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What Is Salvation?: A Question Worth Considering This Easter

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The Easter season is a celebration of the Gospel. As we remember Jesus’ passion, death on the cross, and triumphant resurrection from the grave, we aren’t just marking an anniversary. We are remembering that, in the words of Paul, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:4–5). Holy Week is a time to recall God’s magnificent work of salvation.

But what actually is salvation? In our secular age, we can’t take for granted that the words “He saved us” will mean anything whatsoever to the average person walking down the street. If we proclaim that “Jesus saves!” we’re liable to face questions like “What for?” “What from?” “How does He manage that?” and “Why should I care?” If we are to celebrate and proclaim God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ, then we had better be ready with answers.

Our Need for Salvation

In Titus 3:3, the apostle Paul describes the disheartening condition of human beings who are outside of Christ: “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” That is a description of a life enslaved to sin.

When Christ died on the cross, He bore the punishment that our sin deserves so that all who are united to Him by faith can be the beneficiaries of His perfect innocence.

The tendency of our modern age is psychologize and explain human problems—and psychology certainly has been a help for some. But modern science has yet to hit on humanity’s central problem: that we’re in the wrong with God. We’ve offended against Him. We’ve turned our backs on Him. We worship other gods of our own making and obey rules of our own making. We are, in short, sinners.

If God is our Creator before whom we will one day stand, if He is the one who gave His law and expects us to obey it, and if He is the one true Judge, then we have a problem. And we have a problem because the human condition is “foolish, disobedient, led astray…”

As Paul says elsewhere, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If we were really to face the law of God, we would realize that we’ve been telling lies, we’ve been jealous, we’ve been angry, and so on. “I haven’t loved God with all my heart,” we must confess. And if this is the standard, we’re busted! Our corrupted human condition has brought us under God’s judgment.

But thankfully, that’s not where the story ends.

The Ground of Salvation

The good news, as Paul wrote to Titus two millennia ago, is that “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.” In what way did He do so? Paul answers that it was “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to [God’s] own mercy” (Titus 3:5). In other words, we can’t save ourselves from our rebellion against God by simply not rebelling. If we could, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place! No, God in His mercy had to do something for us.

Mercy is an essential attribute of God: He’s merciful because that is who He is. And His mercy is revealed in His actions—especially in the person and works of Jesus. His salvation is not a reward for men and women who do good works. It is not even a reward for faith. Faith is simply the outstretched hand that lays hold of the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, which God gives freely according to His mercy.

There is no true spiritual life apart from the Holy Spirit coming from outside of us and changing us from the inside out.

Part of this free gift is God’s justification of sinners to spare them from His judgment (Titus 3:7). When a judge justifies somebody, he is pronouncing a sentence of innocence. God can do this because when Christ died on the cross, He bore the punishment that our sin deserves so that all who are united to Him by faith can be the beneficiaries of His perfect innocence. As Paul writes in another place, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus took our place in God’s judgment so that we could join Him in God’s favor.

But another critical aspect of this free gift is God’s regeneration of sinners to radically and completely transform their souls. Regeneration literally means new birth (John 3:3). People are born again when God’s Holy Spirit renews their inner being, taking them from spiritual deadness to spiritual life. And regenerated people, like newborn infants, show signs of that life—crying out for God’s mercy, hungering for God’s Word and for Christian fellowship. They are not sinless or perfect, but they eagerly await the day when Christ will return to do away with sin’s presence. People without God’s renewing Spirit in their hearts may make resolutions to behave and try to keep God’s law, but there is no true spiritual life apart from the Holy Spirit coming from outside of us and changing us from the inside out.

The Benefits of Salvation

When people speak of “salvation,” it is often its benefits that they have in mind. In other words, when somebody says, “I’m saved,” they may mean something like “I believe I’m going to heaven when I die.” But the salvation God offers is much more than that!

When God’s work of salvation meets our deep need, we do indeed benefit, as Paul says in Titus 3:5–7: “He saved us … so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” And elsewhere he writes, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). This is the fulfillment of our great need on a vertical axis. We were alienated from God by our rebellion against Him and by His wrath against us, but since we have been justified by faith, we are no longer God’s enemies. More than that, we are His friends (John 15:14–15), His children (John 1:12–13), and we accrue all the benefits of those relationships to the sovereign creator and ruler of all things.

Yet Paul also says to the Christians in Rome, “You who were once slaves of sin …, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17–18). When God’s Holy Spirit sets us free from the power of sin (2 Cor. 3:17), He does so that we may serve God as we were created to do. The Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) is a particularly conspicuous example of slavery to sin: he was naked, alienated, and screaming in the night.

But even those who seem to have their life together, as the Pharisees did, are no less enslaved—though they may be better at hiding it from themselves and others (Mark 8:15). Whether our sin is secret or open for all to see, however, when the Spirit sets us free from it, He empowers us to glorify God with our lives. Just as Jesus healed the demoniac, so the Spirit makes us “clothed and in our right mind,” so to speak, in our inner being. (See Mark 5:15.) And just as he called the self-righteous Pharisee Paul to be His apostle, so He calls us to leave the “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6, KJV) of religion behind and receive and proclaim to all His grace.

When we see that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared”—that Christ died as a substitute for our sin and to give us new life—then we can draw near to Him in faith.

And so it is that finally, after he says that “the wages of sin is death,” Paul tells the Romans that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Because Christians are “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7), they can eagerly expect to live on in God’s presence after they have died. This hope is more than a possibility; it is a certainty. It is the trusting expectation that the Lord Jesus told the truth when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26).

In short, salvation brings us peace with God, freedom from sin, and the sure hope of eternal life.

The “How” of Salvation

There’s only one way to know that we’re sinners, and that is for God to make it clear to us. When we see that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared”—that Christ died as a substitute for our sin and to give us new life—then we can draw near to Him in faith.

As Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” For those who come to believe that what we celebrate during Holy Week is true and is our salvation, these words of confession are a good starting place:

Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed; but through you, I’m more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope.1 I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness, and I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior and Lord. Amen.


This article was adapted from the sermon “Justified by His Grace” by Alistair Begg.

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  1. Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. ↩︎


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