Last month we saw that the fundamental sacrifice we offer to God is our will, the essence of ourselves. We let Him be the one who declares right and wrong in our lives, and we accept His will as the guiding force behind the choices we make. In this article, we shall place this sacrifice, this choice we make, within a larger context of a number of steps we can identify within an overall salvation process.
The salvation process
First let us summarize the process. Here are five steps that are easily identified. I suspect that on closer examination we could identify more, but these five will do for now.
- God declares our sin and His love;
- We agree, and want to be different;
- He forgives, and liberates us from our guilt;
- We trust, and participate in His work of making us different;
- He completes the work in resurrection and judgment.
When God declares our sin, we agree with His declaration — that’s a really important step. If we say, “I know You think I’m a sinner, God, but actually I’m okay,” then salvation stops at that point. There’s a barrier that needs to be overcome. That’s not to say that God stops working on us. He keeps working and working until we look inside ourselves.
It’s important that we come to a point where we agree with Him, and actually desire something different. “I don’t like being angry, I don’t like lusting, I don’t like coveting — at least, I wish I didn’t like being…”
So, we desire to be different; and then (and this is the fundamental thing) He forgives us. It’s as simple as that. He says: “If you want to be different, I’ll treat you as though you are different. All these things you’ve done in the past — let’s just move them aside, get rid of them! Imagine you’re starting anew today; none of the past is dragging you down; nothing you’ve done in the past is holding you back. Now stand up! You’re cleansed! Now, who will go for us?” He’s hoping for the response, “Here am I! Send me!”
He stands us up, He liberates us from our guilt, and we trust in Him. Trust is the essence of faith here. We trust in a number of aspects; we trust that God is truly liberating us, and we trust in the path He has laid out for us, and so participate in His work of making us different. Notice that we don’t do the work by ourselves; it’s God’s work: He’s doing it but He expects us to join in.
Here’s an analogy: We’re stuck in a pit; we’ve fallen down and simply can’t get out; maybe we can’t even move. God is there rescuing us; He reaches down, and He needs us to reach out to Him and hang on to Him. We’re not saving ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that we just sit around and do nothing. We need to participate in the work of salvation that God is working in us. God then completes the work in our resurrection and judgement.
That’s a quick summary and overview. Let’s look at some of these steps in a little more detail.
God declares our sin and His love
We’ll begin with Hebrews 1:1,2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
When Jesus was sent, God was speaking through him. I don’t think it just means His words. Everything Jesus did or said, even his very being, was part of God speaking to us, telling us fundamental truths about Himself, and about us, and about our salvation.
The first few verses of John’s gospel are saying the same thing. In the beginning God made all sorts of declarations. He spoke His word — Let there be light, let the sea bring forth living creatures, and so on. Everything God ever did was done through His word, through the things He said — and now, everything God has been saying is embodied in this human being, Jesus Christ.
Thus, when God declares our sin, or when God declares His love for us, it’s no surprise that these declarations come through loud and clear in everything Jesus has been saying and doing. We can look at the work of Jesus and see, time and time again, God declaring our sin, God declaring His love for us, through the words of Jesus. “It’s not my word,” says Jesus, “they are the words of my Father who is speaking through me.”
This is illustrated by the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard sent people to collect his dues from the tenants, but they beat some and stripped others and even killed a few. Finally, the owner says, “I will send my son; surely they will respect my son.” He did, and they didn’t. Even though the son was speaking for the owner, the tenants ignored him, and chose to murder him instead.
So whether through Jesus or elsewhere, when God says: “You sin,” it’s not for us to say, “No, I don’t!”
Let’s go to Job 40, to the opening of the second speech of God, in which God is continuing to train and refine Job. Job was indeed, as the narrator describes him, blameless. Yet in his sufferings, and in the course of the bitter and wearisome discourse, he comes to the point of claiming to have done nothing wrong before God. He comes close to saying: “God, I don’t actually deserve this!” God challenges him in this.
“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8).
And we sometimes fall into the same trap. We sometimes say, “You know what? God isn’t treating me right! God isn’t treating me the way I think I should be treated; I am better than this! I am more important than this!” — and now we are discrediting God’s justice in order to justify ourselves. When Job saw how close he had come to making this kind of declaration before God, his response was one of horror. He realized that within himself is the power of behemoth, the force of sin. It is so powerful, even within a man Scripture describes as “blameless”.
We agree, and want to be different
Finally we listen to God. Like Job, we acknowledge how powerful the flesh is, and how weak we are in the face of it.
Paul describes it this way: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 8:14,15).
I know what I want to be like. Even though I find it hard — perhaps impossible sometimes — I still know that I aspire to be righteous, to live my life in total service to my God. Whether or not I succeed on a day-to-day basis is not the point; the real point is: to what do I aspire? In my deepest heart, do I truly want to be righteous or not?
Christ is there as the supreme example to which we aspire. He is the model for our lives, and by his very being, is an encouragement to us.
This is how Paul describes it: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal. 4:19).
That idea — Christ formed within me — captures our aspirations wonderfully. That’s what I want, sometimes even in the moment when I am caught up in sin.
He forgives, and liberates us from our guilt
If we want to be righteous, then God has a wonderful way to help us. He forgives us! He simply does not count our sin against us.
Strangely enough, this is a really hard concept for us to grasp, despite it being so simple. For some reason, it seems to be very hard for us to really feel that we have been forgiven by God, so at the risk of overdoing things, let’s describe it again and again, from differing angles.
Again, this is how Paul describes it, in Romans 5:1: “Justified through faith, we have peace with God.”
Think about that! That’s the situation we’re in today! We have gone through the first couple of steps, those of us who have decided that we want to enter a covenant relationship with God; we’ve listened to God; we’ve understood and we do want to be different. Now the next step is that He forgives. And we are at peace with Him! We are not at enmity with God. He is not angry at us. He is not holding us blameworthy. Rather we are at peace with Him.
Indeed, we are in a covenant of forgiveness, whereby God does not hold our sins against us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “…that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” We still sin, but we regret our sins and present them to God, and He says, ‘Okay. I am not counting your sins against you.’ And that’s another sin that just gets moved away. We are again sinless in God’s eyes! That’s what it means to have peace with God. It’s a wonderful situation that we’re in!
Do you believe that? Do I? Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
God wants us to believe in His forgiveness, so that we will not be afraid of Him. He wants us to come near to Him, to allow Him to develop a close and loving relationship with us. “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
The writer of Hebrews notes as key factors: drawing near to God; faith in our hearts; sprinkled with water; and cleansed from a guilty conscience. Have you thought about that last factor? If you’re feeling guilty about things that you’ve done, that means you don’t believe that God has taken it away. The writer is encouraging and exhorting us to come to God with the sense that we don’t have to have a guilty conscience. Why? Because God has forgiven. Everything!
Those things we are ashamed of, those that we have difficulty admitting even to ourselves — let alone to other people — God has forgiven! But the way He takes them away is for us to talk to Him about them. If we just hide them in our heart, pretending that they don’t exist, we’re not being honest with ourselves; we’re not being honest with God. We’re actually still making God out to be a liar.
But if we just have the courage — and it does take courage — to say, “I know that’s a sin, I’m really sorry. I wish I wasn’t so attracted to that particular kind of behaviour. Please help me, give me strength…” then He says, “I’ll take it away.”
Not that we won’t struggle with that sort of behaviour. The more that we sin, the more our minds and flesh demand that thing. When we give in to sin we make it harder for ourselves. But even so, He does take away the guilt. He takes away the blame, so that we no longer need be dragged down by our sin. Like Isaiah we can be freed from our sense of failure, so that we stand up and declare, “Here am I, send me!”
We trust, and participate in his work of making us different
Let’s go back to Romans 5, this time verses 1 and 2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
Now, in line with the principles we have been exploring, I suggest to you that the previous lack of access to ‘this grace’ was not due to God keeping us out, but that we didn’t want to have access. Or rather, that we were too afraid, or too bound up in our earthly woes, to have access. The role of Jesus is to bring us to God, to draw us, to encourage us.
Through Christ, I now have access to God. I want to be in God’s presence whereas, before Christ, I might not have wanted that. It might have been harder for me to see that God’s way is what I truly want. “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:3,4).
We have a spirit within us which resonates with Christ, which emphasizes the hope we have, and gives meaning to the struggle we have. We trust in God and participate in His work of making us different, from inside out — rather like a microwave which heats the chicken from the inside out. His work of making us different is from the inside out.
The incident in Ezekiel 2:1,2 is interesting as an example of God doing things with our participation. God says to Ezekiel, “Stand!” And then Ezekiel said, “He stood me up.” Note that God didn’t say, “Stand! And get up on your own two feet!” Rather he told the prophet to stand, and then empowered the prophet by picking him up. It’s the same with us. He calls us to follow him, to give our lives to God, to be sinless, and then gives us strength and ability to accomplish.
We often miss an aspect of this. We read Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” — and we often stop there. It leaves us with the impression that we’ve got a whole lot of work to do, that it’s going to be a tedious slog, and we’d better just get on our feet and make it work.
But that’s not what Paul is saying. If we follow the whole sentence into the next verse, he continues: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12,13). Look at that. It is God who works in us!
The working out of our salvation is, I think, not one of earning our salvation, but rather more like working throughout the period of our salvation. God has rescued us. He saved us when we decided to move from death to life at our baptism. Moreover, God will save us when Christ declares us righteous at the judgement. And finally, God is in the process of saving us now. Now is the time of our salvation! Now is when we are being transformed. And it’s God’s work; we participate in it, we throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly — it’s not going to be easy — but, fundamentally, it is God’s work.
Look again at that 13th verse in Philippians 2: “It is God who works in you, to will and to act according to his good purpose.” So God not only gives us the strength to do the things that He calls us to do, but He also helps us to want the things He wants. That’s what “to will” means. He helps me with the struggle I have when I say, “I wish I didn’t want this so badly, and I wish I did want that.” God works at that level as well, helping me to want the right things; the things I want to want.
He completes the work in resurrection and judgement
We’ll have a lot more to say about resurrection and judgement in later articles, so we’ll be brief here. Let’s just glance at 1 John 4:17-20, taking verse 16 as context: “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.”
If we let Him work on us to transform us, to have Christ “formed within us”, so that we are “like him” in one way or another, then indeed we can have confidence in the day of judgement. Not because we deserve life; we haven’t earned it at all. Rather because He has forgiven our sin, has taken it away, and is not counting our sin against us. He will fulfil the desire that He has grown within us — with our willingness and participation.
First, faith (that is, trust) has always been the basis of salvation. There is no other basis of salvation than trusting God. None! There has never been any other basis of salvation than faith in God. Salvation happens when we trust and God forgives. That has always been the process of salvation, whether Old Testament or New.
Second, the work and role of Christ is to be integral in the process of God saving the world. He didn’t introduce something new. Rather he is the core of what God has always been saying and doing. Again, in later articles we will look in great detail at his roles of Savior and Judge. For now we just recall that one aspect of the death of Christ was to demonstrate the sinfulness of sin. It was people like us who took the Son of God and murdered him. And God says: ‘Now do you understand it?’
When we really appreciate the murder of Christ, we realise that sin isn’t something little. It’s not just a case of, “Oh well, I’ll try and be a little bit better than I used to be…”
Do we realise how sinful sin is? His death challenges us to pick one side or another. In the face of his death, we can’t sit on the fence. We must choose. Do I want sin, or do I want life?
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this series)