Tonight, I’d like to begin with a question: For what did God save us?
To be clear, I’m not asking why God saved us. The best theologians in the world don’t have a complete answer to that question. It’s impossible to know why God felt it necessary to redeem any sinner. None of us deserve it, of course. But perhaps the salvation of some was inevitable by virtue of God’s merciful nature. I don’t know.
No, I’m not asking why God chose to save us. I’m asking, for what did he save us? Once he decided to sovereignly choose a people for salvation, what did he have in mind for us? What did he expect? What is his end game if you will? What’s the objective?
Most of us would probably answer that question by saying it was all for his glory. And I believe that’s a correct answer. Then again, it’s not really a specific answer to the question. The thing is, whatever God does, however he reveals himself or his will, he does for his glory.
If he chooses to redeem a people according to his mercy, it is ultimately for his glory. But if he chooses not to redeem a people and rather punish them according to his just nature, that is also for his glory. (See Romans chapter 9.) Creation itself is for his glory because it reveals his power and divine nature to all of mankind. (See Romans chapter 1.) So “God’s glory” may be a correct answer to the question, but I think we can be more specific.
I’ll attempt to answer this question primarily using two verses of Scripture. The first is John 17:3. The second is Romans 8:29. Let me begin by reading both of them with some of the surrounding context.
First of all, John 17, starting with verse 1:
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:1-3)
Now let me read from Romans chapter 8, starting with verse 28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
The Salvation of Israel
If you grew up in a Christian home, you most likely knew the story of Moses and Israelites from a very early age. But like most Bible stories we learn as children, you probably didn’t hear all of the details. For example, it was a long time before I realized The Book of Jonah has a fourth chapter. I knew that Jonah was called to go preach. I knew that he ran away. I knew that he was swallowed by a great fish. I knew he was spit up on dry land. And as far as I knew, the story ended with him preaching as he supposed to, and the people repented. The end.
But, of course, that’s not the whole story. In chapter four, he wandered away from the city, sat down, and got very angry because God wasn’t destroying the people for their wickedness. That’s the true end of the story. It’s far from a happy ending, but that is how it ended. I didn’t know that as a child.
The same is true for Moses leading the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. There is a significant detail in that story which is often lost when we tell it. But that detail is the very reason God gave for pulling the Israelites out of Egypt.
I’m going to assume you all know the story well enough that I can get away with only providing the highlights. God, of course, sent Moses to Egypt to stand before Pharaoh and demand the Israelites’ freedom. But why? Was it for freedom itself? Was it because God abhorred slavery? Was it because he wanted to punish the nation of Egypt? For what did God save the Israelites?
Well, in Exodus chapter 5, we have the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. And Moses says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go’—” We’re all familiar with that statement, right? In fact, you can probably hear Charlton Heston’s voice when you read it. But that’s not all Moses said. That wasn’t the end of God’s request. What he said in full was this: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.'”
Now as we continue reading the story, we see that same request over and over again in a variety of ways. For instance, just before Moses turned the Nile River into blood, he said to Pharaoh, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.'”
Once again, the demand was for something more than just the Israelites’ freedom. God demanded their freedom for a purpose. He wanted them to be free not so they could simply enjoy freedom. Freedom would have certainly been a gracious and benevolent gift, but God intended something more for his people. He wanted them to be free from Pharaoh’s oppression so they could go out and—do what? Serve him. Worship him. Keep his law. He was procuring their freedom so they could properly serve him away from the idolatry and sinfulness of Egypt. While that may seem like an obscure detail in the text, it truly is important.
The Sanctification of Israel
Now in the children’s version of the Moses story, it usually ends with the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. That’s the moment when they are finally free from the clutches of Pharaoh. The Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the sea, and the Israelites are safe once and for all. It does make for a pleasant storybook ending, but that’s not quite the end of the story, is it? In fact, that only takes us through Exodus chapter 14. The story of Moses continues through Exodus then Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If we continue to follow the story of the Israelites, we’d have to go even further into the Bible.
The problem with Leviticus and some of these other books are that they are rather tedious. Never mind the children. Even the adults can struggle with them. Not only can they be somewhat repetitive, but they are also filled with intricate rules on everything from how to perform sacrifices to how to build the tabernacle to exact specifications. If you’ve ever followed a year-long Bible-reading plan, then you’ve probably rolled your eyes and let out a big sigh when you got to Leviticus.
But I want you to notice what was happening in those books. So the people of Israel were now free to worship God, and they were slowly making their way to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. But there was a problem. Even though Israel had left Egypt, Egypt had not altogether left Israel. The people were still very influenced by the culture they spent more than 400 years being a part of. If you want proof of that, just look at how many times they complained and said something like, “We’d be better off if we were still slaves in Egypt.” With that mindset and attitude, they simply were not ready to worship God in the way that he desired. And remember, that was the very reason he freed them from Egypt.
So all of the laws, the commandments, the tedium of Leviticus through Deuteronomy served a distinct and all-important purpose. God had freed the people to worship him, and then he worked to sanctify and make them fully ready. In fact, along the way, he even plucked out some of the weeds among them, so to speak. Numbers 32 says, “The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone.” It reminds me of the metaphor Jesus used in John 15 when he said, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers.”
So God didn’t intend to free the people for mere freedom’s sake. And he wasn’t satisfied with just giving them the Promised Land. He wanted their hearts. He wanted their worship. He wanted them to be purified so that they could stand in his presence, or at least come closer to his presence. Let me show you.
The Book of Leviticus begins this way: “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.” You’ll notice that God called out to him from the tabernacle because Moses was outside. From there, God gives Moses a series of laws and instructions for offering sacrifices, making sin offerings, consecrating the priests and the people, and so on. There are rules for purification and cleansing. God gives detailed instructions concerning how to live righteously, and on and on it goes. So what was the point? In a word, sanctification.
Compare the beginning of Leviticus with the beginning of Numbers, which is the very next book in the Bible. Numbers begins this way: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting.” Did you hear the difference? The first time, God spoke to Moses from the tabernacle. The second time, he spoke to Moses who was in the tabernacle. Why? Because through all of those laws and, of course, Moses’s obedience to those laws, he was able to move from outside the tabernacle into the tabernacle where the presence of God dwelt.
Now let’s put all of this together. The Israelites began in a state of bondage to the Egyptians. But they were God’s chosen people. He chose them and promised to bless them long before they even entered Egypt. So he sent a redeemer by the name of Moses who freed them to escape from Egypt and finally serve God. But they weren’t ready, at least not for the full privilege of inheriting the Promised Land. So for the next forty years, God refined them in the wilderness. He taught them his laws. He purified them through discipline and hardship. He even removed those people who maintained hard hearts. He helped them to overcome their greatest adversaries. And in the end, he led them into a land flowing with milk and honey.
So in the case of the Israelites, for what did God save them? What was his objective? To glorify himself? Absolutely. But what else? There must be something more because he also glorified himself by destroying much of Egypt with his plagues. According to Exodus 9 as well as Romans 9, God raised Pharaoh to his position of power so that he could show his own power by bringing Pharaoh down again. That’s what caused Paul to say of God, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” God is glorified on both ends of the spectrum. So there must have been more to the Israelites’ redemption.
Well, I’ll summarize it this way: God saved them so that they could serve him. And after a period of purification and sanctification, they could become a people better conformed to his will, a people thoroughly freed not just from Egypt the nation, but Egypt the influence.
By now you probably know where I’m going with this.
Salvation Is Personal and Profound
When I was a child—I was maybe ten or eleven-years-old—I went home from school with a friend of mine. As we were playing in the backyard, I couldn’t help but notice that he was inexplicably giddy. Then again, we were kids, and kids don’t need a reason to be giddy. So I didn’t give it much thought. But after awhile, my friend turned to me and said, “Guess what happened to me last night at church. I got saved.”
You know, I was a little surprised by his statement because I had never heard anyone talk like that before. I had known people to get excited about a baptism or someone joining the church. Lots of people I knew would talk about having a good meeting. Or they’d say something like, “Elder So-and-So preached a really good sermon.” But never had I heard someone claim to be saved at church. I mean, my friend spoke of salvation as though he had shared an intimate moment with the Savior himself.
The trouble was, I had never experienced anything like that. And frankly, what I had learned about salvation up to that point didn’t seem to square with his claim.
You see, I always understood salvation to be entirely historical and mystical, not personal and experiential. It was something to learn about in church, not something to be experienced necessarily. First of all, I had been taught that God chose a people for salvation even before he created time itself, before the foundation of the world. So that aspect of salvation was clearly historical (past tense, that is). Second, I knew that Christ atoned for our sins on the cross. Well, that happened 2,000 years ago, so it was obviously historical as well.
Finally, I understood that every redeemed person must be born again by God’s Spirit. But I was led to believe that the Spirit operates similarly to the Tooth Fairy. He sneaks in, swaps the old heart of stone for a new heart of flesh, sneaks out, and the person is none the wiser. Like a child with a shiny, new quarter under his pillow, it could be some time later before the born-again person even realizes that something has taken place. For the toothless child, it could be hours. For the regenerated person, it could be days, months, or years. They may never figure it out at all.
Now most Christians would think this is a strange view of the new birth. After all, how does one go from dead to alive, from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, transformed into a new creature in Christ without even being aware of it? Well, for starters, I had never personally experienced such a profound transformation in my life.
I had learned the ins and outs of salvation through no less than 50,000 minutes of preaching—I once did the math—and if someone had asked, I would have told them I was a believer. But I couldn’t describe a moment of genuine conversion. I certainly knew of Christ, but I didn’t know him, not on a personal, intimate level. The power of gospel preaching had never resonated with me. Plus—and I mean no offense to my former teachers—I had been taught a somewhat one-sided, mystical view of salvation that led me to believe the new birth merely equipped me to know Christ without causing me to actually know him.
So God predestinates, calls, justifies, and ultimately, glorifies his people—these are the basic elements of salvation according to Paul in Romans 8—but none of them occur within the sphere of the redeemed person’s consciousness, at least that’s what I thought. Predestination is historical. God’s calling is mystical, happening beneath the level of consciousness. He justifies which must also be historical. And he glorifies, but that’ll take place in the future. Virtually no aspect of salvation apart from merely learning about it was in any way practical or experiential.
Well, getting back to my story, my friend was excited to share his experience with someone who could relate. So he asked me, “What about you? When were you saved?” I didn’t have an answer, so I gave him the best theologically-correct response I could. I said, “Oh, I think I was saved about 2,000 years ago.” Of course, I was referring to the death of Christ. It wasn’t a wrong answer, but it wasn’t exactly what my friend was asking either.
Now if you were to ask me that same question today, I would give you a different answer. I would tell you that Christ saved me when I was in my early twenties. It was then that he called me out of darkness. I heard his voice. I recognized his voice as the voice of my Savior. And I rose up (literally from my knees) and vowed to follow him. That’s not to say I became a perfectly holy disciple overnight. In fact, I’m still not there. But as it turned out, the new birth was real, personal, and absolutely experiential.
I came to understand what Paul meant when he said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
After years of chasing every sinful thing my flesh desired, thankfully tempered somewhat by my Christian upbringing, God saved me from my own destruction. He re-created me in Jesus Christ for good works, supplying the faith I needed to know him, to genuinely know Christ, and to begin a life where I could be increasingly conformed to the image of his Son.
And with that, we are brought back to our text and the question I asked at the start of this discourse. The question was, for what has God saved us?
The Essence of Eternal Life
First, let’s consider what Jesus prayed here in John 17. He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
I intended to spend more time on the context of this passage, but time seems to be getting away from me. So let me summarize it.
This was the last night Christ spent with his disciples before his crucifixion. In fact, it was later this same night that Jesus was arrested and taken into custody. But here, he and his disciples were gathered somewhere in Jerusalem for a final Passover meal together. It was during this meal that Jesus announced one of the apostles would betray him, another would deny him, and that he was leaving them, and where he was going they could not follow. Needless to say, it was a dark night for the disciples.
So Jesus provided them some words of encouragement throughout John chapter 14, 15, and 16. Finally, in John 17, he stopped speaking to them and began praying to God the Father. And the first thing he prayed for was God’s glory. He knew that his death would not only be to his own glory, but to the glory of God. But then notice what he said: “You have given him [that is, Christ] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” What is that? Well, that’s election. That’s predestination. That’s what we simply refer to as salvation by grace. But I also want you to notice that salvation does not end with God choosing and Christ dying.
Look at verse 3: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
According to Jesus, God gave him the authority to give eternal life to those whom God appointed. And then Jesus defines the very essence of eternal life as this: to know God and to know him. He even goes on to say—this is verse 6—”I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” In verse 8, he said, “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
In short, they were saved by grace through faith. Or as Jesus said on another occasion, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
Now my purpose is not to argue against the tenets of Hyper-Calvinism, which in their most extreme form suggest a sinner can be saved, called, and born again without even knowing what Christ has done for them, without knowing the Savior himself. Rather, my goal is to show you that eternal life by Christ’s own definition is to know him. And by know him, I don’t mean know about him, but I mean that we know him personally, intimately.
When God promised to deliver the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, here is what he said in Exodus chapter 6: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
So, long before the Israelites would enter the Promised Land, their earthly version of heaven, God’s redemption would serve to enlighten them, to make them know the Lord their God, their Redeemer. And the same is true for us in terms of our eternal redemption. Christ has not saved us just so we can go to heaven. He has saved us so that we can know our God and our Redeemer.
For what has God saved us? First of all, he has saved us to know Christ. But that’s not all. If we leave it there, we might think that eternal life and Christian discipleship is little more than a mental assent or what is sometimes called easy-believism. The world already has too many people claiming to be Christians who offer no evidence beyond their words. Remember what James said: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” So let’s turn over to Romans 8 and see what Paul had to say.
The Purpose of Salvation
Romans 8, starting with verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [And what is that purpose?] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son—” Let me stop right there. We were called and predestined for what purpose? To be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Like the Israelites whom God rescued from Egypt, we are delivered from the bondage of sin where pursuing righteousness was not an option. Like the Israelites whom God rescued so they could know with absolute certainty that he is the Sovereign God of heaven, he frees us to know him, his Son, and his everlasting love. And like the Israelites whom God led through the wilderness for forty years, we are taken through a process of learning, discipline, and sanctification as God conforms us to the image of his Son.
That is why Paul could say that all things—tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, or any of the other things he mentioned in this chapter—are things which work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. All of it helps to shape us, mold us into people who resemble Christ.
For what has God saved us? To know Christ and to be conformed to his image. This is eternal life. This is the essence and purpose of salvation.
So all of the questions we have about theology, or discipleship, or church matters, or evangelism—all of the answers to all of our questions must be filtered through the reality of our salvation. You see, if eternal life means nothing more than we get to enter heaven one day, most of the day-to-day, practical stuff in the meantime loses all significance.
Why bother reading the Bible? You’re just waiting for heaven, right? Why worry about what it means to be a better disciple of Christ? God will glorify you in the end, so what difference does it make? Well, just ask the Israelites who spent forty years walking to the Promised Land when it should have taken less than two weeks.
There is a reason God doesn’t regenerate his people and immediately snatch them up into heaven. We have work to do. We have more to learn about Christ. We have a long way to go before we become like him.
Preached at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church (Chula, GA) on February 11, 2017