The Message of Jesus: What Is Salvation?
“Why am I alive?” “Does my life have any purpose?” “What will happen to me after I die?” You’ve probably asked these questions. Everyone needs to know that life has meaning and that there is life after death.
We must all face death
Nothing is more certain about life than death. We occasionally receive the sobering news that a loved one has died. We are reminded that we, too, will die—tomorrow, next year or in half a century. The fear of death has driven some people, such as the explorer Ponce de Leon, to search for some fabled but non-existent fountain of youth. But the grim reaper will not be denied. Death comes to everyone.
Today, many people put their hope in science to extend the quality and years of their lives. Think of what it would mean if scientists were to discover biological mechanisms that would prevent aging—perhaps even allowing humans to escape death. It would be the biggest and most applauded news in human history.
Even in our sophisticated world, however, most people realize this is only a fantasy. Death can be delayed, but not forever. People still cling to the hope of life beyond the grave. You may be among those who do. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there really were some grand purpose for human life? A purpose that includes eternal life?
This article announces the greatest hope of all. That hope is God’s plan of salvation! God’s ultimate intent is to give humans eternal life — not just a life that lasts for a really long time, but new and better life without all the social and psychological problems we see today. The apostle Paul wrote that this “hope of eternal life” was promised by God “who does not lie” when he formulated his plan “before the beginning of time” (Titus 1:2).
Paul also wrote that God wants all humans “to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Speaking of the gospel of salvation preached by Jesus Christ, Paul wrote, “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” (Titus 2:11).
Under a death sentence
In Romans 3, the apostle Paul explains that the human race is sinful. He says that there is:
- “No one righteous, not even one” (verse 10).
- “No one who seeks God” (verse 11).
- “No one who does good, not even one” (verse 12).
- “No fear of God before their eyes” (verse 18).
Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He lists evils that result from our inability to conquer sin. Among them are envy, murder, sexual immorality and violence (Romans 1:29-31).
Peter calls these human weaknesses “sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Paul calls them the “sinful passions” (Romans 7:5). He says human beings live following “the ways of this world” and are intent on “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:2-3). Even the best human behavior and thoughts fall far short of righteousness.
God defines sin
“Sin,” or going against what God wants, can be defined only against a backdrop of God himself. He shows us perfect love, mercy, justice and humility. This sets the standard for human behavior, and when we fail to be like God in these ways, we sin.
“The wages of sin,” wrote Paul, “is death” (Romans 6:23). The penalty for sin began with God’s judgment against our first parents. Paul tells us, “Just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
Only God can save us
Death is the “wage” or penalty every one of us has earned, because we are all sinners. There is nothing we can do to escape death. We cannot bargain with God. We have nothing to offer him. We cannot do any good works to save ourselves. Nothing we might accomplish on our own can change our incomplete spiritual condition.
We are in a perilous state, but we have sure and certain hope. Paul told the Romans that the human race “was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope” (Romans 8:20).
What is our hope? It is that God will rescue us from ourselves. What good news! Paul added, “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (verse 21). Now, let’s take a closer look at God’s promise of salvation.
Jesus makes us right with God
God’s plan of salvation was finalized before humans were created. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was the sacrificial “Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Peter explained that Christians are redeemed by “the precious blood of Christ,” who was “chosen before the creation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20).
Paul said that God’s decision to provide a sacrifice for sin was an “eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). God’s purpose was “that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, came and lived among us (John 1:14). He took upon himself our humanity and shared our pain and sorrows. He was tempted as we are, yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and he gave his life to rescue us from the results of our sins. Jesus nailed our spiritual debt or note of guilt to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). He wiped out our sins so that we might live. Jesus died to save us!
God’s purpose in sending Jesus is summed up by the scripture so well-known to the Christian world: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Jesus’ work saves us
God sent Jesus into the world “to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Our salvation is possible only through Jesus. As Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
In God’s plan of salvation we must be justified and made right with God. Justification is much more than God pardoning our sins, though it certainly includes that. God actually rescues us from sin and enables us to trust, love and obey God through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ sacrifice expresses God’s grace, through which a person’s sins are removed and the death penalty lifted. Paul said, “Just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s sin] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Christ’s life] was justification that brings life for all men” (Romans 5:18).
Without Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace, we are in bondage to sin, subject to the death penalty. Sin alienates us from God, and prevents us from experiencing life the way God wants us to. It means that we cannot qualify for eternal life. The good news is that Jesus has qualified for us (Colossians 1:12).
How sin is “condemned”
God’s plan of salvation requires that sin be condemned. God “condemned sin in sinful man…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (Romans 8:3). There are several dimensions to this condemnation. First, the effect of sin — its penalty — consigns us to die. This death penalty was condemned or erased through the perfect sacrifice for sin —Jesus.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians that even when we “were dead in transgressions” or sins, God made us “alive with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). In that statement Paul inserted an important thought, making it clear what brought salvation: “by grace you have been saved,” he added.
At one time, because of sin, we were as good as dead — though still alive in this flesh (Ephesians 2:1). But those whom God has justified, while still subject to physical death, will be resurrected and live forever through our Savior.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Sin alienates us from God. Justification brings us into an intimate relationship with God. We are saved from the horrible results of sin. We “may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4).
Paul said, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
Even though Christians are living under grace, we still commit sin. However, the Holy Spirit continually leads us to repentance. John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). As Christians, we put away sinful behaviors. Instead, our lives will bear the fruit of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul wrote: “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
Of course, we are not justified by those works, no matter how good they are. That’s why Paul said that we are “not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). We are “justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28). But, if we belong to God, we will seek to please God.
We cannot earn God’s grace — it is his gift to us. Salvation is not something we can obtain by penance or religious works of any kind. There is nothing that we can do to earn or deserve God’s favor or grace. Paul wrote that justification comes through “the kindness and love of God” (Titus 3:4). It comes “not because of righteous things we had done.” Rather, “but because of his mercy” (verse 5).
Becoming a child of God
When we respond to God with trust and obedience, we are children of God. Paul used the metaphor of adoption to describe this gracious act of God. He wrote to the Christians in Rome: “You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father'” (Romans 8:15). Paul continued, “We are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
Without God’s grace, everyone would be “in slavery under the basic principles of the world” (Galatians 4:3). Jesus redeems us “that we might receive the full rights of sons” (verse 5). Paul said, “Because you are sons…you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir” (verses 6-7). That is an astounding promise. We can become God’s adopted children and inherit eternal life as God’s gift.
The Greek word Paul used in Romans 8:15 and in Galatians 4:5 is huiothesia — adoption. Paul was using the Greek word in a special way. In the Roman and Greek world, adoption was a common practice of the upper classes. The adopted child (often an adult) was chosen by the family. Legal rights were conferred on the adopted child, and the child became an heir of the family.
When a person was adopted into a Roman family, the relationship with the new family was legally binding. Adoption not only brought with it duties, but also conferred family rights. The result of the adoption was so final, and the change was so real, that the adopted individual was treated as a natural child. Since God is eternal, the Roman Christians would have understood that their place in God’s household is forever. God specifically and individually chooses—adopts—us.
Jesus used another metaphor to describe our new relationship with God. He told Nicodemus that this involves being born from above (John 3:3). We thus become children of God. John tells us: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).
From mortal to immortal
Although we are now children of God, we are not yet glorified. Our bodies must be changed if we are to have eternal life and immortality. Our physical and decaying bodies must be replaced. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote: “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?'” (verse 35). Our present bodies are physical, of the dust (verses 42-49). Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, which is spiritual and eternal (verse 50). “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (verse 53).
That final change does not occur until the resurrection, at Jesus’ return. Paul explained that we wait for “the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body’’ (Philippians 3:20-21). Christians who trust and obey God already have their citizenship in heaven. However, we eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ, when we will inherit immortality and the fullness of the kingdom of God.
How thankful we can be to God, who “has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints” (Colossians 1:12). God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (verse 13).
A new being
Those translated or placed into God’s kingdom “share in the inheritance of the saints” as we continue to trust him. Because we are saved by God’s grace, from his point of view, salvation is an accomplished fact. Paul explained: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God has “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22). The converted and yielded human is already a new being.
Those under grace are now children of God. To those who receive Jesus, “to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Paul said, “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). That’s why Paul was confident “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Even though a human to whom God has granted grace will occasionally falter, God remains faithful. The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) shows that even if people fall short and go astray, they are still his children. God expects these wayward children to come to themselves and return to him. He does not want to condemn them, but to save them.
In the story, the younger son finally did come to himself. He said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (Luke 15:17). The point is clear. When the lost son understood the folly of his ways, he repented and returned home —and found that his father had already forgiven him. As Jesus said, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The story illustrates God’s faithfulness to his children.
The son’s attitude had become humble, repentant and trusting. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (verse 21). But the father wouldn’t hear of it and received his son back with a banquet. The father said that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (verse 32).
We are God’s children forever. He will continue to work with us until we are fully united with him at the resurrection.
The gift of eternal life
God freely gives us, through his grace, “his very great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4). Through them we “participate in the divine nature.”
The mystery of God’s grace is “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3). That hope is “an inheritance that can never perish” which is “kept in heaven” for us (verse 4). However, presently, we are “are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (verse 5).
The future reality of God’s plan of salvation occurs at Jesus’ second coming and the resurrection of the dead. At this time, the transformation from mortal to immortal occurs. John said, “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Christ’s own resurrection is the assurance of God’s promise to us — resurrection from the dead. Paul says, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). This occurs when Jesus returns (Revelation 11:15).
Jesus promised that everyone who believes in him will have everlasting life. “I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
Paul explained, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). The time frame is Christ’s second coming. Paul continued, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (verse 16). Then, said Paul, those alive at Christ’s coming “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (verse 17).
Paul told Christians to “encourage each other with these words” (verse 18). And for good reason! The resurrection is the time when we will receive immortality and glorious new bodies.
Reward when Jesus returns
Earlier, we read that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” (Titus 2:11). This salvation is “the blessed hope,” fully realized at the “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (verse 13).
The resurrection is yet future. It is something we wait for in hope, as did Paul. At the end of his life he said, “The time has come for my departure” (2 Timothy 4:6). He knew he had been faithful to God. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (verse 7). He looked forward to his reward: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
At that time, Paul said, Jesus “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). This change will be accomplished by God, “who raised Jesus from the dead” and who “will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
Our purpose for living
Those who trust in Christ center their lives around him. Paul’s words sum up what our attitude should be. Paul counted his past life as “rubbish, that I may gain Christ…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:8, 10).
Paul knew he hadn’t yet attained his goal. He said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (verses 13-14).
Those who accept God as their Father, and love and trust him, will live forever in his eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10). In Revelation 21:6-7, God tells us what our destiny is: “I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”