A Reprieve from the Governor
By David B. Smith
Have you ever had the glorious feeling of suddenly, unexpectedly being let off the hook? The cop’s red light is flashing in your rear view mirror. You were speeding — no question. You deserve a hefty fine and the shame and your wife’s yelling. But amazingly, the policeman gives you a kindly look and says: “I’m not going to cite you. Please drive safely.”
Or imagine a death sentence that is suddenly lifted. The gallows is right before you, or the lethal injection needle gleams in the dull overhead lights of the penitentiary’s death chamber. But one minute before midnight, the warden’s hotline rings. Governor X says: “We’ve forgiven this guy. Cancel the execution.”
This is what salvation is about: lost people, undeserving people, wicked people ... all getting eternal lives and mansions in heaven.
It’s no wonder gospel really means one thing: “Good News.” But what exactly does this biblical process involve? What is there besides “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”?
First of all is the wonderful GIVEN: Jesus giving His life for each of us on the cross. But that happened in 31 A.D. How do we respond to this gift? How do we access it? The Bible plainly says many will still be lost despite Calvary – so how does a Christmas bonus like eternity get credited to our account?
The salvation process involves five straightforward steps: repentance, confession, forgiveness, justification, and sanctification. Let’s take a brief look at each.
Repentance sounds hard — and it is. It’s to realize that you’re a sinner, on the wrong road heading for spiritual disaster. The good news is that God takes it on Himself, through His Word and the Holy Spirit, to make us aware of our ill-advised route. It’s interesting to me that in Thai, the word for “repentance” is glahp jie, which literally means “your heart returns.” So repentance is realizing that we’re messing up and need to do an immediate and urgent U-turn.
Confession is to openly acknowledge our need, to admit to our sinful state. A deluded person sometimes refuses to do this, to verbalize the obvious. But 1 John 1:9 is clear in its instructions: If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Most twelve-step programs begin by having people stand in front of their peers and say: “My name’s David and I’m an alcoholic.”
This wonderfully leads to forgiveness, and even as fragile humans, we at least have a partial idea of what an incredible gift forgiveness is. We offer each other pardon for trespasses, and agree not to hold a person’s mistakes against them. We give each other clean slates. Forgiveness doesn’t ignore the reality of what took place, but graciously gives the sinner a chance to start afresh.
But now come the two huge pillars of Protestant Christianity — big, bold words that spell such an incredible new life for the believer. What in the world is justification?
The Greek New Testament strings together three heavy, like-sounding words. Here they are: dikaioma, dikaiosis, dikaioo. Put together, they paint a picture of a complete erasing of the transgression. It’s not being overlooked; it’s not a gentleman’s agreement to offer a second chance — no. Justification is a total expunging of the record; it never happened! In the legislative court of heaven, your record is absolutely spotless. There’s not a mark on it. TV cop shows sometimes refer to a bad guy’s “yellow sheet,” listing all the felonies and misdemeanors. But when a person accepts Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and a new life, the old record is obliterated and put beyond reach. Preachers encourage their flocks with the good news that justification means “just as if you never sinned.” And this great bounty is offered to us free of charge, independent of our behavior or abilities. Paul writes in Romans 3: We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Added to this is the blessing of learning that all of Jesus’ perfect righteousness — a life of holy, unfailing obedience to His own Father — is credited to our account. We’re not simply brought up to even, or to the square marked GO on the Monopoly board with a starting player’s $1,500. We have the million dollars of Jesus’ goodness entered in on our own ledger. (This is what the wedding robe in the Matthew 22 parable signifies.)
The fifth and equally significant puzzle piece is this: sanctification. After a sinner repents and is announced as pure and spotless, the Holy Spirit moves into his life and begins to graciously make the fiction a reality! Obedience begins to happen; fruit begins to appear in the life; the Spirit renews our mind. Traces of maturity begin to emerge. The new Christian’s moral diet slowly moves from milk to meat (1 Corinthians 3:2).
Several points are important here. Moving toward holiness is a noble and necessary thing; heaven is a place where obedient, loyal subjects of Jesus will be happy under His eternal reign. The Bible talks repeatedly about fruits of the spirit, about the blessings of making Christ our example. Our lives of spiritual health and abundant generosity give validity to the Church’s claims and bring honor to God (Matthew 5:16). But as the Holy Spirit gently leads us into paths of righteousness, our good deeds are the fruit of our salvation, never its root. The basis of our receiving eternal life is only and always Calvary. Good deeds have many benefits, but heavenly merit isn’t one of them.
This is not only a crucial distinction — but also the very foundation of the Reformation. Protestant Christianity proclaims that justification is a singular event where we confess and are declared holy and righteous, not a flickering up-and-down lifelong process.
Finally, these necessary steps in the miracle of salvation are all gifts of God. The clean slate comes from His generous heart; so do the first trembling steps of obedience and the steady, confident progress we make during a lifetime as Jesus’ followers. Through it all, the believer can have full confidence that he or she is an accepted child of the King. He who has the Son HAS life; I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life (1 John 5:12, 13).
David B. Smith writes from California. (10 or 28) His web page is Copyright © 2014. Click here for content usage information. Biblebay