In order to reflect upon how Christ is our savior, it is also important to reflect on the reasons why humankind exists, the nature of sin, and the conflict in the created order. When God created the universe, he saw that everything he had made was very good (Cf. Gen. 1:1-24). That is, in the beginning, God did not find something evil or bad in his creation. And this also applies when God created Adam and Eve, our first parents. As human beings, we were created in God’s image and his likeness to know, love, live with, praise, and glorify God (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 6; see also Belgic Confession, Art. 14 and Dort III/IV). In other words, being created in the image of God means we are rational and relational individuals who were created to reflect God. Therefore, the image of God is found in our inner being.
Sin Affected God’s Creation
But sin corrupted that image of God that dwelt in us and broke the perfect harmony that existed when God created the universe. And it is because of the broken order that humanity suffers. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, describes the original sin in the following terms:
It is not only the lack of a good quality in the will, nor merely the loss of man’s righteousness and ability. It is rather the loss of all his powers of body and soul, of his whole outward and inward perfections. In addition to this, it is his inclination to all that is evil, his aversion against that which is good, his antipathy against light and wisdom, his love for error and darkness, his flight from and his loathing of good works, and his seeking after that which is sinful (…) But original enters into us; we do not commit it, but we suffer it. We are sinners because we are the sons of a sinner. A sinner can beget only a sinner, who is like him.
From here, one understands that sin is a rebellion against God and separation from him. It is also the corruption of the human nature (Cf. Art. 15 of the Belgic Confession). The sinful nature is then the corrupted nature inherited from our first parents after the fall (Cf. Deut. 9:7. See also Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 7-9). Thus, we humans cannot redeem ourselves in any way since we are all sinners (Cf. Rom. 3:9). This makes it so that we cannot obtain salvation by doing good works and by a rigorous observance of the Law. We cannot cooperate in the salvation process, since we are totally lost without our savior. As the Scriptures tell us, salvation is not by works but by faith (Cf. Eph. 2:8-10). In that sense, Luther states,
When God’s righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God’s action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which a person is justified [declared righteous] is not his own but that of another, Christ.
In fact, Hebrews 11 tells us the stories of the people of God; some were saved even before the Law. I realize that the Law was not a means for obtaining salvation, but to understand sin and protect the covenant. For instance, when the Law tells us not to have other gods, this means that after knowing the Triune God, we shall have no other gods. But no one is justified by not having false gods. Hence, a believer does not have false gods because they have already been justified.
Regarding the sinful nature, John Calvin wrote that “the original sin is seen to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature diffused into all parts of the soul (…) For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co.), Book II, Ch. 1). Regarding death, the Apostle Paul says that sin entered the world through one person (Adam) and death through sin.(cf. Rom. 5:12) He also states that death came to all people, because all sinned. And since all people sinned, all people died in Adam. First, Adam sinned, then sin entered the world, and finally death entered the world. I understand death here as separation from God’s presence. Furthermore, John W. Cooper, Professor of Philosophical Theology, states,
The original sin was giving in to the temptation of Satan to doubt, twist, reject, and disobey the Word of God (Gen 3). Humans have been repeating that sin ever since. It’s as though a malicious “Avoid God and His Word” program has infected our operating systems. It can only be removed though new birth by the Holy Spirit. (John W. Cooper, “Nature and Culture Against Scripture,” The Calvin Theological Seminary Forum, Grand Rapids, 5.)
So that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hide from God. The sin in them made them behave in this strange way. They did not hide because of their human nature (they did not behave in this way before the fall), but because of sin in them. Now, since all people after Adam inherited a sinful nature, we all became sinners. Every human being has inherited the sinful nature too, except Jesus. As a result of this, sin brought death to the world. From this reasoning, I think that death was the result of the original sin and not part of the human nature.
God’s grace then is the only thing needed for salvation and not our own merits, as the Scriptures says: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” (Titus 2:11-12, NASB) Salvation was granted by grace and there’s no other way. Because of this, we Christians do good works because we are justified in Christ and not to the contrary, that we are justified because we do good works. In other words, we do good works as a response of gratitude.
How Is Jesus Our Savior?
Now I have discussed the purpose of the creation of humankind and the nature of sin; I will discuss who Jesus is and how he is our savior. Jesus has two natures: human and divine. He is both totally human and totally divine. As human, Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Logos (Cf. John 1:1), the Son of God, and our redemption for sin (Cf. Rom. 3:24) He is the own image of God as the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Out of love, the Logos descended from the Heavens and came to Earth with a definite purpose. Through his work on the cross, Jesus paid the price of all our debts. This specific work of the Son could be understood under Christ’s role as Redeemer as Calvin points out, “He was sent to ‘save’ the people from their sins [Matt. 1:21; cf. Luke 1:31]. We must note in these words (…) the office of Redeemer was laid upon him that he might be our savior.” (Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.1. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, 503). Also, Jesus is also divine since Christ was the representative of the Triune God. In John 5:19, Jesus, talking about himself, affirmed that “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” He also added: “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.” (John 12:49, NIV). In these two verses, we notice Christ was not only doing God’s perfect will, but he was also representing the Trinity himself: Jesus did the exact work that the Father and the Spirit commanded him. That is, Jesus did not do anything that the Trinity would not agree with.
Regarding the purpose of the incarnation, we have general and specific reasons. On one hand and in general, as Tanner has suggested in Christ the Key, Jesus has introduced us to the Trinity in order we can know God (Cf. Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key: Current Issues in Theology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 144). She states, “The Second person of the trinity is our place within the life of the trinity, the position with which we are to be identified in relations with the other two.” (Tanner, 141). On the other hand, in John 10:15, we are specifically told that Christ has laid down his life for the sheep, that is, for God’s people. For that reason, I believe Christ is a savior for those people who do indeed believe in God and his redemptive work.
Now, Christ’s salvation is not potential but a real, true, and actual one. This salvation was started by God Himself before the foundation of the world. By saying that Christ’s salvation is not potential, I mean that the salvific work of Christ on the cross was not potential in the sense that his sacrifice would work someday in the future when we make the decision to make it effective, but his salvific work is instead actual, real, and true since the result of Christ’s work was effective in the very first moment God accepted Christ’s sacrifice as a means to clean us from sin. We are not saved depending on the condition of our souls when we die, but we are saved due to God’s grace with us. This salvation was a gift given by God through the work of Christ on the cross. In that regard, the Scripture tells us that “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:24, NIV)
Along with salvation, perhaps there is no other topic that stirs up such a controversy, such as trying to explain in a systematic and coherent way the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial atonement on the cross. Though the atonement and its meaning have been a tough topic to discuss in theological circles, I always like to highlight the fact that Christ not only fulfilled the different prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the suffering Messiah, but also revealed God’s mystery about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to us. Although the atonement could be explained from different angles and for different audiences, the message is currently unique. We should consider that the differences in emphases are because the writers of the New Testament were interested in presenting a particular position to understand Christ’s atonement, and even though these emphases vary, one thing is clear: Jesus Christ was the Servant of the Lord who took our place and overcame the power of evil in order to proclaim the Good News to humanity. Therefore, it is important then to rescue the notion of the sacrifice that Jesus did on behalf of us on the cross. His death was not something that humans did to Christ, but a gift he gave to us. One thing I understand is that God, despite his right to send us to hell, sent Jesus instead to save his people and overcome the power of evil that enslaved humankind after the fall. So the substitution of Jesus in our place was not the main purpose of the Incarnation, but the means by which Christ imparted his victory over the evil one on the people of God.