Salvation is only through Christ and we receive this salvation by the grace of God through faith. Some Christians are not even sure of this and those who are tend to think only in terms of our acceptance by God (justification). However there is much more to our salvation than justification. This article outlines what our faith relationship with Jesus means for us, starting with justification.
We are Justified by Faith
Justification is a legal term and refers to being acquitted by a court of law. To be justified by God means to be declared righteous by him and acceptable to him, even though we don’t deserve it. It is necessary to seek justification because of what the New Testament calls the “wrath of God.” If there is no divine wrath, no divine punishment, no possibility of separation from God then justification is an unnecessary concept – we would have no need to be concerned about acceptance by God because we would all be automatically accepted by him.
The wrath of God is an unpopular area of teaching today. As it was overemphasised, even misused, in the past, it is seriously neglected in the present. So God is made out to be not the utterly other, absolutely exalted, totally pure One, but a sort of indulgent celestial grandfather figure. God is love and he is merciful. He is compassionate and kind. Those qualities must be firmly held alongside the concept of his wrath. But they don’t replace it. God’s wrath is not a bad-temper or uncontrolled rage. Rather it is the reaction of his utter holiness to persistent sin. He is too pure to look on evil and his holiness repels sin as light repels darkness.
One thing is quite certain: this is no purely Old Testament concept. It is clearly stated in the New Testament. Jesus himself does not use the phrase but he does speak about the punishment of Hell.
He warns his disciples to be ruthless in dealing with temptation to avoid going to hell “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:29-30). They should not fear human opponents but God who has the power to send them to hell: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-5).
He solemnly warns the hypocritical Pharisees that they are in danger of hell: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23:33).
He teaches that those who persist in disobedience will go away to eternal punishment “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. ….. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt 25:41, 46).
Paul, however, does use the phrase “the wrath of God.”
Those who reject the truth will experience wrath: “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom 2:8). “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” (Eph 5:5-6).
When Jesus returns in glory he will punish those who do not obey the gospel with “everlasting destruction.” “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” (2 Thess 1:8-9).
See also Heb 10:26-31 “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
God shows his wrath to those who break his law, especially the two greatest commandments: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. But that means that naturally we are all condemned “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). So the bad news is that none of us can be justified by trying to keep the law. We just wouldn’t succeed.
How then can we be saved – accepted by God? The New Testament teaches:
We are justified apart from the law
The New Testament teaches that, by the grace of God, justification is through faith – quite apart from keeping the law. That does not mean that keeping God’s law by the power of the Holy Spirit is optional or unnecessary. It means that keeping the law in itself will not save us because we can’t do it properly.
Paul writes: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, ….. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Rom 3:21, 22, 28). “Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:39).
Another way of putting it is that when a person puts his faith in Christ that is counted by God as righteousness: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” ……. The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom 4:1-7, 23-25).
The role of the law is to show us that we need a saviour because we fail to keep it properly: “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal 3:24).
We are justified by a sacrifice of atonement
This sacrifice was a cleansing from sin (expiation)
The writer to the Hebrews says: “The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, [will] cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb 9:14). John writes that Jesus “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” (Rev 1:5).
This sacrifice was also a removal of divine wrath (propitiation)
The NIV refers to Jesus as “a sacrifice of atonement” but gives the alternative reading “the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin.”
One significance of the cross is that it shows God does actually punish sin even though he appears to tolerate it. In other words, he doesn’t keep zapping sinners with judgment and they appear to get away with their sin. Also God shows mercy and forgiveness to sinners. But the atoning death of Jesus (God in flesh) shows God punishes all sin. It is just that he bore the punishment himself. God’s free forgiveness, mercy and undeserved justification cost him dearly – such is his love for humanity.
As Paul puts it: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Rom 3:23-25). “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Rom 5:6-11).
John writes: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for [Or He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins, and not only ours but also] the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2). “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for [Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away] our sins.” (1 John 4:10).
- This sacrifice required a Substitute who endured this violent death in the place of humanity
Isaiah vividly prophesies this: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:5-6).
Paul says Jesus endured the curse of the law on human sin: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” (Gal 3:13).
We are justified for peace with God
The cross of Christ reconciles God and man. For the believer, who, by the grace of God, is justified by faith, God’s wrath and hostility against sin is replaced by peace.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:1). God’s purpose was “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:20).
We are accounted righteous before God because of our union with Christ, who is our righteousness. “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Rom 10:4) “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30). Paul’s aim is to: be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:9).
We are Dead to Sin
We have received a new power to live
Salvation is not just objective, i.e. to do with external factors: the mercy and grace of God, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, our being justified before God, however vital they are. It is also subjective, i.e. to do with internal transformation as well. Something supernatural happens within us when we come to faith in Christ: we received new life, experience the new birth, receive the Holy Spirit, and we have a new power to resist sin and live a new life. Paul describes it as being united with Christ, speaking of an intimate faith relationship where we dwell in Christ and he dwells in us: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” (1 Cor. 6:15). “We are members of his body.” (Eph 5:30). Paul uses another metaphor of being clothed with Christ: “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Rom 13:14).
We are supernaturally enabled to overcome temptation
Such is the close identification of the believer with Christ that Paul goes on to describe salvation as dying with Christ and being raised with him. The implications of this are that the believer in Christ is freed from the domination of sin. That manifestly does not mean an absence of temptation (even Jesus was tempted) but it means we have the supernatural power within us to resist that temptation. Our old weak self which was largely unable to resist temptation has “died” with Christ. We have a new nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6).
We are free from the condemnation of the law
Put another way, we are free from the condemnation that comes from being consistently unable to fulfil God’s law properly. The law can no longer imprison us in condemnation. Our old weak nature has died to it. “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:4-6).
We have not just died to the law, we have been buried with Christ. Baptism by immersion is a powerful symbol of this burial. We are baptised into his death and burial, i.e. by faith we have received his power to overcome temptation. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or 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.” (Rom 6:1-4).
We are freed from sin in the sense that we have within us the supernatural power to overcome temptation. As Paul puts it: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin …. “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Rom 6:6-7, 14). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24).
We are called to exercise faith about our new power
Paul continues that we must exercise our faith and really believe we have received this power. In his words, we must count ourselves dead to sin: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:11). As we believe we have received this power we shall begin to experience it practically in our lives. We shall discover we have a new ability to live a new life. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness …. now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” (Rom 6:18,22).
We must also act on that faith. The New Testament puts this in different ways. It must be remembered that this is not a DIY kit whereby we do everything by willpower. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and even self-control are a fruit, i.e. supernatural effect, of the Spirit present within us. These actions must be taken in faith, trusting God to release his power within us:
We must “put to death” our sinful nature
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5).
We must abstain from sinful desires
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:11).
We must not let sin reign in our bodies
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” (Rom 6:12-13).
We must practise self-denial over our selfish desires
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24). “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matt 5:29).
We must always put Christ first
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:22).
We must practise self-discipline
“No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:27).
We are Risen with Christ
We were not only united with Christ in his death and burial, experiencing freedom from the tyranny of our old sinful natures, we were also raised with him.
“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. ……… Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Rom 6:4, 8-10). “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6).
We are a new creation
We have a new heart and a new spirit as Ezekiel promised: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 11:19).
- Our old life has finished: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Christ lives in us: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20).
We live by the power of the Spirit
We fulfil God’s law by faith through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit: “The righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:4). “By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6).
We please God by setting our minds on what the Spirit desires: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” (Rom 8:5-8). “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom 12:2).
We pray according to the Spirit: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Rom 8:26-27).
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ . Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction