One of my friends says that in his family, when there is a conflict and argument and anger, there usually isn't resolution. Instead, they wake up the next day, everyone just pretends nothing happened, and they go back to being good and normal without finding agreement, and regardless of the wrongs done the day before. It's not surprising to me that this particular family doesn't work so well in the long run! Most of us realize it's better to actually resolve problems and conflicts, rather than simply sweep them under the rug.
And yet when it comes to our relationship with God, many of us take the route of that family. Think with me about this.
I have sinned against my Creator, my God, again and again. If you're old enough to be thinking about it, you have too. From Genesis 2:17 where God said the result of eating the forbidden fruit of that tree would be death, to Romans 6:23 where the apostle Paul wrote that the wages of sin is death, we learn that sin separates us from God, in a state of spiritual death (and eventually, eternal separation in the second death, Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 25:46). Well, that's a bit of a problem, isn't it?
So, what is to be done about that?
It's easy for us to start thinking in terms of simply changing our ways, of being a good person. It's as if our good works in the future can somehow erase our harmful actions in the past. Actually, that new life of good conduct is nothing special – it’s just what we should have been doing all along, but we were not! Nevertheless, we decide being good now is good enough. So we don't really reach out to God, and we pay little attention to how He is reaching out to us. We don't seek his knowledge, we don't read His word, we don't respond to His calling. We just say “I'm a good person. I'm living a good life, doing good things. I think God accepts that.” And we don't bother with salvation as God Himself describes it in scripture.
In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul tells the Christians to whom he is writing that they had previously been dead in their sins. He says he and the rest of the Jews were no different. Because of this, he says they were all children of wrath – destined to suffer the anger of a holy God. Did Paul tell the people to just start being “good people”? As if their good works could reverse things? No. We cannot change our pasts, and the sins of which we are guilty. God had to step into this picture (2:4-7); we can only be saved from our circumstances by placing faith in God, and trust in what Jesus has done for us – our good conduct is not sufficient (2:8-9). In Romans 3:23-28, Paul says we all have sinned, so we all fall short of His glory; that God justified us based on what Christ did to redeem us; and that none of us can boast in ourselves, in being good enough! Deciding God will accept us because we will be good enough, will leave us far short of the goal.
Well that sounds great: Jesus died for all. I can just put my faith in what He did! Does that mean there is nothing for us to be concerned with? Think about this: Will all men be saved? Clearly not (Matthew 7:13-14). He died for all, but His death does not automatically apply to all. There is a response necessary from us.
Putting our trust in Him means following Him, yielding to Him. We turn to Him in faith and determine to live for Him. “Repentance,” as in 2 Peter 3:9, means changing your direction, to serve Him.
But still, what is the step that brings us into Christ, and in contact with His saving death? Paul describes how we are “buried with Him through baptism, into death” (Romans 6:3-5). As He was buried, we are buried in the water of baptism. Paul says this is how we connect with his death for us. Just as He “was raised from the dead,” we rise from the water of baptism to “newness of life.” Being buried in the water of baptism and rising from it again, is a likeness (6:5), or reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That rising to new life, my friend, is the moment of escape from the spiritual death we've each suffered!
Or consider Paul, who was an unbeliever until He saw the vision of the Lord in Acts 9:1-18. He was on his way to the foreign city of Damascus to arrest Jewish Christians in that city. But when he saw the Lord on the way, he finally came to faith in Christ. That is seen in the fact that he changed his course immediately. He repented of his plans to persecute Christians. Instead, he went into the city and spent 3 days in prayer (9:11) and fasting (9:9). A miracle is even performed on him so that he regains his sight. Is he saved yet? Let me ask that same question a different way: Does he still have his sins, or have they been washed away, as a result of his new faith and repentance? Notice that when Paul later tells the story (Acts 22:6-16), he tells how Ananias came to him after all that, and told Paul he still needed to wash away his sins, by being baptized into Christ (22:16).
All of this, then, is the salvation from our sins. Deciding “I'll just be a good person” fails to recognize the hole we put ourselves in with our previous sins. Waking up the next morning and deciding to be good brings no resolution. Our good life won't save us. Trusting in Jesus, yielding to him, being buried with Him and rising to new life, and then serving Him, following His will in our lives, this is what God has said salvation is.