In the perennial discussions of Calvinistic-Reformed theologies and the various other interpretations of soteriological reality, from extreme to extreme, these tertiary issues of “how” one is saved overshadow the main thing: God himself and the fact that he saves [in whatever various way he might actually do that]!
In talking about being gospel-centric, Jesus-centrism/Christocentrism can be lost. Of course this sounds like semantics, but in reality many talk of the “gospel,” the good news that there is salvation available, the response of acceptance of God’s free gift that is needed, and yet they fail to hold up Jesus. Jesus as the Christ gets lost in the proclamation-discussion.
Slipping into legalism or liberalism is a real danger: if we hold too tight to the “rules,” the how of people being saved we can have a legalism-soteriology [it has to be done a certain way], but we could also hold too high a view of the how of salvation and then think that if this “rule”/method has been followed, then we have full liberty to the extent of non-discipleship.
We can become legalistic in holding to our soteriological convictions of how God saves people, not simply regarding the “Sinner’s Prayer” issue ["I prayed a prayer, so I'm saved" Legalism; OR "I prayed a prayer, so I can do whatever I feel like cause I'm saved" Liberalism] but regarding the whole God’s Sovereignty-Human Responsibility issue. If we hold too tightly to our view of whether only God saves based on his own subjective choice with no ability of humans to respond with a positive or negative choice, then we are in danger of adulterating the gospel message itself. We could withhold a proper open offer of salvation, or we could fail to communicate the difficult truths of salvation [i.e. repentance, persecution].
The difference between “religion” and “relationship” is the difference between a true understanding of salvation, of the how of salvation.
When Peter shares at Pentecost in the beginning of the church in Acts 2, he gives a simple summary of what happens:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
In this one passage we see both the issue of Divine Sovereignty-Human Responsibility and the issue, the how, and the perhaps more important what of salvation, the result, the righteous God-human relationship.
“Repent . . . and be baptized,” which is an initial acceptance of the truth of the gospel message about what it means that Jesus is the “Messiah”/Christ/promised one/way of salvation, as well as continuing in a position of one-being-saved [see J.D. Greear's Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart for further explanation of this idea of salvation]. We are to repent, now, once, as the entrance into the saved relationship with God, becoming once-for-eternity God’s child, becoming adopted by God. And we practice baptism as a response of our salvation, a public way of living out our gratitude, a witness to the world [and ourselves] of what God has done in our hearts, giving us new life, salvation, forgiveness of sins.
“in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . . all whom the Lord our God will call,” which speaks to a proper understanding of Jesus, who he is and what he has done for us that we could never do for ourselves, as well as the fact that it is God that forgives and God who calls. Later in Acts 5:42, the First Church is said to have gone from house-to-house and in the public square sharing a message that said, “Jesus is the Christ.” Jesus as the Christ/Messiah can be simply understood as speaking of the one way of salvation God has provided through Jesus, which is the unique and only way people are able to have a right relationship with God.
The result of salvation:
Peter says that when we accept Jesus self-sacrifice for our sins, in our place–Jesus in my place, then we receive 2 things:
1. forgiveness of our sins
We have a judgment passed upon us: we are justified, declared “forgiven,” given Jesus’ righteousness/innocence/holiness (Romans 3:21-26). This is a declaration, a position of judgment we given.
It is like a judge, the Judge, saying, “Ok, we find you not guilty.”
This is of course AWESOME!, but it still leaves us in a lonely place; therefore, the second aspect is all the more incredible. This could be a part of a “religion” if only “declaration” was what happened in salvation.
2. the Holy Spirit
We also receive the Holy Spirit, just as was promised by Jesus (John 16, Acts 1). We receive God himself. We are not left forgiven to only be alone in the rest of our suffering and demanding world. We become God’s children! We are adopted. The Holy Spirit comes inside us to regenerate us, to give us new life, to guide us and instruct us. We have a God that hears us; moreover, we have a God that is with us. We get God too!
This is like a judge, the Judge, saying, “You’re not guilty, AND I’m coming with you to help you and comfort you and love you as your adoptive Father, brother, and friend who is perfect in all ways for always!”
In salvation we get forgiveness and we get God with us.
The gospel message that Jesus is the Christ is about how we are forgiven of our sin and that God is then with us forever.
The gospel is about our relationship with God.