In desperation, the Philippian jailor cried, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s reply was simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts:16:31). The great apostle said nothing about baptism or sacraments, candles, incense, church attendance, reforming one’s life, or anything else being necessary or even helpful for salvation. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible makes it clear that there is nothing a sinner can do, much less must do, to pay the infinite penalty required by God’s justice. One can and need only believe in Christ, who paid the penalty in full: “It is finished” (Jn:19:30)!
Scripture could not be clearer: “[T]o him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom:4:5); “For by grace are ye saved, through faith...not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph:2:8,9). To attempt to do anything for one’s salvation beyond believing “on the Lord Jesus Christ” is to deny that Christ paid the full penalty for sin on the cross and to reject God’s offer on that basis of forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift of His grace. Clearly, we can be saved only by faith in Christ—but exactly what does that mean? What must one believe?
Suppose someone claims to be a “Christian,” believes in Christ as a historical person and the best of men, admires and seeks to follow Christ’s selfless example, is emotional about Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, and regularly goes to church. Yet he thinks it doesn’t matter whether or not Christ was virgin-born, or whether He is God come as a man to die in full payment for our sins upon the cross, or whether He rose from the dead. Is such a person saved? Does he really “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”? Or does he admire and believe in “another Jesus...another spirit...another gospel” (2 Cor:11:3,4)? Does it really matter, or are we just “splitting hairs”?
Paul declares that “the gospel of Christ...is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom:1:16). So believing “the gospel of Christ” gives salvation. But is believing the gospel the only way to be saved—and if so, what is the gospel? Peter declared, “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts:4:12). No answer is given to the question, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation...?” (Heb:2:3). There is no escape except in Christ: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn:14:6).
Yet nowhere, in one place, does the Bible define the gospel of Christ fully. Yes, the gospel is “how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again [from the dead] the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor:15:3,4). But this declaration by Paul says nothing, for example, about Christ being born of a virgin or being the Son of God.
Common sense tells us that Paul’s statement, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts:16:31), does not mean merely to believe that there was once a man called Jesus Christ. Obviously, there must be much about Christ not included in that brief statement, but which Paul had already explained to the Philippian jailor. One could not “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” if a false understanding were held about Him.
Christ warned a group of Jews, “ye shall...die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come....if ye believe not that I am he...[he is in italics, added by the translators] (Jn:8:21,24). “I AM” is the name of God that He revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:14) and that Christ clearly claims for Himself: “I and my Father are one” (Jn:10:30). Isaiah declared prophetically that the Messiah who would be born of a virgin (Isa:7:14) would be “The mighty God, The everlasting Father” (Is 9:6). Christ’s language is precise. He doesn’t tell the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I was.” He says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn:8:58). He is the self-existent One without beginning or end, “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev:1:8, 11; 21:6; 22:13).
So we have it from the lips of Christ himself that in order to be saved, one must believe that He is God come as a man through the promised virgin birth. Of course, that makes sense. No one but God could be our Savior. Repeatedly, Yahweh, the “God of Israel” (203 times from Ex 5:1 to Lk 1:68) declares that He is the only Savior (Isa:43:11; Hos:13:4, etc.). Thus, to be saved, one must believe that Christ is God. To deny this essential is to reject the gospel that saves.
Believing that Christ resurrected is also essential for salvation: “[I]f thou shalt...believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom:10:9). Yet there are pastors and seminary professors who believe neither in Christ’s deity nor in His resurrection. They teach “another gospel” that will not save—and millions seem willing to believe such false teachers instead of the infallible Word of God. The doom of both the teachers and followers is on their own heads because they have rejected the very salvation that Christ obtained upon the cross in dying for our sins.
And here we face another essential of the gospel that must be believed for one to be saved: “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor:15:3). His being scourged, abused, beaten, or mistreated by men—or even crucified, though in fulfillment of prophecy—could not pay the penalty for sin and would not save us. Christ died for our sins. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Eze:18:4, 20); “the wages of sin is death” (Rom:6:23). Salvation comes through Christ’s death. Death is the penalty for sin, and Christ had to pay that penalty for all mankind in full. In full? Isn’t death just death? Could it be worse than we imagine? Indeed, it is!
While we dealt briefly last month with the distinction between the physical sufferings inflicted by men and the spiritual sufferings at the hands of a holy God against sin, this subject is of such importance that we ought to consider it further. Sin is a moral, spiritual problem involving God’s law and man’s rebellion against God. That Christ’s suffering for sin was not just physical but spiritual is clear: “when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin...he shall see of the travail of his soul...he hath poured out his soul unto death” (Isa:53:10-12); “Christ...through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God” (Heb:9:14).
Just before Judas betrayed Him, Christ “took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you...[T]his do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19,20; 1 Cor:11:24,25).
Most Christians periodically take the bread and cup as Christ commanded. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches teach that the bread and cup are Christ’s literal body and blood offered on their altars and that He is continually suffering for sin. The Bible declares that Christ: “once...hath...appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself...was once offered to bear the sins of many...after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God...by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified...there is no more offering for sin (Heb:9:26, 28; 10:12, 14, 18); Christ...once suffered for sins (1 Pt 3:18).
If Christ, as Peter says, “is gone into heaven,” where Steven saw Him when he was stoned to death (Acts:7:55,56), how can He continue to be offered (immolated) on Roman Catholic altars? What of Catholics who really love Christ, believe that He died for their sins, but have believed Catholic doctrine that the wafer becomes the body and blood of Christ and that He continues to be offered? Could they be saved in spite of such ignorance or misunderstanding? What are the limits of the error that can be held within the gospel, and does it matter? Would it matter if they believe that Christ died for our sins and yet participate in the “sacrifice of the Mass,” imagining that Christ is still being offered for our sins and that they are ingesting Him into their stomachs when they take that wafer and cup? Yes, Scripture says Christ “suffered once” for our sins—but is it so serious an error to believe that He continues to be offered? Yes, it is!
Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father for sin took place on the cross: “who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pt 2:24). So, again, it was not in being scourged that Christ bore our sins. He endured something far worse than physical suffering. In the garden, in dread anticipation of that horror, “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk 22:44).
When we take the bread and cup as Christ commanded, we do so not to receive forgiveness of sins (as Catholics and Orthodox imagine), nor nourishment for the soul (as Luther and Calvin taught), but gratefully in remembrance of Christ in the sacrifice of Himself upon the cross. It is so easy to imagine that in the physical participation of eating and drinking we have done our “duty” to the Lord once again in commemoration of His physical suffering—and to fail to take adequate time to meditate upon what He spiritually “once suffered for sins, [He] the just for [us] the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pt 3:18).
And here again we see the vital importance of distinguishing between the physical suffering our Savior endured at the hands of men, and the punishment He endured from God: “...the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all...it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief...” (Isa:53:6, 10).
As we noted last month, it would be absurd to imagine that sinful rebels against God were His servants in executing His justice upon Christ. How would they know just how hard to strike and how many blows to give Him? And how could physical suffering pay the spiritual price of eternal separation from God that sin merits? Christ said, “I lay down my life...no man taketh it from me” (Jn:10:17,18). Thus the soldiers could not and did not kill Him. But Christ died for our sins—so again, what the soldiers did could not have paid for our sins.
“Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” We tend to think of death as physical, but surely it is much more. Death is first of all spiritual separation from God—which ultimately causes the separation of the soul and spirit from the body in physical death. Adam was warned, “In the day thou eatest thereof [of the forbidden fruit] thou shalt surely die” (Gen:2:17). He did not die physically that very day but nearly 1,000 years later. Adam and Eve must therefore have died spiritually on that very day. They suddenly realized that they were aliens in the garden of Eden, separated from God by their sin, and they tried to hide from Him among the trees (Gen:3:8)—dead to God in their spirits.
All of the descendants of Adam and Eve inherit this spiritual death. We are born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph:2:1). Physical death began its process in Adam and Eve the very day they sinned. We are born sinners. Thus our bodies begin to die from the moment of birth—a fact for which medical science has no explanation.
No person (except Christ) has yet experienced the utter horror of death in its fullness. That will only occur after the final judgment: “death and hell...and whosoever was not found written in the book of life...were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” (Rev:20:14,15). Christ became a man so that He “by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Heb:2:9). Therefore, His death on the cross had to include the “second death.” Thus Christ endured on the cross the eternal suffering that all mankind face in the lake of fire! This could only have been at the hands of God, not at the hands of man.
“The wages of sin is death” (Rom:6:23)—not merely temporary physical separation of soul and spirit from the body, but eternal separation from God. Therefore, in suffering for sin, Christ must have experienced the horror of the eternal separation from God that was due to all mankind. No wonder He cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Ps:22:1; Mat:27:45; Mk 15:34)?! No physical suffering, especially at the hands of sinful men, could mete out that awful penalty. Sin is a moral, spiritual problem involving God’s law and man’s rebellion against God. Both the punishment and the solution can only be spiritual.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that in addition to Christ’s suffering the eternal penalty, we must suffer the “temporal” punishment for sins, either in this life or in purgatory—and few Catholics expect to escape the latter. Supposedly, the flames of purgatory are the means of purging our sins. Here again we have confusion over spiritual and physical suffering, a denial of Christ’s finishing the work of our redemption, and the attempt to earn in part one’s salvation. Scripture unequivocally declares: “[Christ] purged our sins [then] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb:1:3); “without shedding of blood is no remission [of sins]” (Heb:9:22); “[Christ] washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Rev:1:5).
Recognition that what Christ suffered for our sins was far beyond any physical suffering should increase our gratitude to Him. The deeper our understanding, the greater will be our appreciation for what Christ suffered in our place. May the Lord awaken in our hearts an overflowing river of praise and gratitude so that we continually express our love to the Father for giving His Son, and to Christ for enduring the punishment that we deserved for our sins. TBC