If you were to reduce salvation to only three components, how would you do it? If you were asked, could you tell someone in three points what they need to know to be saved?
No doubt the first thing someone needs to know is that they are human, and therefore a sinner in need a savior. Until they’re convicted of their rebellion against a holy and just God they’re probably not going to care about being saved from His wrath, after all. It’s only after a person receives the doctor’s diagnosis of cancer that they are willing to listen to the proposed chemotherapy regime.
No doubt too the second thing they need to know is that Christ is a great savior who pours out His mercies freely. Christians are a beggars by definition, the spiritual equivalent of homeless bums who possess nothing except the good sense to admit they have nothing and the knowledge of the location of the shelter where they hand out living bread. We’re in the business of bringing lost souls to the great Shepherd of the sheep, the God-Man who is a friend to sinners, so of course we must tell them about Jesus.
I would hazard a guess (from experience) that most people evangelizing nowadays would simply jump straight to this second point and leave it there, being convinced telling others about Christ is enough. But is that enough? Is a straight proclamation about the savior sufficient? The anemic state of the Church today suggests not. The reason many are replacing sermons with a standup comedian routine, a pep-talk from a new age guru, and a drama production is because there’s no serious consideration of sin there. The bad news must precede the good news or there is no good news at all. After all, what does it mean that Christ is a savior unless He saves you? It makes about as much sense to say He is Lord and King without adding, “and you must become His subject, a member of His kingdom.” As the saying goes, “it takes a whole bible to make a whole Christian.”
Assume for a moment however that you’ve shared both together. Is that enough?
“Oh right,” you say. “I see what you did there, you implied knowing about Christ is the same as knowing Christ and I fell for it. Okay, so the third and final thing is the person needs to know how to accept their savior. It’s not enough to know about Him, or even merely to believe in Him since even the demons believe, you have to have a robust, living trust that sinks all the way to the bedrock of your soul. You have to have a hearty confidence He’s not lying and He knows what’s best. You have to have a personal relationship with Him.”
Exactly. The third and final thing a person needs to know to be saved is how to live in light of the fact that He’s a great sinner and his master is a great savior. Truth must not be merely relegated to head knowledge.
In some circles this is understood to mean we are to put on a happy face at all times in front of our neighbors, spend a generous time talking to like-minded people about the virtues of withdrawing to a safe community, and attend a church somewhat regularly.
In strict circles the phrase “following Christ” means a ruthless and bitter fight for holiness that makes the sinner sleepless with neurotic worry or despondent at their pathetic progress of sanctification. (And it’s at this point that the legalist will flap his arms, scratch the ground, and say, “Quiet you fool! Following the rules leads to holiness, and holiness leads to eternal life. The man who loves God will obey all the rules. Relationships come through rules.”)
And that’s true. Just like it’s true to say people are bags of mostly water with the occasional string of amino acids and folded proteins thrown in for good measure. But such a statement doesn’t really get at the true nature of “living for Christ.” Salvation requires holiness to be sure, but it’s not the whole of it, nor even the most accurate word for it. The fount from which holiness flows is better known as gratitude–and it is only in light of this that the first two points can be understood.
To be saved a man needs to know how great his sin and miseries are, because the more he knows how deep the pain and corruption runs the more he realizes the miracle of his salvation. The deeper the realization, the deeper the gratitude. As Jesus said, “’There was a certain creditor which had two debtors, one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. When they had nothing to pay he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?’
Simon answered, ‘I suppose he to whom he forgave most.’ And He said unto him, ‘Thou hast rightly judged.’
And He turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little,” (Luke 7:47).
Until we are convinced that we are not actually good people, we will not accept the fact that Christ is perfectly just to pass over us and leave us in our ruin. We must understand that He is under no obligation to us in any way after what we’ve done to Him, and that everything He’s done has been a matter of grace from first to last—because it’s only in understanding this that we become grateful. Not false pride grateful, nor the give-me-time-and-I’ll-pay-it back grateful that leads us to think in our hearts, “I need to live for Him to pay Him back for what He’s done for me.” No. I mean the genuine kind of gratefulness. The kind that empties a person of all thought of themselves altogether, such that they can only stare in wide eyed wonder at the mercies which are new every morning.
Stated more succinctly: sin is the necessary precondition for gratitude.
The second piece of knowledge (knowing how Christ is a great savior) makes us doubly grateful. It’s not merely that we were heartless criminal scum lying broken in a ditch trying to murder passer-bys without remorse; it’s that the King Himself regarded us and traveled an infinite distance to put on humility and frail humanity for us. As the Scripture says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This isn’t merely some run of the mill god either, this is the one true and living God, the thrice holy one, the maker of heaven and Earth. He set aside the glory which was rightfully His and chose instead to suffer torture and death at our hands. So it’s not just that we were worthless sinners when He traded places with us that makes us grateful, it’s also the fact that He is of infinite worth when He did it.
Now perhaps you’re thinking I’ve oversold this. Perhaps you feel that calling gratitude the fountainhead for sanctification and the cornerstone for salvation was going a wee bit too far. “Gratitude isn’t really as important as all that,” you say, “and it’s certainly not in the top three things someone needs to know for salvation.”
But my friend you haven’t paid close enough attention to your New Testament. Gratitude is at the heart of why we’re here. The wicked are increasingly estranged from God precisely because they are ungrateful to Him. As it says in Romans, “When they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful.” Notice that glorifying God—the chief end of all man and the reason for our creation—is put on the same level as giving gratitude to Him. God let men fall into sin so He could rescue them out of it, so that they would know His loving-kindness and be grateful in response. Men who made the decision not be grateful “became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened. They changed the glorify of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts.” It goes on to get worse. And why? Because gratitude is absolutely essential to who and what we are.
It’s gratitude that the elders who worship at God’s throne pour out day and night, “we give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty” (Rev 11:17). It’s why Paul always began his letters with gratitude, (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; Phil 1:3; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 1:3; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:3; Phm 1:4) and why after bemoaning his state with, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” he answers, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24,25). It’s why the rule for celebrating or abstaining from food or holidays is whichever makes you more thankful to God (Rom 14:6). It is why we are to always, as Paul says, “be ye thankful” (Col 3:15), and to “in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess 5:18).
The Westminster catechism has an absolutely brilliant first question when it asks, “What is the chief end of man?” since it wastes no time tackling who we are and what life is about. Yet even more glorious than this is the under appreciated second question of the Heildelberg Catechism: “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”
Answer: “First, how great my sin and miseries are, second how I may be delivered from my sin and miseries, and third, how I am to thank God for my deliverance.”