I set stage for this blog with the question, What is Christian Salvation and Why Would Anyone Want It? If you haven’t read that blog first, you might want to take some time to read it. I set this piece up with my own story, but I am no different than anyone else who has encountered the God of the Bible and the salvation that He offers.
In this piece we will get into some detail on the meaning of salvation, sin that poses the problem for which salvation is the solution, and righteousness, which is, perhaps, more misunderstood than the other two.
To begin with, salvation means, generally, “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss”; theologically, it means “deliverance from sin and its consequences” according to Google. Righteousness means, generally, “the quality of being morally right or justifiable” according to Google.
These definitions are simple and easy enough to understand generally, but they have very specific and nuanced meanings in context of faith that belie the richest and deepest of Christian truths.
I like to think of righteousness as being right with (aligned with) God. Self-righteousness is the last thing a Christian should want. Self-righteousness, in fact, is a key to the fundamental problem that salvation is provided to address – sin – and the basic root of all sin is pride and self-absorption.
We might as well add sin as one of those ubiquitous, but often misunderstood, Christian terms. Sin, at its most basic level, means “to miss the mark”, and a close corollary is “having no share in” (conveying the idea of forfeiture or loss). The idea of sin is closely correlated with the ideas of salvation and righteousness.
To live in sin doesn’t mean, at its most basic level, living in moral turpitude, as it seems so many suppose. It means to live guided by personal pride, self-absorption and the desire for control. Our “sins” are just a symptom of a deeper problem.
And being righteous before God has nothing to do with being morally right. It has nothing to do with anything we can do in our own efforts. Being right with God boils down to our willingness to surrender ourselves to Him. It’s a heart thing, not any effort that we undertake.
Abraham is the standard for this surrender. We read in Abraham’s story that he believed God, “and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), and Paul re-emphasized the importance of Abraham’s trust in the New Testament when he said, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” (Romans 4:3,22)
And that leads to another important point: the meaning of faith is not what most people seem to think it is. A common idea of faith is to believe in something for which there is little or no evidence. We just “take it on faith”. But that isn’t even close to the real meaning in the Christian context.
Faith is putting trust in and surrendering control to something we know to be true. I believed that God existed before that day I described above, but I had not entrusted myself to God and had not ceded control of my life to Him. I believed, but I didn’t have faith in God.
A good example of the difference between knowing something is true and trusting and surrendering control was offered by John Lennox in a debate I watched. Lennox said that faith is illustrated by a person who knows that an elevator is designed to take him up to the top of a building. That person doesn’t doubt the elevator exists and that it is designed to carry him to the top of the building, but he might not be willing to trust himself to the elevator, for fear it might fail.
We have faith in the God of the Bible when we trust Him and surrender control of our own destiny to Him. We trust that He will do as He has said and that He will not fail. God offers us salvation freely if we would only receive it.
And, what of salvation? What God saves us from is ourselves! The consequence of our sin is that we miss the mark. Because we miss the mark, we have no connection with our Maker; we have gone our own way; and the end result of that is separation from God. This is how the prophet Isaiah put it about 700 years before Jesus (Isaiah 53:6):
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way….
Iniquity is another word for sin. God is God. He is who He is. He is perfectly just. He is perfectly good. He is perfection. If God let us into His heaven in our sinful state, we would ruin it.
A friend of mine, when asked if people are basically good, responded to say that people are basically good. We might be 90% good, or maybe 95% or even 99%, but it’s kind of like lemonade with poop in it: I wouldn’t want to drink it.
To the extent that God is just, our transgressions can’t be ignored. If God ignored them, He wouldn’t be perfectly just. But God is also perfectly merciful too. (The definition of God is that He is the maximal Being, being maximally, great, good, just, merciful, etc.) If God let us into His heaven our sinfulness would ruin it. In fact, I don’t think we could possibly get in because of our sin. The extent to which we are imperfect would make it physically impossible for us to gain entry – regardless of whether God loves us or not, our imperfection would prevent us from entering a perfect world.
In fact, the Bible affirms that God does love us. He desires for none of us to perish, and for all of us to be saved. (John 3:17; 2 Peter: 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4) Because of His great love for us, He has prepared a way for us to be saved from ourselves and our sin that makes us unfit to enter His heaven, and the prophet Isaiah portended this way centuries before the plan came to fruition.
The clue is in the same verse cited above:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
God became man, and he lived a sinless, perfect life because this man, Jesus, was fully God and fully man. And as a man, he willingly took upon himself the demands of justice for our sin. He submitted himself to the justice we deserve and paid the price for us so that His righteousness could be counted to us as our righteousness if we entrust ourselves to Him and to His control of our hearts.
We are made in God’s image and, therefore, must willingly participate in God’s plan for us to be made right so that we can have connection with God in our lives and for all eternity. Like God, we have some freedom of the will that we must yield to Him in order to receive what He has planned for us.
“Mankind” has the ability to choose other than God’s way, as was illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve. As Adam and Eve exercised the one choice that was forbidden, we now have one choice to exercise that will be counted to us as righteousness. Just as the exercise of our will to go our own way disconnects and separates us from God; the exercise of our will to yield that choice to God brings us back into connection with Him, the Lord and Giver of life.
And it’s nothing we do. It’s nothing we have earned. It’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s His desire for us, but He allows us to participate in this purpose by the exercise of the choice He gave us. In this way, we are able to reflect God’s love back to Him.
In any other scenario, we would not have this ability. We could not love God without our will to choose Him or to ignore and deny Him. But our choosing to ignore and deny Him has consequences – separation and disconnection from Him.
When we talk about salvation in the Christian sense, we mean rescue from the consequences of sin (going our own way) and death, which is the ultimate outcome of sin. If sin disconnects us from God, who is the Giver of life, death is the ultimate and necessary result.
Salvation is what God provides to us through the death of Jesus who sacrificed himself to satisfy the requirements of justice so that God could be merciful to us, not counting our sins against us, but counting our trust in Him as righteousness.
“[Jesus] has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised….
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to …; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15,17-19)
There is so much more that can (and should) be said on the subject. I have only barely scratched the surface. I hope that you are inspired to dig deeper. God is so much bigger than we tend to view Him. These basic themes can be plumbed for a lifetime without running out of nuance and subtlety.