The Bible leaves no doubt that the Christian faith is about salvation. The very heart of the Christian message is God’s offer of salvation through the work of His Son Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is more than an ethical life style, more than a community effort and movement. It is a message of salvation centered around the historical individual, Jesus.
Fittingly, the Bible calls Jesus Christ our Savior. Paul describes Him as “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13); Peter speaks of Him as “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). The New Testament gives passionate affirmation to such terminology. The reason why the Father sent his Son is “that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The angel, at His birth announced to the shepherds: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). His contemporaries testified: “this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). And His disciples offered the same opinion: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
Accordingly, the question that needs to be asked is: what does Jesus save us from, and in what way has He done so?
Judicial nature of Salvation
The answer the Bible gives is candid. Jesus saves us from sin and its consequences. The angel’s message to Joseph was that he “shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The apostle Paul wrote this statement which became a fundamental premise of Christianity: “the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). John was equally outspoken: “you know that he appeared to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). Christianity as presented in the pages of the Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the Savior, and that from which He saves us is sin.
Therefore, it is of paramount importance that we understand what Scripture means by sin to gain a proper knowledge of salvation. In gaining that understanding, we discover the judicial nature of salvation, for we come into the conceptual sphere of law, guilt and condemnation – the setting of a court room, conviction, judgment and penalty.
Paul wrote to the church at Rome that “sin is not counted where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). God reveals Himself through the created order and through His Word as the Lord, Governor and King of the universe. In this position of authority God announces the law to man as a reflection of His holy character and the standard by which man is to lead his life. This law is thus the criterion by which sin is defined. Paul said: “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20), and “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Romans 7:7). John put it lucidly: “everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). To say that all men have sinned is to say that all men have failed to conform to God’s demands. They are law-breakers. Since the law reveals God’s glorious and holy character, those who break the law “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
God, who “cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13), must be true to His own character and impose a punishment on those who are guilty of violating His commandments. Standing under the moral jurisdiction of God’s law, “every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). We are, as it were, in a courtroom before an infinitely holy and omniscient Judge. Even if we have failed on one point of the law we are “accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). As a result, we stand under the condemnation of God.
Sin necessitates divine punishment, for it is an offence against God’s holiness. Those who violate the law of God must face the just consequence of their actions, for sin brings personal repayment from God. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). The penalty must reveal the non-negotiable justice of God. The punishment must be exactly what sin merits, nothing more and nothing less (Hebrews 2:2).
And God’s justice must be satisfied. The Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35). God pronounced that His intention is to repay all who sin with the penal sanction of death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). That is why Scripture affirms that the penalty for sin cannot be softened or set aside in order to save the guilty. The immutable justice of God demands the exacting of the punishment which is due to sin: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). The Biblical principle is that remission cannot come until the demand of death for sin is satisfied.
In light of this essential background about law, sin, guilt, wrath and judgment, we can confidently assert that “salvation” in the Biblical conception entails man’s escape from the judicial condemnation of God. John makes a clarifying statement: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:17-18). That is why the good news of God’s saving work in Christ brings out the emphatic declaration that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, emphasis mine).
Jesus Christ our substitute
But how can a guilty sinner escape the just condemnation and wrath of God? How can he be set free from the punishment he truly deserves? Paul wrote: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4-5). Christ came to do the work of “redemption” in order that God’s saving plan for men could be accomplished. In Paul’s authoritative view of this redemption, it carried an unequivocally judicial and substitutionary character: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Redemption is a setting free from a terrible judicial reality: “the curse of the law.” And this act of setting free was achieved by a Substitute who assumed the judicial condemnation in our place: “by becoming a curse for us.”
That is why the New Testament is emphatic about the judicial basis for reconciliation. When Paul says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19), he immediately adds by way of explanation: “not counting their trespasses against them.” Salvation deals with our legal guilt, our sin. Paul explains that God’s enmity toward us cannot be removed, thus achieving reconciliation, without resolving the problem of our sin and its condemnation – that is, without turning away God’s judicial wrath and making us stand righteous before His judgment. Christ, the One who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The theological perspective of the Biblical writers is that One who was perfectly righteous stood in the place of those who are unrighteous in God’s sight, bearing the curse or penalty of their sin by dying in their place, in order to set them free from condemnation and secure their eternal benefit. There is no other way for sinners to be brought back to God.
The judicial (penal) and substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for our redemption is the necessary foundation for sinners to gain a right standing before the judgment of God. We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24, emphasis mine). But how may a righteous God justify the ungodly? God’s declaration that the unrighteous are judged as righteous in His sight depends on His looking upon the person and work of Jesus Christ instead of the sinner’s own record. This is how He can remain “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
Paul’s succinct expression, “justified by His blood,” makes clear that that is the only means by which Christians are saved “from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9). Sinners cannot receive a favorable judgment from God without first obtaining forgiveness for their sins. Thus the penalty of sin was paid by Christ shedding His blood in their stead. God’s written indictment against the believer has been blotted out; Christ has “set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). And there is more. God’s favorable pronouncement of justification necessitates that He take into account the person and work of Christ.
Justification is not only God’s verdict to regard the sinner as guiltless for the sake of Christ’s redemptive work. It also results in the judgment that we are reckoned positively righteous in His sight – declared to be just. This is the meaning of the phrase – “to justify.” But how can that be a judgment which is according to truth. Paul says that “of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Despite the wickedness of our internal character, when God looks at our legal record He finds the righteousness of Christ which is substituted and treated as genuinely our own.
The penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is at the very heart of the Biblical gospel, and we would do well to protect this doctrine from any distortion. I am grateful to God that I am deemed righteous in His sight only because in my place condemned He stood!
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