We are going to explain what the Bible means by sin and salvation. All that follows will come under one general heading: relationships.
Sin, relational failure, and death
We humans are really good at botching relationships. This failure is universal among us. The Bible word for relational failure is sin. When we fail an obligation that attaches to one of our relationships, we sin. We can sin against God or against people. But even sins against other people involve God, since they are God’s people! He cares about them and stands with them protectively when we wrong them and hurt them through sin. Whoever sins has to answer for it!
Our relationship with God has been broken by sin. The consequences are dire, and therefore we are in a predicament. We cannot save ourselves, because we deserve what is coming to us. Therefore, we need a Savior and salvation. There is good news, but first we have to deal with the bad news.
Sin is a big deal because it damages relationships, often to the point of breaking them. The impact is so horrible that God declares: ”the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin causes us to die, because it breaks our relationship with the Life-Giver: ”But your iniquities [that is, evil deeds or sins] have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). We may still live and breathe after sinning, but death is already at work in us. Consider a limb that is cut from a tree. It still looks leafy and full of life, but death is now in control. Since we are cut off from God, spiritual death lurks inside. As long as we live, the possibility exists of finding salvation. After physical death, spiritual death is finalized and cannot be reversed.
God wants those who have failed relationships to find success. Your failure does not have to be fatal. He looks for people who openly admit their sins and own up to responsibility. He looks to people who hurt inside because of their sins against others. His eyes roam the earth looking for people who, in spite of all the hurts and wrongs they have suffered, are willing to believe again. God makes an incredible offer to start over, to erase the record of wrongs, to restore the damage, to make everything new.
The best kind of relationship: covenant
The word “covenant” may be unfamiliar, but you’ve seen this kind of relationship and already have a good idea of how it works. Marriage is also a covenant relationship, just as Christianity is a covenant. So any successful marriage can be a model that helps explain Christianity.
A covenant binds two partners together. They begin with promises or vows that declare the obligation that one partner accepts toward the other partner.
God’s obligation to us
Since we have sinned and broken our relationship with God, He is not required by any standard of fairness to give us anything. That He does so is therefore a matter of grace that is, something we do not deserve. God obligates himself, out of the goodness and generosity of His being, and out of His incredible love for us.
God takes the first step and makes the first contribution. God’s contribution is the life of His Son who although He was innocent of sin suffered death. Jesus was crucified. We may bring out the meaning of the Cross with a story:
Once a king ruled a land suffering from food shortage, so he collected all available food and began to ration it at a cup of grain daily for each person. Anyone caught taking more than this would receive twenty lashes with a whip. One day, among those caught taking more than their share, was an old woman who was discovered to be the mother of the king! When the king was informed, he faced a dilemma. If he let his mother go without punishment, his subjects would see him as unjust. On the other hand, if he had his own mother whipped, he would be seen as cruel and unloving. To resolve the dilemma, the king removed his own royal robes and took the twenty lashes upon his own back. Thus, he satisfied the demands both of justice and of love.
Our sin put God in a similar dilemma. He has to uphold justice and punish sin. He can’t let off one person, and punish another. On the other hand, God loves us too much to punish us if there is a way around it. So, in Jesus (who actually is God), God took the punishment we deserved. Our sins carried the consequence of death, and Jesus’ although sinless suffered death on the Cross. By taking your punishment, He offers you freedom from sin, guilt, and damnation. This is God’s contribution to the covenant. He was under no obligation, but He acted in grace.
Our obligation to God
It’s so easy to get this wrong. Some think that all we need to do is to be a good person and live a good life. Others think we need to become more religious than we were before. Some trust religious professionals to solve their sin problem. But what is our reasonable contribution to the covenant?
What can we possibly give to the God who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all (Romans 8:32)? Since Jesus gave everything, it is only reasonable that we give Him everything our lives, our decisions, our rights! Hopefully you agree, because Jesus will not accept anything less: ”If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). At the time Jesus spoke, to “take up one’s cross” meant accepting death. As He died, so must you.
It is not your physical death that is required (notice that Jesus spoke of cross-bearing daily). He gave 100% of himself on the cross; we can return no less. It is like a death of self. Paul described it this way:For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
Measuring value and counting cost
This is a tall order, a huge obligation. You are free to accept or reject the terms, but spiritual death can be escaped only by accepting them. If Jesus died, so must you. Before going any further, let’s measure the value of this relationship. Can you imagine a marriage in which husband and wife were so committed to one another that they had died to themselves. Can you imagine having a wife, or a husband, that did that for you? What would you give in return? What should you give? Just be a good spouse? Shouldn’t you be the kind of husband or wife that also gives it all? Would you dare give any less? And can you imagine the strength of the marriage in which both husband and wife were so selflessly devoted to one another? What wouldn’t you give to be on the inside of that marriage covenant?
Christianity is an all-or-nothing obligation. Otherwise, you simply cannot be His disciple. The covenant will not be open to you. You have to count the cost. You must decide for yourself. Jesus continued the above quote by saying:For which of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
Why is Jesus so demanding? It is because He knows that the relationship will require such commitment in order to endure the struggles and challenges it will bring. If you start half-hearted, you will eventually give up on the relationship. Many brides and grooms who take their wedding vows, with less than total commitment, eventually watch their marriages crash in failure. Jesus wants you to succeed in relationship with Him, knowing that this requires both Him and you to commit fully.
He did. Will you?
How to enter the Christian covenant
There are a few required actions on your part. Call them entrance requirements. We arrived at the following list of actions by searching the New Testament of the Bible for every requirement declared to be necessary for salvation. Here’s what we found:
- First, you must believe or have faith. This is the fundamental and most basic requirement, it means taking up your cross as Jesus took up His. It means committing to this level of faithfulness to Him, just as He has. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Of course, you must first hear the Gospel, the message of the Cross of Jesus for the salvation of the world, because faith comes only after this word has been heard (see Romans 10:17).
- You must also repent of your sins. This means turning away from everything you have done wrong and turning back to God, back to obedience.
- You must confess Jesus as your Lord. This means declaring from your mouth that you accept the right of Jesus to direct and control your life. You submit yourself to this authority. Romans 10:9-10 states, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
- You must “call upon the Lord.” Romans 10:12-13 says, “for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for Whoever will call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.” This means that we acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves and need a Savior. To call on His name is to recognize His authority to save based on His saving death on the Cross.
- You must be baptized. This is being immersed or buried in water. The act is transactional. As we spoke earlier of allowing yourself to die for Jesus, this is where it happens. You actually meet Jesus in death, and also join Him in resurrection. While under the water, God does two very important things for you: He cleanses you of sin and gives you the Holy Spirit to dwell within your heart. Arising from the water, you have salvation from sin and are forgiven! In Acts 2:38, the apostle Peter declared, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Once you have accomplished these responses to the Cross, you are a Christian! You now have a covenant relationship, bound by love and faithfulness, with the Creator-God through His Cross-bearing Son!
Each of these actions: keeping faith, repentance, confessing Jesus’ Lordship, calling upon His name, and baptism works to shape the relationship we have with God. No doubt they are absolutely required because God wants/demands a certain quality of relationship. He will not merely settle for whatever we might offer. The shape that results might be explained in terms of relational dynamics. These are factors that affect the motion and direction of a relationship. The result in Christianity is something like this:
- Faithfulness creates the relational dynamic of a mutual commitment that is full strength.
- Hearing the Gospel insists the covenant will be shaped by the revelation of God’s will (the Bible).
- Repentance insists the relationship will be holy, both refusing evil and requiring love and goodness.
- Confessing the Lordship of Jesus establishes Him as the authority in the relationship. The same is true of calling upon His name. It insists on our enduring gratitude and dependence. It demands our respect.
- Baptism formally seals the requirement of mutual all-or-nothing sacrifice. Christianity boils down not to just one Cross, but to two. The other is the one we carry in response to His.
The covenant relationship that enduringly embraces these relational dynamics is strong enough to never break. It carries so much love and faithfulness, inspires so much joy and hope, fulfills so completely, that it must demand such high and lofty commitment. Our sacrifices are richly repaid.
Anticipating an objection
We set forth, without apology, these required actions for people who want to become Christians. We say this because we know that some think that God must do everything, and they believe this to such an extreme that they deny that we can do anything ourselves! They think a Christian convert must be totally passive in the process of being saved. And they believe that anyone who tries to be active is trying to save themselves, or trying to earn their salvation.
We deny this, and see that God insists on active converts. They make choices. They take actions. They make relational responses and decisions. God gives them this responsibility and holds out expectations for them.
Salvation takes place only through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And relationships require not one active partner, but two active partners. God has done His part. You also have a role to play. Of course, when you have done so, you will not be able to claim that you have thereby earned your own salvation. Without the dying of Jesus on the Cross, your actions would count for nothing. But since Jesus has died for you, your actions in relational response mean everything. Without them, you will not find salvation. It is a matter of relationship.
The role of the Holy Spirit is crucial here. Those who insist on a passive convert think the Spirit must come first, and then be the real cause of the actions, such as belief, and repentance, and confession of Jesus as Lord. That done, the Spirit gets the credit. Not the believer. And because of this understanding, they deny that baptism has anything to do with salvation. This is a mistake, and results only after disregarding the Bible. This understanding makes God responsible for both sides of the relationship!
The problem with this understanding is this: if God gets all the credit for those who are saved, He must also accept responsibility for those who fail to respond to salvation! Is it fair that He causes one to believe, and fails to do so for another? Or, as we understand it, is it instead the case that God has sent Jesus as the Savior of the world, and that God has left each of us to determine for ourselves whether or not to respond in faith? We believe Jesus urged us to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus (who is committed enough to take up his own cross and follow) because He knows that the choice is ours to make. He trusts us to make it.
And, what we actually find in the Bible is that God gives the Spirit only after the process of conversion is complete! The Spirit is received in baptism, after one has already made choices and chosen actions quite on their own. This is just the opposite of those who might make an objection, because they think the Spirit comes first, before any choice or action.
The covenant that saves requires two active partners, you and God.