Volume 8, Issue 5: Doctrine 101
God Saves ...Doesn't He?
Jesus saves." Most Christians have sung this phrase in a song at worship or have winced to see it spray-painted on the side of a building or overpass by some enthusiastic evangelical vandal. We say we believe it and that it is the sure foundation for our hope of eternity. But do we really mean it? Someone once said, "What you do is what you believe; everything else is just a bunch of rhetoric." Do we show that we believe Jesus saves, or are we just spouting rhetoric?
Several months ago at a prayer breakfast, I heard a pastor say that God looked at all men and women and saw them each as a possibility, each as someone who might be saved. His reasoning was that although the Bible says Jesus saves sinners, and that all men are sinners, he knew that all sinners were not saved. Hence he concluded that Jesus only made salvation a possibility.
This Christian servant's final contention exemplifies the quandry that many evangelicals have subtly recognized if they haven't already confronted it head-on and are now sitting down and rubbing their theological noggins. It is a teaching that is more often stated in the form, "God has done His part, now man must do his part." But is this really what the Bible says about our Lord's work of salvation?
Numerous Scriptural passages plainly teach that Jesus saves sinners. For example, Paul, in his first epistle to Timothy, wrote, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners..." (1 Tim 1:15). The angel, in speaking to Joseph about the future child that Mary, his betrothed wife, would bear, said, "And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins" (Mat. 1:21). Paul, in writing to Titus, again stressed this same point, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, ..." (Tit. 3:5). And again, in Luke 2:11, the angel of the Lord told the shepherds, "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Notice, the angel did not announce the birth of a "Possibility Maker," but of a Savior. This is good news!)
So, how is this a dilemma, someone may ask? My question to them would be, "Does any righteous deed which we can do contribute to our salvation in any way, or are we saved by the atoning work of Christ alone?" Looking at it philosophically, if Christ died to save all men (since all men are sinners), then there are three possible options: 1) that all men are therefore saved; 2) that no men are saved; or 3) that only some men are saved. We know that all men are not saved, since the Bible clearly says that some men will perish, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor 1:18). We also know that option two is false since the testimony of Scripture is that Jesus came to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15). This, then, only leaves the third option, with which most evangelicals will heartily agree.
But if the Bible teaches that Jesus came to save sinners, why aren't all sinners saved? If the reply is that to be saved, men must believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then why don't all men believe? If the answer to this question is that it is up to men, by their own ability, to either accept or reject Christ, then we find ourselves arguing that Jesus' death only made salvation a possibility.
But if His death only made it possible for all men to be saved, then we are denying our argument against option two above, since we are saying that Jesus' death didn't save anyone. We can't have it both ways. Either Jesus came actually to save sinners, as the Bible says, or He only came to make salvation a possibility for sinners.
If Jesus didn't save anyone, but only made it possible for men to be saved, then who ultimately saves man? Our only conclusion can be that man saves himself by some righteous ability on his own part to chose in favor of Christ rather than to reject Him.
In other words, if God does 99.999...9% of the work in securing man's salvation, but man still has that last 0.000...1% that he must do, then it is ultimately man who saves himself and not God. But this argument is in stark contrast to the teaching of Scripture which shows that it is Jesus Christ who saves sinners (as exemplified above). In fact, Paul's primary purpose in writing to the churches of Galatia was to remind them that Christ plus any human effort does not equal salvation. "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love" (Gal. 5:4,6). Confidence in any human effort, in this case, either circumcision or uncircumcision, avails nothing with respect to salvation. Only faith in Christ saves, and even that faith is not of our own human effort (Eph. 2:8,9)
Let us faithfully bear witness to the truth of the Scriptures, and humbly acknowledge that it is Jesus who has saved us and not we ourselves, as the Apostle John affirms, "who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13).