During the course of my Christian pilgrimage I must have read thousands of times that we are, or need to be saved, from sin. This is the heart of the Augustinian worldview in which sin is basic. The received idea is that originally God, being God, created the world not merely good, that is, serving a purpose (Gen. 1; Ps. 119:91; Prov. 16:4; Eccl. 3:11), but perfect along with Adam and Eve the first humans who were deemed to be immortal, righteous, holy and good. Tragically, however, despite their perfection, our first parents succumbed to the temptations of the flesh, the world and the devil and ‘fell’. In so doing they brought a curse not only on themselves but on the whole creation they were intended to rule. And this is the situation that we have inherited today. We as the posterity of Adam and Eve are by nature born sinners who inhabit a cursed or fallen creation. Bluntly expressed, all our problems stem from sin and it is from sin that we must be saved. When this occurs, paradise will be regained and creation restored.
But is this a true depiction of what the Bible teaches? I think not.
In the Bible the only perfect being is God himself. He alone is immortal and incorruptible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), holy, righteous and eternal. In plain words, he is “complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4, cf. Ps. 50:12-15). The mere fact that he created the temporal universe which has both a beginning and an end brings into question its original perfection. The apostle Paul tells us that all that is visible (Rom. 1:20) is also temporary (2 Cor. 4:18, cf. Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27). From this we are compelled to conclude that the physical creation far from being perfect was simply ‘good’, a useful tool designed by the Creator to serve a purpose (Ps. 119:91; Prov. 16:4; Eccl. 3:11) which, once achieved, would be dispensed with (Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). If this is so, the Augustinian idea that after sin has been taken care of creation will be redeemed and restored is false, for nature itself as ‘hand-made’ constitutes a problem. We are thus forced to conclude that the creation/fall/restoration schema widely accepted today (Jan. 2012) is a figment of the Augustinian imagination.
If this is so, what then is salvation in the Bible all about?
Creator and Creature
First, we must take seriously the view that the Creator God himself is uniquely eternal, immortal and incorruptible. As has already been affirmed, he alone is perfect and complete. According to the Bible, in his love he freely chose to create man spiritually in his image but physically from the earth with the intention of bringing him to eventual perfection as his child (Mt. 5:48; 19:21; Phil. 3:12-14, etc.). (1* We may well wonder why God chose to love us, cf. Dt. 7:8; Ps. 8:4. Love is free but it also involves the glory he gains in our redemption and adoption.) As created from the earth man is dust (cf. Ps. 103:14). He thus stands in patent contrast with his self-existent Maker as being naturally both mortal and corruptible, that is, subject to both death and decay. So if man is ever to attain to the perfection of his Creator (Mt. 5:48), he must somehow ascend from ground to glory (cf. Eph. 4:9f.), from dust to destiny, from Eden to eternity.
According to the book of Genesis, God challenges mortal man (Adam) to avoid the death to which, contrary to the traditional view, he is naturally subject. It is of vital importance to recognize this, for if death is the last enemy of mortal man (1 Cor. 15:26), it is also the first (Gen. 2:17). So, if death is to be avoided, eternal life or immortality is a paramount necessity implied in the commandment (cf. Rom. 7:10) God made to Adam (Gen. 2:17) who alone among all the animals was made in the image of God. Only he in the course of his development from total animal/infant ignorance (Dt. 1:39, etc.) could attain to knowledge and understanding (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22). But knowledge (commandment/law) on its own was not enough: all it did was provide the test (cf. Ex. 15:25; 20:20; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.) on the basis of which there came either blessing or curse (cf. Dt. 11:26-28, etc.). To gain life man had to fulfil its initial condition which was to keep the commandment (Gen. 2:17). Then, after the development of the race (and the individual) in both extent and maturity, the precondition of life (cf. Dt. 30:1-6; Jer. 31:33; 32:39f.) became obedience to the law (of Moses) in its entirety (Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-20; Ezek. 20:11,13,21, etc.).
However, the OT itself makes it plain that there was a massive problem inherent in the condition: man who derived from the earth was afflicted by fleshly weakness (Ps. 78:39; 103:14; Rom. 7:14) and, deceived by the devil, he lacked the ability to meet this condition (Ps. 130:3; 143:2, etc.). The obedience which was the prerequisite of righteousness (Rom. 5:21) needed to please God (cf. Mt. 3:17) was in its turn the condition of regeneration (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5), and it proved universally elusive. As the Psalmist (14:1-3) and the apostle (Rom. 3:10) maintained, none was righteous not even one. From Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land (Num. 14:19; 1 Sam. 8:8), from youth to maturity (Gen. 8:21; Jer. 3:25), from Adam (Gen. 3:22-24) to Moses (Rom. 5:14) and from Moses to Jesus (1 K. 8:46-53), all to the very last one broke the law with the result that all forfeited the promise of life. All without exception became prey to sin, earned its wages and died in conformity with the rest of the temporal creation (1 K. 8:46; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 5:12, cf. 3:23).
Babies, however, like Adam and Eve before them, at the start of their lives do not know the commandment (law) and so are incapable of breaking it (cf. Rom. 3:19; 7:1,7). While the sinful parents of the exodus all sinned and died in the wilderness, their little ones survived because they were innocent (Dt. 1:39) and under the leadership of Joshua entered the Promised Land (Num. 14:3,26-36). This shows beyond reasonable doubt that the received dogma of original sin, which is in any case rejected by the Jews and even the Orthodox, is false. Sin, which may be defined as transgression (James 2:11, cf. 1 John 3:4), does not exist apart from the commandment. The apostle Paul states explicitly that where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:8f.).
It is into the sink of the universal sinfulness of rational men and women that eventually the promised Messiah came. His purpose was not to play the role of a military leader capable of defeating Israel’s enemies, especially the Romans, but to deal with sin (Mt. 1:21). To do this he had to live as a man among men, uniquely keep the law to perfection (Lev. 18:5; Mt. 5:48), please his heavenly Father (Mt. 3:17) and permanently receive the Holy Spirit (John 1:32; 6:27). In other words, he had of necessity (Gk dei, John 3:7) like all those who were flesh (born of woman), to be born again from above (John 3:3,5,6). In his case, this occurred at his baptism when his Father acknowledged and confirmed him as his Son who had successfully kept the law. He had come into the world not to offer sacrifices as in the OT but where all others had failed to do God’s will in the flesh (Heb. 10:5-9, cf. Rom. 8:3). And that is precisely what he did and was consequently rewarded by the permanent gift of the Spirit (John 1:32; 6:27) at his baptism (Mt. 3:13-17). He had uniquely met the precondition of life (Lev. 18:5).
But Jesus did not undergo incarnation (become flesh) simply to prove his personal prowess. As the author of Hebrews goes on to point out in 10:10, we as his fellow human beings who believe in him have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. In chapter 2 our author had painted the picture in greater detail. There he told his readers that the Saviour was crowned with glory after suffering on behalf of his people (2:9). He goes on to say that it was fitting that God in bringing many sons to glory should have made the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. Together they were all brothers (Heb. 2:11-13, cf. John 17:2) and hence heirs of a common glory provided they suffered with him (Rom. 8:17).
Jesus Both Saviour and Saved
The author of Hebrews makes another point that needs to be highlighted since we so easily fail to recognize it. Behind the work of Jesus, the man of flesh and blood, is the eternal living God. Though Jesus was himself the Word of God, yet when he became flesh he was necessarily weak and dependent (2 Cor. 13:4, cf. Rom. 8:3). As a true man and our model or paradigm, he needed the full support of his heavenly Father like the rest of us (John 5:19,30; 6:38). Indeed, our author goes further and suggests that even Jesus needed salvation if not from any sins he might have committed (cf. 1 Pet. 2:22). He says that in the days of his flesh he offered up prayers and supplications to him who was able to save him from committing sin (cf. Heb. 2:17a; 4:15) and its consequence death (Heb. 5:7). He thus learned obedience through what he suffered and became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchisedek (Heb. 5:8f.). We need to note too that apart from John 2:19 and 10:17f. Jesus’ resurrection from the grave is always attributed to God and regarded as a demonstration of his power (e.g. Eph. 1:19-22). Truly no flesh will boast before God (1 Cor. 1:29) who is not indebted to anyone or anything (Rom. 11:35). He will not give his glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). If we read that before Jesus every knee will bow (Phil. 2:10f.), we need to recognize that in so doing it is to the glory of God (2:11, cf. Isa. 45:23; Rom. 14:10-12).
Salvation from the Flesh
Jesus plainly teaches that all who are flesh, that is, born according to nature and regardless of sin need to be born again (cf. John 3:6). Why? Because we belong by nature to this transient world and have to endure the test to qualify for the next (Ex. 20:20; Dt. 8:2,16, cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:7, etc.). We must prove ourselves pure in heart and spirit to be accepted by a holy God. Those with defiled consciences cannot stand before God (Heb. 9:9,13f.;10:1-4). When Jesus died, he committed his sinless spirit to his Father (Luke 23:46) leaving his body in the grave. In other words, while his flesh and blood could not enter heaven, his spirit could. It broke through the curtain that had been rent in two (Heb. 6:19f.; 10:19f.). Of course, his spirit returned to his uncorrupted body and he was able to resume his earthly life. However, his work was to all intents and purposes finished (John 17:4; 19:30) but having in his retirement (!) given his disciples their final instructions, he then at his ascension took his seat at his Father’s side in his heavenly kingdom not merely spiritually qualified and perfected but corporeally changed. His bodily transformation crowned his earthly work (cf. 1 Pet. 1:4; 5:4,10).
What did this change involve? Taking his flesh to heaven? Not at all. As Paul says, flesh and blood cannot by nature inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). Just as his natural spirit had had to be reborn from above, so now his body had to be transformed. (2* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) An eternal spirit could not possibly be permanently housed in a temporal body of flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1), in what was effectively a temporary tent (John 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:13). Was this on account of sin as has been traditionally taught? By no means. After all, God had given him his body of flesh when he was ‘born of woman’ (Gal. 4:4, cf. Heb. 10:5), but this was the product of a futile creation. Now, because he was naturally subject to age (Luke 3:23; John 8:57) and hence decay (2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 8:13), his fleshly nature had to be changed (cf. Heb. 1:10-12). So he had to be given a body of glory to fit him for heaven (Phil. 3:21, cf. Rom. 8:30) and reception of the eternal blessings of David (Acts 13:34), and this occurred at the end of his life at his ascension from the earth. Escape at last!
Salvation from the Physical Creation
It is common nowadays in the 21st century under traditional Augustinian influence to assume that since creation ‘fell’ when Adam ‘fell’ that creation will be restored and redeemed once sin, and therefore death, has been eradicated. (3* The deeply dubious idea that Jesus was changed at his resurrection while still in the flesh is used to support this. See my Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?, John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus, etc.) But is this a viable proposition? I suggest not. As we saw above, the truth is that material creation was never perfect: it was only ‘good’ (Gen. 1) or fit to serve a temporal purpose. It was made ‘by hand’ (cheiropoietos, Isa. 45:11f.), an OT designation indicating its pejorative nature in contrast with heaven which was ‘not made by hand’ (acheiropoietos, cf. Heb. 9:11,24). (4* See my Manufactured Or Not So.) And since we as flesh stem from the earth and are consequently dust (Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:46-49, etc.), both our flesh and the material earth/creation itself must of necessity be changed or rather replaced by divine design. Sin does not come into the picture. This is surely what Paul teaches in Romans 8:18-25 and the author of Hebrews in 1:10-12. Like the flesh which in contrast with God himself is mortal and corruptible, the physical creation in general was likewise subjected to futility and destruction from the start. Why? Because God had something better in mind for those who were to be his adopted children. Paul calls this an invisible, and therefore a permanent (2 Cor. 4:18), hope (Rom. 8:24f.). Clearly he means heaven itself, the Father’s house to which Jesus returned and for which Paul himself strove with might and main to attain (Phil. 3:14). At the end of his life he was convinced that he would reach his goal (2 Tim. 4:18) and gain his crown of righteousness (4:8) just as Jesus himself had been crowned with glory (Heb. 2:9). He was not alone, for Peter entertained the same idea. He also had a living hope and believed in an inheritance that was imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1 Pet. 1:3f.). What is more he too thought in terms of a crown of glory awaiting him (1 Pet. 5:4). James likewise thought similarly: he hoped to receive his crown of life too (James 1:12). This was doubtless the eternal life that God had promised from the start (1 John 2:25, cf. Rev. 2:7). And John entertained the same hope (Rev. 2:10).
The Restoration and Redemption of the Physical Creation
To hope for the restoration and redemption of the physical creation as many seem to do nowadays in the 21st century is therefore completely contrary to the mission of God (pace C.Wright, N.T.Wright, p.179, Surprised By Hope) which is to bring down the curtain on the earthly life of this evil age (Gal. 1:4) of affliction, trial and tribulation (2 Cor. 4:17) once its purpose has been achieved (Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 21:1-5). To restore creation is reminiscent of the Israelites returning to Egypt or Christians yearning to return to Judaism, reverting from the new covenant to the old or from Judaism to paganism. Once we are launched on the pilgrimage of life there is no fetching back the Age of Gold, returning to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:22-24), to paradise, to the womb (John 3:4), to Egypt, to Judaism (Heb. 3,4), or to the world (2 Pet. 2:20-22, cf. 2 Tim. 4:10; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17). The entire book of Hebrews is a warning against this. (5* See my No Going Back. As Dt. 17:16; 28:68; Hosea 8:13b; 9:3; 11:5 indicate, going back involves pain and punishment.)
Rather we are to follow in the steps of Jesus our paradigmatic pioneer who went from ground to glory without deviating except to die freely on our behalf. (6* See my The Journey of Jesus.) Just as he led the way (John 14:6) to glory (Heb. 2:10; 12:1f.), so we follow his lead (John 17:24). “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30 ESV). Where he is we shall be too (John 12:26); where he goes we shall go too (Rev. 14:4), and so we shall be forever with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:17, cf. John 12:26; 14:3). This is salvation indeed. Glory to God alone.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Leicester, 1996.
N.T.Wright, Surprised By Hope, London, 2007.
The Challenge of Jesus, Downers Grove, 1999.