The Importance of Individual Salvation to Biblical Christianity
The Rev. Brian M. Abshire, Ph.D.
Covenant Reformed Church
The word “Christian” has become a flabby word today without a clear definition. The term has been so twisted and means so many things to so many people it is almost meaningless. For example, in some places, to say that a person is not a Christian is to cast aspersions on his character. Thus in this sense, the word means “moral” and so even an atheist can be a “Christian.”
To others, a “Christian” is simply a person with some sort of religious leanings and leads a good life. Thus, it has been said that Muslims and Jews are sometimes better “Christians” than Catholics or Protestants.
To still others, being a Christian has more to do with one’s family, cultural or national identity. Thus if one is born into a “Christian” country, then one is by birth, a Christian, regardless of one’s personal religious or ethical convictions.
Finally, the word “Christian” is often used in regards to someone who has had some sort of religious experience. However, it ought to be remembered that there are all sorts of experiences out there; not all of them Christian. And some “Christian” churches believe nothing in common with the historic faith “once received and delivered unto the saints.”
Clearly, all of these definitions of a Christian are inadequate because they cancel each other out. The same word cannot mean different things to different people. There needs to be some sort of objective standard to determine just what we mean when we use the word “Christian.” Otherwise, we cannot talk meaningfully about the subject.
The Presbyterian Church (or at least those Presbyterian Churches who still retain the distinctive doctrines of the Reformed Faith) bases its beliefs and practices on the Word of God. The Bible controls both our understanding and our practice of the Christian life. Thus, we try to go back to the Bible even when addressing something as simple as understanding what we mean by the word, “Christian.”
The term “Christian” was first used in first century AD in the city of Antioch to describe those who confessed that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior. Scripture teaches that a Christian is someone who meets three basic criteria; (1) he is a person who has been forgiven for his sins, (2) he has experienced a transformation of his basic nature (called regeneration) and (3) he is someone who now has a personal relationship with God on His terms, not ours. Personal salvation is at the heart of the Christian message. Without these three key ingredients, the word “Christian” has no meaning.
A Christian is Someone Who Has Been Forgiven for His Sins
The first issue to settle is the idea of forgiveness of sins. We have to know something of why we need forgiveness. And for that, we have to understand something of what the Bible teaches about sin. Our common conception of sin is something like “bad things people do.” But what is bad? As times have changed, so also has the definition of “bad.” Another problem with this definition is that it usually means, “the bad things that other people do!” thus conveniently letting us off the hook.
The Bible gives a more precise definition. It uses several words in both Greek and Hebrew that help us to get a picture of what is meant by the term “sin.”
In the Old Testament the most common term is hattah a; which means “a missing, a failing.” In the New Testament, the most common word is an archery term; hamartia; which means, “missing the mark.” Romans 3:23 sums up both meanings, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
Sin is falling short of God’s glory. God is perfect, holy, totally righteous and good. When any person fails to live up to God’s perfect standard of holiness, (i.e., when he falls short of the mark) then he sins. But sin is more than just a failure to achieve perfection. The Bible also teaches that Man, by nature, is in active rebellion to God, seeking his own desires, his own will and striving to live his own life independent of God. The Apostle Paul in Romans 3:10ff, uses a collection of Old Testament citations to make this point, “There is none righteous, no not even one, there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God, all have turned aside, together they have become useless, there is none who does good, there is not even one…”
While this is a grim evaluation of the human race, it is a Biblical one. The Bible maintains that every single individual is in rebellion to God. “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…” (I Jn 1:8). The world was created by God and for God (Col 1:16). All that exists was created to reflect His perfect glory and majesty (Psa 19:1ff). Whenever we act in a manner contrary to God or His Law, we sin (i.e. miss the mark). God’s Law is summarized in the commands to love Him and our neighbor (Matt 22.36-40). Whenever we fail to do so, we are in violation of God’s standard and thus sin.
Even an attitude of disinterest of God is sin because “in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).” Foolish men often curse God with the very breath He gives us moment by moment by His own gracious, loving care. The Westminster Confession defines sin as “any want of or lack of conformity to, the will of God…”
God is a holy God. Holiness refers to His separation from and transcendence over all His creation. It has two major referents. The first is His supremacy, majesty and awesome glory (Ex 3:4-5). The universe does not bind God, or limit Him because He created it. Thus, God is distinct from creation.
But secondly, God is also morally separate from all sin and rebellion because of the ethical purity of His character (Lev 11:44/1 Peter 1.16/Psa 89:35). In Him, there is no spot, stain, or moral blemish. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 Jn 1:5).
Therefore, God, because of the very characteristics that make Him God, must separate Himself from sin (Isa 59:2). This separation results in several things: firstly, a man whose sins are not forgiven is abandoned by God to live life without God; “If I regard iniquity in my heart, then the Lord will not hear me…” (Psa 66:18). The person who lives his own life according to his own laws will reap the fruit of it both in this life and in the life to come. God will not hear his prayers and his life will eventually experience the anguish of an unfulfilled spirit. St. Augustine said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in each man’s heart.”
Men try to find meaning and purpose in life through religion, philosophy, materialism, consumption, personal fulfillment, gratifying their senses, etc. But there is no way to fill the gap that only God can fill. There can be no real meaning and purpose in life, just a vast emptiness.
Secondly, the person whose sins have not been forgiven will suffer eternal spiritual separation from God and all His good gifts; i.e., death and hell (Rms 6:23). Now this is not a popular topic in many Churches today. But the Bible is clear; the wages of sin is death…
Thirdly, the person whose sins are not taken care of will suffer in this life foolishness, fear, violence, perversion etc. (Rms 1:18ff). Space is too short to develop this idea here, but all good gifts come from God (Jas 1:17). Can men expect to receive the gifts if they reject the giver?
But we must always keep in mind that sin is not just bad because of its bad effects; sin ought not to be! Sin is an ugly stain on the perfect universe God created. It’s like having a beautiful mirror that is stained, cracked, and warped. All of creation groans under the weight of sin, waiting the time when all things will become new (Rms 8:20-22). A child once described God’s response to sin as biting an apple and finding half a worm!
Thus, the paramount question for every individual is, “What can be done about my sin?” There are several inadequate measures.
The first is denial, i.e., pretend that our sin does not exist or that our sins aren’t really so bad after all. We see many attempts in modern culture to rewrite morality and make what is evil, good. The problem is that God is the absolute lawgiver and judge. We can pretend it never happened; we can even pass laws making what was once an abomination, now socially acceptable. But God is keeping track and eventually, each person will have to stand before Him and give an account of why he thought what he thought, said what he said and did what he did (Rev 20:11-13).
Some people try projection; i.e., they blame their sin on something or someone else. “I am the way I am because of my parents, my peers the harsh conditions of my background etc.” But regardless of how badly we may have been sinned against, we are still responsible for the sins we ourselves commit!
Other people try self-atonement; i.e., they try to make amends by doing good deeds and being moral people. They think that if their good works outweigh their bad works God will find them acceptable. But the Bible says that the only payment is death (Rms 6:23)! If a good and righteous man lived a blameless life and then, in a fit of rage, murdered his wife, would all his previous good deeds make up for his one bad one? NO! Justice demands that he pay for his crime, regardless of how good he was in the past. In the same way, God may take into account our good deeds when judging us, but the only standard acceptable for Heaven is 100% perfection!
How can any man get to heaven then? The Biblical solution is that since man cannot solve his own sin problem, God in Christ pays the penalty for our sin (Rms 5:8, 1 Peter 3:18). Christ took upon Himself the righteous wrath of God, thus canceling out the debt of sin against us (Col 2:13-14). Using our above example, the man justly convicted of murder has to pay the price for his crime. So, the judge, because of his integrity, pronounces judgment against the crime, and then, because of his great compassion and mercy steps down off the bench and accepts the penalty himself! This is the wonder of Christianity. All other religions give men rules and regulations which if they keep adequately enough; they are taught they can earn their own salvation. But the Bible’s message is that none of us are good enough to save ourselves, so God saves us by taking our sins upon Himself. Thus, a Christian is someone whose sins have been forgiven because Jesus Christ has paid the full and complete price by His own death on the cross.
A Christian Is Someone Who Has a New Nature within Him
But as important as having had our sins forgiven because of Christ, the Bible also teaches a second essential ingredient of being a Christian. The non-Christian has a nature that is hostile and opposed to God (Eph 4:17-24 Col 1:21). By nature, the Bible means one’s basic orientation to God. The Bible often uses the term “heart” here. In the Bible the “heart” is not the seat of the emotions, but rather the very essence of a person; his inner man so to speak. Peer pressure and conformity behavior may make a man act socially acceptably, but his heart, his essence, is what he is really like deep down inside. A man’s heart is what he does in the dark, when he thinks no one can see what he is doing. Those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord have a basic orientation that is alienated from God; they seek to do their own will rather than God’s.
The Christian on the other hand is someone who has been given a new nature because of salvation (Gal 2:20 2 Cor 5:17). This new nature is a radical transformation of one’s entire being resulting in such things as; a new mind (Eph 4:23), a new character (Col 1:23), a new walk or way of living (Eph 4:25-6:10) etc. The new nature does not mean instant holiness. This new nature frequently wars with the old lifestyle (Rms 7:18-25, Eph 4:17ff.). It takes time and discipline to work out the implications of this fundamental change in our orientation.
The Christian is not perfect, just forgiven (1 Jn 1:8-9). But the difference is that once the nature is changed, Christians have a desire to obey God and serve Him (Eph 4:20-24). They are not happy in sin and willfulness. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. Yes, they continue to fall short, but they are people who want to be obedient to God. This usually manifests itself in a hunger for studying and learning more about God’s word (1 Peter 2:2), repugnance for sin (1 Jn 2:15-16) and desire for personal holiness (Matt 5:6), a genuine love for others (1 Jn 2:10) and an earnest desire to follow Jesus Christ in everything (1 Jn 2:3-6). If the heart has been changed, then it ought to affect every area of a man’s life.
A Christian Is Someone Who Has A Personal Relationship with God
Salvation is not “fire insurance” i.e., protection from some future calamity. Nor is salvation given to enable us to live happy, snappy lives without fear or anxiety (sort of a spiritual tranquilizer). The whole meaning and purpose of our existence is that we were created to know and love God (Jer 31:33). “And this is eternal life that men might know Thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent” (Jn 17:3). A person is saved so that he can fulfill the purpose for which he was created, to fellowship with the living God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism poses it this way in the very first question “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever…” This is the high and holy calling of the redeemed human race. We are not eating, sleeping, consuming animals with no future and no hope. We were created to love, glorify and enjoy Almighty God. And the Christian, whose sins have been forgiven because of Christ and whose nature has been changed now is enabled to fulfill the purpose for which he was destined.
The Bible calls the Christian, the “friend” of God (Jn 15:15), someone with whom God desires to fellowship and enjoy. What a wonder! Would we deign to fellowship with a worm? Yet, God desires a warm, personal and eternal relationship with us, not because He needs it, but because we do! Now this relationship, like all relationships needs to be nurtured if it is to grow properly. We need to have accurate knowledge of who God is and what He is like (Jer 29:12-13, Jer 33:3). You cannot have a relationship with someone if you know nothing about the other person!
Granted, knowing God means more than just knowing things about Him, but it certainly does not mean anything less! While God knows all there is to know about us, we will spend an eternity learning about Him. Every aspect of creation is designed to tell us something about Him. But studying the Scriptures is the primary way that we learn about His nature, His attributes, His character and His love and His requirements. In prayer, we talk to God. In the Scriptures, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, He talks to us.
If the relationship is to grow, our lives must also be transformed so that we can enjoy God (Rms 12:2). As children, we often like sweet things that are not all that good for us. But as we grow to maturity, we learn to develop a taste for savory things that are better nutrition. Though a Christian is someone whose basic orientation has been changed, there is always the problem that our habits and desires still reflect something of the old way of thinking and acting. Thus as the Christian grows in his faith, he learns to develop a taste for godliness, something that does not come naturally! Thus growing in our relationship with God requires an investment of our time, our resources, our wealth, even our lives (Mk 8:35, Matt 16:25). God is the pearl of great price that we mortgage everything to possess.
Becoming A Christian
My home state of Maine was settled early in American history and most people have lived there a long time and are slow about accepting outsiders. There is a supposedly true story about a young couple that moved to Maine and then started a family. While the parents knew that they would always be “foreigners,” at least they expected that their children would be accepted as native Mainers. However, the town folks insisted they were still “Outtah Statahs.” When the father objected that his children were all born right there in the town, one old salt replied, “Maybe so, but if my cat had kittens in an oven, it wouldn’t make ‘em biscuits!” Their story has a grain of truth in regards to how one becomes a Christian. Some people think they are Christians because their parents, or grandparents were. Others think that becoming a Christian is like osmosis; they sort of pick it up from the environment.
The Bible says that a person becomes a Christian through a sovereign act of God (Titus 3:5, Eph 2:8a). It is God Who saves men and makes them Christians. Salvation (i.e., becoming a Christian) is a gift freely given to sinful men who receive it by faith (Rms 6:23, Eph 2:8-9). It cannot be earned, only received. God in His wonderful sovereign grace works a miracle in the human heart, granting repentance for sins and giving saving faith.
In order to become a Christian God works in a person’s heart, causing several things to happen. The first is that a person acknowledges that God exists and has rightful demands that He places upon us (Heb 11.6). You cannot become a Christian until you first recognize God’s sovereign rule over creation, which of course, includes YOU! This is not just any old god, but the Lord God Almighty, the One True God. Most people believe in some sort of Supreme Being. But the Bible says our God is the only God.
Secondly, as God works in a person’s heart, he comes to understand that he is a sinner, guilty before God and deserving only His wrath (1 Jn 1:8,10). A person cannot be saved until he first realizes that he is lost.
Thirdly, God then gives that person grace to repent of his sins, literally; to turn around and go in a new direction (Acts 3:19). Repentance is not an emotion of sorrow, but a genuine change of life based upon a change in our heart.
Fourthly, that person responds, because of this changed heart by confessing with his mouth that Jesus is Lord (Rms 10:9a) i.e. that Jesus is both God and King. This is more than just a verbal statement, but a heartfelt recognition that Jesus is who the Bible says He is and that He did what the Bible says He did. There can be no idea that Jesus was just a great moral teacher or gave us a wonderful example we ought to follow. He was the Lamb of God slain for our sin (Rev 5:9). He is also the righteous King to whom we humbly acknowledge as Lord (Phil 2:9-11).
Finally, God then gives that person trust or faith to believe in his innermost being that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rms 10:9b-10). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a theological debating point but an utter fact of history on which our own resurrection and eternal life depend (cf. 1 Cor 15:12ff). When God raised Jesus from the dead, it was His sign that Christ’s death was acceptable to Him, as the sacrifice for our sins. We know that God forgives us, because Jesus fully paid our debts. And unlike all the great moral teachers of history who offered their wisdom, we KNOW that what Jesus said about His life and work are true, because He is the only one who ever proved it by His resurrection.
These five principles are not things that we do to get saved, but rather the result of God working in sinful human hearts to bring them to salvation. The Bible clearly says that “…whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rms 10:13).
Salvation, becoming a Christian, being born again, whatever term one uses, is the absolute foundational principle of Christianity. From our perspective, there is no other issue in life that can begin to compare with this is regards to importance. Without individual salvation, the church is just a social club or theological debating society of dubious value. Everything else we do stems from our personal encounter with Jesus Christ, Who forgives our sins, creates a new nature within us and gives us a personal relationship with God.
As a result of this personal transformation, Christians are then led to changing not just their own personal lives, but the lives of their families, their communities, their nations and their world. Personal salvation is what enables us to live in obedience to God, loving Him and loving one another. Until the heart is changed, the world remains in sin and darkness. The Christian life does not end with personal salvation, but it certainly begins with it. Any supposed “Christian” church that neglects the good news that Jesus Christ has died for sinful men and granted them new life by faith has forgotten the most fundamental aspect of Christ’s teaching. This is the historic Reformed faith, as understood by John Calvin, one of its most brilliant theologians, “God has nothing else in view in addressing men, but to call them to salvation… “
The above article was written at the request of the Moderator of a Presbytery in the Republic of South Africa. Many members of the Presbyterian Church in South Africa no longer believe in the importance of individual, personal salvation and the Moderator was desperate for any information he could bring to his church that it might be reclaimed for Christ. Sadly, in America, we also have millions of Presbyterians who no longer understand or accept the gospel, substituting the platitudes of Humanism for Jesus’ words of life.