You shall call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.
Any understanding of Jesus of Nazareth that does not have at its core the idea of salvation from sins is off the mark at the beginning. Salvation – which includes our forgiveness, justification, redemption, and reconciliation, among other ideas – was at the center of His purpose and His coming, and not a peripheral concern or an after thought. And in light of this goal we can more clearly see His compassion and kindness – born not out of naivety, nor of only a partial enlightenment, but within His heart from the very beginning in full knowledge of the ugly, terribly frightening aspect of human nature.
We differentiate between “sin” – which speaks more to sin as a principle and as inherent in our fallen human nature – and “sins” – which speaks more to specific acts of sin or the tallying up of our impure thoughts and actions. “Sin” carries with it the idea of our past as a race, of our solidarity as humans, seed of Adam, and is the greater problem we have to deal with. We sin because we are sinners, and we do not become sinners by sinning – we were born into the condition – and just as humans walk upright because they are human, just as a dog does not become human just because he can walk on two feet for a brief while, in the same way, when we sin we are acting out the effect of our human nature.
“Sins” however carries a terrifying thought, that “sins” are only measureable not by their number alone, but by their influence and impact. “Sins” looks forward to the damage that the contagion of disobedience will do in this world, tomorrow, in future generations, and even this afternoon. This idea unleashes the frightening accumulation of guilt – both personal and collective – that should rightfully damn us doubly, as individuals and as a race. For the life of me, from all that I know of my own heart and the history of the human race, I cannot imagine why God would want a single one of us in His heaven – there is a great mystery to His love. We have an incurable problem (incurable by our own efforts) that cuts to the essence of being human, that results in a devastating multiplication of pain, suffering, and collective guilt. The realization that not every problem we are aware of is our fault as individuals, only mitigates the concern slightly, for there is more than enough shame and guilt if we only consider the negative influences of the most moral of our species.
It would have been much simpler for God to have condemned the whole race than to redeem us to Himself. But all true love retains an element of mystery – for surely genuine love, even human affection, cannot be earned or else it is not love. We are utterly helpless in this area, dependent on someone else, some One capable of removing the stains of our sins, and not only the stains but the curse itself. Christ has come to save us from our sins, and not to make us feel better about being sinners.
It is a significant fact that Jesus seems to have spoken but rarely of “sin” in the singular and nearly always of “sins” in the plural. His interest, that is to say, was not abstract but concrete, not speculative but practical. Questions of the original of sin, for instance, were not his primary concern; and the modern discussions of the part played in sin by the factors of environment and inheritance find but little place in the Gospels. Broken lives were never treated by Jesus as “cases”; they were brothers to be helped, and the personal interest was supreme…
This is to say that Christ loved more in the personal and practical aspect than in the philosophical. If His actions and words show us His main concern, and I suppose they do, then He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), not to engage in long philosophical discussions about the origin of our problem. The New Testament is not silent on the matter of the origin of our sin – see Romans 5 – but the Savior reveals that redemption is a current experience, present tense and personal. Christ did address the reality of our sin (John 2:25; 8:34-35, for examples), but His greater ministry was addressing the legacy of our sins. If our greatest problem could be resolved by understanding sin, then Christ would have spent His life giving theological explanations. Instead He leapt into human lives and society with love and salvation. He was more like the doctor in the emergency room, or the physician at the site of the epidemic attending to patients, than then researcher in the laboratory.
The cross struck at the root of both our sin and our sins, but even its nature was love acted out. Christ had his contemplative moments, for sure – read John 17 – and He knew the cause of our sinning must be changed, we must be redeemed at the root of our problem and not on the surface. So the results of faith in Him include a fresh slate, a new nature and the resident Spirit in our lives – we are fundamentally altered spiritually and given a new nature. But the clearest trait of His followers has and will always be practical love that redeems others. We take them to the Christ of the cross, where their sins were paid for, and we take them to the open tomb, where the resurrected Christ showed His power and authority to deliver on His promises. But we also take them to Christ Himself, letting Him touch them with His redemptive love, and we take Christ Himself to them through our actions, as we are called His body in the New Testament.
Getting up close and personal in helping others presents us with the danger of getting soft on sin, of tolerating what is intolerable just because we are used to it. Jesus never did this. He never treated sin lightly. He was a “Friend of Sinners” but never a friend of sin.
We have not learned much from the Gospels if we have failed to realize that every unlovely action a man does and every unclean thought he thinks have Jesus Christ against them, a Christ who in his mercy has to be quite merciless to sin, whose eyes are “as a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14). There was no blurring of moral distinctions with Jesus. He spoke of men as “lost” (Matt. 10:11; Luke 15:4, 8, 24) and “perishing” (Matt. 18:14; John 3:16). In the end he proved his implacable antagonism to sin by dying at its hands. The Cross is the measure of Jesus’ view of the seriousness of sin.
It is precisely because of these facts that reading the Gospels is a necessary and wonderfully helpful tool of the Spirit for our redemption. The Gospels contain not only the teachings of Christ but His actions and conversations. He is the personal Savior whose story continues to touch us with grace today – exactly at our point of need. In His teachings He appealed to the original design of God in our creation, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), and could never be satisfied with anything less.
Salvation from sins can only be personally experienced on the personal and redemptive level of the touch of Christ. Today He touches us through His Spirit and by His word, but He continues to touch and lift and cleanse and forgive. A philosophical gospel will perhaps provide enough information that genuine saving faith can be exercised, permanently changing the eternity of the one who believes. But only the personal Christ and His loving touch of hope will change us in a practical and real sense. He is the Great Physician of the human soul and the Great Savior of our hearts.
An unfortunate misdirection in our teaching – rising perhaps from our emphasis on evangelistic preaching – is a simple misunderstanding of what salvation means. We have relegated it merely to the afterlife, to “going to heaven when we die,” whereas the biblical idea encompasses all of life, saved from bad habits, saved or redeemed to a better life here as well as the perfect life beyond. Salvation is about experiencing the grace of God and the power of His resurrection in our daily life. His love is always practical.
When we struggle with temptations and the wrong habits, even to the point of agonizing over them, the best treatment is spending time with the Practical Christ who still loves in real and personal ways. Take a walk with the New Testament. Stop to consider His conversations. Let Him speak to you through His speeches and sermons to others. In this way He becomes the personal and redeeming Savior who leads us out of the morass of our moral mess, and into the abundance of His love and grace.
 James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, (New York: Abington), p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 82.