How does a person become a Christian? There are three points—two things we must believe and one thing we must do. They are as simple as ABC. A stands for “admit.” We must admit that we are sinners and that we are therefore under God’s judgment. B stands for “believe.” We must believe that God loves us in spite of our sin and that he has acted in Jesus Christ to remove sin and restore us to himself. C stands for commit.” This is an act of faith by which we give up trying to run our own life and instead place ourselves in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us and rose again.
This is also the burden of the first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where we find the doctrine of the universality of man’s sin stated in its most comprehensive form. According to these chapters there are three types of people. The first type is what we would call hedonists, those whose basis for life is materialism. Paul discusses them in Romans 1:18-32. Hedonists have determined to live for their own enjoyment and for whatever pleasures they can find. “Why is this man a sinner?” Paul asks. “He is a sinner because he is on a path that is leading him away from God and therefore away from any real beauty, truth or inner satisfaction.” As Paul describes it, this path is marked by empty imaginings, darkened intellects, a profession of wisdom by one who m by one who is actually foolish and, finally, a perversion of the worship of God which leads to a final debasement (vv. 21-23). The second type of person, the type discussed in Romans 2:1-16, is what we would call a moral man. In Paul’s day, this was the Greek philosopher or professor of ethics. In our day, it would be anyone who has high ethical standards but who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. Why does God consider this person a sinner? The answer has two parts.First, he is a sinner because he has come short of God’s standard of righteousness. God’s standard is perfection. It is the standard of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only perfect man who ever lived. All fall short of it. Second, he is a sinner because he falls short of his own standards no matter how high or low they may be.
There is one more type of person. Paul describes him in Romans 2:17-29. This is the man who would admit most if not all of what Paul has been saying and yet who would attempt to escape the conclusions by pleading his religion. “I have been baptized,” he would say. “I am confirmed. I have given large sums of money to the church’s support and have served on its committees.”
“Good for you,” Paul answers. “But you are still a sinner, because God’s requirement of perfection includes a change of the heart, and none of the outward things of religion—church membership, the sacraments, service or stewardship—can do anything about this most basic problem.” At the end of this section of Romans Paul sums his teaching up by saying, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is not one who does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).
Believing on Jesus
Propitiation presupposes the wrath of God. Right here many modern thinkers would stop, arguing that the term should not be used. “We can understand,” such a person might say, “how the idea of propitiation would be appropriate in paganism where God was assumed to be capricious, easily offended and therefore often angry. But this is not the biblical picture of God. According to the Christian revelation, God is not angry. Rather, he is gracious and loving. Moreover, it is not God who is separated from us because of sin, but rather we who are separated from God.” Those who have argued this way have either rejected the idea of propitiation entirely, considering its presence in the Bible to be merely a carry-over from paganism, or they have interpreted the basic Greek word for propitiation to mean, not Christ’s propitiation of the wrath of God, but rather the covering over or expiation of our guilt by his sacrifice.
Second, although the word “propitiation” is used in biblical writings, it is not used in precisely the same way it is used in pagan writings. In pagan rituals, sacrifice was the means by which man placated an offended deity. But in Christianity, it is never the man who takes the initiative or makes the sacrifice, but God himself who out of his great love for the sinner provides the way by which his own wrath against sin may be averted. Moreover, he is himself the way—in Jesus. This is the true explanation of why God is never the explicit object of the propitiation in the biblical writings. He is not the object because he is, even more importantly, the subject. In other words, God himself placates his wrath against sin so that his love may go out to embrace and fully save
The second great term for God’s work of salvation is redemption. Redemption speaks of what Jesus Christ did for us in salvation and of what it cost him to do it. It also occurs in Romans 3:23-26, and in many other places.
The Greek word translated as “redeem,” “Redeemer” or “redemption” in our Bibles has to do with loosing someone’s bonds so that, for example, a prisoner becomes free. At times it was used of procuring the release of a prisoner by means of a ransom. Spiritually, the idea is that, though we have fallen into desperate slavery through sin and are held as by a cruel tyrant, Christ has nevertheless purchased our freedom from sin by his own blood. He paid the price to free us.
We have what is perhaps the greatest biblical illustration of redemption in the story of Hosea. Hosea was a minor prophet whose marriage was unfortunate from a human viewpoint, for the woman proved unfaithful to him. But it was a special marriage from the viewpoint of God. God had told Hosea that the marriage would work out in this fashion. Nevertheless, he was to go through with it in order to provide an illustration of how God loves his people, even when they prove unfaithful by committing spiritual adultery with the world and its gods. The marriage was to be a pageant in which Hosea was to play the part of God and his wife would play the part of unfaithful Israel.
The climax comes at the point at which Gomer fell into slavery, probably because of debt. Hosea was told to buy her back as a demonstration of the way by which the faithful God loves and saves his people. Slaves were always sold naked in the ancient world, and this would have been true of Gomer as she was put up on the auction block in the city of Samaria. She apparently was a beautiful woman. So when the bidding started the offers were high, as the men of the city bid for the body of the female slave.
The bidding was competitive. But as the low bidders dropped out, someone added, “Fifteen pieces of silver and a bushel of barley.”
Paul’s own conversion is an illustration of these points. He was not a hedonist; far from it. He was better than that, having effected in his life a combination of the second and third types of men he described in the opening chapters of Romans. He was religious and moral, and he trusted for his salvation to what he could achieve in these areas. He tells about it in Philippians 3:4-8: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
What Paul is saying is that in the days before he met Christ, he had something like a balance sheet in his life. It had assets and liabilities, and he thought that being saved consisted in having more in the column of assets than in the column of liabilities. Moreover, he thought there were considerable assets, some inherited and some earned. Among the inherited assets was the fact that Paul had been born into a Jewish family and had been circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day of life. He was a pure-blooded Jew, born of Jewish parents (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”). He was also an Israelite, that is, a member of God’s covenant people. Moreover, he was of the loyal tribe of Benjamin. Then, too, Paul had advantages that he had won for himself. In regard to the law, he was a Pharisee, the most faithful of all Jewish sects in adherence to the law. Moreover, he had been a zealous Pharisee, which he had proved by his persecution of the infant church.
What matters is the reality of your own personal commitment to Jesus. Are you a Christian? That is the question. Is it real? The answer to that question does not depend upon your good works but rather upon your relationship to the Savior. Have you asked Jesus Christ to be your Savior? You must say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am a sinner and stand under your judgment, that I deserve nothing, that I have no claims upon you. Nevertheless, I believe that you love me and died for me and that now by grace I can stand before you clothed in your righteousness. I commit my life to you. Receive me now as one of your followers.”
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