Soon you and I will celebrate the most important holiday (literally, "holy day") on the Christian calendar. Easter is not primarily a secular observance designed to usher in the warmth of spring. Nor is it simply a day for children to hide eggs and overindulge eating chocolate bunnies. Despite modern culture's attempts to reinvent this day of celebration, Easter is, at its heart, the Christian commemoration of Christ's death, and, three days later, His emergence from the tomb, and all of the freedom and victory that those events entail. The resurrection is the historical marker that lies at the center of everything we believe, and within it is found the promise of eternal life for believers in Jesus Christ.
This good news provides the only satisfactory explanation for why we're here and where we're going. The final heartbeat for the Christian is not the mysterious conclusion to a meaningless existence. It is, rather, the grand beginning of a life that will never end. That's why we can proclaim, even at the graveside of a loved one who is a Christian, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55 NIV).
How extremely important it is for the man of the home to know the answers to these perplexing questions, and be able to lead his family in the paths of righteousness. When he accepts that spiritual responsibility as God intends, the entire family is likely to follow his example. "They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household" (Acts 16:31 NIV). This issue is of such significance that I feel compelled to devote the balance of this letter to the basic plan of salvation. Perhaps someone will comprehend the Christian message for the first time through reading these pages, which is my prayer.
I used to ponder a difficult theological question that appeared unanswerable at the time. It seemed strange that God would send His only Son, Jesus, to die in agony on the cross at Mount Calvary. I reasoned that God, as Creator of the universe, was in charge of everything. That entitled Him to make His own rules and establish His own boundaries. Therefore, it seemed to me that God could have provided any plan of salvation without accountability to anyone.
It was illogical to my immature faith that He would create a system that would ultimately require the suffering and death of His own Son on the cross. I could not comprehend why He would put Himself through such grief and sorrow on our behalf when He could have offered a less costly plan. I struggled with this issue as a young Christian and was perplexed by the questions it raised. I knew all the past answers given to me in Sunday school, and I could quote the scriptures. But none of the interpretations satisfied me.
It's interesting to look back on the things that troubled us in earlier days. I now have a better understanding of God's plan of salvation and what motivated it. And the explanation is of great significance for me, because it deals with the very essence of Christianity.
Before reading my conclusion about God's plan, you should know that I am neither a minister, nor a pastor, nor a theologian. I can make no claims to theological expertise. I do, however, know a little Greek and a little Hebrew. The Greek owns a gas station in Los Angeles, and the Hebrew runs a delicatessen in San Diego. That's a very bad joke, but it illustrates the fact that I am admittedly unqualified to speak as a biblical authority. However, this lack of theological training may help me communicate with other non-theologians in everyday language. If my explanation becomes a gross oversimplification for some people, I hope they'll forgive me.
Here, then, is my concept of the plan of salvation and why Jesus' death was necessary: It begins, as it should, with an understanding of God's nature. Throughout scripture, the Creator is represented by two uncompromising characteristics: His love and His justice. Both of these aspects are reflected in everything God does, and none of His actions will ever contradict either component.
The love and justice of God were especially evident when He created Adam and Eve. Obviously, He could have "programmed" them to love Him and obey His laws. This could have been accomplished by creating them as highly sophisticated robots or puppets. He did, in fact, program the brains of lower animals, causing birds to build a certain kind of nest and wolves to kill wounded elk. They have no choice in the matter.
Shirley and I used to have a wonderful little Dachshund named Siggie, who displayed an assortment of wired–in behaviors—about which neither of us had a choice. For example, he couldn't help barking when the doorbell rang, even if I threatened him for waking the baby. Nor could he keep from gobbling his food as though he would never get another meal. God had imposed instinctual behavior in Siggie (some of which I wanted to eliminate), which operated automatically and without learning.
But the Lord elected to put no instinctual behavior in mankind, leaving us free to learn. We have inclinations, urges, desires, feelings, etc. But we have no instincts. This explains the utter helplessness of human infants, who are the most dependent of all creatures at birth. They lack the initial advantages of unlearned responses but will later run circles around the brightest animals with "locked-in" reactions. Such is the nature of our humanness.
By granting us freedom of choice, therefore, God gave meaning to our love. He sought our devotion but refused to demand it. However, the moment He created this choice, it became inevitable that He would eventually be faced with man's disobedience. I've heard Christians speculate on what might have happened if Adam and Eve hadn't disobeyed God. The answer seems obvious to me. If they had not sinned, a subsequent generation would have. After all, if no one ever made the wrong choice, then there was no true choice to be made.
But Adam and Eve did sin, as we know, and thereby confronted God with the most serious dilemma of all time.
His love for the human race was unlimited, which required that He forgive His disobedient children. The Bible says, "As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13 NIV). That is an analogy I can comprehend. I know how I pity my children when they've done wrong. My inclination is to forgive them.
But, in spite of God's great love, His justice required complete obedience. It demanded repentance and punishment for disobedience. So, herein, was a serious conflict within God's nature. If He destroyed the human race, as His justice would require in response to our sinful disobedience, His love would have been violated. But if He ignored our sins, His justice would have been sacrificed. Yet, neither aspect of His nature could be compromised.
But God, in His marvelous wisdom, proposed a solution to that awful dilemma. If He could find one human being who wasn't worthy of damnation—just one individual in the history of mankind who had never sinned, a man or a woman who was not guilty—then the sin of every other person on earth could be laid upon that one, and he or she could suffer for all of us. So God, being timeless, looked across the ages of man from Adam to Armageddon, but He could not find anyone who was innocent. It would later be written, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23 NIV). There wasn't a person who was worthy of assuming the guilt, blame, and punishment for the rest of us. Therefore, the only alternative was for God to send His own Son to bear the sins of the entire human family. And, herein, we see the beauty of God's plan and the reason Jesus had to die. When He was crucified here on earth, Jesus harmonized the conflict between God's love and justice, and provided a remedy for fallen mankind.
Thus, Jesus said as He was dying, "It is finished!" meaning, "I have carried out the plan of salvation that God designed for sinful man." And that's why God turned His back on Jesus when He was on the cross, prompting the sacrificial Lamb of God to cry in anguish, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46 NIV). In that moment, Jesus was bearing the punishment for all human sins down through the ages, including yours and mine.
This understanding of the plan of salvation is not based on guesses and suppositions, of course. It is drawn from the literal interpretation of God's Word. This message is, in fact, the primary theme of all scripture. The Old Testament says, "Jesus is coming!" and the New Testament says, "Jesus is here!" But if I had to select one passage to represent the concept I've presented, it would be the 53rd chapter of Isaiah (my favorite chapter in the Bible). It was written seven hundred years before the birth of Christ and provides an incredible prophecy of His mission. The summary of God's entire plan is presented in this one chapter. Read carefully:
1. Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2. He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
3. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem.
4. Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted.
5. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.
6. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
7. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth.
8. By oppression and judgment He was taken away. Yet who of His generation protested? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of My people He was punished.
9. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10. Yet it was the Lord's will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
11. After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.
12. Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the trangressors (Isaiah 53 NIV).
Isn't that a beautiful explanation of Jesus' purpose here on earth? It makes clear why God's plan necessarily involved His own Son—His grief and sorrow and death. Only by paying this incredible price could He harmonize the potential contradiction between love and justice, and provide a "way of escape" for mankind. It also explains why there is no other name by which we are saved and why we cannot escape if we neglect so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3).
One important question remains to be answered: Just how does a person proceed, now, to accept this plan and follow the risen Lord? I believe there are two basic steps in that process (although some churches emphasize only one). The first is to believe in the name of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 (NIV) says, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." Romans 10:13 (NIV) says it another way: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." So, the first obligation for anyone is to accept what Christ did as being for him or her, personally.
But, as I understand the scripture, and from my own theological perspective, there's a second responsibility which is often underemphasized. While it's true that you can't "work" your way into salvation—it is a gift of unmerited grace—repentance is still an important part of the process. It is surprising how many times this word appears in scripture.
Here are a few examples from dozens of references to repentance in both the Old and New Testaments:
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it" (Isaiah 30:15).
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32).
"The time has come," He said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).
I tell you that, in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7).
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19).
In the past, God overlooked such ignorance; but now He commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us (2 Corinthians 7:9).
John the Baptist
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:7-8).
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18).
"Repentance" is a word that's often misunderstood. What does it really mean? Billy Graham defined repentance as having three parts to it. The first is conviction. You have to know what is right before you can do what is right. In simple terms, conviction is a deep awareness of one's sin and guilt. The Holy Spirit draws us to Himself and gives us a desire to harmonize our relationship with Him.
The second component of repentance is contrition. Contrition is being sorry for one's sin and depravity. When I knelt at an altar at four years of age, I wept like the baby I was. I certainly didn't understand the meaning of contrition, but I knew I wanted Jesus to forgive me for my sin and come to live in my heart. Don't tell me a child is incapable of understanding what that means. I experienced it, and that memory is as vivid to me now as it was all those decades ago.
The third aspect of repentance is a willingness to change. It involves becoming a follower of Jesus Christ and changing one's behavior and thought patterns. The Apostle Paul warned us, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will" (Romans 12:2 NIV).
I think it would be helpful, in conclusion, to give an example of the kind of prayer that a person might pray if he or she understands what I've been writing, and wants to accept Jesus Christ as his or her own Lord and Savior. Let me express it this way:
"Lord, I bring You my sinful nature as you've revealed it to me. I know I don't have anything valuable to offer except myself and my love. I can't earn Your forgiveness, but You've offered it as a free gift from Your Son, Jesus Christ. I accept Your control of my life, and I intend to serve You, obey You, and follow You from this moment forward. You have my past, my present, my future, my family, my money, and my time. Nothing will I withhold. Thank You for loving me and forgiving me, and making me Your own. Amen."
I can't close without sharing a few more thoughts about Easter, which we will celebrate this year on April 1st. The amazing reality of this observance is that Christ's death and resurrection represent the God of the universe reaching down to His children in their own spiritual poverty, and rescuing them from the clutches of sin and despair. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus "made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:7-8 NIV). The knowledge that Christ poured Himself out on our behalf—and that through His life, death, and resurrection we are empowered to reach out to others in His Name—is a truth that is almost too wonderful to comprehend! Instead of suffering eternal punishment and separation from God, we have peace with Him and will someday inherit the gift of eternal life.
To those of you who are overwhelmed by the cares of life and burdened by the weight of the world during this Easter season, I urge you to look to the risen Christ. May His grace, peace, and presence surround you and your loved ones not only on Easter Sunday, but every day.
God's blessings to you all,
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