In considering the claims of Christianity, many people have experienced difficulty in trying to understand the “why” and “how” of man’s salvation. Why does man need to be saved in the first place? Assuming that man does need to be saved, why is he so important that God would want to save him? Just what is needed for humans to be saved? And what is required on the part of humans to gain that salvation? These questions penetrate to the heart of the human condition, and they deserve solid, understandable answers. The subject under consideration is the eternal destiny of each of us; no topic could be more worthy of a clear explanation.
Why Man Needs to be Saved
The simple answer to the question of why man is in need of salvation is “sin.” Sin is defined as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude or nature.” In other words, any form of disobedience to God – even in our minds – is sin. The Bible tells us clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means that every one of us is guilty. Even worse is the penalty for sin: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So if every one of us is guilty, then every one of us is also condemned to an eternity of separation from God, which is what spiritual death really is.
It might sound on first hearing as if we could be on good terms with God if we could just avoid sinning. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. The apostle Paul quotes the psalmist as saying, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1). The problem is not just that we commit sins; it is that sin is inherent in our very natures. Our first parents disobeyed God and the effects of that original sin have been passed on to each of us. “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). We are guilty of sin from the time of our birth and are inclined toward sin during our entire lives. There is nothing we can do in and of ourselves to merit salvation before a holy God who cannot tolerate sin in His presence (Habakkuk 1:13). For this reason, if salvation is to be accomplished, its source must be God, not ourselves.
Why God Wants to Save Us
As to the question of why God should want to save sinful humans, there is also a simple, one-word answer: love. We are told at John 3:16, 17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Human beings are a special creation of God, made male and female in His image (Gen. 1:27). To say that we are made in God’s image does not imply that God has a physical body as we do. Rather, as Baker states, “the view that man is the image [of God] because of one or all of the inner qualities is probably closest to the heart of the matter.” In other words, man reflects the personality of God in his psychological makeup, reason, spiritual qualities or moral awareness.
This does not mean, however, that God is moved to provide for our salvation because of any merit He sees in us as individuals. Each of us stands condemned before Him. Even the acts we perform that other humans might describe as “good works” are generally performed with impure motives or are otherwise tainted by sin. That is why the Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” No work we can do of ourselves can be pleasing to Him or have merit for our salvation. It is because God has created us to reflect His own personality and because love is one of His dominant traits (John 4:8), that His own love moved Him to provide the solution to our sin problem.
What Man’s Salvation Requires
The situation in which man finds himself with regard to sin presents a dilemma. The penalty for sin is death, and all of us are guilty of sin from birth onward. Because God is a God of perfect justice as well as a God of perfect love, He cannot simply overlook sin. The penalty must be paid. Yet none of us is able to pay the penalty for ourselves so as to be forgiven, much less for anyone else. What possible arrangement can be made for the salvation of the billions of sinful persons who have lived on earth throughout history?
The Old Testament presents the concept of substitution – that the sins of a person or persons can be transferred, or imputed, to another. In Old Testament times, animals were offered as sacrifices to God on behalf of the sins of the people (Leviticus 1:4). These animal sacrifices did not actually remove sin, but foreshadowed the means that God would provide to bring about real forgiveness.
In the case of sinful humanity, a perfect and unblemished sacrifice would be needed. Any sacrifice that was itself tainted by sin could not be offered on behalf of another. Additionally, any sacrifice that was offered would need to be of sufficient value to atone for the sins of all humans – billions of them. Really, no finite being could meet these criteria. Only One who was God Himself could “step up to the plate” and provide for man’s ultimate salvation from sin and death. And God Himself, in the Person of the Son, Jesus Christ, did so. He was sent by the Father to take on human flesh, becoming one of us, so that He could die as a sacrifice for the sins of all. The apostle Paul writes: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Several things happened at the death of Christ. First, He made propitiation for our sins. This means that He offered satisfaction to the Father that the penalty had been paid. Thus, we could be freed from the need to pay that penalty. John writes: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, NASB).
Second, He redeemed us. In effect, He paid a ransom for us, buying us out of our bondage to sin and death. According to Baker, this payment was made to the law or holiness of God, in order to secure our release. 
Third, He reconciled us with God. Our sinful condition and God’s perfect holiness formed a barrier between us and God, making us His enemies and preventing us from enjoying fellowship with Him. Scripture teaches that through the death of Christ, God has reconciled mankind to Himself, thus removing that enmity, allowing us to have a relationship with Him and to approach Him in prayer (Rom. 5:10, 11; 2 Cor. 5:19).
Our Part in Salvation
A jailer in Philippi asked this question of the apostle Paul and his companion Silas: “What must I do to be saved?” The response was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Other texts in the New Testament indicate, however, that “believing” is more than mere intellectual assent. It is not enough to acknowledge that Jesus lived, died on the Cross and was raised from the grave and that all the statements made in the Bible about Him are true. While it is true that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8, 9), that faith must be of such a nature as to affect every area of our lives and to produce “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22, 23). As James pointed out in His epistle, demons also believe in God, yet they tremble because their intellectual belief is not of a sort that produces salvation (James 2:19).
True saving faith is not something we can produce from our own efforts. It is impossible to “work up” faith from within ourselves. Ephesians 2:8, 9, cited above, calls faith “the gift of God.” Prior to our being able to exercise saving faith, God must work in us a miracle of regeneration. In a spiritual sense, each of us is “dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). A dead person can do nothing to revive himself; any help must come from another. Therefore, it is God who takes the initiative in our salvation by imparting to us spiritual life through the Holy Spirit. We are then “born again” (which is the meaning of regeneration) and are able to respond to Him in genuine faith.
The nature of real faith is such that it is always accompanied by repentance from sins. This does not mean that we are able to completely stop sinning in this life. But it does mean that we change our mind in such a way that we recognize ourselves as sinners and acknowledge our need for Christ as Savior. Genuine repentance results in a new attitude toward sin – we desire to repudiate our sin and to live a righteous life before God. Since we now believe that He has bought us with His blood, we are now His possessions and must live our lives in obedience to Him.
Nonetheless, the sin nature remains, and the Christian life is one of struggle between the spiritual desire to obey God and the pull of the flesh toward sin. Paul described it in this way: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). By means of the Holy Spirit living within us, God gives us the power to have victory over sin. Where we once had no choice but to sin, we now have the ability to say “no” to sin and to live righteous lives.
What Happens When We Believe
Several things change in our lives at the time of our putting true faith in Christ. The first is that our sins are forgiven and we are given eternal life. We are assured that we will ultimately spend eternity with Jesus. This initial forgiveness of sin is called justification; it means that God has declared us righteous before Him on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. Two things happen in justification: our sin is imputed (reckoned or charged) to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us.
At the same time that we receive Christ in repentance and faith, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, bringing us fresh spiritual life and a new outlook. Our predominant desire becomes one aimed at pleasing God in our lives. Throughout the Christian life, the Spirit continues to work in us to produce holiness and Christ-like behavior. This process is termed sanctification, and Paul assured the Philippian Christians that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). He further urged the Philippians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12, 13). Even when we do good works as Christians, they do not spring from our own righteousness, but are the work of God in us.
When the “day of Christ Jesus” to which Paul alluded finally arrives, we will become like Him in every way. Our sanctification will be perfected and we will be completely holy. And even our physical bodies will be like His, free of any defect and “raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43). This will be the final stage of salvation, known as glorification. At that time, “when he [Jesus] appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Our Greatest Need
Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). We are drawn to Him by the hearing of His Word. Paul wrote, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom 10:13, 14). As we take in the words of Scripture, whether spoken or written, God places the responsibility upon us to repent of our sins, to respond in faith and to receive His Son into our lives as both Savior and Lord. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12, 13). Will you receive Him in faith, completely willing to turn from your sins and follow Him from this time forward?
Baker, William H. Survey of Theology 2 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2001.
Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
Dorman, Ted M. Faith for all Seasons, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev.
Swindoll, Charles R. The Grace Awakening. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003.
Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.
Zodhiates, Spiros. Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (NASB). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1990.
 Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev., p. 1254
 William H. Baker, Survey of Theology 2 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2001, p. 50.
 Ibid, p. 17.