All have sinned and fall short of Godís glory, but He has made the wonderful gift of everlasting life available. What must one do to initially claim this gift, be cleansed of sin, and be spiritually reunited with God in fellowship?
God has always had laws for man to abide by, and even though different laws were in force at various times in the history of mankind, God has always required an obedient faith. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were restricted by only one law. God instructed them that they could freely eat of every tree of the garden, "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). But, in 3:6, both of them partook of the forbidden fruit, yet neither of them died that day! In fact, Adam lived to be 930 years old (5:5)! How can this be?
This matter can be resolved if one considers what the word death actually means. Death means separation. On that day in which sin was introduced into the world, Adam and Eve began to die physically after being removed from the tree of life (3:22), and they immediately died spiritually because they sinned against God. How can we know this? By definition, sin is the breaking or transgressing of God's laws (I John 3:4), and the result of sin is separation from God (Isa. 59:1,2). This separation is not of a physical nature, but rather it is a spiritual separation. Thus, Adam and Eve did die the very day they sinned against God in that they lost the close fellowship they once shared with Him. Their lives were different from that moment on. They had become sinners! But, before we despise them for their foolish actions, let us consider our own lives first. Have you ever broken one of God's laws? Have you ever sinned? Yes, we all have (Rom. 3:23). In fact, all of us continue to fall short of God's perfection and glory. No one is born a sinner (Eze. 18:20), but when one matures in life to the point of understanding right and wrong (sometimes referred to as "the age of accountability"), and then chooses to do wrong, he becomes a sinner and is separated from God.
Our lesson today will focus on the plan of salvation, or the means by which man can remove the barrier--sin--that spiritually separates him from God. It is important to note that God has done all that He can to remove sin from man's life, and He desires all to be saved. God is "longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (II Pet. 3:9). God has gone to great lengths to give us this plan of salvation, and He has clearly shown His marvelous love to us in manifold ways (John 3:16). As we noted in last week's feature lesson, God has revealed His will to us today via the inspired Scriptures. These Scriptures tell of the amazing story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus left His home in heaven and was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4,5). He grew up as a Jew under the Mosaic Law and lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15). He taught the multitudes and performed miracles to establish His identity (John 20:30,31). Jesus allowed Judas to betray Him and permitted the Sanhedrin to make a mockery of justice by sentencing Him to death (Mark 14:43ff). He accepted the brutal scourging and the crown of thorns from the very creatures He had made in His image (Mark 15:15-20). Then, Jesus let them nail Him to the cross, and He agonized there while taking the sins of the world upon Himself (15:21-41). He was buried, and then He rose from the dead three days later (15:42ff). Finally, He ascended to heaven (Mark 16:19). Thankfully, the story did not end at the cross, but it is still sad to think that you and I are partially responsible for His death because of our sins. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is sometimes referred to as the gospel which means good news (I Cor.15:1-4). How can this be good news? It is good news because we can be saved by this gospel (I Cor. 15:2). It is through this gospel that we can remove the barrier of sin from our lives and be spiritually restored to God. But, how can this be accomplished?
At this time, let us consider five steps from man to God--that is, five steps set forth in the New Testament which explain how the severed fellowship between sinful men and a holy God can be restored.
THE FIRST STEP IN THE PLAN OF SALVATION IS HEARING THE GOSPEL.
In order for an individual to be saved from sin, he must first realize that he is a sinner. He must learn of the terrible consequences that result from sin (Rom. 6:23) and eagerly desire to free himself from this bondage (Rom. 6:6). But, in order for him to be knowledgeable of these matters, he must either discover them himself by studying the Bible or have someone teach him these truths from the Scriptures. In either case, he must hear what the word of God tells him in regard to his currently sinful, spiritual condition. Once he becomes aware that sin has separated him from God, he will want to know what can be done about the situation. What should he do to be reconciled with God? Essentially, he will long to know the answer to the question: "What must I do to be saved?" Perhaps the most concise answer to this inquiry is found in Hebrews 5:8,9. This passage clearly states that Jesus Christ is "the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him." Thus, it is evident that in order to be saved, we must obey Jesus the Christ. The New Testament teaches that several things must be done in order to obey Christ. Romans 10:13ff shows the importance of hearing as the first step. If an individual does not hear the gospel, then he cannot properly build faith, because "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God." (10:17).
THE SECOND STEP IN THE PLAN OF SALVATION IS BELIEVING THE GOSPEL.
After the gospel has been heard, the individual always has a choice to make. He can either reject the message (i.e., disbelieve) or he can accept the message (i.e., believe). To believe the gospel is to have faith, and as we have noted previously, it only comes through hearing God's word. Faith is not based upon guesswork, but upon factual "evidence" (Heb. 11:1). True biblical faith is simply taking God at His word. God requires that we believe in His Son if we are to have everlasting life (John 3:16; 8:24; 20:30,31). But, it is important to realize that simply believing has never been the sole prerequisite for salvation. If all one had to do to be saved was believe, then not even the demons would be lost since they believe and tremble (James 2:19)!
Faith is much more than just a mental conviction. Genuine faith is always accompanied by action. A brief perusal of Hebrews 11 will prove this to be the case (e.g., 11:4,5,7,8,9,11, etc.). In these verses, the phrase, "By faith...", is used repeatedly regarding various individuals who performed a particular action of obedience that pleased God. James 2:14ff plainly affirms that faith must be accompanied by works or else it is dead and useless! "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). Thus, according to James, there is a certain sense in which "works" can justify us or make us free from sin. However, Paul discusses another aspect in which "works" cannot save us. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9).
How can these two passages be harmonized together? Obviously from the context, Paul is referring to works of merit; that is, good works that would be boasted about if they were responsible for salvation. But, Paul clearly states that man cannot earn redemption by doing good works. No matter how much good we may do in our lives for God, our salvation cannot be merited; it is a free gift of God. And, like any gift that is offered, we must choose to either accept it or reject it upon the terms of the gift-giver. The works that James discusses could be designated as works of God. These types of works are those of obedience to God's plan which He has set forth in order for man to actually lay hold of the gift of salvation (cf. John 6:29 - faith itself is a "work" in that context). Therefore, we are saved by works in the sense that when our faith prompts us to obey the gospel, then we are accepting the gift of God's grace, which is eternal life. Hence, we are actually saved by God's grace that has been activated in our lives through our obedient faith.
THE THIRD STEP IN THE PLAN OF SALVATION IS REPENTING OF ONE'S SINS.
Once we are convicted in our hearts of sin, after hearing and believing the gospel, then sorrow will surely follow. "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (II Cor. 7:10). The word repent, as used in the biblical sense, simply means a change of mind. God expects us to not only realize that we have sinned in the past, but He also requires us to mentally turn from it and start going in the other direction. To repent is to commit oneself to changing his life from that which is filled with sin into that which overflows with righteousness. Genuine repentance will be demonstrated by a change in one's actions! When we repent, we die to sin by committing ourselves to a pure life. Jesus showed the necessity of repentance by stating twice that "...unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3,5).
THE FOURTH STEP IN THE PLAN OF SALVATION IS CONFESSING ONE'S FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.
Even after you have heard the gospel, believed it, and repented, you are still not saved! "That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Rom. 10:9,10). Paul informs us that confession is also necessary for salvation. But, what exactly are we to confess? Christ! God expects us to verbally confess our belief in His Son, Jesus Christ. The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 gives an excellent example of this (note verse 37 in particular). Another example is found in I Timothy 6:12.
THE FIFTH STEP IN GOD'S PLAN OF SALVATION IS IMMERSION IN WATER FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF ONE'S SINS.
There is one final step that must be taken in order to be reconciled to God. "...let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins..." (Acts 2:38). This step is unique in that it is the dividing line between the saved and the lost. This is easily shown since salvation is "in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 2:10), and baptism is what actually puts us "into Christ" (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3). Therefore, after one hears, believes, repents, and confesses Christ, the final step before forgiveness is actually realized is baptism.
For example, note that Saul of Tarsus was not saved until after baptism (Acts 22:3-16). Once one is baptized, he is added to the church by God (Acts 2:47), and is now a Christian (Acts 11:26). Peter also tells us that baptism saves (I Pet. 3:21). Biblical baptism is always immersion in water for the remission of sins. The New Testament Greek word baptizo (translated baptize) means to be immersed or submerged; it never means to be sprinkled or poured upon. The fact that baptism is an immersion is logical since one who has died to sin (via repentance) should be buried! And, once one is buried in baptism, he will be raised from the waters as a new creation (II Cor. 5:17). Such a one now belongs to the Lord and should live his life for God as His servant, and no longer as a slave of sin (I Cor. 6:19,20).
Once the barrier of sin is removed, then the person is in a saved state and is no longer separated from God. His sins have been forgiven and are no longer counted against him. This process by which we can be "set free from sin" results from obeying the gospel ("that form of doctrine" - Rom. 6:16-18), and this salvation is available to all mankind (Acts 10:34,35; Gal. 3:28). It should be noted that those who are mentally incapable of distinguishing right from wrong (i.e., young children and the mentally handicapped from birth) are not saved from sin, but they are safe. Since these individuals cannot commit sin, they have no need to be saved from it. Hence, those who die in this state will have eternal life in heaven. Consequently, there is no Scriptural authority or need for baptizing babies.
Overall, we need to remember that when it comes to hearing, we are to listen. When it comes to believing, we are to accept. When it comes to repenting, we are to turn from sin. When it comes to confessing Christ, we are to speak. When it comes to being baptized, we are to yield to the will of God and be immersed. To do all these things is to do the will of God, to be restored to Him, and to be cleansed of sin (cf. Matt. 7:21). To do these things is not to earn our salvation but to claim the free gift that God has offered to all men. If we love God, we will desire to do these things (John 14:15; 15:14; I John 5:3).
God has done His part. He has given His inspired word to guide us in this life, and He has given the life of His Son even while we were still His enemies (Rom. 5:8). But, God cannot remove the barrier of sin on His own. He has left the rest up to man. Do you want to be saved? Do you want to make your spiritual relationship right with God? Will you do your part and submit to the Lord by demonstrating your faith in obedience? The choice is yours, but choose wisely, for no one knows when you will die or when the Lord will return, and then it will be too late to prepare to meet the Lord. Dear friends, is your life right with God?
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.