The Greatness of our Salvation
In last month’s article we were reflecting on how rich the Lord Jesus was in his pre-incarnate state. He was rich in his freedom from need, rich in the adoration of saints and angels, rich in his possessions, rich in the love of the Father and the Spirit, rich in all that he was as God.
We begin this second article by noting that what was true of the Lord Jesus was equally true both of God as a whole and of each of the other two persons of the Godhead, the Father and the Holy Spirit. If the Son, for example, was rich in the love of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, the Father was equally rich in the love of the Son and the Spirit, and the Spirit in the love of both Father and Son. If the Son was rich in the adoration of saints and angels, so also were the Father and the Spirit. If the possessions of the pre-incarnate Son were vast – encompassing the whole of creation – the Father and the Spirit were just as rich because ownership of creation is joint. If the Son was rich by virtue of all that he was as God so also God as a whole, and so also individually both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.
With that in mind we return to the basic question being addressed in these articles: “What’s so great about the gospel?” We’ve answered that already by looking at the greatness of the Saviour. Our gospel is a great gospel because it sets before us a very great Saviour; one who “though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
In what follows our focus is on the greatness of our salvation. The salvation that comes to us in and through Christ is for many reasons a great salvation. Here is one of them: it is a salvation that enriches the already rich. We ascribe greatness to the Saviour because he enriches the desperately poor. We ascribe greatness to the salvation he purchased for us because it enriches the one who is incalculably rich already.
Our theme, in short, is the bearing of our salvation on God himself. To help us open it up we are going to take our Saviour’s exquisite parables in Luke 15 and reflect on two important facts that they illustrate.
Our departure from God meant loss for God
The parables of Luke 15 are about three lost things – a sheep, a coin, and a son – and in expounding their lostness we tend to focus on the sinner whom these three things represent. We speak of the danger, the helplessness, the folly, the distance from God that being a lost sinner entails and make our appeal accordingly.
In the parables of Luke 15, however, the lostness in question is to be explained with reference to God. These parables are about people who sustain a loss. A man loses a sheep. A woman loses a coin. A father loses a son. All of them lose something. And when, later on, what is lost is found they rejoice.
In this man, this woman, this father, Jesus is giving us a picture of God. God is the man whose sheep has wandered away, the woman who has lost her silver coin, the father whose son has left him. The loss being illustrated is God’s loss. Hesitant as we may be to speak in this way, there is something that God has lost; lost in a way that parallels the losses of these three individuals. Like them, there is something that he once had which he now no longer has. It is something that he values. Something that he rejoices to get back.
In order to understand the reality that lies back of the parables we need to visit the Garden of Eden and try to enter a little into the loss God sustained when our first father Adam rebelled against him.
According to Luke 3, we are to think of Adam as God’s son. Who can estimate how great the Father’s delight in him! God has made him in his own image so that they can have fellowship with one another, and the image at the outset is wholly unmarred by sin. Their relationship is a beautiful one. There is not the faintest shadow over it. The Lord rejoices in the son whom he has made; the son rejoices in him.
Then comes the rebellion. Adam wilfully sins. How drastically it alters the relationship! No longer is he the loyal, loving, obedient son whose deepest wish is to please his Father in heaven. He is now a wayward, rebellious son whose basic disposition toward God is one of enmity. That is why we can say that in the departure of Adam from God, God sustains a loss. There is something God once had which he now no longer has – the devoted son whom he had made at the first.
Nor is that all. God’s loss when Adam turns his back on him is not merely the loss of an individual. It is the loss of a race. The doctrine of Romans 5 is that Adam was a very special individual indeed. He was not only the first man and from the outset a perfect man. He was also a representative man; the representative head of the race; a man whose obedience or disobedience to a special command would have a bearing on everyone who would descend from him.
Think about him obeying! Standing firm in the face of temptation! There are solid reasons for believing that it will have positive implications for the whole human race. From Adam will come a race of obedient children who will all love God and be eager to please him. None of them born in sin. All of them born holy.
But Adam doesn’t stand. He falls. And when he falls the whole of mankind sins in him and falls with him. God’s loss, therefore, is not confined to an individual. God is able to stand, as it were, at the point of the fall and look down the corridors of human history to the end. What does he see? All the myriads of human beings who will ever come from this man. And in all of them the same enmity toward himself that is now in the heart of Adam.
The loss of our love
We were made that we might love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; that we might love him in return for his love for us. And we would have loved him had we not fallen in Adam. What pleasure that love would have given him! We know as parents what pleasure the love of our own children gives us. God lost it all the moment our first father sinned.
The loss of our companionship
Part of our uniqueness as divine image-bearers is our capacity for friendship with God. We can speak to him, listen to him, respond to him, spend time with him. When Genesis 3 talks about the LORD God coming to the garden in the cool of the day it may well be describing the normal pattern of things. We were made for companionship with God, for the loving enjoyment of each other. When Adam sinned, however, the link was broken. Humanity’s friendship was lost at a stroke. Our sin separated us from him.
The loss of our service and obedience
Had Adam stood, the loyal service and loving obedience that characterised him at the first would have passed entire to his descendents. Nothing would have given us greater joy than to serve God and obey him. Because Adam fell, however, and we fell in him, all that was lost to God as well. Every one of us is born with a rebellious heart, unable and unwilling to serve and obey as God desires and deserves.
The loss of our worship
It is what distinguishes us from all the other creatures. We were created with a capacity to worship God. And had there been no fall our Creator would have received the worship that is due to him from every member of the human race. It would have come from our hearts. It would have been totally pure. It would have been gladly rendered. God’s pleasure in it would have been great. Great too would have been the glory it would have brought to him. But our worship too, along with our love, our companionship, our service, and our obedience, was lost when we broke his commandment.
We mustn’t minimise the loss God sustained by the fall of man. In Adam standing, God had a world that was devoted to him, delighted in him, pleased him, worshipped him. In Adam fallen, that world was gone. Doesn’t that intensify the mystery of the decree to permit the fall? For the God who has sustained this loss was no helpless God, forced to stand by and see the crown of his creation wrested from him against his will. Even in the sin of Adam, with all that that sin would mean both for him and for humanity, the Lord remained in perfect control, ever the absolute sovereign.
Coming back now to Luke 15 we find ourselves face to face with a second truth. The first is background. This second one is the one most powerfully illustrated by the parables.
Our restoration to God means gain for God
What are Christ’s parables about? Certainly about people who sustain a loss. More than that, however, they are about people who find what they’ve lost. The man who loses a sheep finds it. The woman who loses a coin finds it. The father whose son is lost to him rejoices that “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v.24). He “has him back safe and sound” (v.27).
There is no question as to what is being illustrated by these recoveries. The found sheep, the found coin, the found son are pictures of penitent sinners returning to God. God, in the repentance of the sinner, is getting back what, through man’s folly and sin, he once lost. What is more, he evidently deems the gain to be great. How do we know that? The joy that he feels. Joy is the feature that is common to all three parables. The man rejoices when he finds his lost sheep. The woman rejoices when she finds her lost coin. The father rejoices that the son whom he has lost is found. What they had lost they evidently valued highly. Clearly they consider themselves greatly the gainers when what is lost is found. The proof of it? Their joy.
And Jesus is teaching us that that’s how it is with God. The joy of these parables is his joy. A joy over sinners who have come to repentance. God evidently considers himself to be the gainer by our return to him. Astonishingly, we have enriched him! The proof of it lies in his joy.
It is a joy in which others are invited to participate
What does he do, this man who finds his lost sheep? He “calls his friends together and says, ‘Rejoice with me’” (v.6). So too the woman who finds her lost coin: “she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me’” (v.9). Or think what happens when the lost son returns. His father says to the servants, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (v.23). Clearly in each of the parables it is the one who has sustained the loss who is foremost in rejoicing when what is lost is found. No-one rejoices more when sinners come to repentance than the God to whom they return.
And he doesn’t keep it to himself! There is “joy in the presence of the angels” (v.10). All the inhabitants of heaven are invited to participate in it. God says to them, “Come and celebrate with me”, so happy is he that the lost sinner has returned to him.
It’s a great joy
The joy of God is said to be greater “than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (v.7). The Saviour’s words here have generated a great deal of discussion. Who are the “ninety-nine”? Are they actually self-righteous individuals who think they don’t need to repent? Or believers for whom initial repentance is past? Or perfected saints in glory? Or the unfallen inhabitants of other planets (as one distinguished Scottish divine suggests!)?
I offer no opinion! Suffice it to note that the joy over a returning sinner is great joy. It is no small celebration that takes place but a great one! Which constrains us to draw the immensely humbling conclusion that wretched sinners as we are, God considers it great gain when we return to him. He counts himself enriched.
Three things that these matters we have looked at do.
They impress on us how valuable sinners are
Valuable, that is, to God. We need to begin by reminding ourselves of the mutterings that gave rise to these parables: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (vs.1-20).
Who were the tax collectors and sinners? The moral outcasts of Jewish society, the kind of people the respectable and the religious shunned and despised. But they were not shunned by Jesus! He welcomed them and ate with them. And he who has seen Jesus has seen the Father. Unholy and unclean as they may have been, degraded and fallen as they may have been, they were not shunned and despised by God. We see it in Jesus’ practice – welcoming them and eating with them. We see it in his parables, in his portrait of a joyful God celebrating their return.
How do we estimate the value to us of something we have lost? One way is by the joy that we feel when we find it. You are clearing out a cupboard and you find a photograph that you lost years back. You pick it up, look at it with a smile, and say to yourself, “So that’s where it was.” And then you put it back where you found it, get on with your job, and scarcely give it another thought. Evidently you don’t regard it as of very great value.
Suppose it’s your wife, however, and what she has lost is her engagement ring. She’s been searching high and low for it for months and frequently with tears. Then one day, in a place where she never thought of looking, she finds it. Her engagement ring! Does she do what you did with the photograph? Does she just say to herself, “So that’s where it was”, and just get on with her day? There are probably more tears! And you know all about the matter as soon as you walk in the door. “Look what I found,” she cries! Why is she so over the moon? Because what she has found at last was so valuable to her.
So with God and the sinner. How do we know that sinners as we are we are of great value to God? Why is it not presumption to think of ourselves like that? The answer of Jesus’ parables lies in the joy that is felt, the great joy, the shared joy, when we return to him
It is good for those of us who are preachers to remind our listeners of that. God opens their eyes to their sin. They begin to loathe themselves and to project that loathing onto God. How can there be mercy for them? How can God be interested in them? How wonderful to be able to say to them that the very opposite is the case! Holy as God is and full of hatred for their sin as he is, God sets an extraordinarily high value on them. Let them return to him and heaven will ring for joy.
They impress on us how approachable God is
We say of some people that they are very approachable. You can go to them with questions, difficulties, dilemmas readily. They’ve got time for you. They welcome you warmly, listen sympathetically, and help you if they can. They are approachable! Approachableness is of the characteristics of God. There is no-one in fact more approachable.
It is one of the key-notes of true gospel preaching. We do not preach a cold and aloof God, a God to whom sinners might rightly hesitate to come. We preach a warm and welcoming God, a God who is always glad when sinners come to him regardless of what they have done. He patiently listens to our confessions, gladly pardons our sins, joyfully gives us the new life we need.
Isn’t that the glory of the gospel? We can say to the most degraded of human beings, to the men and women who have fallen the furthest, who are both loathed by others and loathe themselves – you can come with confidence to God! We can take them to this passage of Scripture and show them Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. We can take them to the immortal third parable and show them the father rejoicing in the return of his son. What are they seeing? What is Jesus showing them? The God who is – most loving, welcoming even the worst of returning sinners. They are his lost ones! They are of infinite value to him! And when they return to him he considers himself the gainer by them and rejoices accordingly.
They impress on us how enriching salvation is
Enriching, that is, to God. Nor is that difficult to see. If the question be asked, “What does God gain by the repentance and return of sinners?”, the answer is, “Exactly what he lost by the fall.”
He gains our love. It is the characteristic of all of us who are true penitents. We now love the God whom before we did not love. We love the Father. We love the Son. We love the Holy Spirit. God in his oneness. God in his threeness. O that we loved him more!
He gains our companionship. The separation has ended. There is now communion. He speaks to us and we speak to him. There is togetherness, friendship, union, partnership, a shared life of inexpressible intimacy. There is no question but that that is gain for us. But so also for him. We evidently give him pleasure. He rejoices over us with singing. God is glad to have us back!
He gains our service and obedience. We are now his obedient children (1 Peter 1). Our hearts are now under his rule (Rom. 6). We are his servants. We count it the highest honour to be employed in his service – especially in the ministry of the word. When our hearts were under the dominion of sin – as yet unsubdued by grace – God was robbed of our service. Not any longer. Poor and defective as we rightly judge it to be, he has our service again. And he values it.
He gains our worship. The worship of our hearts. The worship of our lips. The worship of our lives.
What is more, he is going to have these things forever. God sustained the loss of us once. But he will not sustain that loss again. We who are his are his forever and nothing will separate us from his love.
In that we have a glimpse of what heaven will be like for God. When we think about heaven our thoughts are largely on what it will be like for us. And it is right that we should think about what heaven will be like for us. God gives us materials for such thoughts and encourages us to use them.
But what will heaven be like for God? It will mean the eternal enjoyment of our love, our companionship, our service, our obedience, and our worship. It’s one of the amazing things about the salvation that comes to us through Jesus. It massively enriches us – we who were by nature so terribly poor through sin. But it also brings eternal enrichment to the God who is already rich. For all eternity he will have the pleasure of our presence, our praise, our unwavering devotion. Once lost to him! But now forever his.
We come back then to our question: “What’s so great about the gospel?” It is first and foremost the Saviour who makes it great – a Saviour who in his great grace impoverished himself in order to enrich the desperately poor. Then there’s his salvation. That too makes the gospel great. And of all the amazing things that salvation does this is surely the most amazing – it enriches the already rich: God once counting himself the poorer for having lost us, now the gainer for having us back.