Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. This is the heart of the good news Christians proclaim to the world. Too often, however, we find ourselves unable to explain what this confession means, that is, how it illuminates our situation and why it is good news. In response to the question about how Jesus saves us, we resort to other confessional assertions: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3). Or, Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Or, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2Corinthians 5:17).
These words were no doubt overflowing with transparent meaning for Paul and his hearers when he first uttered them. But after 2,000 years of use in worship and teaching they tend to become formulas we are taught to repeat on certain occasions. We assume we know what they mean because we know when to say them. I do not question the genuine faith, commitment, and spiritual experience of anyone who confesses these words. We need not understand our faith to great depth in order to love Jesus Christ for who he is and what he has done, to feel deep gratitude for God’s mercy, and to live for him our whole lives. Nevertheless, wouldn’t our genuine faith be strengthened, our love deepened, our commitment reinforced, and our witness emboldened by gaining a deeper understanding of our faith that Jesus is Savior and Lord? And this is what I am hoping to accomplish in this miniseries on Jesus as Savior.
In the previous four essays I’ve addressed the nature of sin, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of healing sin’s destructive consequences. Today, I want to address one of the most difficult and mysterious aspects of Jesus saving activity, that is, how Jesus liberates sinners from sinful condition of the will that makes sinful acts inevitable. In the first essay in this series I defined sin in these words:
Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.
Paul, John, and all other New Testament writers are completely confident that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23; see also 5:12) and that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1John 1:8-10). They are certain that human nature is always accompanied by a condition that inevitably produces sinful acts. How can Paul and John be so confident that everyone who has ever lived and ever will live sins? (Jesus Christ is the one exception. For how could Jesus save us from a condition from which he suffers and needs to be saved?) Do they think sin is part of our created nature? No, this answer is not an option because it makes sin a divine creation and sinful acts an innocent expression of human nature. It is neither. How can we understand this strange situation? As you have already guessed, this paradox or mystery has been addressed in the traditional doctrine of original sin.
The Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church’s doctrine of original sin derives its classic formulation from Ambrose and Augustine (4th and 5th centuries). The Eastern church (Orthodoxy) rejects it. The term original sin possesses several nuances of meaning. It means Adam and Eve’s original sin that brought sin and death into the world. The doctrine differentiates between the created nature of Adam and Eve and their act and its results. Because of Adam’s sin, created human nature now finds itself wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. And in a second sense, the term original sin refers to the condition into which every human being is born, that is, wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. (*For another meaning of “original sin,” see the note below.)
And because human nature is born in this weakened state, a person’s first interior acts of will turn inward to affirm their own private interests above those of others and the divine will. By the time a child reaches the age of reason and can make free choices among alternatives, the will to private interest, conditioned first by weakness and ignorance, has been reinforced by habit to form a sort of second nature impossible to escape. This second nature feels like our true self. The prospect of losing this “self” strikes us as a threat of slavery, alienation, and death. In our personal sins, our weakened condition and our false self expresses itself in our own acts in the world. In this way our inherited weakness becomes our enacted guilt.
How does Jesus Christ save us from this condition? As we saw in previous essays, Jesus embodies and enacts God’s forgiveness in his cross, and in his resurrection grounds our hope that sin’s destructive effects will be repaired. How does Jesus liberate us from the original condition from which sinful acts continually arise and cause offense and harm? It should not surprise us that a radical problem demands a radical solution. If our original weakness becomes a second nature (a false self) through our in-turned will and our sinful acts, the only way out is death and resurrection. The old self or the sinful nature must be purged and human nature strengthened, healed, and supported so that we can live as images of God. This change is so dramatic that the New Testament speaks of it as a new birth or a new creation that results in a new human being.
The resurrected Jesus Christ is first of these new human beings. Paul contrasts Jesus with Adam:
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1Corinthians 15:20-22).
45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
God saves us from our sinful condition by including us by the power of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we share in the effects of his death and resurrection.
3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:3-4).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2Corinthians 5:17)!
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-3).
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1Peter 1:3).
We must still die our own death, but we do not have to die alone. The meaning of our personal death is completely changed. Apart from Jesus, our death would be merely the final results of sin, which wishes to live without God. With Jesus, our dying will be definitive separation from the second nature or false self of sin and irrevocable joining Jesus Christ in his resurrection from the dead. In this state, we will be completely liberated from the conditions that made sin possible and inevitable. We will be forgiven, healed, and liberated. This is, in part, what we mean when we confess that Jesus Christ is Savior.
In future essays we need to consider the question of whether our liberation from the power of sin is still altogether in the future. How does Jesus’ liberating power affect us here and now, before we actually join him through our dying and rising?
*Note: In the traditional western doctrine of original sin, the term original sin also means the “guilt” of Adam’s sin we inherit from Adam. Without going into it in this essay, I reject this teaching as unbiblical and self-contradictory.