The prophet Joel said it (Joel 2:32), and more than 800 years later, the apostle Paul repeated it: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Of all the enduring promises we find in Scripture, no other promise holds greater significance for both this life and the one to come.
But what does salvation really mean? From what is one saved? Why is salvation something we should be concerned about?
Before God’s promise of “I will save you” can become precious to us, we must understand the answers to those questions. That will require a bit of a journey.
What Really Happened the Day Jesus Died?
John, one of Jesus’ disciples, gives us a historical account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Many Christians read through John 19 and 20 failing to consider the totality of all that is represented in John’s account. For instance, we are told that “Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” (John 19:1). This was after a night of anguish in an unlawful courtroom, which included hours of unquenched thirst and multiple beatings.
The third-century historian Eusebius, who was eyewitness to many crucifixions, described a scourging as a severe punishment during which “the sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.”1
The relentless torture meant that many men died before they ever made it to the cross. Thus, scourging was sometimes referred to as the halfway death, since it stopped just short of death.2
John 19:17 tells us Jesus had to carry his own cross. Then the Romans would have stretched out his arms, driven 5- to 7-inch-long spikes into his wrists near the median nerve, which would be crushed on impact. The pain of crucifixion was beyond severe. In fact, our word excruciating is from the verb cruciare (“to crucify,” “to torment”), which is from crux, meaning “cross.”3
Next, the nails would have been driven through Jesus’ feet, once again crushing his nerves and shocking his body. The stress of hanging on a tree causes a slow, painful death. Seneca, a first-century Stoic, wrote:
Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.4
Today our forms of capital punishment may vary, but in almost all cases the circumstances are highly controlled. Death comes quickly and predictably, and medical examiners carefully certify the victim’s passing. Comparatively, crucifixion is neither quick nor predictable.
Jesus willingly endured the cross for one reason: he wanted to save us. John recorded Jesus’ final words: “It is finished” (19:30). But Jesus didn’t stay dead. In three days he rose from the grave. So what was “finished” wasn’t Jesus’ life, but the work of salvation.
Jesus went on to perform other signs and miracles after his resurrection. Why? “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30, 31).
Jesus was sent from God to accomplish the most important mission ever, a mission we can’t accomplish on our own: our salvation. But sometimes we just can’t see it.
God Does Not Grade on a Curve
We have this false sense of security that tells us that as long as we are at least 51 percent good, we will go to Heaven.
The problem in our thinking stems from the false assumption that God somehow grades on a curve. The Bible teaches, however, that our standard is God—not any human being. And if we choose to relate to God on the basis of moral goodness, we will lose every time (Romans 3:20).
The Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “There is no one righteous, not even one” (v. 10). Many have tried but all have failed. Jack Johnson wrote a song titled “Good People” that asks, “Where’d all the good people go?” According to the Bible, they were never here in the first place. Other than Jesus, there is no such thing as a “good person.” Yes, when compared to other people, some people may be relatively good, but the Bible is clear: God is the standard, and compared to him, no one is righteous. No matter how hard one tries to be good, there is always a measure of badness in all of us that continually drives a wedge between us and God.
We need forgiveness for all sin. For past, present, and future sin.
Now, if the penalty for sin is death, and if we all have a measure of sin in us, and if we are all violators, and God does not grade on a curve, but instead holds us accountable to his perfect standard . . . what hope do we really have? The answer? Only through the cross do we find salvation. When the people to whom Peter was speaking on the Day of Pentecost heard this,
They were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:37-41).
It’s that simple. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” That is the answer to “What shall we do?” And yet so many people throughout the history of the church just can’t bring themselves to do it. Do you know why? Because most people look at their lives and say, “I’m not really that bad. I don’t really need to . . . repent.”
Repentance Is Hard
Early on a Saturday morning when Robin and I were living in Zimbabwe, a stranger drove up to the front of my house in a very expensive Mercedes. He got out of the car and exclaimed, “Father Jeff! [He was Catholic and assumed I was as well.] Can you please come to my house immediately? My mother is dying, and I want you to speak something over her, like last rites or something.”
I thought, Well, first of all, that’s a Catholic thing, but I didn’t say that. I just agreed to go.
When we arrived, this man’s entire family stood in the living room, weeping and desperately looking for someone who could rescue them from this predicament. They immediately marched me to the back corner of the house and closed the door behind me, leaving me alone with the tiny, frail, old woman who lay in her bed. I sat down beside her, grabbed her hand, and introduced myself. She was quiet, motionless, and seemingly unable to respond, so I doubted that any real dialogue could occur between us. But gently leaning toward her, I asked a simple question:
“Do you know Jesus?”
She said yes.
Then I said, “Has there ever been a time that you knelt at his cross and repented of your sins?”
Well, like a stick of ammonia into the nostrils of a prizefighter, that woke her up! She gave me a verbal lashing that I did not soon forget, and the only redeeming factor was that I didn’t understand half of it. She did clearly convey, though, the idea of: “I’m no sinner! I have never hurt a soul! I’ve been a good person all my life! Now, young man, you can leave my room!”
Acknowledging sin and engaging in repentance are extremely difficult for a lot of people. Even those who are at death’s door.
When Peter preached the first gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the light came to more than 3,000 people. They knew that something more was needed. They understood down deep inside that being good would never be good enough. Something was missing. So they asked, “What must we do?”
Peter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, challenged his audience to respond to God’s invitation. In essence, he was reminding them that God, in Christ, had sent out an invitation to all who would come. All they needed to do was “RSVP.” And it’s the same today.
R—Realize your need. Accepting the truth that you cannot save yourself is the all-important first step into a right relationship with God. This is the identifying mark of a Christ follower. It is also that which distinguishes Christianity from the other major world religions. Those religions are not grace based, but works based. They include elements of measuring up, elements of earning merit, elements of doing. So while false religious systems emphasize the do, Jesus emphatically proclaims, “Done!” Everything that needed to be accomplished in order to make it possible for people to be right with God has already been done, 2,000 years ago on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Only God can save us. Our sin separates us from the creator, and no amount of moral effort will repair the damage and place us in a right relationship with God. This is precisely why Paul adores the gospel and is in no way ashamed of it—”because it is the power of God that brings salvation” (Romans 1:16).
S—Say you’re sorry. And mean it! Part of repentance includes the realization that you have been going in the wrong direction. When Jesus opens your eyes to who you really are, a genuine sadness penetrates the soul. You begin to realize that your sins have wounded not only those around you but also the heart of God. A person who has encountered Jesus does an about-face and decides that he will live a new life. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Those who weep over their sins will indeed be comforted by his forgiveness.
Someone objects, “I thought you just said that everything that needed to be done for me to be right with God was accomplished on the cross of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago! Now you are saying I have to change my life as well?” Two responses must be given at this point.
First—“Grace,” as Dallas Willard says, “is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning.”5 In other words, our desire to begin living in the opposite direction has nothing to do with an attempt to earn enough “goodness points” for entrance into Christ’s kingdom. Rather, our effort to do the good originates from our appreciation for the salvation already provided and our understanding that the parameters Jesus sets for our lives are designed to bring the abundant life.
Second—and perhaps more crucial to this issue—when we repent of our sins and are baptized, the Bible says the Holy Spirit of God comes to live inside us, changing not only what we do but what we want to do. In other words, along with the forgiveness of sins, Jesus gives us the desire and power to live a righteous life by placing his Spirit within all those who have called on the name of the Lord.
A passionate pursuit of godliness is the natural result of true conversion. In Acts 19:18, 19, for example, the people who decided to follow Jesus were moved to confess their sorcery and to destroy their occult objects. (Also see Galatians 2:20.)
V—Verbalize your commitment. Jesus was clear that if we confess his name before others, he will confess our names before the Father (Matthew 10:32). A commitment to Christ means exactly that—commitment. When we truly believe that without Jesus we are lost and resigned to an eternity without God, our appreciation for his work on the cross dramatically expresses itself in the way we live.
We are in no way ashamed of Jesus. We proclaim his name at home, at school, at work, on the soccer field, and in the marketplace. Our friends do not have to guess why we live the way we live. If they have spent any amount of time with us, they know whom we believe in, and they see our shamelessness concerning the name of Jesus.
P—Plunge your past. When God entered into the old covenant relationship with his people, three things emerged:
3. water cleansing
Jesus, the Son of God, was born a Jew and died for all, becoming a physical representation of the new covenant replacing the old—not to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it.
For instance, where circumcision is concerned, the book of Romans says that a new kind of circumcision has come. “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” (Romans 2:28, 29).
So we are no longer required to circumcise the flesh; but God, through his Holy Spirit, circumcises our hearts. The change in us is much more dramatic than merely physical. Transformation has taken place in our spirit. It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. Old desires fade. New desires surface with an extraordinary power to be what God has called us to be.
Now where sacrifice is concerned, some of my friends will say, “The God of the Old Testament is a bit frightening. What’s all this about slaughtering animals and watching the blood trickle down the altar?”
My initial response is, “Good! I’m glad you’re offended, because that’s the whole point!” Sacrifices were instituted as a graphic reminder of the seriousness of sin. All sin brings death of some kind—spiritual, physical, and even emotional. Every time God’s people brought an animal to the altar for sacrifice, they were reminded of this reality.
So God wants to enter into a new covenant with you and me. First, he requires circumcision of the heart. Second, he requires the sacrifice of his one and only Son. But notice that in both cases, what God requires, he provides.
Finally, he requires baptism. Again, even though baptism is first instituted in the New Testament, water cleansing began back in the Old Testament as a prerequisite to entering into a covenant relationship with God. Before Israel could meet God on the mountain and receive the Ten Commandments, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’” (Exodus 19:10, 11).
There had to be a cleansing.
And when we step into the waters of baptism, we are making preparation for God’s Spirit to come live in us. Is this exciting or what?
Paul said, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3, 4).
Although there is nothing magical about the water, God sees our willingness to obey his command as a commitment to enter into a covenant relationship with him. In the waters of baptism God purifies us and makes us ready to receive his Spirit (Acts 2:38; see also 5:32; 1 John 5:3).
There are three things you see with every baptism in the early church as recorded in the book of Acts:
1. Baptism was done immediately, with no waiting period.
2. Baptism was done in response to God’s command. People didn’t sit around and have great theological debates about whether or not baptism saves you. God said to do it, so they just did it!
3. It was done by those who believed the gospel. The prerequisite to baptism was the belief and affirmation that God had designated the cross of Jesus Christ as the avenue through which forgiveness of sin comes. Notice the response of Philip’s audience: “When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (Acts 8:12, 13).
Baptism is done immediately. Baptism is a response to a direct command from God for those who believe. Baptism is where we die to our old way of living and rise to a new way of life. One who truly wants to follow Jesus will plunge the past.
4Seneca quote taken from http://ordinand.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/seneca-can-anyone-be-found-who-would-willingly-die-on-a-cross.
5Dallas Willard, “Live Life to the Full,” www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=5.
Jeff Vines is pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, San Dimas, California.
This article is excerpted from his new book, Unbroken: 8 Enduring Promises God Will Keep. Order item number 025474411 from your local supplier or at www.standardpub.com.
Bringing It All Together
It’s important to understand the meaning of the promise “I will save you” for several reasons:
1. In order to know how (and by whom) that promise can be claimed.
2. In order to appreciate and be grateful about what we are being saved from (eternal damnation, a life enslaved to sin).
3. In order to have a solid understanding of what that promise isn’t about. It’s not about being saved from trouble or hardship—the Christian life is not one of laziness, but one of action.
Many people feel that if God really does exist and is as loving as Christians claim he is, then he should just forgive everyone and call us all into Heaven at the end of time. These people understand only one side of God’s nature—love.
However, the Bible portrays God’s essence as including both holiness (1 Peter 1:16) and love (1 John 4:8, 16). In other words, everything that is holy, pure, and righteous, God is. Moreover, all that is included in love—mercy, grace, acceptance, compassion . . . all of it—exudes from the nature and character of God as well. So when sin enters into the picture, a tension exists between the love of God and the holiness of God.
God’s holiness requires him to punish our sin, but God’s love greatly motivates him to forgive it. This is a precarious position. How can God remain true to both his holiness and his love? If he simply forgives us, then his holiness will be violated. If he gives us the wages of our sin—death—his love will be stifled and his mercy left unexpressed.
Thank God! He provided a way to meet both sides of his nature. How? By sending his own Son to die on a cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he met the requirements of God’s holiness by paying the penalty for our sins. Second Corinthians 5:21 states, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This, more than anything else, should remove any and all doubt that God’s love is deeper and wider than we could ever imagine, and he was willing to do whatever it takes to save us.
Moreover, Jesus’ death on the cross—etched into history for all the world to see—successfully communicated to the entire human race the measure and intensity of God’s love for all mankind. The invitation is for everyone: “To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
The promise “I will save you” is about having “life in his name” (John 20:31). No other promise holds greater significance.
Does Anyone Know How to Keep a Promise?
God does. And that’s the encouraging message in each chapter of this powerful new book by Jeff Vines.
In the Bible God promises that he will:
• Be with you
• Care for you
• Give you what you need
• Save you
• Answer you
• Forgive you
• Transform you
• Give you spiritual gifts
And he means it. Keeping promises is just part of who God is. In an era when life feels shaky and
commitments aren’t kept, Unbroken reminds us how secure we can be when we stand on God’s enduring promises.
Unbroken, 144 pages. Order number 025474411; $9.99
For every member of your group, the Unbroken Group MemberDiscussion Guide, $6.99; order number 025474511; from your supplier or standardpub.com.