By David Watson –
Here is a simple truth about the human condition: we cannot save ourselves. This assertion flies in the faith of so much Western individualism. We think of ourselves as agents who shape the world around us. We prize self-determination and self-sufficiency, and to some extent we do have power over our lives. There are two areas, however, over which we have no control: sin and death. We are helpless before these. We all sin, and we will all die. We cannot save ourselves, but there is one who can save us, who in fact died to save us.
In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, addresses the question, “What is salvation?”
“The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, ‘Abraham’s bosom.’ It is not a blessing which lies on the other side of death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: ‘Ye are saved.’ It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, ‘Ye have been saved’: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.”
Wesley most certainly believed in eternal life. His point, though, is to guard against the reduction of salvation to “going to heaven.” We are saved in the present, he insisted. Salvation includes all the work that God does in our lives, from that very first moment in which we feel that our lives may not be right just as they are. Perhaps we begin to believe that we aren’t living in the right way. Perhaps we start to feel the emptiness of a life focused on material pursuits. These moments are the beginning of salvation. God is leading us out of sin into holiness, and thus out of death into life. Indeed God must lead us if we are to make this journey at all. We cannot save ourselves. We have to be saved.
Salvation From Sin. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Paul has spent the previous ten verses talking about the conflict that occurs within a person who at some level knows what is right, but is simply unable to do it. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). Sin, as Paul describes it, is not just an action we commit. It is a force in the cosmos exerting itself upon human will. Sin is all the “gone-wrongness” of creation, and one of its chief manifestations is the human rebellion against God. Yes, Paul says, God gave us the law, and the law can tell us what is right. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can do what is right. Left to our own devices, we will inevitably succumb to the influence of sin upon our lives. Thus at the end of the chapter, it’s as if Paul throws up his hands in frustration. He cries out in self-condemnation: “Wretched man that I am!” thus giving voice to the pathos of the human condition. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” He has tried to rescue himself, but he cannot. He needs a Savior.
This section of Romans (7:14-24), can be a bit puzzling, since Paul is writing this after he has been saved through Christ. How can Paul say of himself, after his encounter with Christ, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin” (7:14)? A constitutive feature of the Christian life is that we are no longer in slavery to sin. The answer is that Paul is not speaking of his current condition, but rather about what he used to be. In so doing, he gives voice to the human condition. He speaks on behalf of unredeemed humanity. We try to save ourselves, but we cannot. We need a Savior, and, thanks be to God, we have one.
Chapter 8 of Romans is the answer to chapter 7. By “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3-4). Through Christ, God has broken the vise-grip of sin on our lives. Because Christ assumed our human nature in its fallenness, we can be free. We’re no longer addicted to sin. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul puts it this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ has made it possible for us to become righteous. Yes, we can still sin. We can most certainly reject God’s gracious and undeserved offer, but unlike before, we can both know what’s right and do what’s right. We no longer live according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
Paul’s language can be confusing sometimes. His opposition of “flesh” and “spirit” may lead us to believe that he felt the material world (particularly our physical bodies) to be bad, and only our souls to be good. The worldview of Judaism, however, affirms the goodness of creation. In Genesis 1, God saw what he had made and pronounced it “very good.” “Flesh” and “spirit” for Paul are shorthand terms, referring to our redeemed selves and our unredeemed selves. We once lived “according to the flesh” (in other words, as unredeemed people), but now we live life in the Spirit (as redeemed people).
Can we still sin? Indeed we can, but we don’t have to do so. Christ has saved us. He has done what we could not.
Salvation from Death. Followers of Jesus are saved from sin, and thus we are saved from death. Genesis 2:15-17 is the first biblical passage to connect sin and death: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” We know how the rest of this story goes.
It is an uncomfortable truth of human existence that we are all going to die. These mortal bodies will fail. But then what? Do we simply vanish into nonexistence, or is there something more? Paul is clear that we can choose death. We can choose eternal separation from God, if that is what we really wish. Christ died, however, so that we can have life, and not just new life in the present, but eternal life with God. Paul describes Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). This is an agricultural metaphor. The first fruits were gathered before the general harvest. Jesus was raised, and we will be raised as well. And if we receive the salvation that Christ offers us, we will be raised to eternal life in a renewed heaven and earth.
God is the source of all life, the ground of all being. As we draw near to God, we draw near to life. As we rebel against God, we embrace death. Righteousness is life-giving. Sin is life-denying. Paul writes in Romans 6:20-23:
“When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
To break this down a bit, Paul is saying that sin once had such a hold on our lives that God’s righteous will held no sway over us. We were “free in regard to righteousness,” which is not a good thing. Such “freedom” from God is actually enslavement to sin, and the pathway of sin is a death march. Yet now, Paul says, we no longer serve sin, but God. Rather than death, we receive sanctification. This means we get to share in God’s holiness. We are set apart from the world by being freed from sin and empowered to live in a new way. If sin creates a rift between people and God, holiness is the healing of that rift. We are drawn to God, and the result is life, not just now, but forever.
Death is painful. It is often painful for those who die, and it is certainly painful for those who are left behind. Our grief at the loss of a loved one can be overwhelming. Grief is both natural and appropriate in such times. Christians, however, grieve differently from others. We grieve, but not as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). “Listen,” Paul writes, “I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). The hope that we have in Jesus Christ tempers our grief, and we give thanks to God that we might once again be with those whom we love in eternal life.
Making all things new. For each of us who follow him, Jesus is a personal Savior. Indeed, this was one of Wesley’s great insights during his famous Aldersgate experience: Jesus died not just for all, but for him – personally. While we affirm the personal nature of salvation, however, we should also recognize that salvation is more than this. Jesus is the Savior of the whole universe. As noted above, sin is not just a personal matter, but a cosmic one. It is a rupture in the moral fabric of creation, and we see its effects in manifold ways. It comes to bear on our friendships, our families, our churches, and the many institutions in which we participate. Our marriages, companies, schools, and even nations can be marred by sin and turned toward death.
The personal salvation each of us experiences is part of God’s redeeming work throughout all of creation. In Revelation 21:5, God declares from his throne, “See, I am making all things new.” Paul speaks about a “new creation” in which those of us who are “in Christ” participate (2 Corinthians 5:17). “Everything old has passed away,” he writes. “See, everything has become new!” God’s will is to redeem and renew what has been corrupted by sin and death. To be saved is to be drawn into God’s work of renewal.
As I write this, the United States is boiling over with pain, anger, and fear. The very fabric that binds us as a nation is strained to the point of breaking. We look for someone or something to save us. The contenders are numerous: the President, his electoral challenger, the press, some grassroots movement…. Make no mistake, the choices we make as responsible citizens do matter. Yet they cannot save us. Only Christ can do that. Laws can change behavior, but they cannot change hearts. If we want peace and justice in our land, we must work and pray for God to change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We all need to be saved, as individuals and as a society. We need not only a personal Savior, but the Savior of the universe. Sin and death are on the rampage, and like the early Christians we ask, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Revelation 13:4). But even as we utter the question, we know the answer. We have a Savior.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come and save us.
David F. Watson is professor of New Testament and the academic dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed).