by Don Watson
We, as Christians, have a lot of difficulty believing the fact,
(1) That we are loved unconditionally by God,
(2) That we are accepted exactly as we are, and
(3) Have already been forgiven by God for any sins we have committed, are committing, or will commit. Believing these three things – three things that are the essence of the Gospel – is essential if we are to have peace with God, assurance of our salvation, assurance of His favor, and power in our lives.
At the very root of our difficulty is the idea, widely accepted by traditional Christianity, that it is what WE do that makes us saved, rather than what Jesus did. We believe we must
(2) pray the sinner’s prayer,
(3) confess our sins to God,
(4) believe in Jesus Christ, and
(5) accept Him as our personal Savior, if we are to be saved.
Consequently, our picture of God at the very beginning is one that produces fear. We are condemned to the fires of hell, unless we turn away from our sin, unless we seek Him, unless we accept Him. What we do appeases His wrath and results in our salvation. We are not drawn to God out of love because He has saved us, but out of fear so He will not destroy us. Think about it: We declare that in order to be saved a person must believe. MUST? Or what? We will die, right? We will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20). We don’t believe that His death actually redeemed us, rescued us, or ransomed us. It only made it possible for us to be redeemed, rescued, or ransomed. Forget the song that says, “I’ve been redeemed, by the blood of the Lamb” or “Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.” Traditional Christianity certainly looks at what Jesus did as the act that makes it possible for me to be saved, but it is what we do that actually saves us. Before my act of belief or acceptance, I am lost and will not go to heaven, but after my act of belief or acceptance, I am saved and I will go to heaven. This is the traditional Christian/Adventist view of the Gospel.*
This concept of salvation (that it requires our acceptance, repentance, etc) causes significant problems in our relationships with God and our fellowman. Let me illustrate: A non-Christian asks me to explain why he is lost and I am saved. I reply, “It’s simple. I have done something that you have not done: I have repented of my sins and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior (etc. etc.). Therefore, I am saved. You have not done those things and therefore, you are lost.” Beside the arrogance of our position that condemns such a large percentage of the human race, there remains the obvious question: “Where is grace in this scenario of salvation?” According to Romans 5:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 the purpose of the death of Jesus was not primarily to give us a ticket to heaven, for which we qualify by an act of our faith, but to reconcile us to God – an act completely undeserved. Only if we are reconciled to God will we allow Jesus entrance into our hearts and lives to live His perfect, resurrected life IN US! Yet the traditional view of salvation destroys the idea that God reconciled (Past Tense) us by the death of Christ and suggests instead that we reconciled God to us by our act of belief, repentance, etc. The real Gospel declares the Good News that the Divine Trinity in Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins when He died on the Cross of Calvary. That act saved us. It would be tragic for you to misunderstand what I am saying. Repentance, Confession, Belief, and Acceptance of Jesus Christ as our personal Savior are critical to our relationship with Jesus, and we will talk about that more in a minute, but these acts of ours did not save us. Jesus saved us – His act of dying on the cross saved us. That is the pivotal event of history that brought us deliverance from death – not our act of belief! But one last point before we go on: The purpose of the cross was not our salvation from death, although it was certainly that! It was our reconciliation! (Read it again! Romans 5:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
Now, I understand that there are numerous texts on both sides of this question, but it seems we are hell bent (pardon the pun) to believe the worst about God. Ephesians 1:7 declares that we were redeemed (past tense) by the blood [death] of Jesus, and that redemption, which took place 2000 years ago, IS the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus HAS already died, we HAVE already BEEN redeemed, therefore we ARE forgiven! That's why Paul said in Romans 5:9 that we WERE justified or forgiven by the blood of Jesus. When Jesus died, all of us – the whole human race – WAS forgiven by that death. Why will we not believe that? Jesus told Nicodemus that if we WOULD just believe that, we would not perish (John 3:16)! Why would I ever leave God if I absolutely knew I was never condemned? Now I understand a lot of Christians think that this is only talking to Christians, but that could not be further from the truth! Romans 5:6-8 says Jesus died FOR all of us WHILE we were powerless, ungodly sinners. Jesus redeemed us and saved us in our sinful condition!
We shouldn’t be surprised that salvation is like this. That's just the way God is. Isn't that the way you are with your children? You forgive them not merely before they ask, you forgive them even before they fall! Is God not even as good as we are?
We who are good parents, welcome our newborn sons and daughters into this world totally accepted and unconditionally loved. But how about God? Are we accepted and saved from the moment of our birth, or are we lost, damned, and going to hell, UNTIL we do something that MAKES us saved – like pray "the Sinner's Prayer," confess our sins, repent, or accept Jesus as our personal Savior and "get saved." Why are we so accepting of our fussy, messy, self-centered little infants, yet think that we are under God's condemnation until we do whatever our churches or denominations tell us we have to do in order to get saved and escape the fires of hell. Are we better than God?
I know a lot of people probably think babies are saved because they are so innocent. But is our salvation dependent upon on how innocent we are? Surely not! Are we not lost because we are sons and daughters of the fallen Adam with sinful natures just like his? We are not lost because we sin, we are lost because we were born! Notice this quote from Oswald Chambers: “When our Lord faced either people with all the forces of evil in them, or people who were clean-living, moral, and upright, He paid no attention to the moral degradation of one, nor any attention to the moral attainment of the other. He looked at something we do not see, namely, the nature of man (John 2:25) … It is through the Cross of Christ that God redeemed the entire human race from … damnation through the heredity of sin. God nowhere holds a person responsible for having the heredity of sin, and does not condemn anyone because of it. Condemnation comes when I realize that Jesus Christ came to deliver me from this heredity of sin and yet I refuse to let Him do so.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, October 5) The scriptures have always been clear: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
Suppose your 2nd grader comes home from school crying because one of his/her classmates was not being nice. What are you going to do? Teach him how to shoot your rifle? Are you going to instruct your 2nd grader how to get even, or plot revenge? Certainly not, right? You're going to teach him/her how to forgive like God forgives? Forgive their enemies – while they're enemies – even if they seem powerless and unable to change. I suppose I can't even imagine that anyone would say, "Now, Johnny, I want you to forgive anybody who might hurt you, but not unless they first ask for forgiveness and become your friend!” I don't believe very many Christian parents would say something like that to their child – we want them to forgive their enemies like Jesus said, but that's not what we think about God. We think He doesn't forgive us or save us, UNTIL we ask for forgiveness and receive Jesus as our friend and Savior. Are we more accepting and forgiving of our children than God is of His? Are we better than God?
Of course we're not. God is millions upon millions of times more loving, accepting, and forgiving than we could ever be. In fact, Paul declares in Romans 5:7-8 that it is God's love and forgiveness of His enemies that distinguishes His love and forgiveness as superior to ours. "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (Powerless, ungodly sinners – Vs. 6), Christ died for us." That means He paid the price of death for us when He died, so when we are born we are already saved. It is this powerful, good news that the Holy Spirit uses all of our lives to draw us to God. (See Romans 2:4)
So what is the Bible talking about when it seems to indicate that "belief" is required in order to be saved? Salvation is like a coin that has two sides. The first side is this: Jesus, by His death, saved us 2000 years ago, He forgave us and took away our condemnation. This act of Jesus reconciled us! But at birth none of us know that, we think we're God's enemies – that He's going to kill us in order to get rid of sin – So the other side of the Salvation Coin is this: God not only wants us to BE saved, He wants us to know we are saved – to experience it! It’s already true! – God simply wants us to BELIEVE it. That belief doesn’t make us actually saved – legally saved, but it makes us saved in our heads, our minds, our hearts and it gives us peace with God. (See Romans 5:1) In fact compare Romans 5:1 with verse 9: Verse 9 says we’re justified or saved by Jesus’ blood (His death – something HE did!) While verse 1 says we are justified or saved by faith (Something WE do) suggests the two passages seem contradictory, but they are far from that. They are simply two different sides to the same coin. God not only wants us really, truly saved, reconciled – everything’s ok from His side of the desk, He also wants us saved in our minds. He wants us to truly believe it in our hearts, because as He goes on to say in verse 1, the results of being justified by faith, or by believing it, is peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, He wants us to know that there is now no condemnation! (Romans 8:1)
Our belief doesn't MAKE it true, it is already true, but without belief we will never enjoy the peace of God's acceptance. God HAS already accepted us, but we all too often refuse to belief that truth. Now, even that doesn't make us lost, but without the assurance that we are saved, accepted, and forgiven, we will continue to believe God is our enemy instead of our friend and we will drift further and further away from Him till we ultimately reject Him! So while belief does not save us, it is so vital and critical. Without it, we WILL finally reject God's salvation and be lost. A word of caution to those of us who revel in judgment. Never presume to know when someone is lost. Our job is to constantly bring people back into reconciliation like Jesus did when He died.
Another thing: The Gospel also purifies our motives. Jerry had left God while he was a teenager. Later in life he contracted cancer and wanted to come back to God before he died, but felt his motives were probably impure – he figured he felt the need to come back to God just so he wouldn’t be lost. Interestingly enough, out of integrity he didn't come back to God. If He could have just believed the Gospel – that He WAS saved already, he could have come back just because he was grateful to God. The Gospel purifies our motives. Because all of us are already saved, we can repent, turn back to God, [Not to be saved or because we are afraid of hell] but simply because we have discovered a God who accepted us as we were – like Mary, like Zachaeus – Sinners who rejoiced in His salvation, His acceptance, and His unconditional love.
Traditionally, we think a person is not forgiven of their sins until they repent of them, confess them, and ask God to forgive them. We quote 1 John 1:9 as "proof" of this fact. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." This leads us to conclude that unless we have asked God to forgive us of our sins, we are not forgiven and therefore not saved, and if we died, we would not go to heaven. But this text is focusing on the 2nd side of the coin. God not only wants us to BE forgiven [Which Jesus did when He died], He wants us to experience it. Our speaking out the truth and honesty of our sins is the way we specifically identify the thing, the sin, that is hurting us and would kill us according to Romans 6:23 and James 1:15. It is that confession that gives Him permission to "forgive us" in our heads [rxperience forgiveness], take away our feelings of guilt and shame, and then, "Cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
There are texts where someone asks what they have to do to be saved. The answers that are given in these kinds of instances do not reflect the legal side of the coin, but how a person experiences salvation and reconciliation. And it is that experience that gives us our security and assurance so that we never need “perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) I would like to suggest that the woman caught in the very act of adultery was already forgiven (Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world – Revelation 13) but Jesus’s assurance of that forgiveness is what would give her the desire and power to “go and sin no more.” Just like this woman, and Zachaeus, and Mary Jesus forgave us all at the cross, but if we are going to experience that forgiveness, we must confess it, reveal it, uncover it. "Not confessing it" does not mean that we are not forgiven, but we are not experiencing forgiveness. We ARE forgiven, and God invites us to believe the truth that we are. Believing and confessing that truth frees God up and gives Him permission to work on our behalf and set us free from all the damage sin does to us.
This is why Paul said that the Gospel is the "Power of God unto salvation." The good news that we are accepted, saved, forgiven, and no longer under God's condemnation reconciles us back to God – we no longer have any reason not to be His friend – and in that reconciled condition, God has the power and permission to put within us the actual, perfect, resurrected life of Jesus. He will speak and act and be righteousness on our behalf. He will live in us and for us (See Colossians 1:17). God lost us in the Garden, but He got us back at the cross. He reconciled us – took care of it all, so, “be ye reconciled to God” – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 I know there have been so many times that I have become discouraged because of my sins and repeated failings. If I hadn’t had the Gospel – the good news that I AM accepted as I am, I would have given up. But the Gospel lets me know that I never need despair. The words of the Divine Trinity are written in the blood of Jesus – “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
* This is the view defended by the Biblical Research Institute of Seventh-day Adventist (Personal interview by the Author), and About.com Internet search for Southern Baptist Beliefs .