How are People Saved?

2011 May 15

Throughout all time, people have been saved note by trusting in a merciful God. And since Jesus came to earth, we understand more about how God accomplishes this through the gospel.

What is salvation? Being "saved" is Christian jargon, and it can be confusing.

  • A common answer is that we are saved from sin (i.e. from the consequences of our sin). However, this is a poor representation of Jesus' message.
  • A fire-and-brimstone preacher might say that we are saved from hell. However, you can't know what something is by knowing what something is not (i.e. that salvation isn't hell).

Our fundamental problem is that we are out of proper relationship with God. God's salvation is the answer to this problem:

  • We are saved from no relationship with God, into being in a right relationship with God.

The Gospel

The word Gospel means "good news". Jesus came teaching the good news of a new kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 8:1, 20:1). This kingdom is very unusual for it is the means by which we are saved.

Jesus taught extensively about the kingdom because it was so different from any earthly kingdom. In fact, this new kingdom wasn't an earthly kingdom at all (John 18:36, Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 15:50). It was a spiritual kingdom that was established by Jesus' death and resurrection. note This made it quite difficult for humans to understand.

The gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God. Yet, many times the emphasis I hear is just on the the death & resurrection of Jesus. These are essential because they are the means by which Jesus established his kingdom. But they are not the gospel.

Jesus taught the gospel even before he started talking about having to die (Matthew 4:17 & 4:23). And he sent his disciples out also proclaiming the kingdom, the gospel (Matthew 10:7-9, Luke 9:2 & 9:6). Jesus' disciples opposed him later when he talked about his death, so you can be sure that they weren't talking about death and resurrection in their proclamations of the gospel.

The gospel is about the kingdom. Understanding the kingdom makes Christianity easier to understand, and makes it more practical.

So:

Why was the kingdom good news anyway?

The news of Jesus' new kingdom was good because it solved a problem we could not fix:


In the garden of Eden, the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to choose their own value system (Genesis 3). God had instructed them on only one thing (don't eat from a tree), but they chose a different value so they could determine good and evil for themselves. The immediate result was breakdown in relationships all around. This is because all relationships are based on common values, and all conflict in relationship is conflict over values. note

God also said that Adam and Eve would die if they ate from the tree. They did: they were mortal, and passed away. Maybe also they became mortal then, or immediately lost the opportunity for immortality - we simply don't know. But we do know they died at the moment their relationships were broken, due to their sin.

To be alive is to be able to relate, and be involved with others. Those that we have buried can no longer do that with us. However, loss of relationship due to choices in value system can bring death before the human body fails. This death is the more significant because we believe there is another life after death of the body. If we cut off relationships in this life, we can affect the next.

Sin is choosing a value system note other than God's (as motivation for our actions). The result of having proprietary value systems is that we have conflict with other people, and especially with God. God is special because one, and only one value system motivates him - sacrificial love for the benefit of others (John 15) note. In fact, God's holiness is that he sets himself apart from all other value systems (Hebrews 7:26, 1 Peter 1:13-22; synthesis needed). When we understand this, then we can understand why sin are cuts us off from relationship with God: God will not associate with anyone that does not fully have his value system.

God is a trinity, and each person of God has EXACTLY the same value system - sacrificial love for the benefit of others. Therefore God is inherently relational, and God lives in continuous perfect relationship.

From the very beginning, God promised that he would solve this problem. Through time, through the prophets, etc, he progressively revealed more of this plan. But it was largely hidden until Jesus came (1 Peter 1:10-11, Hebrews 1:1-2). And Jesus came talking about a new kingdom that was good news.

This kingdom has one rule (one value system) - sacrificial love for the benefit of others. In the kingdom, if you break this rule, the consequence is that you are forgiven (by others living out God's value system of love toward you). That is part of how you get into the kingdom - you are forgiven into it! ☺

But more specifically, you acknowledge Jesus as your king, and (as part of the process of forgiveness) you adopt his value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others. This one rule of love applies to the king as to the subjects. Jesus showed us his love by taking the consequence of our sin (the loss of relationship with God). In fact, God's value system most looks like Jesus on the cross (where he took this consequence of our sin onto himself). By the cross, he would be able and justified to forgive our sins - an essential aspect of his value system.

The cross shows God's value system to us. Glory is doing God's value system. The whole time on the cross, Jesus was doing God's (his own) value system. To humans, the cross looked like a shameful thing. But the cross was glorious because that was the place that God's value system was most clearly shown in action to us.

At the cross, Jesus took our sin consequence of broken relationship with God. However, Jesus never changed his own value system, so he could not remain out of relationship with God. After Jesus said, "It is finished", his relationship was restored. The glorifying evidence that Jesus was always within God's value system was that he immediately ascended to heaven to sit in the honored place of relationship at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 2:24 & 2:33). note

What about Jesus' physical death on the cross, and his blood?

We learn through the Old Testament law that God is justified in taking our physical life when we commit sin. That is why the Jews had a sacrificial system. The animal died instead of the human, and the blood was the symbol, the evidence of that death. (The meaning of blood.)

However, the animal deaths were actually ineffective to remove sin. The animal sacrifice demonstrated faith on the part of the human to look forward to the time when God would provide a sacrifice that would be effective. Jesus was this effective sacrifice, and his blood stands as evidence of his death.

By God's rights, we should die both physically and in relationship to God because of our sins. Jesus took both these consequences for us.

So, we are separated from relationship with God by our rebellious choices in value system. The relationship is restored by the process of forgiveness, which has four parts: confession, repentance, forgiveness & reconciliation.

  • we confess to God that our old value system was wrong
  • we repent of our old value system and change our mind to adopt a new value system (God's)
  • God forgives us - he takes the consequence of the offense on himself
  • both we and God work to reconcile: renewing, extending the relationship based on a common value system

When we put ourselves under Jesus' direct authority as our king, he has the right to take responsibility for our choices that are sinful. Therefore his bearing of their consequences (death, the broken relationship) is effective for us only when he is our king. note Because God the Father then sees us through this authority chain, he sees us as having the values of Christ - his own values - and then he can have relationship with us.

God had established this precedent with the Israelites. The king represented the people to God, and when the king honored God, God blessed the people. We also see this principle in action today where an officer of a corporation or of the military can bear the consequences of subordinate wrong-doing. That is why we must be in Christ's kingdom to have relationship with God.

This is how God has implemented our salvation.

Trust, Faith & Actions

All this that we understand about the mechanism of the kingdom of God does not change how people are saved. They always were and always will be saved by trusting in a merciful God. We just understand more now of the means by which God accomplishes this than the people before Jesus did. But we are in error if we think that we understand it all now (I Corinthians 13:12). God has not explained everything to people as we look over history - and that is still true to this day. However, God always gives sufficient knowledge to people of faith.

As always, the object of our faith is God, and the consequence of faith is action. God made promises to people throughout history, and people believed those promises. Those with faith believed them by acting on them (Hebrews 11) note. The actions (the works) are never cause of salvation, but they are a necessary consequence and evidence of faith.

Faith is believing the promises of God.

Every single person given as an example of faith in Hebrews 11 acted on their faith. Their belief changed their behavior, they did something because of their faith.

  • by faith Abel brought
  • by faith Enoch pleased God
  • by faith Noah built
  • by faith Abraham went (to place of inheritance), offered (Isaac)
  • by faith Isaac blessed (Jacob,)
  • by faith Jacob blessed (sons)
  • by faith Joseph spoke
  • by faith Moses' parents hid
  • by faith Moses chose, left (Egypt) kept (Passover)
  • by faith (the Israelites) passed (through the Red Sea)
  • by faith (of the Israelites) Jericho fell

and many more.

James 2:14-26 comments again on the faith of Abraham and Rahab to make the point that faith without action is not living faith.

Through Moses, God revealed a set of laws for the Israelite kingdom. Now, however, we have the kingdom of God, and the Old Testament (OT) laws are no longer for us (Acts 15:28-29) note. Our actions are not to be driven by the many OT Jewish laws; they are instead to be driven by the one law of love. The OT laws are instructive guidance for getting along with people in an earthly kingdom, but they don't produce love, or even good behavior! (Romans 3:20) How could they be God's law for us in his spiritual kingdom?! The purpose of the OT law was to show us that we cannot be saved by following the law (by doing good deeds, by our works); which brings us back to simple trust in a merciful God.

The Jewish church in Jerusalem put no requirements of OT law on Gentiles for salvation (Acts 15:13-21) (even though some believers who were Pharisees did want full Gentile obedience to the Mosaic law). From the beginning, the apostles and church leaders only asked the Gentiles to avoid certain practices for the purpose of not offending Jews, simply so that Gentiles might be able to be effective witnesses for the kingdom to those Jews.

David understood this problem, and realized that the law was insufficient for restoring relationship with God (Psalms 51). In the golden era of the Jewish system of laws, he best understood that what God wanted of us wasn't following laws, but it was trust and humbleness of heart (Psalms 51:16-17). Paul confirms this conclusion (Romans 4:5-8). In the same passage, Paul also shows that Abraham did not follow law to gain righteousness, but by faith believed God (Genesis 15:6), then acted on that confidence (Romans 4:18-21, Hebrews 11:1-2, 11:8-12), and so was credited with righteousness.

Because of faith, we adopt God's value system and our motivations become changed. It becomes a new law written on our hearts that brings new actions (Jeremiah 16:1, 31:33, Hebrews 8:6, 8:10, 8:13).

What part does works play in this? Is the law still to be our standard of obedience? No! It has already been shown to have utterly failed for that purpose. God has something simpler and much better for us. Our change in motivating values will change our actions from works of the law into good works, works of righteousness (Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14). These newly motivated works will exceed the standard of behavior of the OT laws (Matthew 5:17, 5:43-45).

Clearly works of the law will not save us (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16); we are not justified by our works. And yet we aren't considered as having faith without works (James 2:14-25, Hebrews 11). What is the difference between the two? The critical change is in the motivating value systems: from a selfish motivation, to a value system of sacrificial love like God's:

  • The former attempts to gain relationship with God by works; the latter produces good works because we have relationship with God.
  • The former attempts to be a means to an end; the latter is result of already having been brought by God to that end.
  • The former attempts to entice God to accept us; the latter is overflow of loving desire to be like the God with whom we have relationship.
  • The former is of the law (with loopholes); the latter is a simple value that is universally applicable.

God has only one rule for us in his kingdom - the rule of sacrificial love for the benefit of others. And when we follow this standard, we will become like our king Jesus.

Knowing & Confidence

So how are we saved?

  • By trusting in a merciful God.
  • By grace, through faith that is alive to act on that belief.
  • By the work of Christ on the cross and the spiritual kingdom that he established.
  • By acknowledging Jesus as our king and adopting his value system.

Through the truth of all these answers, we are saved into a relationship of love with God.

How do we know we are saved?

Our native value system is selfish love for the benefit of me. It is not in our nature, or in our power to do God's value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to give us strength to be able to live God's value system (1 Thessalonians 1:11-12 & 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). When we are in right relationship with God, having adopted his value system, the Spirit begins to transform us so that God's value system is genuinely our value system. We will see changes in what we do that could only come from God's value system in us (1 John 3:18-23).

It is unmistakably only God that can transform us this way, so when we see it, then we know that we are his, and that we are saved.

 


The perspective of the gospel and value system ideas on this page are based on the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.

2011-05-15 updated 2021-10-07   © 2021 Larry Grove