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So Great Salvation
What It Means to Believe in Jesus Christ
By Charles C. Ryrie
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1997 Charles C. Ryrie
All rights reserved.
GRACE AT CAMP
Grace is a difficult, perhaps impossible, concept to understand.
In seminary days I had a job working with underprivileged junior-high and high- school kids at the downtown YMCA. On what was then the outskirts of Dallas was a camp we used every Friday night when weather permitted. We would load a bus with forty to fifty kids, head for the camp, and enjoy an evening cookout and games. On special occasions we would sleep there overnight and return Saturday afternoon. Overnight camping trips were usually rewards given to those who had successfully passed certain requirements in our weekly Bible clubs. So the kids who stayed overnight after the others went home were rather special.
One Friday night—or, more accurately, early one Saturday morning—I awoke, startled by some unexplained noise. Soon I discovered that a few of my leaders had sneaked out of the dorm, gone down to the lake, launched one of the boats, and were having a great time far from shore. Not only was this against every rule in the book, but it was dangerous. When the kids knew I knew where they were, they came immediately into shore. Like dogs with tails between their legs, they meekly went back to bed, wondering what punishment awaited them in the morning.
For me, sleep was now impossible. The night before, I had talked to these Christian young people about forgiving one another. So as I paced the grounds in those early- morning hours deliberating their fate, my own words from the night before kept coming back to me, and back to me, and back to me.
If I don't give them some punishment, I argued with myself, they will never be impressed with the seriousness of what they did. I have a responsibility to the Y to enforce their rules and punish the violators.
But the more I debated with myself, talked to the Lord, thought about a number of relevant Bible verses (I discovered again that night that you can prove almost anything with a Bible verse), the more Ephesians 4:32 grew larger and larger in my thinking: "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you."
But, Lord, I can't forgive them; they don't deserve it.
Neither did I.
But, Lord, I have to enforce the rules.
I'm glad, Lord, You didn't.
But, Lord, if I'm too kind, the kids will think I'm weak.
I never thought You were weak, only loving.
But, Lord, first I'll make them promise never to do something like this again, and then I'll forgive them.
It's a good thing You didn't require that of me, or I never would have been forgiven.
... just as God forgave me.
How was that? No conditions or promises ahead of time. No works at the time. No remembrance afterward.
But, Lord, You're God—You can do anything.
"You're My child," He said. "Imitate Me."
So with great reluctance and with very little faith, I told the Lord I would.
And then, in the morning, I told the kids.
"You did a terrible thing. It could have had disastrous consequences for yourselves, your families, the Y, and me. But I forgive you unconditionally and completely."
"You're kidding," they said. "There's got to be a catch somewhere."
"No," I insisted, "you are fully forgiven." And then I told them what the Lord had been saying to me that night about His grace, and how I wanted them to have another taste of that grace.
I didn't even make them do the cleaning up that day. I did it myself because I didn't want them to think they could earn even a little bit of that forgiveness.
The rest of the story? As long as those particular kids were in my clubs they were the epitome (as much as kids that age can be) of goodness, helpfulness, and usefulness. They never presumed on that grace.
Grace is indeed a difficult, perhaps impossible, concept to understand.
If it was difficult for those kids to understand an act of grace that forgave one sin on one night, how much more difficult for us to comprehend God's grace that forgives all our sins every day and night, without preconditions, without works, and without remembrance.
We can learn some important matters about grace from this experience.
First, grace is unmerited favor. As a concise definition of grace, this serves well. More elaborate definitions have their place; but simply stated, grace is unmerited favor. It is undeserved on the part of the recipient. It is unearned and unearnable. Those kids had no claim on my grace. They were in a state of total demerit. Anything I might do could not be in response to any merit they had (for they had none at that point) nor as a reward for anything they had done (they only deserved to be punished). My grace that night was pure unmerited favor.
Second, grace is not cheap. Grace is expensive. It is free to the recipient but costly to the donor. The only way one may say that grace is not very costly is if the particular benefit costs the donor very little. My forgiveness that night cost those kids nothing. It cost me a lot of agonizing and soul-searching, which is nothing in comparison with what grace cost our Lord. But to use the word cheap in the same breath with the grace of God in salvation seems almost blasphemous. It cost our Lord Jesus His life. Some may insult grace, reject it, trample on it, or disgrace it, but that does not lower its infinite value.
Third, it is not easy to believe someone who offers grace. Those kids were dumbfounded when I announced the verdict of grace. They could not believe what they were hearing. And why should they? From day one they had been reared (and so are we all) in a merit system, in which acceptance is based on performance. "Do this and you will be rewarded. Fail to do this and you will be punished." This kind of merit system permeates all of life and most religions. It is not easy to believe someone who says that he or she will do something good for us that we do not deserve.
Human works are like termites in God's structure of grace. They start small, but, if unchecked, they can bring down the entire structure. And what are such works? Anything I can do to gain any amount of merit, little or much. Water baptism could be one such work if I view it not as an important or even necessary result of being saved, but as a requisite to be saved. It is a work even if I insist that it is God who gives me the desire to want to be baptized that I might be saved.
The same is true for surrender. If surrender is something I must do as a part of believing, then it is a work, and grace has been diluted to the extent to which I actually do surrender.
Fourth, grace that is received changes one's life and behavior. Those kids, though really not bad before that night, showed a number of changes in their lives. Their bond to me personally was much stronger. They followed me around like puppy dogs anxious to do whatever they could to please me. And they had new insight into the love of their Savior for them.
The Gospel is the good news of the grace of God to give forgiveness and eternal life. Let's keep that Gospel so full of grace that there is no room for anything else to be added to dilute or pollute the true grace of God.CHAPTER 2
A good choice of words is essential if we are to state the Gospel clearly and accurately.
How often I have heard the retort, "It's only a matter of semantics." In my experience it usually came from students using it as a defense mechanism to justify a poor answer to a question. And usually the question involved defining or explaining carefully the meaning of a biblical doctrine or concept. "A matter of semantics" was supposed to excuse fuzzy thinking and a poor, if not wrong, choice of words.
IS SEMANTICS IMPORTANT?
Actually, semantics is not an excuse, nor is it incidental; it is the whole point. Semantics involves the study of meanings of words; so if a person uses words that do not convey the meaning he or she is attempting to express, then a different meaning comes across. If semantics is the study of meanings, then one has to be alert to semantics in all communication.
For example, when an attorney draws up a contract, he or she must pay careful attention to semantics. The choice of words may determine whether or not the contract, if challenged, will remain in force or can be broken. The meaning of the words—semantics—forms the basis for the validity and intention of that contract.
Likewise, Bible students and preachers must pay careful attention to semantics. How carefully they express the meanings of verses, passages, and doctrines will determine the effectiveness and accuracy of communicating God's message to others. (I am not speaking of the matter of differing interpretations. One can hold a wrong interpretation of a passage and yet express it clearly; so too may one have a correct interpretation and express it badly.)
THE PURPOSE OF LANGUAGE
Language was given by God for the purpose of His being able to communicate with man. To be sure, man has corrupted language; but God saw to it that He had sufficient vehicles in languages with which He could communicate to us and we to Him. Although language was confused at the Tower of Babel so that people could no longer understand each other's speech, God nevertheless chose Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic as sufficient and adequate languages to convey His revelation of truth in the Bible. And, in the other direction, we find English and German and French and any other language on earth adequate to carry our communication in prayer to God.
Christian philosopher Gordon Clark wrote:
If God created man in His own rational image and endowed him with the power of speech, then a purpose of language, in fact the chief purpose of language, would naturally be the revelation of truth to man and the prayers of man to God. In a theistic philosophy one ought not to say that all language has been devised in order to describe and discuss the finite objects of our sense-experience.... On the contrary, language was devised by God, that is, God created man rational for the purpose of theological expression.
If we acknowledge that language came from God so that He can communicate to us (and we to Him), then semantics, which studies the meanings of words, is crucial if we wish to communicate His truth accurately.
Furthermore, it seems to me that those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible ought especially to be concerned with accuracy in communicating the truth. All the Bible is without error and important to us. Certainly how we as Christians express the Gospel ought to be our greatest concern. We do not want to confuse or shortchange or obscure God's good news of His grace—how He gave His Son so that we might have eternal life through faith in Him. Semantics is key in understanding and communicating the Gospel.
STATING AND MISSTATING THE GOSPEL
Observe this random sampling of expressions of the Gospel taken from tracts, sermons, books, and radio and TV messages. I list them without documentation since the point is not who said these but to show what was said and to illustrate how varied and confusing these statements are. If we gave even half of them to an unsaved person, which and what would he be expected to believe?
Here they are:
1. Repent, believe, confess your sin to God, and confess Him before man and you will be saved.
2. The clearest statement of the Gospel in the New Testament is found in Luke 9:23: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me."
3. Perhaps the most comprehensive invitation to salvation in the Epistles comes in James 4:7–10: "Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you "
4. May the Lord reveal to the sinners that the only way for them to be saved from their sins is to repent with a godly sorrow in their hearts to the Lord.
5. Utter the prayer of the Prodigal Son—ask Jesus to be your Lord and Master.
6. Come forward and follow Christ in baptism.
7. Place your hand in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus.
8. Find Christ by praying through to Him.
9. Believe in Him, trust Him, accept Him, commit your life to Him.
10. We have the warning of Christ that He will not receive us into His kingdom until we are ready to give up all, until we are ready to turn from all sin in our lives.
11. God offers eternal life freely to sinners who will surrender to Him in humble, repentant faith.
12. Do we literally have to give away everything we own to become Christians? No, but we do have to be willing to forsake all.
13. Matthew 7:13–14 is pure Gospel: "Enter through the narrow gate ..."
14. No one can receive Christ as his Savior while he rejects Him as his Lord.
15. Give your heart to Christ.
16. Ask Jesus to come into your heart.
Not all these statements are incorrect or equally good or bad. But they are not all saying the same thing. They are not expressing the same truth only in different words. The differences cannot be harmonized by saying, "It's only a matter of semantics." And yet they all purport to be explaining the way of salvation.
Just as words were the means God used to record the Gospel in the Scriptures, so words are the means we use to explain the Gospel to others. Therefore, a correct choice of words is important, even essential, in stating the Gospel well.
Notice the different key words in those preceding statements:
Lord and Master.
Turn from all sin.
Some words stand out as poor, even wrong, choices for stating the Gospel. Many would agree that coupling the word baptism with the Gospel results in a wrong expression of the Gospel message. But others disagree with this. To them water baptism is a necessary requirement for salvation. For many, faith and works cannot be linked as requirements for salvation. For others, works are involved in becoming a child of God. Whether baptism or works is required in order to be saved is a matter of semantics that in turn becomes a matter of a true or false Gospel.
Most readers of this book will probably agree that baptism and works are words that should not be used in the Gospel message simply because they mean something that is not a part of the Gospel message. That seems clear enough.
But what about the meaning of a word like repentance? That does not seem so clear. Is it part of the Gospel message? Is it a requirement to be saved? Is it only a matter of indifference whether one uses the word or not in presenting the Gospel?
Or what about the word Lord? What does it mean if it is made a part of the Gospel message? What about Messiah? God? Master?
Or what about the word give, as in "Give your heart to Christ"? Is that actually what has to be done if one is going to be saved? Is give another way of saying trust? And if it is, then is it true that in order to be saved, I must trust my heart to Christ? Or should I say, "Give my life to Christ"?
These are important semantic differences because they give different meanings to the Gospel message. Some give a wrong message; others, an unclear one. But we must strive to use the words that give a clear witness to the grace of God. It is not that God cannot use an unclear message; doubtless He does this more often that He would prefer to. But why should He have to? Why don't we sharpen our understanding of what the Gospel is about so that we can present it as clearly as possible, using the right words to herald the Good News correctly?
Words are crucial. How terribly important they are in statements like these: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and ... He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). "These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31).
We shall discuss some of the crucial words in the following chapters with the goal that this will clarify our thinking and then our presentation of God's good news.
Excerpted from So Great Salvation by Charles C. Ryrie. Copyright © 1997 Charles C. Ryrie. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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