By Tom Wells
I am pretty sure that when most of us who live in the western world hear the word "savior" it brings Jesus Christ to mind. We think of "Savior" with a capital "S". In a way, it is quite right that we do so. "Savior" has become a proper name, a synonym for Jesus. But, of course, "savior" need not have a capital "s" and it need not be a proper name at all. In fact, in making it a proper name we run the risk of losing its original meaning. A man may think of Jesus when he hears "Savior", without calling up any part of the meaning that the word conveyed when it first was applied to Him.
A savior, obviously, is a deliverer. He is a rescuer, a liberator. Implied in the word is the notion that the man to be delivered is in some danger, a danger from which he is not able to save himself. Then his rescuer steps in, either to destroy the thing that threatens him, or to take him where he is beyond its reach. Afterwards we may speak of the man as having been "saved", and his rescuer as his "savior". There are fictional saviors, white knights who care nothing for the flaming nostrils of assorted dragons, if only they may rescue damsels from being fatally scorched. There are real-life saviors also, the heroes of a mine disaster, or the troops who stem the tide of a foreign invasion at the cost of their own lives. A country or a nation may owe its future to the zeal of such men. "Savior" is not too high a title for each and all of them.
Let us see now how all this applies to the Lord Jesus. Why do we call Him "Savior"?
There is first the matter of danger. If we ask what danger mankind is in, we have already seen something of the answer. Man is guilty and corrupt. These barriers keep him from knowing and obeying God. And, eventu-ally, they will be his downfall when he stands before God as Judge. That is man's danger. For as surely as God is Creator and Lawgiver, He is Judge as well. There can be no doubt about that. We might have drawn that conclusion without our Bibles. God made man for God's own purposes. He told us to live so as to aim at His goals. It can be no surprise, then, if He calls us to account for what we have done, or not done. We can expect nothing less than that.
But, of course, that will be our undoing. We must ask what the Psalmist asked more than two thousand years ago:
The answer is obvious: none could stand. No one at all! Our danger, however, is not the whole story. If that were not so, there would be no point to this book.
Over against our danger stands the Lord Jesus. In Jesus Christ the word "Savior" comes into its own. In fact, in translating from Greek into English, if we want to catch the meaning of the name "Jesus" in one word, "Savior" is the word we must use. Just before Jesus' birth Joseph was told what He should be named:
That verse neatly sums it up. The Savior is Jesus; our danger comes from the guilt and corruption of our sins.
I want to come first to this matter of guilt. When you sear Jesus say "Come to me" in this chapter, I want you to understand Him to mean "Come to me for forgiveness". To be saved from sin is more than having your guilt taken away. Much more! But that is the place for you to start. It is of the sinner's guilt, taken away by forgiveness, that Jesus first speaks when He says, "Come to me . . . as Savior".
If I were to say that it was quite hard for God to forgive you, what would you think? I believe I know what would happen. You would misunderstand me, and it would not be your fault. My words might seem to imply a reluctance on God's part, as though I meant that God could hardly bring Himself to pardon you, or that His forgiveness - if - when it might come - would be half-hearted or grudging. But I would not mean that. Not at all!
I want, however, to hold fast to my words. They are the key to the greatness of Christ as Savior. God does not save sinners reluctantly, but He does so at great cost. It is not hard for God to bring Himself to rescue men, but the way He chose to do it brought enormous pain and sorrow on Christ. Christ suffered the full penalty connected with the breaking of God's law. That is the sense in which it was hard.
The scandal of Christianity is the God-man dying on a cross. Jesus was not born in regal splendor. Nor did He pass His life in ease. Far from it! But what is all of that compared to the way His life on earth ended? There He is, mocked and despised by men for whom He prays; and there, at the cross, He is apparently forgotten by the One He had called "Father". Yet this terrific sight reveals the heart of our message. If you want forgiveness you will find it in His death. You will find it here or not at all. It is His death that brings the penitent sinner pardon.
Just now, as I finished the last paragraph, I experienced a bit of a misgiving. My fear is this. Even though I have told you that the cross is of first importance I can imagine someone saying, "Yes, yes, of course! We've always heard that; we know that. Now let's get on with it!" But there is no "getting on with" Christianity unless you linger here. I hope to make that plainer in what follows.
Here are Jesus' own words, summing up the meaning of His life. Calling Himself "the Son of Man", He says,
Then, after the death of Jesus, His apostle Paul says,
Again Paul writes,
Once more he says,
Each of these quotations is a fair sample of the New Testament view. The death of Christ is the center from which all else takes its meaning. Why did Christ come? Christ came to die.
The death of Christ raises two questions. The first is this. How could you or I possibly benefit from the death of Jesus Christ? What connection can there be between His death and the forgiveness of our sins? That is the first question. The second has to do with His motives. Why would Christ want to come to earth to suffer pain and rejection? What moved Him? To find answers to these questions it will be well to start with the words of Jesus quoted above, in which He says that He came "to give his life a ransom for many". In calling His life "a ransom" Jesus gives us a key to the link between His death and the forgiveness of sins.
Nowadays, I think, we most often hear the word "ran-som" applied to a kidnaping case. Some prominent person (or the child of such a person) disappears. Then a relative finds a note or receives a phone call which tells the story.
"If you ever want to see James Brown alive again you bad better see to it that we get one million dollars before daybreak. If you co-operate he will be returned un-harmed. I don't need to tell you what will happen if you don't!" An exchange is demanded: dollars for Brown!
A ransom, then, is an exchange. Most often the exchange involves money, but that is not necessary. It might be anything. If they wanted to, the kidnappers could demand another person as ransom: Smith for Brown, or else! In that case one life would be given for the other. There would be a substitution. Mr Smith would take Mr Brown's place.
It is this idea of the substitution of one life for another that the Lord Jesus has in mind when He speaks of His own life as "a ransom for many". What He suffers, the "many" ought to have suffered. His death is a death in their place. In dying He honors the law they defied. The punishment that they deserved falls on Him instead. His pain is the result of their guilt.
Long before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah des-cribed this exchange:
These awful words deserve our closest attention.
When a man comes to sense even a little of his own guilt he is likely to cast about for relief. If guilt, to him, means simply the dreary feeling that distracts him from the business he has in hand he will seek to escape that distraction, perhaps by plunging more deeply into his work. He may succeed or he may fail. From the feeling of guilt it is notoriously difficult to escape.
But what can a man do who sees his guilt as the Lord sees it? What hope is there for the one who has been legally judged an offender before the bar of the Almighty? Where shall a man flee who has broken the Law of God? This is a fearful question because it involves more than the man and his feelings. It touches upon every aspect of God's character. Is God just? Yes, of course. Will He change? No, He will not.
"Where shall I run, then?" asks the sinner. "Where shall I go to get out of His grip? I cannot survive the judgment of a holy God!" Well now, here is the good news. If you are that man, the sinner in the way to despair, Isaiah is the prophet for you! He is the prophet of substitution, the prophet of mercy worked out by a just and righteous God!
Look again at Isaiah's words. I mean such words concerning Jesus as these:
Here we have God's way of forgiveness. The Lord has crushed the God-man in our stead, says Isaiah. "He swapped with me!" said a Welsh miner. Yes, He did - and He will "swap" with you, too, if you come to Him. Christ will trade His righteousness for your sin. That is what He will do if you turn to Him just now.
But perhaps you will want to ask a question that is likely to come into the mind of anyone who takes this way of salvation seriously: How can it be right and fair for God to punish the Lord Jesus in my place, so that I may go free? I am the law breaker. Can that be just? Is not that more than a little like giving my neighbor a beating when I misbehave? Where is the justice in that?
Now in one sense this question is unnecessary. We may say, and say it with certainty, that if God has set out to save sinners in this way, then, without a doubt, it is right and fair. We may say this, and we must! This too is involved in trusting in God, in believing in Christ. It is useless to say that we are penitent if we are still ready to sit in judgment over the works of Almighty God when we do not understand them. That would be a strange repentance indeed!
The Bible does, however, throw light on this question in the following way. It tells me that I must never think of the Lord Jesus as an unwilling victim. It is not a case of God getting hold of Jesus and giving Him what I deserved whether He wanted it or not. Just the opposite! As God the Son, He is a chief party to the plan. Here is how the Lord Jesus Himself saw His own death:
These words do not mean that Jesus felt no difficulty in dying, but they show that He did not go reluctantly to the cross. To go or not to go was wholly within His power. It was in no sense thrust upon Him. In fact, we may go a step further and say that it was His very determination to do the will of God in dying for His sheep that overcame the pain and agony and horror and shame of crucifixion.
In closing this chapter I want to come to the second point I made about the death of Christ, the question of His motives. What moved Christ to suffer pain and scorn and rejection? Suppose we grant that He came into the world to die, what moved Him?
There are really two answers to this question, but they can be summed up under a single word: love. It is important to grasp why I have said "two answers" rather than one. If we hear that Jesus died for love's sake we will quite naturally think that it is love for ourselves that is meant. And so it is, in part. I will come to that in a moment. But that is not the first thing. There is another love here: Christ's love for His Father in heaven and for the character of His Father.
Let me ask you a question. If Jesus could have bought forgiveness for you and for me without regard to God's glory, would He have done it? Suppose there had been some short cut to our salvation in which He might have ignored God's justice, would Jesus have taken it? Ask yourself this: if Jesus Christ could have brought us happiness for ever without thinking of the rightness or wrongness of His method, would He have done so? One hardly needs to read the New Testament extensively to get the answer. No, He would not have saved us in such a way.
Jesus Christ could not have endured the thought of a salvation that left a stain on the character of God. Better that all men perish for ever than that men be saved without displaying the justice of God! And why is this so? Because Jesus Christ loved the beauty of the character of God. Christ's death was an act of worship, a tribute to the surpassing wonder of God's holiness. If we do not see His death in this light we miss a chief point in His dying. Justice demanded His death when He became the sinner's substitute! But that is not all. There is this also: Jesus loved God's justice as He loved all else that belonged to the character of God, His Father.
That does not mean, however, that we ought to forget Christ's love for sinners. Not at all! As the God-man the Lord Jesus shares the love and compassion that God has for lost men. As the God-man He feels the pity and mercy that every man would feel for every other man if sin had not robbed us of our primitive humanity. Both of these things are true. Each of these expressions of love beat in the heart of Jesus Christ.
Right here I must guard against a common misunderstanding. There seems to be the idea in the minds of some that God did not love men until Jesus somehow brought Him to do so. If that had been the case it would not be right for me to speak of "the love and compassion God has for lost men". Not then, at least. At that point, there would have been no such love to talk about. The false scheme takes this form. God was full of hatred toward sinners. If He had had His way He would have destroyed us all. But then the Lord Jesus intervened. By His death upon the Cross He turned God's hatred for sinners into love for Sinners.
I want you to see that this view of things is wrong throughout. Everywhere there is the closest harmony between the Father and the Lord Jesus. They simply do not clash. It is unthinkable. We may see this clearly in what is perhaps the best-loved verse in the Bible, John 3:16:
Here it is plain that Christ's mission is the work of God. And that verse does not by any means stand alone. Listen to this:
The truth of these verses is this: The Father and the Son are at one in the salvation of sinful men. Love for sinners proceeds from the very heart of God.
And there is one thing more. The Lord Jesus loves fallen men because He Himself is a man. As a man He has pity and compassion because He is the perfect man, the man who is what all men should be, and would have been, apart from the Fall. Sin is a thief. It has robbed us of the love that God first planted in the heart of man. But it has not robbed Jesus. It is clear that we must love God with all our being. That is still God's prime demand. But Jesus said there is a second command that is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39).
Now we have not done these things, but Jesus has. And in doing that second thing - loving His neighbor - the Lord Jesus has kept nothing back. He once said, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). These were not mere pious words with Jesus. In themselves they were true words. They would have been true if He had simply said them and passed on to some other task. But Jesus did much more than that. He went on to show what they meant in the costliest way possible. He died for His friends. Love sent Jesus to the cross, love as God and love as man. At the cross love bought the right to say: "Come to Me. . . as Savior. Come to Me . . . for forgiveness".
There is pardon with Jesus Christ; it arises from His love. It is already purchased for all who shall ever come to Him.
Will you come? Be encouraged to do so by the promises of Scripture to repentant and believing sinners. Here are typical examples: