Several weeks ago I started what turned out to be a great conversation on this blog and my Facebook page when I asked:
Heaven is good incentive, but it’s not salvation. Without using Heaven as a hook, if I were not a believer, how would you approach me with your faith?
Don’t promise me something in the future. Give me something now. What does your faith have to offer me?
I want to thank everyone who contributed to that conversation. You all made some great points. So, let me show you where I stand here.
I think the question has a built-in mis-lead. Asking, “What is salvation without heaven?”, led many people down a track on heaven itself. But what if we just drop the last two words: “What is salvation?” It doesn’t change the question, just the focus.
So, what is salvation? I believe the Scriptures give us the answer using four prepositions: from, by, through, and for. Let’s take a look.
The most basic form of the gospel (good news) is in 1 Timothy 1:15, where Paul wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s the essence of God’s good news – Jesus saves sinners.
That automatically gives us the “who” – Jesus does the saving; sinners are saved. The word “save” means “to preserve, rescue, keep from harm, deliver”. But from what did Jesus come to save sinners? The answer is two-fold:
“She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
“Because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.” Romans 5:9
Sinners are saved from their sins and from God’s wrath. Honestly, even if heaven weren’t in the picture, that’s a great place to start. Anyone who is honest with themselves knows that it’s hard to break the habits and patterns of personal sin. What if there were something or someone who could truly deliver us from our sins?
And no one who at least acknowledges that there could be a God out there somewhere wants to be on his bad side. I mean, who wants to stand across from an all-powerful God, especially if we don’t know what he’s mad about? If there were only a way to get on his good side, out from under his wrath.
OK, so Jesus came to save sinners from their sins and God’s wrath. That must be an expensive transaction. It would take something pretty big to absolve me completely before God, to move me from a position of an enemy against God to become his friend.
That’s exactly how Paul describes it: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10)
What could I possible to do earn that? Paul gives us that answer, too:
“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
How many times can he say it in one breath? “By grace…gift of God…not from works…” Can it be any clearer? This salvation – this deliverance from sin and wrath (which means certain judgment) – is not available for purchase. It is a gift, given by grace. In this context, grace is “a beneficent disposition toward someone”.
By it’s very definition “benevolence” is not bought; it can only be given. And, just to make sure we don’t miss it, Paul clarifies that the reason it is given as a gift is “so that no one can boast”.
One of the defining characteristics of this ungodly world system in which we live is “pride in our achievements and possessions” (1 John 2:16, NLT), which is clearly not from God. If there was anything we could do to earn this deliverance from sin and wrath, we would have grounds for arrogance before God. But that option is not on the table. It’s not for purchase – it’s a free gift from a benevolent God.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, NLT
OK, so if I can’t earn it – if this salvation is given solely as a gracious act from a benevolent God – how do I get it? Is there a drive-through window, a coupon I have to redeem? And where would I go to redeem it? Church? Which one? And why doesn’t everyone just have it automatically?
Paul answers that in the same thought: “For by grace you are saved through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8) Faith is the key. While we cannot earn God’s salvation gift through something we can do, not everyone receives it because it comes through a channel of faith on the part of each individual person. Faith in what?
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9
In this section in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul was quoting from the Old Testament prophet, Joel. In his prophecy, Joel was telling his audience how to be delivered from God’s coming judgment. His solution? Cry out to God, using his personal name, confessing their sins, and asking for deliverance (see Joel 2:32).
By referring back to this old prophecy, Paul identified Jesus as the God of the Old Testament – “the LORD” – and said that salvation from sin and wrath happens the same today as it did back then. The only difference is that now, instead of anticipating a coming Savior, we can look back to the Savior who has already come – God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ.
The faith part comes in when a person acknowledges that Jesus was more than a mere man, a good teacher, a miracle-worker. When you and I recognize Jesus for who he really is – God himself – truly believe that his death was the cure for sin, and that his resurrection was genuine (not just a made-up story), “you will be saved”.
Why? Because there is not enough evidence in all the world that can prove it to be true. It must be taken “through faith”. And when a person is willing to trust God to the extent that he or she stops trying to fix themselves and submits completely to God’s deliverance, his gift comes freely.
The last part of salvation is also found in Ephesians 2. Here’s the whole section together:
“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” Ephesians 2:8-10
So, salvation is a free gift given by a benevolent God to sinners who trust him entirely to deliver them from their sins and his wrath. And there’s more? Yep!
Not only are we reconciled to God (changed from enemies to friends), not only are our sins removed from us, not only is God’s wrath for our sins removed from us, but we are given something in place of all of that – a reason to live.
With salvation comes a brand new purpose in live – “good works that God prepared beforehand”.
Too many people walk through life with no purpose, no direction, searching for meaning beyond work and home. God offers that meaning. With salvation from sin and wrath comes purpose.
Notice that it is not “good works for salvation”; it’s “salvation for good works”. The difference is night and day.
So what is salvation without heaven? If heaven were not a part of the picture, if you couldn’t count on that, what do you have?
- Deliverance (freedom) from sin
- Deliverance from God’s wrath (judgment) hanging over you
- A free gift from a benevolent (gracious) God
- A brand new standing with this God (friends, not enemies)
- A whole new meaning and purpose to your life
Even without heaven, even without an afterlife of paradise, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Heaven? Well, that’s like the icing on the cake.
Is your salvation all about heaven, or do you have something more? Have you experienced the true salvation that Jesus has to offer? If not, will you place your trust in him completely today?