I’ve been thinking a lot about salvation and how God saves lately. I feel it is important for a pastor to be able to articulate how God goes about saving His children. The theological term for this is soteriology, the study of salvation. Some may wonder, why does this even matter? I know that God saved me. I know that God saves Christians, all those who call upon the name of the Lord, so why does this matter?
I suppose in one sense, it doesn’t matter much. As long as we trust in Christ alone as our only hope for salvation and are committed to telling others this wonderful truth that Christ offers salvation to anyone who trusts in Him and turns from their sin, then perhaps the nitty-gritty facts of the specifics are not required. I am thankful that I was not required to take a test when I became a Christian. You don’t need to be able to explain justification or righteousness or sanctification when Jesus saved you. All you need to know is that you are a sinner in need of a Savior and His name is Jesus. That I could not save myself and my salvation is wholly from God.
And while I think that every Bible-believing Christian believes those things, there are so many Christians who like to argue over the specifics of what it means for a sinner to come to Christ. Most specifically, how can a person who is described in the Bible as spiritually dead, spiritually blind, spiritually deaf, hard-hearted who only thinks of wickedness in their heart able to turn from their sin that they enjoy so much and trust in Christ, whom they despise? I believe the answer that the Bible gives is that we won’t, not on our own accord. I love my sin. I reject Christ. My will desires wickedness and sinfulness. For my desires and will to be changed God must do something first. He must initiate in my life. God must change my stone-cold heart and replace it with a heart of flesh. He must remove the blinders from my eyes. He must unplug my ears. He must provide the gifts of faith and repentance through His extraordinary grace. Otherwise, I will remain in my sin because I love my sin above all else.
I believe with all my heart that the Bible presents salvation as wholly from God. From beginning all the way to eternity. He began the good work and He will finish the good work. He is not passive in the salvation process, He is completely and wholly engaged and working in and through us for His glory. If God chose to wait on me to choose Him, then I would die in my sins and go to hell.
Let me try this illustration on for size: This past Memorial Day weekend we spent time with my in-laws camping at a local state park. It was a wonderful experience enjoying God’s gift of nature. On the first day of our camping trip we went down to the Cumberland River to enjoy a swim.
Our entire family was in the water for hours, splashing and swimming and exploring all the features of the water. Well, I’m a Florida boy. I’m not very experienced in swimming in rivers. Evidently, rivers have currents that can change in a moments notice. I say this because I was swimming in one part of the river with two of my kids and my brothers-in-law when I hear my wife shouting behind me to help Gracie, my six-year old daughter. Gracie had followed behind us in a part of the river that we were all just playing in, and she couldn’t reach the ground. She began to panic and began thrashing and kicking and screaming for help. I don’t know how far away I was, it felt like a football field, but I began to swim to her a fast as I could. With each stroke I felt like I was swimming in quicksand. I finally got to Gracie (I know it was only God who help her up that long), but when I arrived in the part of the river that I had previously walked through just a few minutes ago, now I could no longer touch the bottom. I thought I could easily pick Gracie up as I’ve done dozens of times at the beach or in a pool and simply move her to safety. I couldn’t do that this time. I began to tread water with Gracie wrapped around my waist. Now I began to panic. What do I do? I couldn’t touch. The current was strong. I looked back and saw Kristina right beside me and she could tell I didn’t know what to do. We both began screaming at the top of our lungs for someone to help. Who would help? I’m not sure. We were the only ones out there. In desperate attempt to save Gracie I threw her as far as I could toward the shore. But that didn’t work either. Kristina swam closer to her and she grabbed her. I’m not sure how I got to shallow ground, but I did and collapsed to my knees and began shouting for a long tree branch. Finally, Kristina’s motherly instinct took over and she told Gracie to roll over on her back. They had practiced this only a few hours earlier. Gracie obeyed and they both floated on their backs until we could grab them from the shallow part of the river and drag them to safety. The whole ordeal felt like hours, but it was probably only 2-3 minutes. But Gracie was safe and sound with relieved parents, grandparents, siblings and uncles.
Now, here is my illustration: when I heard Gracie screaming for help, I could have turned around and said, “Gracie, swim to me. I’m right here! Standing with arms wide open! All you have to do is swim to me and you’ll be safe! Just listen to me, do as I tell you and you’ll be fine!” If that had been my response, what would have happened? There is no doubt in my mind that we would have lost Gracie that day. She was trying for all that she was worth to keep her head above water. But she’s not a strong swimmer. She kicked and thrashed and paddled for as long as she possibly could to no avail. The water was too deep. The current was too strong. She was unable to save herself.
Gracie did not need a passive voice shouting instructions for her salvation. She needed an active savior! She needed someone to take the initiative, to jump in after her, swim to her and save her life. She could not do it on her own. She needed someone to literally save her, not hypothetically offer salvation by giving commands.
Here is the difference that I see within the Christian tradition of how God saves His people: I believe that Jesus does not stand safely on the harbor of Heaven shouting commands of how to be saved and expecting us to understand Him and obey Him. Some do believe this. That Jesus is too much of a gentleman to impede on our free-will. That He has done all that He needs to do; He died on the cross and now the decision is ours to listen to His commands and “swim” to salvation. That somehow, someway, we will be able to fight the current of sin and navigate the waters of the world and cooperate with God’s grace in order to receive salvation.
Instead, I believe that Jesus reaches down with His strong hand and grabs us and rips us out of the river of sin and drags us to salvation. That He does indeed impede on our free-will because my will desires my sin. My will doesn’t know it’s drowning. My will does not acknowledge our need for God. So, God must change my will and must drag my dying corpse to salvation. That salvation is a one-way street. It is only from God and by God that we are saved. I contributed nothing to my salvation except the sin that made it necessary.
In fact, Ephesians 2 says before Christ we were dead in our trespasses and sins. We were not treading water thrashing and calling for help. We were in fact dead on the bottom of the river. And Jesus risks His own life, swims to the bottom, brings us to dry land and breathes the breath of new life into our lungs, resuscitates our new heart of flesh, and makes us alive in His Spirit. All the while tasting death for sins that He did not commit. Yet, as we all know, He rose again three days later, conquering death and defeating sin. The worst thing the world can do to us, Jesus has already defeated for us.
Our experience with Gracie in the Cumberland River was a reminder of God’s initiating of salvation for His people. I am so thankful that God allowed my wife’s quick-thinking to save our daughter. And I’m also thankful that Jesus saved me. And is still saving people. And He will continue to save people. Wholly. Completely. Thoroughly. And all by Himself. With no help or cooperation with us.