A reviewer for one of my books commented that she didn’t like the chapter on salvation. To quote her: I kept looking for him to celebrate the finished work of Jesus, yet what I read was the need for the individual to do something. This is an interesting twist, because usually I am the one arguing the “finished work of Jesus” with legalistic religious people who place their hope of salvation in works. It would seem I have now been placed on the other end of the stick. Can the concept of grace be taken too far? Can those of us who believe Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world simply rest in that and be assured of salvation, without giving it another thought? Let us never forget what Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23. Jesus will have to turn away those who come to him after it’s too late (including many who thought they were religious), because he never knew them!
If I were a bumper-sticker kind of a guy, I think I would have Romans 10:13 stuck on the back of my car. It encapsulates the message of salvation in Christ beautifully. All who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. Notice, however, that there is a requirement on the individual here. You do have to actually call on his name. Otherwise, everybody would be going to heaven, wouldn’t they? And Jesus told us matter-of-factly (in Matthew 7:13 and many other places) that most people are insisting on going to hell, despite God’s efforts to stop them. Ultimately, man’s free will is respected and honored.
James tells us in James 2:19 that while believing is all good and well, belief alone cannot save a person, because it is quite possible to believe God exists and choose to rebel against Him by rejecting the sacrifice of Christ. At the end of John’s Gospel, in John 20:31, we are told the reason he wrote his gospel was so we might believe, and that by believing we may have life in the name of Jesus. There is no contradiction between this verse and the James verse. There is a marked difference between believing of something and believing in something. To believe in something, we exercise faith – which is what Paul told us was necessary in Ephesians 2:8. We are saved by grace, yes – but only through faith in that grace.
…Which necessitates repentance. How? Because in order to have faith in the grace of God, we must acknowledge His grace was indeed necessary. You cannot put faith in something you do not think you even need. If everyone was saved anyway, then man truly wouldn’t have to do a thing – but the Bible tells us (in hundreds of verses) that everyone is not saved. You have to own the sacrifice that was made for you. You must personalize it. The Lord took those stripes and those nails and that crown of thorns and all that shame and all that pain unto death in order that you might be saved. You. It was for you, to pay for your sins. You have to step up and claim this gift, which means you must acknowledge it was necessary, which in turn means you must acknowledge you are a sinner who needs forgiveness. Easy-peasy, right? Certainly – but if you don’t think you are a sinner, if you don’t believe you need to be forgiven of anything, how can you accept the sacrifice?
All roads always lead to the thief on the cross for me, whenever I talk about salvation. He and another thief were crucified on either side of Jesus. They both joined in on the mocking of Jesus. Then, one had a change of heart. He decided to believe. He rebuked the other thief for having no fear of God, even at death. He confessed they both deserved their punishment, and turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered. Jesus assured him they would be in paradise together that very day.
By turning to Jesus, the thief acknowledged his sin. It was an act of repentance. (The word repent literally means to turn from.) Moreover, the thief acknowledged the authority of Jesus to forgive his sin. This is the formula for salvation, which is wonderfully illustrated by the deathbed conversion of the thief. Repent, receive Christ, and be saved. It’s as simple as saying: Jesus, Lord, forgive me, a sinner. Voila! The other thief died in his sins. Don’t be like the other thief. Don’t go where he is. The first word of Jesus’ ministry was repent, echoing that of his forerunner John the Baptist. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Spend eternity in paradise with the Lord, who loved you so much he died in your place, so you don’t have to. Own it. Accept the gift. Make it yours.