About two years ago I received a call from a man named Mitch. I had baptized him a few years before. He called to let me know his cancer had come back and he didn’t have much time left. He wanted to express his thankfulness to God that I had shared the gospel with him and led him to place his faith in Christ. He was thankful to be able to face the end of his life on earth with the hope of heaven in his heart. Not long after that call, Mitch went on to be with the Lord.
Years before, however, Mitch had barely survived a terrible car wreck. He was in a coma for a few weeks. Gradually he regained strength and health, albeit not without lingering pain and other complications. Before he drove his truck off an embankment, he really didn’t care if he lived or died. He had been in a battle with cancer, which, along with life’s many other hardships, had left him deeply depressed and feeling hopeless.
When he came out of the hospital, after his wreck, his cancer was also in remission. He had come to church a few times before with his mother, but this time was different. He asked if he could meet with me to discuss baptism and committing his life to Christ. On a cold day in January of 2011, I had the privilege of baptizing Mitch by full immersion. He was buried with Christ in baptism “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, [he] too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Mitch often wondered aloud with me about why God had allowed him to survive his accident. He was looking for a specific reason. Mitch wanted to know why God had saved him, and that in more ways than one, both physically and spiritually. My answer to Mitch was always the same. “Mitch, I don’t really know the particulars of God’s specific plan for your life, but I do know that you were saved for the same reason everyone else is saved: to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
For the past few years I have taught an introductory discipleship study called “The Walk.” I designed the study around several basic questions. Three of the questions are: Why do we need to be saved?; What are we saved from?; and What are we saved for?
Although the Bible uses this kind of language frequently, it is not all that popular a topic in many circles, including in the church. The thought that people need to be saved can be offensive because it implies there is something wrong with us and that we are in grave danger. But we may not feel like there is anything wrong with us. Indeed, we may feel like we are perfectly fine just the way we are. But the Bible clearly indicates that something is wrong and we all do need to be rescued from something.
In short, we are saved from sin and its consequences. We are saved from corrupted desires and the consequences of acting on those desires. Sin is not only the bad things we do, but also the power that corrupts our good God-given desires. Just take the seven deadly sins for example: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Each of these is a corruption of a good desire. God designed us to have certain desires as creatures created in God’s image. The desire for sex is good, but sin corrupts it and distorts it. The desire for food and drink is also not bad, but when corrupted by sin it can become detrimental to us and others. The desire to work and make a living is not bad, but greed can make us slaves to work and money. The desire to rest and relax is good, but sloth is not. The desire for justice is wonderful, but wrath drives us away from justice to hatred and personal vengeance. The desire to be loved and respected is not bad, but envy and pride distort those desires in narcissistic ways.
Through Jesus Christ God saves us not only from the consequences of sin, the penalty, but also from its corrupting influence, the power. The grace of God in Christ also begins to heal our corrupted desires and rescues us from an eternity separated from God. That’s why we need to be saved and what we need to be saved from? But we’re not only saved from something, we are also saved for something.
As the verse from Romans 6 referenced above indicates we are saved for a purpose, namely to “walk in newness of life” (v.4). The word “walk” here is used in Ephesians 2 as well.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV (emphasis mine)
Here Paul tells is what we are saved by, through, and for. Each of these aspects of salvation must be held together in the proper order and priority. We must not put a period where there should be a comma; and we must not mix up the order here given.
We are saved by grace, what God has done for us in Christ, it is a gift. But the gift of what God has done for us must be received by faith. One aspect of the gift of grace is that by it we are remade by God in Christ. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” In Christ we are remade by God. In other words, as Jesus put it to Nicodemus, we are born again (John 3). Along with forgiveness, this transformation is also the gift of God. And the purpose for which God has remade us as a new creation is for good works . These good works in no way contribute to our salvation, but they are the fruit of our salvation that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But what exactly are these good works?
The key to understanding this is the word “walk“. The Hebrew equivalent of this word in the Old Testament is halak. It is used repeatedly to refer to a life lived in obedience and faithfulness to God’s commandments. I just read this morning in Isaiah where Hezekiah, one of the kings of Judah during the ministry of Isaiah, used this word in exactly this way.
“… ‘Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ ….” Isaiah 38:3 ESV
This is a common way to speak about faithfulness to God throughout the Bible (see Psalm 119:1-3). One of the most significant places where the Bible uses this language is found in the new covenant promise in Ezekiel.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Ezekiel 36:25-27 ESV (emphasis mine)
Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” argues that rules just get in the way of real relationship. Well the promise here in Ezekiel, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, indicates that obedience to God’s rules are at the heart of the new heart God wants to give us. God’s law is not the problem, disobeying it or trying to obey it with selfish motives is. God’s rules obeyed from the heart don’t get in the way of relationship, they actually facilitate genuine relationship, with God and our neighbors.
The good works for which we are saved are those things that are in harmony with the spirit and intent of God’s commandments. Truly they are an expression of genuine love, love of God and love of neighbor.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10
To put it another way, we are saved by love, the love of God for us in Christ, and we are saved for love, the love of God in us for God and neighbor. In his “Treatise on Good Works,” the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther sought to correct misunderstandings of his teaching on justification by faith. In that treatise he said that genuine Christian faith is a fulfillment of the first commandment and obedience to the rest of God’s commandments flows from there as a product, a fruit, of salvation, albeit not its cause. In other words, obedience is what we are saved for not by. This, said Luther, is how to understand what the good works are for which we are saved.
Mitch’s question was a good one, too often neglected. In my ministry I have worked hard to answer that question, not only for Mitch, who was spared a tragic death in a car wreck, but for all who have been saved from the deadly wreckage of sin and hell by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith. In some cases, in many Protestant circles any talk at all about good works has been met with suspicion at best. But we must not forget or ignore what we have been saved for! And we should not underestimate or underrepresent the grace by which we are saved. Paul captures the fullness of it well in his letter to Titus.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:11-14 (emphasis mine)