We recently spent five studies considering Matthew 1:21—“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins”—and we saw that indeed this is a glorious promise to live by. As we dissected the meaning and implication of this verse we were blessed to see that this gospel promise is extensive, exhaustive, expansive, expensive, explosive, expulsive, exclusive and excessive. These are blessed realities which should give us much encouragement. And yet I have come away from these studies with a nagging question. It seems to me that there is an issue that yet remains to be addressed and answered; namely, how will Jesus save us from our sins? Yes, we glory in the promise that indeed He will do so, but how? Surely the Lord will use means to do so and it is to this issue that I wish to speak in this study.
Christianity is nothing if not practical. The gospel is designed for real life. The truth of justification by faith alone is as practical as you can get. A life of faithful works flows from a life that has been saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are doubtless settled in the fact that we are saved by (through) faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And this speaks directly to the question that we want to address now: How does Jesus save His people from their sins? The simple answer is, by faith.
But this begs the next question: What does this saving faith look like? What means are indicative that we have saving faith, and how are these means utilised in our ongoing battle against sin? Or to put it in the form of another question, in what practical ways do we exercise this saving faith? It is these issues that I wish to address now.
The Meaning of Being Saved by Faith
There are actually two prongs to this issue: justification by faith, and sanctification by faith.
Justification by Faith
The text of the New Testament speaks unequivocally to the issue of justification by faith alone. Consider just a sampling of references.
- Acts 15:9—“And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.”
- Acts 26:18—“To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.”
- Romans 1:17—“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
- Romans 3:22, 28, 30—“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference … Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law … Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.”
- Romans 5:1–2—“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
- Galatians 3:11, 22, 24, 26—“But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith … But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe … Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith … For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”
- Galatians 5:5—“For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.”
- Philippians 3:9—“And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
- Hebrews 10:38—“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.”
- Romans 3:25, 30—“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God … Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.”
- Galatians 3:8, 14—“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed … That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
- Ephesians 2:8–10—“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
- 2 Timothy 3:15—“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
- 1 Peter 1:5—“Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Faith has well been defined this way: Forsaking All I Trust Him. We renounce all of our self-righteousness as we confess that we are sinners who need a Saviour. When this occurs then we are accounted righteous before God as the righteousness of Christ is put to our account. At that moment we are saved, delivered, rescued from the due penalty of our sins. Christ has done all that needs to be done. By His grace, His finished work on the cross has been effective to save us from God’s wrath, and we know this by faith. This historical work becomes ours in fact (in space and time) the moment that we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sanctification by Faith
Saving faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8–9), which brings us into union with Christ (Romans 6). And it is because of this union that His righteousness, which was vindicated by His cross and resurrection, is now considered, reckoned, accounted, or imputed as ours. But there is far more to this union with Christ than merely an accounting entry in the books of heaven. When one of His people is justified by faith they are also intimately, experientially united to the life of Christ. This is why the Bible tells us that we are “saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). He ever lives to make intercession for His people. He continually pours out His life into the lives of those whom He has justified.
This truth is illustrated for us by our Lord’s teaching concerning the vine and the branches (John 15). In that well-known passage He told His disciples that if they remained in Him they would bear much fruit. That is, by union with Him they would experience His life-giving sap, which would result in the fruit of His character. Paul would later refer to this as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Thus by faith (forsaking all and trusting Him) we not only are once and for all justified but we are continually being sanctified until such time that we are ultimately glorified. As we continue to look to Christ alone we experience the power of His life coming to rescue us from our sins. And this looking to Him alone is what it means to be saved, sanctified, by (through) faith.
But now we must turn to the practical issues which flow from this doctrinal truth. That is, now that we know what it means to by saved by faith, what are the means of being saved by faith?
The Means of Being Saved by Faith
Keep in mind that we are using the phrase, “saved by faith” in its more exhaustive sense. We are dealing with the issue of being delivered from the power and practice of sin in our lives. Since this is our desire we need to know what means or agents God has given to us to help us in our pursuit of holiness. And God has bountifully given us several.
For example, the Word of God is certainly a means used by the Holy Spirit to purify us. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul told us that Jesus “loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:25–27). The psalmist cried, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word … Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:9, 11). Apart from God’s Word we would not be able to be delivered from our sins. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3).
In addition to the Word is another important means of grace: prayer. How could we ever hope to be delivered from our sinful practices if we did not have this privilege of crying out to our Father for mercy? Jesus Christ is a merciful and faithful High Priest who invites us to come boldly to His throne to find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). The fellowship of the saints is another important and blessed means by which we are strengthened and encouraged to overcome sin. What a blessing it is to have brothers and sisters who will confront us and comfort us towards conquering indwelling sin. And then, of course, there are the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are vital to our growth in grace. Our water baptism gives us a pubic accountability which helps us to fight against the onslaught of sin. This baptism serves as an invitation to the church to help us in our walk with Christ. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is a gift of Christ to His church by which we look afresh to Christ and by faith we are strengthened for an upcoming week of battles against the world, the flesh and the devil. Two other means are those of corporate worship and participation in ministry. Yes, the means by which we are saved from our sins are several. But what I find interesting is that all of these means which have been mentioned can be found in one place: the church.
In Acts 2 we have the record of the Holy Spirit forming, as it were, the first New Testament church. On that historic Pentecost Sunday some 3,000 souls were saved from their sins. Peter exhorted them, in light of their conviction of sin, to be saved (v. 41). They then believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and were saved from the penalty of their sins. Following their conversion they were baptised and the text tells us that “the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (v. 41). That is, they were added to the church. Observe what followed.
These new converts, who had been recently saved from their sins, “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (v. 42) with the result that “fear came upon every soul” (v. 43). The disciples “continued daily with one accord … praising God … and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (vv. 46–47). Or, as the ESV states it, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Note that the ones the Lord was saving were being added to the church. Why? Because, among other reasons, the church, the Body of Christ is a means of grace for believers to grow in grace. It is a divine means to save us from our sins.
As soon as we are saved we become members of the Body of Christ. Jesus told His disciples that He would not leave them “comfortless” (John 14:18). Literally, He would not leave them as orphans. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to them, upon His ascension, and the formation of this New Testament church was a sign and seal that indeed Christ had fulfilled His promise. It was to be within this body that believers would be nourished up in their relationship with Christ that they might indeed abide in Him and thus bring forth the desired and decreed fruit. That is, it was to be through the life and ministry of the church that His people would increasingly be saved, delivered from their sins. As we shall soon see, it was within the church that the aforementioned means of grace, those means which aid us in overcoming sin, were experienced.
When the Lord Jesus saves one of His people, they immediately are united to all of His people. They become part and parcel of His body, the church. The apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 12:13–14: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.” Paul uses the word “baptised” in the same way that he does in Romans 6, where he speaks of the believers union with the Lord Jesus. Thus, the text clearly indicates that the Holy Spirit, upon our regeneration and subsequent justification, connects us not only to Jesus Christ but to all other believers as well.
As we saw in John 15, the believer continues to look to Christ for life. As he or she does so, fruit comes forth as the life of Christ becomes more and more of an experiential reality in his or her life. That is, Jesus continues to save us from our sin as He makes us more like Himself: holy and spotless. But, according to Paul, this union is not experienced by the believer in isolation for we are not alone in our union with Him. Because all of His people are in union with Christ, the result is that as we look to Christ by faith we are doing so with a vast number of eyes! And it is this union with other believers that is of such importance when it comes to abiding in Christ; when it comes to living a life that is Christ-centred; when it comes to being saved from our sins.
The conclusion of all of this is that the body of Christ is a means by which we overcome sin. Apart from what Christ gives to us in the church, we have no hope of overcoming our sins. And this conclusion is not one that is merely logically deduced (though it is logical) but rather several Scriptures teach this same truth.
For example note the obvious example of our Lord’s confrontation of Saul on the road to Damascus. When the Lord said, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) He was clearly identifying Himself with His people. In other words, when Paul was murderously pursuing Christians he was not merely guilty of sinning against believers but he was, fundamentally, sinning against Christ. And one of the means by which He saved Paul from this sin was, quite literally, by adding him to the church. After all, once he became a member of the Body of Christ he stopped persecuting them!
Note also Ephesians 1:22–23 which teaches us (along with such texts as Ephesians 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:19; 1 Peter 2:7) that the church is the body of Christ and that He is her Head. This, along with 1 Corinthians 12:1–19, teaches us that believers make up the body and that we are accountable to our Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Head guides the body and He always guides her away from sin and towards holiness. Though it is true that our Lord has an intimate relationship with each individual believer, it is also true that the New Testament most frequently speaks to the issue of Jesus corporately saving His people from their sins. So, once again, let me point out that apart from what Christ gives to us in the church, we have no hope of overcoming our sins.
Several noted Christian leaders throughout church history have observed this fact. In speaking to the issue of spiritual growth John Calvin wrote these words: “If we do not prefer the church to all other objects of our interest, we are unworthy of being counted among her members.” Augustine once observed, “He cannot have God for his Father who refuses to have the church for his mother.” And Calvin expanded on this statement by adding, “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.”
Commenting on this, Joel Beeke, a well-versed scholar regarding Calvin wrote, “For Calvin, believers are engrafted into Christ and his church, because spiritual growth happens within the church. The church is mother, educator and nourisher of every believer, for the Holy Spirit acts in her. Believers cultivate piety [spiritual growth] by the Spirit through the church’s teaching ministry, progressing from spiritual infancy to adolescence to full manhood.”
In light of this conclusion, allow me now to highlight how the various means of grace, which are rooted and grounded in the church, save us from our sins. My goal is that we will, together, utilise these means thus experiencing the joy of being delivered from our sins for the glory of God.
The Word of God
Our text tells us that the new believers in Jerusalem “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (v. 42). Since it was the apostles that God used to write the New Testament, it is no stretch to equate “the apostles’ doctrine” with the Word of God. And let us observe once more that they continued in God’s Word within the context of the church.
By faith, through the ministry of the church, we must embrace God’s Word which delivers us from sin. God’s Word reveals God to us and directs our attitudes and conduct. We are in need of cleansing, and it is God’s Word that cleans us. How did Jesus say we would be sanctified? Through the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17). Simply stated, one way that Jesus saves His people from their sins is through the means of His Word, and this means is found, primarily and fundamentally, in the church.
We live in an individualistic society, and believers are also often tempted to live individualistically. Many insist that they have no need of the church, for they have their own Bibles and their own time of prayer. Surely that is enough. But this is nothing less than a curse of our time. Make no mistake: We are grateful to have easy access to God’s Word in our language, but this ought in no way to minimise our commitment to the church. Consider this: What did believers do about having a quiet time before the invention of the printing press. Access to the Bible was not easy at that time, and many people could not read in any case. The local church was their only access to God’s Word. That is the way that it has been for most of church history: God’s people have had access to His Word within the context of the congregation.
The church is the steward and ground of the truth. The local church indoctrinates its members, thus helping them to grow in Christ. We, by faith are to utilise this means. Preaching is an act of faith: for both the preacher and hearer.
It is an awesome responsibility for a man to stand before a congregation of God’s people, expounding an ancient text to them, with the trust that God will somehow use his preaching to change lives. The preacher must surely preach with faith. It is not his eloquence or rhetoric that will change lives and help people; he must have faith that the Word of God will do so.
At the same time, the hearer must sit under the instruction of God’s Word with the faith that God will use it to speak to him or her. He or she must have faith that God will use that ancient text, despite the faults of the preacher, to change him or her. We have faith that God will use His Word to address the trials that we are facing. And thus, whether we preach or whether we listen, we must do so with faith.
If we will be saved from our sins, we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to hear and study God’s Word with faith. The church affords us the opportunity to sit in corporate Bible study, to undergo discipleship, to ask for counsel from God’s Word. We must have faith that God’s Word will change us and thus embrace with open arms all opportunities to hear God’s Word. We need to have faith in the bare Word of God, and the church is a means towards this.
The believers in Jerusalem further “continued steadfastly in … fellowship” (v. 42). “Fellowship,” as defined biblically, is more than simply enjoying idle chatter over a cup of coffee. It is a wonderful thing when believers want to spend time together, but let us understand that true fellowship is always Word-based. “Fellowship” in this context follows immediately on the heels of “the apostles’ doctrine,” and that is how true fellowship always is. And not only is true fellowship always Word-based, it is also always submissive (Ephesians 5:22) and relational. As we by faith engage in fellowship, in obedience to Christ, we grow in holiness.
Practically, this means that we must believe Christ when He tells us not to go it alone. The Scriptures are quite clear on the need for fellowship. We are commanded not to forsake the assembling of the saints, but instead to exhort one another (Hebrews 10:24–25). By engaging in Christ-centred relationships our own faults are exposed (as we sin against others) and our obligation to forgive, as Christ forgives, is put to the test (as others sin against us). Fellowship is thus designed to mutually assist in growth in holiness.
In short, if it’s just “Jesus and me” then we will not be saved from our sins. We need the aid of others, just as others need our aid. Those who isolate themselves from the fellowship of the saints insulate themselves from the change that is so necessary in their lives. Let us then commit to God-centred fellowship in the local church as a means to being saved from our sins.
The Lord’s Supper
A third element spoken of in v. 42 is that of “breaking of bread.” This speaks of the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance is a powerful means of grace, in the hands of Christ, to save us from our sins.
Communion is designed, when properly observed, to remind us of the gospel. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show [proclaim] the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). That is, as often as we do this we are reminded of the gospel, which saves us from our sins and which one day, when He comes, will be fully realised in full deliverance of sin.
We properly observe the Lord’s Table when we consider the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:27–32): This points to both the person of Christ and to His church. That is, we consider who He is, who we are and what He has graciously done for us. This careful consideration works to kill pride, sectarianism, bitterness, unforgiveness, and a host of other sins of which we are so often guilty. Thus, as we partake, by faith, of the Supper, looking to Christ for forgiveness, we are delivered by God’s grace from our sins.
In addition to “the apostles’ doctrine,” “fellowship” and the “breaking of bread,” the early disciples in Jerusalem continued steadfastly in “prayers” (v. 42). The first thing that we must note about this is that the word is plural. It is “prayers,” not “prayer.” Most likely, this indicates that the church continued with the Jewish tradition of set times of prayer. There were various hours throughout the day that we designated “hours of prayer,” and the apostles and the early Christians saw fit to continue with this routine of prayer. Prayer was not to them a once-off daily event before getting on with the real business of life; it was a part of daily life. And so it must be to us.
By faith we bring our praises and petitions to Christ. And, importantly, we do so by faith. We believe that praying in His name is accepted and effective.
But we also want to notice that the church continued steadfastly in prayers. The emphasis in Acts 2 is not on individual believers praying, but on the corporate prayer life of the church. And this needs to be emphasised in our own time. By faith we must corporately pray.
Prayer in the New Testament is not merely a private event. There is a place for private (“closet”) prayer, but consider how each of the following texts, in their proper context, highlight the need for corporate prayer:
- Acts 1:24—“And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen.”
- Acts 4:31—“And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.”
- Acts 6:6—“… and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.”
- Acts 12:12—“And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.”
- Acts 13:3—“And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
- Acts 14:23—“And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and [they] had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
- Acts 20:36—“And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.”
- Acts 21:5—“And when we had accomplished those days, we departed and went our way; and they all brought us on our way, with wives and children, till we were out of the city: and we kneeled down on the shore, and prayed.”
- 1 Timothy 2:1–8—“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:25—“Brethren, pray for us.”
- 2 Thessalonians 3:1—“Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you.”
- James 5:16—“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
- Jude 20—“But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost.”
Clearly, the emphasis upon praying in Scripture is of a corporate nature. How serious are you about being saved from your sin? How earnestly would you like to see your church saved from sin? If you are serious about this, a most important key is to involve yourself in the corporate, faith-filled prayer life of the assembly.
The involvement of the early Jewish Christians did not stop with the Word of God, fellowship and prayer. They carried out their Christianity into practical ministry: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (vv. 44–45). They served sacrificially to meet the needs of the body, and this aided their growth in grace and holiness. And as then, so now, practical, sacrificial ministry is an effective means by which self is dealt a major blow.
Let me thus ask you, what are you doing to serve the body? What are you doing within the local church that demands that you die to self? Are you giving of your time and your treasures? Are you investing the talents that God has given you for the good of the body? As we do this by faith in Christ (that is, we do it by and for Him), so we find ourselves overcoming sin.
Consider, for example, how involvement in ministry will assist you in overcoming covetousness. Ministry involves giving. As we involve ourselves in the ministry of the church, so we will grow less and less jealous of our time, our talents and our treasures. We must, by faith, commit to being a sacrificing people if we will be delivered from our sins.
Do you attend fellowship gatherings of your local church? Do you give sacrificially? Are you willing to rework your busy schedule in order to serve others? Do you wash the feet of the saints? Did Jesus not tell us as He washed His disciples’ feet to do the same? He was not commanding that we literally incorporate foot washing into our worship services, but that we die to self and serve others in the same way that He did. Of course, this takes faith to accomplish! Look to Christ and serve!
Every element mentioned above is part of biblical, corporate worship. Each of the means above is exercised within the context of the body of Christ. And as we exercise these elements with the context of corporate Lord’s Day worship, so we are prepared to be saved from our sins as we go back into the world.
This truth is well illustrated in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In 5:18–21 he exhorts his readers to be filled with the Spirit, which will work itself out in singing, in thankfulness and in submission (5:22–6:9). He deals with various areas of submission: wives to their husbands, children to their parents, slaves to their masters. He deals with the responsibility of authorities to properly treat those under their authority: Husbands must sacrificially love their wives; employers must treat their employees with dignity and respect; parents must raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. All of this, it is important to note, is in the context of a local church.
But immediately following on the heels of this is that well-known portion of Scripture dealing with spiritual warfare (6:10–18). What is significant is that the injunction regarding spiritual warfare follows directly after an exhortation concerning corporate worship in the church. Why is that? Because corporate worship, properly exercised, equips us for the spiritual warfare that we face in the world on a daily basis.
Let us not underestimate the importance of corporate worship. When all is said and done, it is corporate worship, offered in faith to God, which will be used of God to save us from our sins.
How then, are we saved from our sins? Through the means of grace provided by Christ through His church. What a promise to live by!