Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Does It Mean for God to Save Us?

What does it look like when God saves a person? What is included in God's work of salvation? We can begin to answer these questions by taking a look at Ezekiel 36:22-38, a prophetic passage that describes God's saving work among His people. In Ezekiel's context, God's people had defiled the land by their sin and had been sent into exile among the nations where they continued to profane God's name (Ezek. 36:17-21). God therefore declared His intent through the prophet Ezekiel to save His people for the sake of His holy name. This renewing work began with their return to the land under King Cyrus the Persian, but its fullness came with out-pouring of the Spirit following Christ's ascension (Acts 2). And so what is included in this saving work?

1. God sprinkles His people clean from sin's defilement. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses..." (36:25). Sin defiles those who sin and separates them from God, who is holy and pure. But when God saves people, he cleanses them from their sin so that they are pure and holy in His sight. How does He do this? By the blood of Christ, shed for sinners (1 John 1:7, 9; Rev. 7:14). As this verse anticipates, this cleansing is symbolized and confirmed to His people in the water of baptism (Eph. 5:26, Acts 22:16). 

2. God gives His people a new heart, produced by the Spirit, which results in obedience to God's rules. "And I will give you a new heart ... And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (36:26–27). Our former heart was a "heart of stone" (36:26), dead to God, unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), and blind to the truth (1 Cor. 2:14). But God changes us on the inside, renewing our understanding and will, giving us faith to receive Christ and His cleansing blood (1 Cor. 2:12-13, Eph. 2:1-10) and giving us a new character marked by virtues which Paul describes as "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22). Because of this internal work of the Spirit, we grow more obedient to God's law. The Spirit does not replace the law, but rather causes us to walk in its ways. 

3. God adopts His people as His own, and binds Himself to be their God. " shall be my people, and I will be your God" (36:28). This is what it means for God to establish His covenant with a people (see similar statements in Gen. 17:8, Ex. 6:7, Lev. 26:12). A covenant is an alliance, a bond of friendship, a fellowship sealed by an oath. It is a two-way relationship, in which God graciously blesses His people and they respond with love, obedience, and praise. God dwells with His people as their Father and refuge, and they can confidently approach Him in prayer. Not only do we gain a new standing before God and a new character, but we are also embraced by God as His people. 

4. God grants His people repentance, so that they are ashamed for their sinful ways. "Then you will remember your evil ways ... you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act ... Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel" (36:31–32). One result of having a new heart is that you recognize your sin for what it is. A Christian is not ashamed for his sins merely because of public embarrassment, but because he sees that his sins are defiling, loathsome, shameful, and evil. He grieves over his sins, he hates his sins, and he abhors his own sinfulness and depravity. And with this sense of his sin, he turns from it to God and His grace, knowing that he is saved not because of his own works, but because of God's mercy and love. This results in peace, joy, thanksgiving, and growth in righteousness (Ps. 32). This cycle continues all this life, as we struggle with sin and progress towards holiness. 

5. God builds up His people as a community. "And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited' ... like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people" (36:35, 38). God does not save individuals for them to remain in isolation. His salvation of individuals is part of a bigger plan. God is gathering His church and spreading His kingdom. He causes it to be fruitful and multiply, that it might fill the earth and subdue it to Christ. When God saves a person, He unites that person to the church. He gives the believer a community, restoring love and fellowship with God and each other. And He gives the believer to the community, equipping each one of us to serve the rest of the body and contribute to its further growth. This work of salvation then also looks forward to its future completion at the coming of Christ, when the church shall be gathered and perfected, paradise restored, and God glorified for all eternity. 

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