How Jesus Saves

Without humanity Jesus would have been unqualified and hence unable to save us.

J. C. S. Van Rooyen is an associate professor of theology at Helderberg College in Somerset West, Cape, South Africa.


IN JOHN 8:36 Jesus offers all incarcerated sin-slaves the taste of fresh air and the feel of road dust between their toes when He says, "If the Son therefore shall make you free ye shall be free indeed." But here He does more than promise to make us free; He also tells us why His freedom is real. It is real freedom only because He, the Son, guarantees it. In other words, what He was, made what He offered valid. Because He was the Son, the freedom He provided was the genuine article. This text emphasizes the great importance of not merely knowing what Jesus does, but who Jesus is! It tells us that the Who determines the What. It reminds us that what is done for our salvation is effective only when the right One is doing it. It brings home the fact that we can never understand the plan of salvation unless we first understand the nature of the Son.


We all insist on knowing whether people are qualified, capable, authorized, credentialed or bona fide. And if we are to have the peace of mind that the salvation Jesus offers is valid, we must understand the qualifications that lie in His nature. To use the imagery of Jesus Himself, we must see that the altar (His nature) sanctifies the gift (His work) (Matt. 12:23).

What, then, are the qualifications of Jesus? What gives Him the right and the ability to make the atonement? The answer was given by the angel Gabriel when foretelling the Saviour's birth. His qualifications were to be total sinlessness, total humanity, and total divinity.

"And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing [sinlessness] which shall be born of thee [humanity] shall be called the Son of God [divinity]" (Luke 1:35).

These three attributes taken inseparably together constitute Jesus a fit Saviour. Take away any one of them and He is immediately disqualified for His saving work, for, as we will see, only a sinless God-man can make atonement. It is only in the whole incarnate Jesus that our hope lies. We cannot be saved by either His humanity or His divinity, but only by His sinless humanity and His divinity. Our sufficiency, our completeness in Him, is possible only be cause He is completely God and completely man. "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him" (Col. 2:9, 10).

To the sinner who was shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), who has gone astray speaking lies as soon as he was born (Ps. 58:3), who has not been subject to the law of God (Rom. 8:7), who has found the things of God foolish (1 Cor. 2:14), and who has dis covered that his own heart is the fountain of his corruption (Mark 7:20-23), to him the thought that anybody could be totally spotless is not one iota less than earthshaking! Can such a thing be true? Yes, it is! Jesus was sinless. Here is a man who always did what pleased God (John 8:29), who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), who condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3), who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26), who kept the Father's commandments (John 15:10), who was without sin or blemish (1 Peter 1:19) and could inspire the God of the universe to say of Him, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).

This very contrast between Jesus and us is one of the crucial qualities of His nature that enabled Him to save us. According to Ellen G. White, "Christ could not have done this work had He not been personally spotless. Only One who was Himself perfection could be at once the sin bearer and the sin par doner."—Manuscript 165, 1889. "If He [as a child] had responded by an impatient word or look, if He [as a child] had conceded to His brothers by even one wrong act, He would have failed of being a perfect example. Thus He would have failed of carrying out the plan for our redemption. Had He even admitted that there could be an excuse for sin, Satan would have triumphed, and the world would have been lost." —The Desire of Ages, p. 88.

And why is His sinlessness crucial? Because it is only as He gives sinlessness to us that we can meet the uncompromising demands of the law. His sinlessness is the substance of the substitution He makes when His sinless character stands in place of our wicked character, so that we can be regarded as if we had never sinned (1 Cor. 1:30).

His sinlessness provides us with the only way in which we can satisfy the holy law, for the law demands much more of us than belated reformation. It expects vastly more than a delayed achievement of perfection at long last. The law will accept not a crumb less than a lifelong record of perfect, sinless obedience from the moment of birth to the time of death. It is therefore not enough to squeeze the pus of sin from a transgressor's soul when the law re quires that he never become infected at all.

Maintained a Zero Sin Level

Exactly how then does the sinlessness of Jesus pacify the law for us? In the first place, it does so by means of its number element. Jesus succeeded where the first Adam failed by committing exactly one sin less than the single sin that caused Adam's downfall. In other words, He maintained a zero sin level. He could honestly say, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me" (John 14:30).

In the second place, Christ's sinlessness met the law by its time element. His was a lifelong obedience. "I do always those things that please him" (John 8:29), Jesus affirmed.

To summarize this section, we may say that the sinlessness of Christ enables Him to be our Saviour, because it gives Him something to give to us. His sinlessness is the fabric from which the robe of His righteousness is made. And, praise God, the man who accepts it is covered by His lifelong zero-sin-level garment.

We have just seen that without sinlessness, Christ could not have qualified as our Saviour. Yet, if sinlessness is the only credential needed to save man, then there are millions of unfallen beings that could have redeemed us, for the majority of the inhabitants of God's universe have never sinned (Rev. 12:4). But sinlessness by itself is an insufficient credential to make atonement. He must of necessity be human, as well. Without humanity Christ could not save us.

Why is this so? In the first place, it must be noted that in the eyes of God's holy law man had sinned, and man was therefore under its frightful condemnation. Therefore a man must give satisfaction on our behalf. Relationship of nature to those for whom atonement is made is an indispensable element for its validity. Thus it is striking to see in the types that redemption was to be made by a near kinsman (Lev. 25:25-27; Ruth 4:7).

Moreover the humanity of our Saviour enabled Him to become subject to the law. As God, Christ was "independent and above all law. . . . Christ alone was free from the claims of the law."—The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Phil. 2:5-8, p. 904. It is clear that the law of God is subject to Him, He is not subject to it, for nothing is higher than divinity. If Christ were then to obey the law on our behalf (Rom. 5:19), He had to be made subject to the law first. Therefore, "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (Gal. 4:4, 5). Christ had to be made subject to the law; it was not His natural position. And how did this occur? By making Him of a woman, by giving Him humanity.

Furthermore, the humanity of Jesus gave to Him the terrible capability of dying. What a capability to develop deliberately! But God is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) and thus cannot die. How then could the eternal, self-existent Christ pay the penalty of death on our behalf? How could He pour out His soul unto death (Isa. 53:12) in the place of the condemned sinner? Only by becoming human.

And finally, the humanity of Jesus enabled Him to be the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). As the first Adam was fully human, so the second Adam was to be fully human. In other words, Christ, too, had to become the father of the human race (Isa. 9:6; Heb. 2:12), our official representative, as was Adam number one.

And what does this have to do with our salvation? Simply this, that exactly as the first Adam was to stand or fall as the legal representative of the whole of humanity (when he sinned, we sinned; when he died, we died; Rom. 5:12-19), just so it was with the last Adam. Jesus stood as our covenant Head, legally and physically one with us, thus assuming and discharging all of our responsibilities before the law. And, when in humanity, He drained the bitter gall from the cup, He made the sweet taste of valiant victory possible to us.

The humanity of Jesus is then an in dispensable attribute for the atonement. Without the humanity of Jesus, the robe of His righteousness is a mere length of cloth, a sinless fabric on a roll, an un finished product. But Christ as man is measured on our behalf so that the robe of salvation will have a shape and design that will satisfy the King (Matt. 22:11, 12) and comfortably fit a human being. His humanity makes His sinlessness applicable to us and puts Him in a position to die. What wondrous love!

The Necessity of Christ's Divinity

Thus far we have seen that without sinlessness or without humanity Jesus would have been unqualified and hence unable to save us. But it must immediately be emphasized that these two at tributes taken together are totally in sufficient to save man. If sinless humanity was all that was required to save man, then it is obvious that God had an alternative other than His Son to redeem man. The Father could simply have knelt on the earth and from its clay made another sinless Adam exactly like the first one. But such sinless humanity could not have saved, because it was not blended with divinity. The atonement can be thought of as a tripod, consisting of sinlessness, humanity, and divinity, and therefore can never stand on any two legs alone.

Amputate the divinity of Jesus from His incarnate nature, and the plan of salvation becomes a plan of abortion useless, ineffective, and dead. What contribution does the divinity of Christ then make to the atonement? How does it qualify Jesus for His saving task?

In the first place, the divinity of Jesus gives to Him the right to give His obedience away. No creature has the right to obey the law on behalf of another creature. Why? For the simple reason that he is already fully indebted to the law for himself. All creatures are required to give all the obedience they can mus ter to the law for themselves. They have no obedience left to give another. A creature's absolute best is the minimum requirement of the law. Just as a man possessing only $100 is in no position to pay $100 on a friend's account while he himself has an outstanding bill of $100, likewise one creature is in no position to help pay another's outstanding obedience.

It then becomes obvious that only a person who owes the law nothing can obey on account of another. Only divinity is not bound under the law. For this reason Israel was instructed to bring to the Lord a red heifer possessing two qualifications. It was to be without spot or blemish and also one "upon which never came yoke" (Num. 19:2). In other words, it must never have been subject to another's law or discipline, for only thus would it adequately represent Christ.

Because of His divinity, Christ owes the law no bill whatsoever, and there fore He is entitled to make payment for us.

What else does divinity enable Jesus to do? It gives our Saviour the right to lay down His life on our behalf. Al though many a man has died trying to help a friend in danger, no man has the right to give his life in an attempt to satisfy the law of God for another. Why? Because he is not his own (1 Cor. 6:19). His life is not his to give, for he is merely a steward of God's property. But Christ is different; He is divine. In Him is life original, unborrowed, underived. He is His own. He could say, "I lay down my life, that I might take it again" (John 10:17). He could say, "I am the resurrection, and the life" (John 11:25). Thus, when the law asked the sinner for its pound of flesh, Jesus had a right to bare His bosom to its knife. "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ranson for all" (1 Tim. 2:5, 6).

Nothing, then, but the whole incarnate Jesus is sufficient to save us. Sinlessness, humanity, divinity—these three are His glorious qualifications. The first comprises the fabric, the sub stance, of the robe of righteousness. The second comprises its design, its fit. The third provides the right to place it upon the shoulders of the trembling sinner, thus imparting to him not belated perfection, not the righteousness of an unfallen angel, but the righteousness of divinity, "for he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5:21).

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J. C. S. Van Rooyen is an associate professor of theology at Helderberg College in Somerset West, Cape, South Africa.

July 1977

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