This post is part of a series of posts on the basics of systematic theology. Why do we need theology, and what are the essential truths to know about each doctrine? All the posts are archived under the category “Theology 101.”
The gospel has always been debated. Its meaning has always been argued about and questioned. That’s still true today. Even among evangelicals (whatever that word now means), there is question about what the gospel is and how God saves sinners.
The means by which God saves unbelievers is called soteriology — the doctrine of salvation. And there are several key components to that truth.
First of all, God sent Jesus to reconcile sinners to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). It should be noted that God is not so much reconciled to man (i.e., He has not sinned, so He needs no reconciliation), but man is reconciled to God.
The means of that reconciliation is Jesus’ perfect life of obedience and substitutionary death. If there is one key word about salvation and the gospel it is “substitution” — Christ’s righteousness is imputed to (accounted to) me and my sin is imputed to Him. He gets my sin and I get His righteousness. This substitutionary act of Christ is the basis for a believer’s restoration to God. (I often say that if the gospel can be reduced to one word, it is “substitution.”)
Substitution is necessary for several reasons:
- There must be a propitiation for God’s wrath (Rom. 3:25)
- There must be imputation of righteousness and atonement for sin (Rom. 3:24, 2 Cor. 5:21)
- There must be redemption from the bondage of sin (Rom. 3:24)
- There must be reconciliation to God (2 Cor. 5:19)
The result of this substitutionary salvation is that the sinner is freed from both the penalty of sin and the power of sin (Rom. 6, esp. vv. 7, 9, 12, 15-22; Eph. 2:10) so that we can enjoy God. It is generally assumed that salvation frees the sinner from the penalty of sin — it “gets us off the hook.” It is less often affirmed that it also frees us from the power of sin — that a primary intent of the gospel is to transform the believer into one who lives to please God and not indulge the flesh (1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 5:9). It is least often affirmed that the ultimate goal of salvation is restoration to God (Rom. 6:8; Jn. 14:1-6). If we don’t want God, then we haven’t believed the gospel and we haven’t been saved, as John Piper notes:
“…to believe the gospel is not only to accept the awesome truths that 1) God is holy, 2) we are hopeless sinners, 3) Christ died and rose again for sinners, and 4) this great salvation is enjoyed by faith in Christ-but believing the gospel is also to treasure Jesus Christ as your unsearchable riches. What makes the gospel Gospel is that it brings a person into the everlasting and ever-increasing joy of Jesus Christ.” [“What is the Christian Gospel?”]
Finally, a sinner receives the substitutionary righteousness of Christ and is reconciled to God through repentance and faith (2 Cor. 7:10-11; Eph. 2:8-10).