel from their enemies and in Mark 5:28 it is used in reference to healing a person from illness. Scripture expands the basic definition to include the deliverance from the penalty and power of sin. Thus it is not unexpected that "salvation" is the most widely used theological term to express the provision of God for saving man from the plight caused by sin.
For Israel, any saving act — even a physical deliverance or the release from national bondage — is seen as a spiritual act since God is its author. The most frequently referenced saving event in the Old Testament is the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, an event which demonstrated both God's desire and ability to save His people. When confronted by the seemingly impassable barrier of the Red Sea and with the Pharaoh's army giving chase, Moses addressed the people: Don't be afraid. Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation He will provide for you today (Exodus 14:13a). Once Israel had crossed the Red Sea on dry land, Moses composed a song of salvation. It contains these powerful words: The Lord is my strength and my song, He has become my salvation (Exodus 15:2). Israel recounted and celebrated this pivotal event of God's deliverance from Egyptian bondage in the annual observance of Passover (Exodus 12). As you read the Old Testament, you will discover a constant retelling of the Exodus event and the constant provision during the years of the wilderness wanderings. God's redemption is not only a singular event of deliverance, but has an ongoing impact of gracious provision.
Salvation in the Old Testament has both corporate and individual implications. The Psalmist and certain of the latter prophets connect salvation with the creation of a new heart and a right spirit. The vision of the valley of dry bones spoke of the new life which would be given to dead Israel by the Spirit (Ezekiel 37). In the preceding chapter, the prophet spoke of cleansing from filthiness, the removal of a heart of stone and the replacement with a responsive heart; a heart which would be empowered to observe God's ordinances. This transformation would not only "save" them from their uncleanness, it would cause them to be fruitful again so that the nations would know that God is Lord (Ezekiel 36:25-38).
New Testament Fulfillment through Christ
In the New Testament, the word-group related to "salvation" is sometimes used of healing people from disease, and it is often used in a distinctive sense of deliverance from harm based on the Old Testament understanding of God's gracious action toward His people. However, the destinctive sense of deliverance is from sin and the wrath of God which must be poured out on sin by a Holy God. Paul declared in Romans 5:9-10, Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, [then how] much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! Notice the event of salvation followed by the ongoing provision for the living out of redemption. It is noteworthy that Jesus succinctly stated that the thrust of His ministry was to come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
The focal point of Christ's redemptive activity is His sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus described His coming as a servant in terms of giving His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This ransom price to redeem sinful man was the sacrificial death of the Redeemer. This Easter season we celebrate the reality that upon His resurrection, He entered the holy of holies once for all … having obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). In the same sense Paul can declare that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us (2 Corinthians 5:19b).
The concept of salvation is so rich that Scripture uses a wealth of images to describe the event. The Bible uses terms such as "new birth," "ransom," "redemption," and "reconciliation." Paul employed the concept of adoption (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:4-5; and Ephesians 1:5), perhaps to focus on God's gracious choice of man, allowing him/her to become God's son/daughter. In Colossians 1:13-14, Paul spoke of salvation in terms of being rescued from the domain of darkness; being transferred into the kingdom of the Son; redemption; and the forgiveness of sins.
The Baptist Faith and Message describes salvation in terms of regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Though from God's perspective salvation is an instantaneous act, Romans 5:9-10 makes clear that from our perspective Christ's saving work involves already completed, on-going, and future saving activity. Thus, one may rightly declare, "I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved." Hershel Hobbs argued that failure to recognize this distinction could lead to many errors, "such as believing in salvation by works, believing in falling from grace, and uncertainty as to one's salvation until one appears before the judgment seat of Christ (Hebrews 9:28). But when this distinction is preserved, it adds to the meaning of salvation in its larger sense" (The Baptist Faith and Message [Revised Edition], Convention Press, 1996).
In Titus 3:5, Scripture states, He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (emphasis added). The word for "regeneration" in this passage is a compound word formed from the combination of the words for "birth" and "again."1 It literally means to be given new life or new birth.
In John 3 we find the story of Nicodemus's nighttime visit with Jesus. Nicodemus affirmed that he believed Jesus was a teacher who had been sent by God, and the miracles He had performed proved that God was with Him. In response, Jesus declared that no one could experience God's kingdom unless he was "born again" or "born from above" (John 3:3). As physical birth provides the point of entry into the physical world, so spiritual birth, the instantaneous work of God's grace which is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, provides entrance into God's kingdom (3:5-8).
When Paul addressed the church in Corinth, he reminded them, Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17). When a person places faith in Christ, that person isn't merely receiving assistance in order to live a better life, that person is made new.
Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus, And you were dead in your trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and then proclaimed in verse 5 that because of His great love God, made us alive in Christ. What great news for sinners! In Christ and through Christ, a spiritually dead person can be made alive — given a new life!
After declaring that all men have sinned in Romans 3:23, Paul followed with, They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24, emphasis added). In the moment a person is "born again" or "regenerated," he/she is "justified," or declared righteous before God. The image behind this term was a judge's pronouncement, or ruling, regarding an accused that he was no longer condemned.2
Justification required a concrete activity of God. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, indicated that God did not treat sin lightly. Sin created a massive gulf between God and people. The gulf required a bridge from God to man that would enable sinful man to be brought into a right relationship with holy God. Paul speaks of the bridge in terms of God reconciling men to Himself through Christ. That reconciling work makes it possible for sinful man to be justified (Romans 5:1-10). Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
Thus, it was on the cross that Jesus paid the ultimate penalty for our violation; that is, our sin. Because of His payment, God could graciously offer full acquittal of man based on Jesus' righteousness. That justification makes it possible for us to enter into a relationship of peace and favor with God.
Justification does not describe the entirety of the salvation process, but it does mark that instantaneous point of entry into a reconciled relationship with God. People cannot earn or achieve acceptance by God; they can enter only by faith in the completed work of Christ on the cross (Galatians 2:16). The spiritual journey begins at the point of justification, but it does not end there. When God declares a person "justified," He is establishing the future sense. He is announcing the verdict now that He will pronounce in the day of judgment.
Paul greeted the members of the church in Corinth saying, To God's church at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called as saints (1 Corinthians 1:2, emphasis added). The word for "sanctifiy" means to make holy or consecrate.3 Paul indicated that God's present and ongoing work in the believers, described by the word "sanctification," involves the process of growth in spiritual maturity and service. It also pictures being set apart for God's service and thus involves both the ideas of growing in spiritual maturity — which includes holy behavior — and effective service. Paul refers to the Corinthians as "saints" (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1) even though their behavior was not always "saintly."
Sanctification is an instantaneous occurrence whereby the believer is set apart unto God for service, yet it has progressive and ongoing consequences. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16; 1 Peter 2:2) who indwells the Christian, developing the character of Christ (fruit of the Spirit) in the life of the believer, and empowering and gifting him/her for effective service.
Growing in service and experiencing victory over sin is accomplished in the life of the believer as the believer continually and progressively submits to the work of the Spirit (Romans 7-8). In this life, the believer is caught between what God has begun and what He is yet to complete (Philippians 1:6). Thus, while believers will not experience moral perfection in this life, Paul exhorts the Philippians to work out their own salvation knowing that God is working in them (Philippians 2:12). The Christian should expect to be progressively freed from sin and suited to God's service.
Before His earthly departure, Jesus prayed that His followers would be kept from the evil one and sanctified in the truth (John 17:15-17). Followers of Christ are sanctified by the Word of God because they are being sent into the world to continue the redemptive work of Christ (17:18). Many believers are ineffective in service because we have failed to teach the meaning of sanctification. We must hear the exhortation of Peter to continually grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
Paul addressed the final step beyond sanctification when he said, … those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified (Romans 8:30, emphasis added). The word doxazo (from which we get doxology), portrays the final state of the redeemed when eternal glory is revealed.4 In a sense, we will be God's doxology!
Glorification describes God's ultimate and complete salvation of man which will be fully realized at the return of the Lord and will be our abiding state in heaven. Scripture once again used a wealth of terms to describe this completed work. In Romans 8:23, Paul spoke of it as the completion of our "adoption" and "the redemption of our bodies." In Luke, when Jesus was describing His return in power and glory, He spoke of the glorification of believers as "redemption drawing near" (Luke 21:28). In Romans 13:11, Paul exhorted believers to holy living based on the reality that their "salvation" was drawing near. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul spoke of the coming of Christ as the moment when God would sanctify you completely. Paul's prayer for the Philippians expressed assurance that God would bring His work of salvation to its full fruition (Philippians 1:6).
Again, this is great news for sinners who have rebelled against God and face eternal judgment and damnation. Because of His great love, He has provided a way of deliverance from our sin and its consequences. At least three implications occur to me.
First, the understanding of this great doctrine should give us full assurance of our eternal standing before God. God did everything necessary to provide for our salvation, taking extraordinary measures. We have not contributed in any way. Furthermore, we can have full confidence that He will be faithful to bring our salvation to full completion.
Next, it should call us to holy living and effective service. Remember, we are in the process of being sanctified, and we have the responsibility to "work out our salvation."
Finally, it should call us to urgent and effective witnessing, knowing that those who have been reconciled have now been given the ministry of reconciliation and been made ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). The world is filled with sinners who are desperately in need of a Savior and salvation — and we have the responsibility — and wonderful privilege — to share this great news with them.