It is taught that Jesus came to save us from the wrath of God. Does God really want to be portrayed as more concerned with their reputation and honor than love for their children? I may be worried about my reputation as a parent but not solely for my benefit. When the word save(d) or salvation is used in the gospels as it relates to Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus is concerned with atoning for our guilt for God’s sake rather than aspiring and encouraging us to be less selfish. It is best to read each Gospel as a whole to discern what we need to be saved from. For a quick view of all the times save(d) or salvation is used in the Gospels see here.
Many grow up in the church being told Jesus’ conversations were about if you are in or out of heaven or a supposed fiery pit. Do life transformations really happen when focused on saving our hide? Chapters and verses were numbered later, so the gospel writers surely intending their writings to be read as a whole. It is important to remember that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing to an audience who lived in different times and cultures than readers today. Specifically, Jesus came to advise Israel He is the prophesized Messiah and certain warnings relate to times in Jesus’ generation. Readers today must discern appropriate applications. We may not worship carved idols but idolizations today may be misguided and harmful.
The first three gospels end with Jesus being mocked on the Cross to save Himself since coming to save others (Mt. 27:42). What do the Gospels suggest Jesus came to save us from? Matthew begins: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:21). Jesus seems to suggest what those sins are during His first crowd appearance in Matthew. Jesus says Laws are good but what about ungovernable matters such as murderous thoughts, lust, and going the extra mile when others don’t respond in love (Chapter 5). Jesus said don’t worry only about the death of your body but the death of your soul (10:28). Jesus didn’t come to save God’s reputation but to save us from ourselves!
We finally get to in Matthew what most think the gospels are all about – a rich young man asked how to have eternal life (19:16). Jesus’ response isn’t what religious leaders often proclaim about salvation. The man obeyed the law, but Jesus focused on the heart of the matter which is what kind of person you are that no one can see. God desires to help us become the person we all deep down desire to be. Luke records when Jesus was asked directly how one obtains eternal life, Jesus said simply to love God and love others as yourself (Lk.10:25-27). This was exactly what Mark writes Jesus said was the most important in life (12:28-34). God isn’t being egotistical. Loving God is to love ourselves and others like we want to be loved. Jesus came to earth to convey God seeks to empower us, through mercy and forgiveness, to shun evil and do good.
After the conversation with the man about eternal life, Mark as Matthew records the disciples’ reaction: “…Who then can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26). Jesus, after giving the disciples another moral lesson about true greatness, says: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). The disciples’ response doesn’t suggest they were thinking God needed to be served as much as they needed help. The young man was worrying about just obeying the law, but it is “legal self-centeredness” that leads to personal and relational destruction. Jesus came to save us from the sin of destroying ourselves and one another. Jesus knew God’s love is the same as perfect, human, love. It is God’s love and mercy, not gloomy uncertainty of God’s favor, which is our necessary nourishment for lasting changes.
John’s Gospel records different sayings of Jesus as it is thought Mark’s writing were used as a source by Matthew and Luke. All are familiar when Jesus says whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). But, we often don’t notice that Jesus says right after this: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:17). Jesus’ mission was not condemnation for God’s sake; Jesus came to shed light on self-condemning dark deeds (3:18-19). Eternal life in this context is not some future destination. Jesus says His readers who believe in His message can have life worth living forever immediately (3:36). Jesus focused more on the present than future. Further evidence that Jesus’ didn’t come with a vendetta from God is what Jesus ultimately desires: “…I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (12:47).
I often learn the most when reading the Bible by looking at Jesus’ personal interactions with others. Jesus said to the woman at the well: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk. 7:50). This woman was not in denial that she had lived a sinful life. She understood not being as bad as some people didn’t sooth her soul. She needed to know she could be forgiven by her Creator and Jesus came to give her that hope. Jesus when preparing to enter Jerusalem and face death (Mt. 19:1-10) told Zacchaeus a tax collector how one can be saved. Zacchaeus had cheated many people out of their money and had decided to payback four times the money he had stolen. Jesus responded: “Today salvation has come to this house.” There was no formal confession or water baptism. Jesus simply commended Zacchaeus for recognizing a journey necessary to avoid personal destruction. Salvation is not a future destination but a currently reality.
Some worry to claim Jesus came to change our hearts is just another form of Pharisaical legalism – we have to perform our way to being love by God. But, God’s love like a parent’s love should always be assumed to be unconditional. We know if a parent’s love is based upon actions they will be sorely disappointed and unable to love their child to the fullest. When we stress God’s reputation than desire for an influential relationship, the focus is on obedience and often just doing what is required by law. Jesus wanted us to know we have forgiveness and God desires to come along our side in striving to be unselfish which can be challenging in the world we live in.
Jesus came for those desperately seeking forgiveness from their Creator. Some may not feel as immoral. Jesus simply desires to encourage all to pursue striving to treat others like we want to be treated. Most of us would admit we fail to live up to even our own standards. Jesus came to tell us that we can pursue godliness despite our imperfections and constant failures. Jesus didn’t come to rub our failures in our face but to encourage us to never give up. God would love an ongoing relationship to empower one for personal and worldly good.