The Issue of Salvation, Part 1

Of all the issues we may raise in our Bible study, Salvation has perhaps the most urgent personal relevance. All of us will one day pass through death’s door, and we all wonder what we will find on the other side. Here’s what the Bible has to say.

The Problem: Sin

The entire story of the Bible focuses on redemption from sin. As we have learned in our study of Genesis 3, sin is not an act that one commits, but a condition that one is in: like a genetic disease, the condition of sin is passed on from generation to generation. None of us is spared. The acts that we usually think of as sins are merely symptoms of the condition we are in. Sin entered the world in Genesis 3 and by Genesis 6: 5 we read that “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” By Psalm 14: 1-3, nothing has changed:

The fool says in his heart:
“There is no God above.”

Their deeds are corrupt, depraved;
not a good man is left.

From heaven the Lord looks down
on the sons of men

to see if any are wise,
if any seek God.

All have left the right
path depraved, every one;

there is not a good man left,
no, not even one.


And Paul, after quoting this psalm, contends that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23). Paul bases his statement not just on theological reasoning, but on his own experience. In a moment of profound insight the great apostle says:

I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7: 18-24)

He goes on to conclude that “the mind set on sin is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Romans 8: 7-8). Such words are brutally honest, and if we look within our own hearts, we find they apply to us as well as to Paul.

Given the vast chasm between sinful humanity and a holy God, each one of us stands condemned before God. Applying God’s standards to humanity, we all deserve the just consequences of sin: death and eternal damnation. It is important to understand that condemnation is not something that results from living a bad or immoral life: we are born infected with sin; we are condemned from the start. David sees this clearly. In Psalm 51: 5 he says, “in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived.” And in John 3: 36, the pivotal roles both sin and faith play in damnation and salvation cannot be plainer, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains [my emphasis] on him.”


The Solution: Redemption

God’s plan to redeem humanity is put in place in Genesis 12: 2-3, when God chooses Abram and tells him:

I will make you into a great
nation and I will bless you;

I will make your name great
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you I will curse; and
all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.

From Abraham and Sarah, God builds a nation, and from that nation comes the Messiah who takes away the sin of the world. As Isaiah 53: 5-6 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Exactly how redemption is accomplished is the subject of much theological debate. In technical terms how God redeems humanity is called the atonement, a Middle English word that literally means “at-one-ment,” or how humanity becomes “at one” with God. We explore the atonement in depth during our study of Leviticus 16, but let me present it briefly here.

The Bible does not present a philosophical discussion of the atonement, although it does give a great deal of information about it. We might summarize what the Bible says in this fashion:

  • The atonement is an accomplished and completed fact (Hebrews 9: 13- 26);
  • The atonement is essential to human salvation (Luke 24: 41-47; Acts 4: 12);

  • Although the entire earthly life of Jesus contained an atoning and even sacrificial element, the virtue of the atonement is found chiefly in his death on the cross: Jesus’ death is indispensable to our salvation (John 3: 14-15);

  • In the atoning death of Christ, God exhibited not only wrath against sin but love toward sinful humanity (Romans 3: 25-26; 5: 6-8; John 3: 16);

  • Redemption was in the thought and plan of God from the very beginning; when man fell, he fell into the arms of divine mercy: the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13: 8; 1 Peter 1: 19-20);

  • The atonement is not limited, but universal; it applies to the entire human family (Hebrews 2: 9; 1 Timothy 2: 5-6; Romans 5: 18; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-15);

  • Although the atonement is universal, salvation is not. God’s offer of salvation may be—and often is—rejected; when the rejection is final, atonement counts for nothing (Mark 16: 16; John 3: 36; Hebrews 10: 26-29);

  • The atonement is the objective ground for the forgiveness of sins and acceptance by God (John 3: 16; Acts 2: 38; Ephesians 1: 7; Colossians 1: 14).

Interpreting what the Bible says about the atonement has taken three directions during the history of the Church. Those three directions are still evident today. A fanciful notion has also surfaced periodically that the death of Jesus was a ransom paid to Satan to redeem those who had come under his power. Origen (A.D. 230) taught this, as did Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 370). Although prominent at times, this idea was always met with the strongest opposition and was never accepted as doctrine.

The first serious understanding of the atonement is called the Satisfaction Theory. St. Anselm (A.D. 1100) stands as its strongest proponent. In his book Cur Deus Homo he emphatically views the atonement as satisfying divine justice: man sinned, and a penalty must be paid. Although God is love, he is also justice, and the requirements of divine justice must be satisfied before God’s salvation can be granted. Anselm illustrates his theory with an analogy: when Christ bore the punishment for our sins, he literally paid a debt in the manner of a commercial transaction. Carried to its logical conclusion, however, such reasoning leads either to a limited atonement or to universal salvation, both of which pose enormous philosophical and theological problems; not to mention that they flatly contradict the Bible.

The second understanding of the atonement is called the Moral Influence Theory. Peter Abelard (A.D. 1100), St. Anselm’s chief opponent, stands as its strongest supporter. Abelard rooted the atonement squarely in the love of God, teaching that nothing in God’s essence requires satisfaction for sin: God is love, period. The suffering and death of Christ on the cross is the purest example of God’s love; hence, its effect is principally moral. It was intended to soften the hearts of sinful men and to lead them to repentance and devotion to Christ. To my thinking, however, the moral influence theory, though containing a profound truth (God is love), falls far short of adequately representing what the Bible teaches. It leaves out the fact (stressed in Leviticus and throughout Scripture) of a real, objective basis for atonement, and by doing so reduces the suffering and death of Jesus to an object lesson. Even so, many people in the church today—both Catholics and Protestants—subscribe to the moral influence theory of the atonement, especially among the more liberal movements and denominations.

The third understanding of the atonement is called the Governmental Theory. Hugo Grotius (A.D. 1617) is its chief proponent. Writing against those who denied the vicarious character of Christ’s death, Grotius held fast to Jesus as our “sin bearer,” but he viewed the vicarious nature of Jesus’ suffering and death as meeting a requirement of moral government, not some rigid sense of justice inherent in God’s character. This is a subtle, but important distinction. According to Grotius, Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross in our place makes it possible for God to exercise divine mercy. At the same time it protects the dignity of the Law, the honor of God and the moral interests of the universe. As a theory, Grotius’s position is appealing, for in one sense it reconciles the satisfaction and moral influence theories. Held to strongly, though, the governmental theory loses sight of the fact that divine government must be a reflection of God’s divine nature, and hence, what is required by divine government must also be required by divine nature. Further, if taken to its logical conclusion, the governmental theory degenerates into a cosmic moral spectacle, becoming—in effect—just another approach at a moral influence theory.

Today, theologians seek ways of mediating between or uniting these three theories, for each one alone inadequately represents the fullness of what the Bible teaches. Clearly, Scripture represents the death of Christ as a profound manifestation of God’s love; yet, it also represents his sacrificial death as required by God’s justice. It is equally clear that Christ being nailed to the cross in our place satisfies the requirements of divine law and the moral economy that God has established.

When we seek to understand the atonement—the dynamic that allows sinful man to be “at one” with God—we enter an arena where finite man struggles to understand infinite God. It is no easy task, and no simple answer will suffice. If we turn back to Scripture, the Gospel of Matthew gives us a place to rest our inquiry. Matthew is a very precise and careful narrator, giving us full details throughout his Gospel of what Jesus said and did. However, when he reaches the cross—the place where the atonement takes place—the narrative becomes sparse:

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27: 32-37).

Notice that we do not actually see Jesus crucified. They offer him a drink, but he refuses it; then we read “When they had crucified him….” The crucifixion itself takes place between the lines. The atonement—what actually happens on the cross—is similar. In Matthew, it is a private matter between the Father in heaven and the Son on the cross. Prying eyes are not privy to it. True, those loitering about the cross mock Jesus and heap insults on him, but from the sixth hour to the ninth, God lowers a mantle of darkness over the scene and the transaction between Father and Son takes place. It is as if God says, “This is something you cannot look at. It is beyond human understanding. The suffering cannot be comprehended.”

I cannot imagine a greater demonstration of God’s love, nor can I imagine a more profound sacrifice, in the levitical sense of the term. Yet, I am at a loss as to how to explain what happened precisely. God shrouded the atonement in darkness, and we simply cannot see it in all its details. To pretend that we can is arrogance and speculation. So I leave it to rest. I do know, however, that what transpired on the cross dealt with the issue of sin once and for all: this is clear throughout Scripture. We can add nothing to the completed work of Christ. John (who was there at the foot of the cross) tells us that at the end, Jesus said quietly and simply: “It is accomplished” (John 19: 30). And with that he died. At the same moment the curtain of the temple—the one separating the holy place from the Holy of Holies-—was torn in two from top to bottom, giving sinful man access to God once and for all.


The Result: Salvation

The death of Christ on the cross enables sinful humanity to be “at one” with God; it enables our salvation. Importantly, this salvation is a gift freely given by God: there is nothing we can do to earn it. Paul says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3: 21-22). And lest there be any confusion, Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Here, Paul isn’t developing a theology; he is simply repeating the gospel message. Recall John 3: 16, “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.” Then go to John 3: 36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Note the significance of “remains.” Condemnation does not result from living an evil or immoral life; it results from our inherent sinful condition. Each of us is condemned from the start. Finally, recall Jesus’ own words in John 5: 24, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Clearly, the Bible teaches that our own personal salvation hinges on belief in the Lord Jesus, not on any works we may do or on any ceremonies we may go through. Again, Jesus himself tells us in John 6: 29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” If we believe in Jesus as our Savior (that is, if we accept God’s freely-given gift of salvation by placing our faith in the person and work of Christ) we are saved; if we reject it, we are not. Thus, God’s plan for salvation is remarkably simple; one need not be a theologian to understand it. And there is no Plan B. Jesus’ death on the cross bridges the chasm between sinful humanity and a holy God; through Jesus—and only through Jesus—do we achieve salvation. In John 14: 6, Jesus tells us plainly, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”