When we are first converted our explanations of salvation are simple, passionate, unadorned and basic. It’s as if – having just been given eyes to see – we are sent into the Louvre, or the Orsay museum for fifteen minutes. Only fifteen. Once out on the street we are immediately asked to describe the contents therein. All that comes out is “Wow!” But “Wow!” makes total sense. Such beauty is overwhelming to any set of new eyes.
In the same way, when first introduced to our salvation we say things like “I was saved.” Or, “my sins were forgiven.” Or, something along these lines. While there’s a lot of detail missing in these pithy descriptions, they are not inaccurate. It’s what happens when a priceless work of Grace is beheld by new eyes. Maybe these types of explanations are to be preferred over against some treatise on infralapsarianism. There is something about the sincerity of a new convert which seems to be missing in the barnacled spirituality of those have been saved long enough to cover our brokenness with too much information. Some of us have been Christians long enough to forget what it feels like to have become a Christian.
But – back to the point – even the most knowledgeable among us struggles to capture the sovereign grace of God with sufficient words. It’s impossible – even with an eternity to roam its halls in heaven – to become a curator of grace. Honestly, none of us has a sufficient grasp on what’s happened to us in Christ. We’re all reduced down to pithiness before the infinite grace of God. It’s all “wow.” I was blind, but now I see. We’ve no idea how infinite an accomplishment our salvation is. Nor will we ever. The Christian life (in part) is exactly about finding out what happened to us – over and over. As we grow in our faith we fill in the details. We move from the simple to the complex. From the horizontal reality to more of the vertical angle of our salvation. Our answers take on color and brush stroke. Our answers get bigger. But, they’re all very limited in scope.
If you ask Christians, even those who’ve been saved for some time, a very basic question, “From what were you saved?” they will generally answer, “I was saved from my sin.” Probably, most of us would answer similarly. And we would not be wrong. Question. “From what were you saved?” Answer. “I was saved from my sin.” Or, with a little more insight, “I was saved from the penalty of my sin.” Do we not describe the Gospel as the good news that God forgives sin? For certain there was something in us which had to be overcome – sin. Sin is a systemic problem. It must be dealt with. So, that’s not a wrong answer. It’s right on many levels and biblical. But, I’d like to suggest it’s not the final answer, or the fullest one. It is just the tip of the iceberg of our salvation. A starting point for discovering the depth of our redemption which leads into the cavernous grace of God. There’s a bigger answer. And deep.
Let’s say you had cancer. (God forbid) And an aggressive sort of cancer at that. Terminal. And let’s say after months of unsuccessful treatments and little hope for beating the blasted disease, you go in for a final prognosis with your oncologist. You expect to hear, “There’s nothing more we can do,” but what you actually hear blows a hole clean through your despair. “The cancer is gone.” A miracle. Somewhere a pathologist is staring at a Petri dish mumbling to himself, “Where did it go?” You, obviously, are without words. A very recently re-committed supernaturalist. You went into the appointment with a death sentence and came out with a lease on life.
Now, let’s say just moments after receiving this news you are walking up the sidewalk towards your car. I spot you. I notice tears. I would not assume these are tears of joy. Knowing of your condition and from whence you came, I ask, “How are you?” And in reply you say to me, “I’m feeling much better. Thanks.” This reply is not untrue. It’s certainly part of it. But, it’s wrong on other levels. It robs the answer of its glory. It is not nearly commensurate with the reality of what’s just happened and the news you’ve received. There is a bigger answer. People who recover from colds “feel better.” Those who have cancer disappear live. The reason you feel better far surpasses a head cold. “I’ve been healed! It’s a miracle! My cancer is cured! It’s gone!” What would be my reply? Tears. Of joy.
In a similar way, when we answer “saved from sins” and are correct in doing so, there is still a bigger answer. One commensurate with the weight of what’s happened to us. (Or, did not happen to us.) Not merely a tip, but a whole. A depth and fullness. There’s a bigger answer. “I’ve been saved from God.” Ultimately, God is the real depth of our problem and not sin. After all, it’s His holiness which gives sin its lethal consequence. There is no offense of sin without the nature and existence of God. It is our Creator God who must hold us responsible for it. In this sense, God was the greatest “obstacle” in our salvation. Not us. We are the tip. God is the whole.
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Romans 5:9)
What God overcame in the Gospel was God and not man, or his sin per se. The dilemma God faced was not how to deal with sin. This is not a dilemma. There is only judgment towards sin. This was not something which the nature of God intended to circumvent, or could. The real issue was how a Holy God – who must deal with sin – could forgive sinners. The only response possible by God toward sin is judgment. There’s no way around that. Sin must be judged. Therefore, the “problem” is clear. How can a God whose judgment against sin is fixed forgive humans who are sinners? The problem lies in the nature of God and not in man. Again Paul explains this,
being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:24-26)
In a sense, God’s righteousness stood in God’s way of God’s Mercy. (Not really… mind you. The unity of God will not allow such divisions in God’s nature) God is righteous and He can be nothing other. A righteous God must punish unrighteousness. There is no way to pour out judgment on sinners and forgive them at the same time. The only possible way that could happen would be through a substitute. If some perfectly righteous human being stepped in and perfectly obeyed the demands of God and offered his righteous life on behalf of the unrighteous – then God could punish the sin and set the sinner free and remain righteous. Or, as Paul puts it, “He could be just and the justifier.” The only problem is that no human being fits that description. The only one who possesses such righteousness is God himself. Which means God would have to become a human being and offer himself for us. Which is exactly what happened in Christ.
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14 -3:1)
This leads to one of the more profound insights about our redemption. A bigger reply. The righteousness which required our punishment was the very same righteousness which took on our punishment and set us free. Your sinfulness is the tip and God is the iceberg. The Gospel is about how God overcame God.
A Few Takeaways
The Sheer Grandeur of God’s Love Comes Into View
God’s love for sinners overwhelms. Grace is the iceberg beneath the surface of the discussion of our salvation. You come to realize how immeasurably large God’s love towards us is. Moved by nothing but love, God satisfied the requirement of his righteousness. He moved heaven and earth to demonstrate the glory of His grace. What makes grace most amazing is not what it overcame in us, but what it overcame in God. Our real problem was not chiefly our sin. Our real problem as sinners was our God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
God’s Greatness Makes Salvation More & More Remarkable
Our reverence for salvation is commensurate with our understanding of the greatness of God. The greater He is in our minds (and Holy) the greater the accomplishment of the cross. Our response to salvation never loses its edge if God is transcendent and great in our hearts and minds.
We Get the Gospel Right(er)
It makes salvation less about reforming humanity and more about saving humanity. Men have found all kind of clever ways to minimize the dilemma of sin – morality, personal reformation, religion, etc. But, no one can dismiss the holy requirements of God. Not even God. The Gospel is about how God reconciles sinners to himself.
Evangelism Takes on a Greater Urgency
We aren’t trying to save people from an unhappy life, but God. God’s righteousness is fixed. We evangelize out of a sincere heart of compassion and love.