Salvation is a concept many people don’t understand. It’s a word that remains a mystery to many. For many people, it’s an old-fashioned term—this thing known as “salvation” or being “saved.” Why salvation at all? What do people need saved from? Obviously no one needs saved unless they’re in some kind of peril.
Many would answer such questions by saying we need to be saved from hell. But the good news about being saved by Jesus doesn’t begin with fire and brimstone, especially when we look at Jesus’ example. He began his own teaching with the tender words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The fires spoken of in the Bible are real enough. Hell (Hades [the place where the dead go: the grave] in the Greek language of the Bible) is no myth. But Jesus didn’t start there and neither should we. If we try to base our understanding of salvation on avoiding hell, we will never come to understand salvation properly because we will be going about it backwards. So…we need to begin elsewhere.
Saved From What?
Again, the question is, “What do we need saved from?” The answer is so simple, yet we often make it so complex: “We need saved from ourselves.” There’s a little “throne” at the center of each of our lives; self is on the throne…or God. Salvation is to replace self with God on that throne. Without God, we are left to ourselves—alone. Aloneness now. And aloneness for many remaining eons of time. Many, of course, do not think themselves alone. In the midst of an active, fast-paced, even happy, life, it is easy to succumb to the illusion of non-aloneness; and it is just that: an illusion.
You must understand I am not writing of mere loneliness. This aloneness is something much different. If one is living without a daily relationship with God, then that individual is living alone, whether he or she feels loneliness or not. You may be reasonably fulfilled and contented. It doesn’t matter. Without God in your life—living inside you in his “unbodied” Spirit form—you are alone. It’s just that simple.
Some of you reading these words perhaps are lonely. Your life may be a dreary existence of enduring one day after another without much human contact—real, close, personal human contact. You need God because you need companionship. You need Him because you were created not to be alone, but for intimate fellowship with your Creator.
You see, deep down inside where no other person can go with you, in the innermost chamber of your heart, only two options exist. You are either alone, or you share that inner sanctum of your life with your heavenly Father. No one else can go there. Not friends, parents, husband, wife, no one. Either you and God live there together, or you are by yourself. And if you are alone, it is an aloneness that could remain for many eons to come if self continues to be at the center of your being.
Here’s another way of approaching this matter of salvation. Every human being, each in his or her own unique way, is thirsty for the LIFE of God in them. That thirst is felt in different ways. Yet strange to say, some are not aware they are thirsty at all, even though they may be dying for lack of spiritual water. Yes, every single individual on earth shares this thirst—rich and poor, young and old, men and women…everyone. It is what one of the great philosophers called “the God-shaped vacuum in every soul.” Spiritual hunger and thirst are practical sensations all of us feel.
That’s probably why Jesus used such terms to describe our need for God. For example, on one occasion He declared: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”
The reason this hole, this vacuum, this thirst exists in each of us is that God left behind a tiny piece of Himself in our hearts after He created us and we subsequently struck out on our own. It is like a tiny invisible spiritual homing device that is always pointing us back in the direction of our Creator. It is what makes us different from the lower animals. It is what is called the spirit (the spiritual “part” of our makeup as human beings).
Self Or God
There is another myth perpetuated by hellfire preachers that salvation is only for terrible sinners. But what is sin other than being separated from God? Sin is not something you do at all. It is the description of the innermost region of your being. If “self” rules in that inner sanctum, and we are living our lives without a relationship with God, doing our own thing, then we’re not one with God.
That’s sin, the conflict between self-will and God’s will. Self on the throne of life, which can be either outward rebellion against God’s ways or mere passive indifference toward God. But the result is the same. Good people are sinners just as much as bad people. Don’t let your goodness fool you into thinking you need God any less than the most horrible bad person who ever lived.
Sins (plural), on the other hand, are what we do—bad things that contradict God’s commands. If we’re not living our lives with God in us, we need to repent (change our minds) about those sins. Jesus-believers are not immune from sins either, which is why the Jesus-believer’s life is not a life of perfection but one of trying, with God’s help, to conquer what the Bible calls our sinful nature. The myth I mentioned is so damaging to an understanding of salvation because it conveys the notion that our need of salvation is based on wickedness. It implies that only very bad people, genuinely miserable sinners, need God at all. But the fact is we all need Him.
Let’s be honest, very few of us really do consider ourselves quite that bad. Those of you reading these lines right now—do you honestly consider yourselves sinners? That’s the trouble with the “wicked sinner” myth—most of us deep down inside consider ourselves to be pretty decent, respectable people, certainly as good as the person next to you, or the guy down the street. So what do we need God for? It’s easy to shrug off the whole thing.
Here’s what we need God for. We need Him not because we’re so bad—which we all are to varying degrees. Some of us are better, some of us are worse, than others. We need God because, if we haven’t invited Him into our lives, we’re all alone in that innermost place deep inside our beings.
We need saving from our separation from God. We need God, not necessarily because we are going around committing heinous crimes from morning till night, but because we’re supposed to share our lives with God. So you see, we’re all sinners together—decent people, mean people, good people, bad people—until we let God into our lives. I repeat—we’re all sinners together…and we need God in our lives.
If you are not living in daily relationship with God, you need Him just as much as a wicked murderer on death row. Salvation does not save us just from being bad. Nor does it automatically make us good. Jesus-believers have a difficult time obeying God’s principles just like everyone else. I want to make it very clear that salvation is not primarily about badness and goodness. It is about the difference between aloneness and relationship. We all need God in our lives. He intended to live in daily relationship with the men and women He created. In very simplified terms, then, that’s what salvation is—living in relationship with God. We need this relationship because it is how you were made to live. Without it, you will never be entirely right.
You’ve all heard the word “gospel.” But do you know what it means? Gospel means “good news.” What is this good news? It is that God not only can save us from our aloneness, but that He also loves us, wants the best for us, has a fulfilling purpose for each of our lives. He wants us to be content, full of joy and fully alive to all life has to offer. He wants to shower his love upon us and give us a rich and abundant life. In short, God is our Father. That’s what Jesus said. A good and loving Father who wants the very best for us. That is good news! That’s what life with God is—a relationship with a heavenly Father who is dedicated to bring about good in our lives to the extent we trust Him to do so.
How does a person enter into that relationship of intimacy and begin living an abundant life? That is why God sent Jesus to the earth, to live among us as a human though He was also God’s Son—to tell us and show us how to do this incredible thing. The four Gospels in the New Testament are where we learn about what life with God is like. Jesus called this change from non-relationship with God into relationship with Him being born again. Think about those words: Born Again!
To be born again involves a major change in life. Inviting the Spirit of God into residence in the human heart where till now we have done whatever we wanted, calling no one Lord or Master—it is as significant a moment as natural birth. It truly is a second birth, for when God takes up residence within us, not only are we no longer alone, but we are also no longer in charge. God now becomes our Father, and as such we place ourselves in relationship with Him as His child.
When I write about the distinction between aloneness and relationship, make no mistake, it is not a equal sort of buddy-buddy relationship with God. There is a Father and there is a child. And the Father sets the rules for the household. That’s why once we enter into this relationship, if we are serious about it, we do become better people, because within this relationship we are under obligation to obey our Father and live as Jesus taught. Jesus Himself becomes our Savior—the messenger or agent of our salvation, and also our Lord. That means He becomes our Master and we must do as He says.
And Jesus has made clear very specific guidelines about how we are to conduct ourselves and about the attitudes and priorities we are to adopt. Walking in relationship with God, therefore, means living according to His principles. That’s how the relationship works. It involves a significant shift, a change of management in life. That’s why Jesus defined it with words of such enormous magnitude. The interesting thing is that one night when a man in the Bible asked Jesus how to be born again, Jesus gave him no formula. He compared being born again to the wind. That analogy says that this process of inviting the Spirit of Jesus into one’s heart and beginning to live as God’s child, is an invisible process that each person must discover for himself or herself.
Instant Or A Process?
Another myth that has come down to us through the years is that salvation comes instantly in a single moment of conversion. But if you read through the ministry and teachings of Jesus, you gain a beautiful picture of what is often a gradual and steadily deepening maturity of life with God. It was certainly gradual in the lives of Jesus’ early disciples. The teachings of Jesus always emphasize the growing lifestyle rather than the instantaneous experience.
Salvation may, of course, begin in a single moment. For those who have never done so, Jesus can be invited into one’s life in a brief prayer and take only a few seconds. Let me remind you, too, that many who have been attending church for years may never have actually prayed such a prayer. Learning to live in relationship with God takes the rest of a lifetime. There are, though, three important ways one cultivates this new life. Praying and talking to God is the first. Reading the Bible to discover the new type of life Jesus wants his followers to live is the next. And finally, obeying what God tells you to do in the Bible. Pray. Read your Bible. Obey—do these and you will grow as a Jesus-believer. God gave us the Bible not merely to inform us, but to transform us!
All these aspects of salvation that have been discussed are involved in being born again. And many more that will be significant in certain lives. These are steps to a deeper life with God for presidents, grandmothers, children, laborers, teachers, secretaries, executives, financiers, homemakers and teenagers, not just for pastors and priests and those one usually thinks of a “religious.” Salvation is for everyone. For me…and for you.
Another thing about salvation is that it is ongoing. It is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Jesus may live in my heart, and I hope He lives in yours. But daily I must renew my commitment to yield to Him the throne of my life. I have to live out my salvation every day. There’s no autopilot for the Jesus-believer’s life. Every day I have to engage my will to live as God’s child and obey what He gives me to do. So…the invitation for God to enter our lives may be made in a moment, but the life of faith must be lived with fresh commitment daily. I must tell you that walking with God is not always an easy life. Daily I must struggle to relinquish my own will—to say to God “You are good…and I trust You as Lord and Master of my life.”
No, salvation is not always easy. This is no cotton candy faith, this thing called living a life in relationship with God. Men and women have been tortured and died and suffered through the ages for no other reason than that they were known as Jesus-believers. Jesus won no cheap salvation when He died for us on the cross. He prayed to be spared that cruel death. But in the end, because He trusted in God’s infinite love and goodness, He said, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” No, it is not “cheap grace,” but a hard-won salvation. But this gutsy thing we call believing in Jesus is true. God is good. And we can trust Him. And you can trust your life to Him. Don’t let Jesus’ death on the cross be in vain. Invite Him to share his life with you and trust Him.
A prayer inviting Jesus into one’s life might go something like this:
“I thank you, God, that You love me, and I thank you, Jesus, that You died for me. Open my eyes to recognize my need for You. I thank You for forgiving me. I receive you and accept You, Jesus as my Savior and Master, and invite you to live in my heart in your unbodied form of Holy Spirit. I relinquish the right to self-rule in my life. I ask You to help me. Draw me closer to You and help me to grow into the godly man or woman You want me to be. Help me, Father, to be your obedient child, to obey you and to do what you tell me.”
Excerpted, edited, and revised from the book, Destiny Junction, by Michael Phillips, © 2002. Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., PO Box 310, Shippenburg, PA 17257-0310.
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Revised and Updated December 2020