“The great day of the Lord is near-near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In fire of his jealously the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (Zephaniah 1:14-18).
Several years ago, I was walking across a courtyard on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. I was alone, minding my own business, on the way to the faculty lounge in the School of Theology, when suddenly out of nowhere a gentleman stood in front of me blocking my movement. “Are you saved?,” he demanded. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this intrusion and the first words that came into my mouth were, “Saved from what?” What I was thinking, but was given the grace to refrain from saying, was that I’m certainly not saved from strangers coming up to me and asking me questions like this.
When I said, “Saved from what,” I think my friend was as surprised by my question as I had been by his and he kind of lost it. He stammered and stuttered and wasn’t quite sure how to respond to the question, “Saved from what?” “Well, you know what I mean,” he replied. “Do you know Jesus?” That brief encounter left an impression on me.
On the other hand, of course, I was delighted in my soul that somebody cared enough about me. Even as I was a stranger, this person was concerned enough to stop me and ask about my salvation. But what distressed me was that it was clear that though this man had a zeal for salvation, he had little understanding of what salvation is.
How easy it is for us to speak in jargon, in words without any content. As Christians, we develop our own speech patterns. I remember one fellow I used to play golf with whose wife became a Christian and he remained an unbeliever. He said to me on one occasion, “I’m happy for my wife’s conversion, but you, know R. C., there’s one thing that frustrates me to no end.” “What’s that?,” I said. “My wife never tells me anything anymore. She shares it.”
I had an opportunity to get from him the pagan response to some of our language patterns. When we’re talking about salvation, we are talking about the concept that is the central theme of all of the sacred Scripture, a concept that is simply imperative that we understand. When we examine the Scriptures and search the meaning of the term “salvation,” the first thing that we notice is that the term “salvation” is used in a wide variety of ways.
All sorts of things are discussed in terms of the noun “salvation” or the verb “to save”. Paul and Silas were freed from the jail in Philippi when God delivered them by the earthquake. In panic, the jailer came up to Paul and Silas and said, “Sir, what must I do to be saved?” And Paul responded immediately by saying, “Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and you and your household will be saved.”
Now, I think I know what Paul meant by salvation when he responded to the jailer, but I have wondered what was in the jailer’s mind? Here is a man who is responsible to the government for the guarding and keeping of prisoners; and the law in that day, in the provinces was simply this: if prisoners escaped from the jail, whatever penalty they were awaiting to suffer for their crimes, their jailer had to take in the escapees’ place. So when the walls of the jail fell down and the prisoners started to run free, this jailer runs to Paul and Silas and asks them about salvation.
Now, it is certainly possible that what he had in his mind at that moment was a question about his eternal destiny, about his relationship with God, and having heard Paul and Silas singing hymns and knowing that they were religious fellows, he then addressed the question to the greatest theologian in history, the apostle Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” Or maybe all the jailer had in his mind was how he was going to escape from the consequences of this jailbreak. The word “salvation” in the Bible doesn’t always refer to the ultimate question of salvation in terms of being reconciled with God.
A woman comes to Jesus for healing and beseeches him to cure her of her disease and Jesus touches her and heals her and says to her, “Go in peace, your faith has saved you.” They did not even talk about reconciliation with God. The woman was looking for relief from pain and sickness. She was wanting to be saved from disease and Jesus saved her from the disease.
Now, when Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you,” he may have meant it in the ultimate sense or maybe he didn’t. Every time the Bible uses the word “salvation” or the verb “to save” it does not refer necessarily to what we mean by the doctrine of salvation.
The Bible teaches that we have been saved from the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-13). Here the ultimate past sense is used for salvation. So, in one narrow sense, at least from all eternity in the hidden wisdom of God, we were saved. That is why Jesus says that there will come a moment when the Father will say, “Come my beloved, inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
But, the Bible also uses the imperfect tense and says there is a sense in which we were being saved. But salvation from the hands of God for his people is something that he has been accomplishing through all of the pages of history. Our salvation was being prepared for us through the call of Abraham and the life of Isaac and of Jacob. Throughout the life of Israel, the Church–of which we are a part–was being saved, awaiting the Day of Salvation in the advent of Christ.
And then the Bible speaks of salvation in the present sense. There is a sense in which we are saved. The moment one puts his or her trust in Christ and in Christ alone, that moment God pronounces the believer just in his sight. He imputes the righteousness of Christ the believer’s account and he or she is safe in the arms of Jesus, saved.
The Bible also teaches that we are being saved. Therefore, in one sense, salvation is not simply a completed event, but begins with justification and leads on to sanctification. As one grows in grace, that process of sanctification is also described as a process of salvation. Finally, the Bible speaks of the future when we shall be saved. We are saved, we are being saved, we shall be saved.
As we look forward to our glorification together with Christ and the final consummation of our salvation, it is with this realization that we have been saved (i.e., justified) and are being saved (i.e., sanctification).
Therefore, let us focus our thinking on the ultimate sense of salvation, and I repeat the question that I asked my friend in Philadelphia so many years ago: “Saved from what?” Paul explains that we are to receive the “son from heaven, whom [God] raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thes 1:10). The ultimate salvation that any human being can ever experience is rescue “from the wrath that is to come.” Do you believe that there is a wrath that is to come?
I think the greatest point of unbelief in our culture and in our Church at this juncture in the 20th century is an unbelief in the wrath of God and the certain promises of judgment for the human race.
I talk to people all the time about Jesus and they say things like this: “R. C., if you find believing in Jesus meaningful–if that turns you on and gives you some kind of solace or whatever–then that’s fine for you, but I don’t feel the need for Jesus.” What does this say? It is as if somebody were to say, “I don’t feel the need for a fireman,” because his house is not on fire. Who needs a fireman when there is no fire? Who needs a savior when there is no clear and present threat of judgment? Modern man simply does not believe that there will be a day of judgment. If we believed it, really believed it, the energy of our evangelism would increase a hundredfold.
In the Old Testament the difference, between the true prophet and the false prophet was that the true prophet proclaims the day of the Lord as a day of consuming wrath. People did not want to hear that, so the false prophet got rich promising the people that the day of the Lord was a day of brightness, light, and joy and that there was nothing to worry about: “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” The plan will not look so good on the day of judgment for those who do not repent, for God will speak to them in his fury. That was the message of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, of Ezekiel, of Daniel, of Micah, of Amos; and every other prophet of God.
Amos came to the people and he said to the people, “You celebrate the day of the Lord. Don’t you realize that the day of the Lord is a day of darkness; there’s not light in it, for it is the day when God will speak in wrath and his anger will consume the planet and his judgment will go forth and his violence will be seen in the streets.” Can’t wait for the return of Jesus? Oh, happy day! Yes, for the saved, but for the unsaved, the return of Jesus is the worst of all conceivable calamities. Listen again, not to me, but to the word of God: “Near is the greatest day of the Lord; near, coming very quickly, a day of wrath is that day a day of trouble of distress, destruction, desolation, darkness, gloom. On the day of the Lord’s wrath, all of the earth will be desired for he will make a terrifying end to the inhabitants of this world” (Am 5:18-24).
Again, at the core of the biblical message of salvation is this, which is also obscured in modern thought: “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). No human being has the resources, the power, the money or the merit to save himself.
A few years ago, I was in the hospital for kidney stones. If you have ever had kidney stones, you know what catastrophe means. It was Christmas-time and I was lying in my bed and looking up at the television set on the wall, spinning the dial. And I came to the worship service that was coming from Hollywood Presbyterian Church in California. The minister was reading the Christmas Story from Luke. How many times have you heard the Christmas Story from Luke? “For, beloved, unto you is born this day in the city of Bethlehem, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
I heard that a thousand times. As a lay there with these kidney stones, I said “Oh, that is what I need right now–I need a savior: ‘it is well with my soul,’ but my kidney needs to be saved, quickly!”
What do you need to be saved from? You need to be saved from God! Not from kidney stones, not from hurricanes, not from military defeats. The thing that every human being needs to be saved from is God.
The last thing in the world the unrepentant sinner ever wants to meet on the other side of the grave is God. But the glory of the Gospel is that the one from whom we need to be saved is the very one who saves us. God saves us from himself. But woe unto those who have no savior on the day of wrath.
The Bible says that on that day, the unbeliever will scream to the mountains to fall upon him; to the hills to hide him. He will be looking for refuge from nature itself, saying, “Cover me, give me a shield.” But, there is only one shield that can protect anyone from the wrath that is to come, and it is the covering of the righteousness of Christ.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God clothes us with the garments of Jesus and the garments of his righteousness are never the target of the wrath of God. The one who trusts in Jesus has peace with God and there is no condemnation left. And as it was in the days of Noah, when calamity struck, the day of the Lord came and almost all of the world perished in the flood. Believing Noah and his family alone were spared.
The day of the Lord was a day of salvation for the Christians, a day of light and there is no darkness in it. Are you saved? The answer to that question is the most important question you will ever know.