Salvation in Shorthand

Mark Johnston Articles
Our journey through the Creed has taken us from the heights of glory, contemplating God in his triune majesty, through to the new community Christ is building in the church. But as we have been confessing these great truths we might by this stage be forgiven for wondering, 'Where do I fit into all of this?' It is, of course, the burning question of personal salvation and what it entails. Without individual salvation there is fellowship with God and no place in his church. And, given the greatness of God and the beauty of his church, we know almost instinctively that 'salvation' must be a wonderful thing. So, as we hold our breath for the words that will confess this great salvation, we might well be taken aback to hear just one line: 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins'.

Why could it not be, 'I believe in the new birth' or, 'I believe in the life of holiness' - or
an even more comprehensive summary of these and the many other dimensions of the salvation promised in the gospel. Does it not feel more than a little lame to reduce it to these words and to express it in such negative terms?

The answer lies quite simply in the fact that without the forgiveness of sins there can be no salvation - no knowledge of God, no new birth, no place in his family, no holiness and no heaven. Human sin and guilt combine to be the one thing that excludes us from every other blessing that might be ours in salvation. Until they are dealt with, we are left outside.

There is perhaps a sense in which people in every circumstance can identify with that - even those who have never given the Christian gospel a second thought. No matter how good a person's life may be, it is the common experience of every human being to be unsettled by a guilty conscience. From Lady MacBeth's dramatic, 'Out! Out! Damned spot!' to the ordinary man or woman haunted by their past, guilt is the running sore of the soul. There's an ingrained sense of failure at the heart of the human condition and so the quest for atonement becomes a common thread that is woven through life. It provides the storyline for countless books and movies. It is everyday reality for every honest member of our race.

So those who framed the wording of the Creed once more proved their perceptiveness when they used this striking single line as shorthand for 'personal salvation'!

In many ways they were simply picking up on the way Paul condensed the essence of salvation to a very similar phrase in Colossians. Summing up all that is involved in it, he says: 'For he [the Father] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption...' - which is, '...the forgiveness of sins' (Col 1.14).

Despite all that is wrapped up in God's saving work mentioned in this verse and all the apostle has already mentioned in the preceding verses - faith, love, hope, fruitful living, a growing knowledge of God and spiritual power, endurance, patience and joyful thankfulness - it all hinges on one thing alone: 'the forgiveness of sins'.

The stark simplicity of it all is salutary because almost every generation of professing Christians manages to lose sight of this core truth at some point or other. It's well worth our while to explore this theme a little further in light of what Paul says in these verses and tease out its implications for our understanding of the gospel.

Why it Matters
If we were to ask the average person what they thought was necessary to make someone a Christian, it's not hard to imagine what responses they might give. They would be very much the kind of things Paul mentions in his prayer of thanksgiving for these Christians in Colosse. A Christian is a person who knows God, who possesses spiritual wisdom and understanding, lives a life characterised by good works and possesses qualities of strength and endurance, even when the going gets tough. There is no arguing with the fact that all these traits and qualities are indeed the mark of a person who has found true and saving faith; but in themselves they do not make a person a Christian, because none of them on their own, or even together can bring a person into a relationship with God that is real and that can grow.

The fundamental problem we all share is that before we can even begin to cultivate any of these elements of being in fellowship with God, we need to reckon on the fact that we are actually cut off from him because of sin. So salvation can never merely be building up something that is already there, because the simple fact is that there is nothing there to start with. Indeed, the opposite is the case. We don't even start from a point of spiritual neutrality in relation to God; we are actually under his wrath and condemnation.

The quest for salvation can never be reduced to a quest for knowledge, or a futile attempt to somehow please God, because they - and everything like them - have failed before they have even begun.

The problem with all such human attempts to find our way back into fellowship with God is that they do not take seriously what God says about himself in his Word, and in particular, the fact that he is both just and holy. His holiness means that he cannot tolerate sin in any shape or form in his presence - he is 'of purer eyes than to look upon evil and tolerate wrong' (Ha 1.13). And his justice means that he is obliged to deal with it.

It is an indictment on recent generations that we have become so inured to wrongdoing in society that we are no longer shocked: the threshold of moral tolerance has risen to the point where pretty much anything goes. The effect of such 'tolerance' is that when evil and wrongdoing - even in their simplest forms - go unchallenged, very quickly they start to ruin all they come in contact with.

That can never be the case with God. He remains consistently and implacably opposed to all sin, because even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of sins are the beginnings of rot in his world. Indeed, we see it most clearly when we go back to that time when there was no sin in his world - the time when the entire creation was perfect in every way. In that context, God's warning to Adam that a seemingly trivial infringement of eating forbidden fruit from a single tree might seem rather extreme (Ge 2.17); but when we see how quickly the destructive power of sin begins to spread, we realise it isn't.

Just as every good gardener will take drastic action at the slightest sign of weeds in his beloved plot of land, how much more will the divine Gardener do what is necessary to prevent his Paradise-Garden being ruined forever. Death - separation of man from God - was the necessary consequence of the fall, or else God would have ceased to be God. The only way a reversal was possible was if the root of this separation was dealt with, thus allowing sin to be forgiven. It is for that reason forgiveness of sin is the absolute bedrock of a salvation that is real. And it is for that reason that the Protestant Reformation was forged on the anvil of forgiveness - the rediscovery of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Everything else in salvation hangs on that single thread. It is only when a person is pardoned, cleansed and restored to fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ that the 'all spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms', that Paul describes in Ephesians, can be ours. The idea of 'sins forgiven' may sound simple; but it could not be more crucial.

What it Cost
Going back for a moment to what Paul says in Colossians, we see that he uses two other words in this passage to describe what salvation is: 'rescue' and 'redemption'. Both words point to God's answer to man's attempts to find deliverance from a guilty conscience by his own effort. History is full of examples of how man tries to make his atonement for himself, from the idea of appeasement of the gods so common from earliest times, right through to the central character in the book-turned-movie, Atonement, who literally wrote a book in order to rewrite her past to expunge her sense of guilt and shame. All of these efforts involve a cost (and often the theory is, 'the costlier the better'), but they never seem enough to actually make amends for offence that has been caused. God's answer brings the whole concept of cost in salvation to an altogether different level and the two words Paul uses here bear that out.

The 'rescue' Paul has in view is 'from the dominion of darkness' - that realm in which we all live in this fallen world: a realm that is dominated by evil, even in the very best it has to offer. The language of rescue conjures up images of those who go on such missions having to go themselves into places of great danger in order to save those already in them.  Whether it be venturing into a raging storm, or a burning building, or whatever; there is a cost to getting people out. We should not underestimate the cost to God in simply entering our world in the Person of his Son, Jesus Christ. The Light of the World was coming into a world of darkness, the Creator was taking the flesh of the creature. The price-tag on that seemingly simple step was enormous in terms of the humiliation it involved. Yet it was a price that Jesus did not balk at paying.

There was, however, more to it. The rescue mission Jesus embarked on would also involve 'redemption'. Such language was commonplace in biblical times and immediately brought to mind scenes from the world of slavery - of people deprived of rights and freedoms and yet who so often longed for liberty. In particular it was the language of what it cost to purchase freedom. For those who were in bondage, a high price had to be paid if they were to be set free. Throughout the Bible the language of slavery is used to describe people whose lives are still controlled by sin. It is not only graphic imagery, it is also chillingly accurate, because a slave does not control his or her own life; they are controlled by a master. So in every human being: by nature we are under the control of an alien power from which we cannot break free by ourselves. We cannot afford the price to purchase freedom.

Given the ugliness of the world into which this language takes us, there is an exquisite beauty in that one word that speaks of liberation - a beauty intensified by the cost bound up with it. It is a word that brings us ultimately to the cross where the supreme price was paid to set God's people free.

Where it's Found
In one sense we have already answered the question of where this forgiveness we so much need can be found; but before we jump to say the words, let's look again at how Paul expresses it in these verses. Speaking of Jesus as the 'Son he [the Father] loves' he says, 'In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins'. Although indeed it is through the cross our redemption is purchased and forgiveness secured as children of God; it is not the cross in isolation. It is the cross of Christ and it is, as Paul says elsewhere, through 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' (1Co 2.2) that we receive them.

Paul's choice of words in this verse is anything but insignificant. Let me illustrate it this way: there have been a few times in my life when I've been privileged to be taken to places that are normally off-limits for the average citizen. One in particular stands out: it was the opportunity to be taken onboard HMS Ark Royal - at that time the pride of the British Navy - when she was moored in Manhattan Docks. The aircraft carrier was not long back from the Falklands War in the South Atlantic and was still under a high level of security; yet I was taken all over the vessel. Why? - Because I had a friend who was an officer in her crew. Because of him I was given access to places from which I would otherwise have been excluded.

So it is in salvation. As we have said already, we are all by nature excluded from the most important place of all because of our sin. We are barred from the presence of God. Like Adam we are banished from the Garden. Like Cain we are doomed to be 'restless wanderers on the face of the earth'. But that is not true of Jesus. It isn't just because as Son of God he has known nothing but intimate communion with God through all eternity; but that as true man who rendered perfect obedience on behalf of his people, he has regained the right of access into that Holy of holies for all who believe. And of course central to his obedience is the fact that it was 'unto death - even death on a cross' (Php 2.8).

So in the fullest possible sense - indeed a sense that was not possible prior to his incarnation and sacrificial death on the cross - he alone has right of access to the richest and deepest communion with God. And if we know him as our Friend, then in him that right is ours as well! As John so beautifully puts it at the beginning of his Gospel: 'Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, to them he gave the right to become children of God' (Jn 1.12). What we have no right to in ourselves, we receive the right to through Jesus Christ - a right he could only confer after his death on Calvary.

It is, of course, for that reason hymn-writers from Toplady to Townend have never tired - and will never tire - of writing hymns about the cross! Far from being a morbid fascination with a gruesome form of death; it is a celebration of the most glorious achievement the world has ever seen. That climactic moment in the personal history of Jesus Christ is the defining moment in salvation history. It is the key to sins forgiven and because of that, the key to salvation in all its fullness.

Therein lies the logic of the Creed. It tells us about God - who he is, what he's like and all he has done through Christ - and then it tells us about ourselves and what it means to receive his salvation. It could not be clearer: to have fellowship with God, we need forgiveness and apart from Christ and his cross, that never could be ours

Perhaps nowhere do we see this truth expressed more poetically and with such passion than in the words of David in his great penitential psalm, where he says: 'Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgive, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose is the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit there is no deceit' (Ps 32.1-2). It is the blessing of salvation in its fullest measure.

Mark Johnston is Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.

"Salvation in Shorthand", Reformation 21 (February 2009)


This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at


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