A preacher must not only understand the gospel himself; he must also know how to preach the gospel so his hearers will understand it.
This is true for several reasons. First, as ministers, we are in danger of taking it for granted that our members know Christ as a personal Saviour. Second, we may fail to communicate the good news because we understand it in theological terms that are incomprehensible to our hearers. Third, we may be adept at preaching some particular facet of the gospel, but fail to preach the whole gospel.
The doctrine of salvation falls naturally into five related themes: (1) the grace of God; (2) faith, the response of man to that grace; (3) justification: (4) sanctification: (5) glorification. Under each of these are various subheadings and alternate descriptions, but each aspect of salvation seems to fit into one or another of these five categories.
The grace of God is not the whole gospel. Neither is faith, justification, sanctification, or glorification. Any of these great truths, taken out of the setting of the entire doctrine of salvation, can produce a distorted concept of the good news. On the other hand, the preaching of a complete gospel tends to reduce the possibility of distortion and misunderstanding.
The preacher cannot afford the luxury of becoming a "specialist" on grace, faith, justification, sanctification, glorification, or on any variation or subdivision of these themes. He must see each of these great truths as part of the good news. In his address to the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul said, "For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Have we, as preachers of the gospel, been equally thorough in explaining the doctrine of salvation to our congregations?
No two ministers will present these truths in exactly the same way. Some will begin with human needs and present the gospel as the answer to these needs. Some will preach the gospel by exposition, basing their sermons on portions of Scripture wlfere the way of salvation is explained. There is room for variety and originality. We can never exhaust the subject. The important consideration is that all facets of the doctrine of salvation should receive appropriate coverage—not just one or two.
We need to preach on this greatest of all Biblical themes—salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let's not allow current discussions and even controversy over the relationship of different aspects of salvation to each other to discourage us from opening before our people the soul-stirring truths of God's plan for saving man. The more we study it, the more we become aware of its profundity, the more humble we become. As Paul explained to the Roman Christians in concluding the part of his Epistle dealing with the doctrine of salvation: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out" (Rom. 11:33).
Let's not be afraid of the word saved. Salvation is a Biblical term. The basic message of the Bible is "Jesus saves." Note again some of the familiar texts: "Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21); "For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost" (chap. 18:11); "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Tim. 1:15); "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Titus 3:5); "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:31); "For by grace ye are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1:21). Either directly or indirectly, the science of salvation needs to be the burden of every sermon we preach. Many people are sadly ignorant regarding God's plan to save man; they need instruction upon this all important subject. Let's use the expressions "salvation by grace" and "salvation by faith." The words grace, save, and faith are the minister's basic tools in telling the good news.
The word save has two meanings. The first is "rescue." We speak of "saving" people from drowning or burning. The second is "keeping." We speak of "saving" money in a bank account. Likewise, when the Bible describes God's saving activity, it pictures Him as the great "Rescuer" and the great "Keeper." He rescues the sinner, but He does not then abandon to his own devices the one whom He has rescued.
"Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen" (Jude 24, 25). Our challenge is '"to declare the Good News about the grace of God'" (Acts 20:24, T.E.V.)* in both its rescuing and keeping forms.
This divine grace was manifested through Jesus Christ. "Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved" (Acts 15:11). "For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many" (Rom. 5:15). The grace of Christ is our only hope of salvation.
The gospel story is a revelation of undeserved love. Jesus' love radiated from every act of His life, from every word that He spoke. His grace shone from the cross and characterized His postresurrection appearances. His grace continues to shine from heaven to earth as He applies the benefits of the atonement. And His second coming will be the final, climactic expression of His saving grace.
God's grace was also manifested through the gift of the Holy Spirit. "Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us" (verse 5).
We must not forget that the grace by which we are saved represents the undeserved love of the entire Godhead. This is made clear in Paul's letter to Titus, which contains some of the finest preaching material in the Bible on the doctrine of salvation: "But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (chap. 3:4-7).
The grace of God accomplishes two things. First, it makes provision for our salvation. This provision included the cross as the supreme manifestation of God's love. Second, God's grace calls each person to accept the provision He has made. "Whom he did predestinate, them he also called" (Rom. 8:30). God "predestined" that all who should accept Christ in faith as their Saviour would be saved. Then he "called" sinners to accept this provision. What more could He do?
Faith is part of the human response to God's gracious provision and call. Luther insisted that salvation was "by faith alone." And he was correct that faith, not human merit or works, is the only claim the sinner has on divine grace. But he would have been equally correct to say that salvation is "by grace alone," for without divine grace, there would be no object for our faith to grasp. "By grace [God's] are ye saved through faith [man's]" (Eph.2:8).
We must never forget that according to the Scripture, faith is part of a triumvirate including love and hope. Faith involves acceptance, trust, commitment. Redhead says that faith is a "total response of the whole self to the will of God. It is the response of the mind in belief, the heart in trust, the will in conduct. It is to accept the fact that God goes all out for us, and then to be willing to go all out for Him."1
Grace is God's hand reaching down to man; faith is man's hand reaching up to God. When God's hand grasps man's uplifted one, then and then only can the "rescue" that we call salvation take place. And God will never release His hold on our hand unless we jerk away. He respects our will. He waits for our uplifted hand, and He leads us only as long as we are willing to be led.
Justification is God's gracious act of accepting sinners, who respond to His grace in faith, as if they had never sinned. "He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us safe into the kingdom of his dear Son, by whom we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven" (Col. 1:13, 14, T.E.V.). This is one of Paul's descriptions of justification. You can find many more references to this great miracle throughout Scripture. Never should we let our people forget that justification through faith in Christ is the key to salvation.
"When God pardons the sinner, remits the punishment he deserves, and treats him as though he had not sinned, He receives him into divine favor, and justifies him through the merits of Christ's righteousness. The sinner can be justified only through faith in the atonement made through God's dear Son, who became a sacrifice for the sin of the guilty world. No one can be justified by any works of his own. He can be delivered from the guilt of sin, from condemnation of the law, from the penalty of transgression, only by virtue of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Faith is the only condition upon which justification can be obtained, and faith includes not only belief but trust. "2
Notice the specific points in this statement: (1) justification involves pardon, remission of punishment, treating the sinner as if he had never sinned; (2) justification is made possible through the merits of Christ's righteousness; (3) justification requires faith in Christ; (4) justification is not possible through works.
Why is this divine act of justification so important? Simply because there is no other way of salvation! Every person who enters the kingdom will be there because God chose to treat him as though he had never sinned. And this amazing grace is available because of One who actually never sinned.
The following comment enriches our understanding of this experience: "Not just any sinner is justified; only the sinner who accepts and responds by exercising faith can claim justification. In doing this he turns his back on his evil past and opens his life to the leading of the Spirit. By this act of faith, of self-committal and self-abandonment, he is changed thoroughly. He is a new man in Christ Jesus. He is not righteous in the sense that he has matured into a righteous person . . .; but he is righteous in the sense that his whole attitude, his whole mind and will, have moved away from self as the center of his attention to God."3
The experience of justification is some times spoken of as righteousness that is "imputed." This is righteousness—or "rightness," as the word really means— that we don't deserve. It is credited to us as a gift. This transaction involves forgiveness for past sins and present acceptance as if we were not sinners. Of all truths that we are commissioned to preach, this is the most exciting, the most dramatic. This is salvation at its most thrilling level! Here is the point at which God's rescue mission becomes breathtaking. It was because of this miracle that a persecutor named Saul became a forgiven, transformed Christian in one short moment. Here is the key to success in evangelism—not merely persuading people to go to church on Sabbath and give up their bad habits, but introducing people to a Saviour who can transform them from sinners to saints!
This experience of righteousness freely given, or imputed, to us is the basis of the expression "righteousness by faith," which has become common usage. It is a Biblical term, for Paul speaks of "the righteousness . . . which is by faith" (Rom. 3:22). But it describes only one part of the process of salvation. "Salvation by faith" is the better term to describe salvation as a whole. Salvation is an act of God. Righteousness—both imputed and imparted—is one of the results of that act. So if we are referring to God's saving act, let's call it salvation. If we are referring to the new character—imputed or imparted—let's call it righteousness. Often we use these terms loosely without clearly under standing their real meaning.
Jesus also referred to the experience of becoming a Christian as the "new birth." He made it clear that being born again is not remodeling, recycling, reconstructing, reshaping, or renovating. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17). Being born again is re-creation by the power and the grace of God.
In sanctification we come to grips with the keeping function of salvation. A sinner has been forgiven and has been born into the family of God. What then? The answer is clear: "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Rom. 6:22, R.S.V.).+ Sanctification means to make holy. The same gracious God who justifies the repentant sinner and accepts him as His child continues His work in his behalf. Paul declared, "And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6,T.E.V).
Paul described how this process of sanctification works in his letter to the Colossians: "And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard" (chap. 1:21-23, R.S.V). It was faith that originally laid hold on God's justifying grace, and it is the continuation of that faith that makes possible the experience of sanctification. It would seem reasonable to affirm that the degree of sanctification realized is in proportion to the faith exercised. Paul comments on "how very great is his power at work in us who believe" (Eph. 1:19, T.E.V.). Faith, though a divine gift and not a human work, is exercised by man's will to make the work of grace possible, both in justification and sanctification.
This experience of sanctification is sometimes called "imparted righteousness." The picture is that of a "tightness" not earned but "imparted," provided as a gift. Salvation, someone has said, is "a ladder fastened at the top." God came down the ladder to rescue and transform us. We do not climb the ladder to discover Him.
Sanctification is also described as Christian growth or "the new life." It is consistent that new birth should be fol lowed by new life and continued growth. "Our growth in grace, our joy, our usefulness—all depend upon our union with Christ. It is by communion with Him, daily, hourly—by abiding in Him—that we are to grow in grace. He is not only the Author, but the Finisher of our faith. It is Christ first and last and always. He is to be with us, not only at the beginning and the end of our course, but at every step of the way. "4
Discussions about which is the more important, justification or sanctification, are really asking the wrong question. They are like asking Which is the more important, birth or life? becoming a Christian or being a Christian? the righteousness placed to our credit that saves us, or the righteousness imparted to us that keeps us saved? All of these are indispensable components of salvation. We need to remember—and we need to urge our listeners to remember—that as birth precedes life, so justification precedes sanctification. We are not sanctified in order that someday we may be justified. We are justified first—accepted and forgiven. Then the Lord, through His Spirit, trans forms us. "The Spirit has given us life; he must also control our lives" (Gal. 5:25, T.E.V.). This is not to say that God's justifying grace works only once in a person's life. Justification is a permanent phenomenon in the Christian's life. In the order of their effectiveness in Christian experience, justification precedes sanctification. But this does not mean in any way that one is more important than the other. Each is incomplete—impossible, actually—without the other.
We are well advised not to belabor these minute distinctions. They may serve theology well, but our business is not to make theologians of our congregations, but to put our people in touch with the God who, through Christ, will justify and sanctify them. Saving faith does not demand that we understand all the mysteries of salvation. Indeed, experience has proved that salvation can be forfeited in the heat of theological argument.
Glorification, the final aspect of salvation, is another way of saying "eternal life." This is the Christian's hope. In that day the Christian not only will be reunited with those he loves but will also realize his fondest hopes for complete maturity and perfect love. "I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ saved me for and wants me to be" (Phil. 3:12,T.L.B.)+
Ellen White presents a striking description of the second coming of Jesus in The Great Controversy. God's people find themselves in the presence of their Lord, and they cry with trembling, "Who shall be able to stand?" In His presence, their attitude is not one of self-assurance of confidence, but a humble realization of their own frail humanity. The answer does not come immediately. The angel's song is hushed, and there is a period of awful silence. Finally the tension is broken by the voice of God saying, "My grace is sufficient for you." Even on the threshold of the eternal kingdom, salvation is by grace—unmerited favor. Not one of the redeemed "deserves" eternal life. No one has "earned" a place in the world made new. The divine message of the sufficiency of grace makes a difference in the waiting throng. The faces of the righteous light up, and joy fills every heart (seep. 641). This is the harvest, the climax of the plan of salvation. Redemption begins, and ends, with grace!
Do we, who preach to others, know from personal experience the meaning of grace, faith, justification, and sanctification? Is glorification a living hope to us? Has the Master found us "while we were yet sinners" (Rom. 5:8) and given us the assurance of sins forgiven? Does our Lord shape our lives daily through His Spirit— sometimes by sunshine, sometimes by surgery? Do we respond to His love and grace, and do we follow the guidance of His Spirit?
Religion, says James S. Stewart, is "not a vague abstraction, but a wonderful affection; not a tiresome argument, but a tremendous friendship; not an intricate and uninspired philosophy, but an inspired and thrilling love; not a drudgery at the grindstone of a dingy routine morality, but 'Christ in you, the hope of glory.' "5
Whether our people will grow in their knowledge of Christ as a Saviour depends largely on us and on our own growth in grace. To experience and communicate this good news is our most urgent responsibility and our greatest privilege.
* Bible texts credited to T.E.V. are from the Good News Bible Old Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1976; New Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976.
+ Scripture quotations marked R.S.V. are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.
+ Verses marked T.L.B. are taken from The Living Bible, copyright 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, 111. Used by permission.
1 John A. Redhead, Learning to Have Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), p. 101.
2 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 389.
3 Sakae Kubo, Acquitted! (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1975), p. 13.
4 Steps to Christ, p. 69
5 James S. Stewart, The Gates of a New Life (Greenwood, S.C.: Attic Press, 1976), p. 126.