It must be heart-breaking for someone with a life-threatening condition to know about a new treatment but have no access to it. Family and friends will campaign and fundraise. Every effort will be made by them because they know that there is a solution to the problem, and that they just need to get hold of it somehow.
For Christians, salvation is like that: it is the application of the solution to the problem. Christ’s atoning death on the cross is the solution to the problem of our sin; sin which separates us from God.
Yet, as Calvin explains, “We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”
The very thing we human sinners need most is available in Christ, but it needs to be accessed by us to receive it. Salvation is not ours automatically. Salvation does not simply happen to all human beings now Christ has died and risen from the dead.
Faith is required, faith in Christ as Lord and saviour. Indeed, Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance and faith. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). By putting our faith in Jesus, we receive salvation from sin, which he secured on the cross, and we inherit the kingdom.
We might understand salvation as a gracious exchange. That, when we put our faith in Jesus, our sins are laid on him, and, when he was punished, they were his own and God judged him in our place. Not only that, but, gloriously, his righteousness is laid on us, as if it were our own. In the same way that he was completely identified with our wilful rebellion, we are completely identified with his perfect obedience. Our sins go on him, and his righteousness comes on us. As Paul succinctly concludes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Salvation, then, might seem like a two-way street, with us at one end and Christ on the cross at the other. In one direction our sins go to Christ, and in the other Christ’s righteousness comes to us. Viewed like this, salvation appears to be a distant transaction, or a mechanical swap. It isn’t like that at all. In fact, it’s the opposite of distant and mechanical, it’s up close and personal. The way in which our sins are laid on Christ and the way in which we receive his righteousness is through our union with him.
Martin Luther explains, “faith must be taught correctly, namely that by it you are so cemented to Christ that he and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to him forever and declares, ‘I am as Christ.’” Faith unites us to Christ. Faith makes us one with Christ, and by being one with Christ we are saved.
Faith connects us directly into the death and resurrection of Christ, which is both a blessing and a challenge. With Jesus we gain a life that is everlasting and, at the same time, a way of life that is self-sacrificial. Paul evokes this powerful paradox in 2 Timothy 2:11-13. “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”
1. Calvin, Institues, 3.1.1
2. Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians,” in Luther’s Works, 55 vols., gen. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-1975), Vol 26, 168.