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The Three R's of Salvation

Sun, Nov. 02, 2014 Posted: 02:04 PM

A couple of hundred years ago, the streets of London were just as busy at 5:00am as they were during each day’s evening hours. What was the cause of so much traffic at that time of the day?

A preacher named George Whitefield.

Whitefield’s sermons brought huge crowds and even attracted notable skeptics such as David Hume, who was once confronted for attending one of Whitefield’s crack-of-dawn messages. “I thought you didn’t believe the gospel,” Hume was asked. “I don’t,” replied Hume, “but I’m convinced this man does.”

Whitefield’s legendary preaching has influenced many notable theologians and produced countless sermons. However, while Whitefield spoke on many different topics, according to Church historians[1] his central focus was always on communicating the three R’s of salvation. Those of us who struggle to articulate the gospel message to unbelievers would be hard pressed to find a better pattern to follow.

Ruined by Sin

Whitefield’s first point was that both the Bible and life in general bear witness to the fact that sin is a destructive wrecking ball that has passed through everyone’s life in a way that is unmistakable and tragic.

Scripture says that everyone is born with a built-in law of failure to always do what’s right, which results in damaging behaviors and actions that harm both the individual and others around them. It uses the politically incorrect and unflattering term ‘sin’ to refer to those actions.

The Bible says everybody is born in this predicament (Ps. 51:5), with all being in possession of a sinful and deceitful heart (Jer. 17:9). This fact has resulted in everyone experiencing separation from God – or spiritual death (Eph. 2:1) – that results in physical death (Rom. 5:12), and ultimately eternal death (Rev. 20:14-15), which is a forever-lost separation from God.

While people are certainly capable of doing good, sin has produced a bent in each life towards behavior that hurts themselves and others. Christian apologist and theologian Francis Schaeffer referred to this problem as “man’s dilemma” and said: “Man is able both to rise to great heights and to sink to great depths of cruelty and tragedy.”[2]

The evidence of what the Bible says about each person being ruined by sin is played out each day and hour on CNN, and is seen in the lives of families wounded by the bad behaviors of both parents and children. The clearly identifiable presence of this devastation may be why Reinhold Neibuhr has gone so far as to argue that, “The doctrine of original sin [the teaching that all have a sin nature] is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”[3]    

Redeemed by Christ

Facing the fact that all of us have been ruined and stained by sin is not easy, and it can quickly lead to despair and worse were it not for the second “R” of salvation, which is that we have been redeemed by Christ out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

The word “redeem” is not used much today outside of a situation like redeeming a coupon for money off a purchase or something similar. The Greek word for “redeem” is lytroō and it means to release someone/thing by paying a ransom; to liberate from an oppressive situation; to set free and to rescue.[4]

These definitions perfectly capture the beauty and great news of what Jesus has done for us. He has paid the price for our sins (1 Cor. 6:20), liberated us from the oppressiveness that sin brings into our lives (Rom. 8:20), set us free from its power (Rom. 6:22, 8:2; Gal. 3:13) and rescued us from its penalty (2 Thess. 1:9).

Jesus’ death on the cross (our redemption) is something no credible historian denies today, with not only the early-written gospels recording the account, but also secular historians such as Josephus[5], Tacitus[6], Lucian[7], and the Jewish Talmud.[8]

The cross is also something that gives pause to other non-Christians who recognize its significance and impact, such as Gandhi who said, “Of all the dispositions and teachings of thinkers and ethicists, the one doctrine that I have no sufficient counter for is Jesus on that Cross.”

Regenerated by the Spirit

The good news of the gospel doesn’t stop with the second R of salvation – it continues with the third, which is that all believers in Jesus have been regenerated by the Spirit of God so that they believe in Christ and experience a changed life where they pursue God’s ways, with the gifts of both spiritual and eternal life with God being returned to them. Of this, Paul says, "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10).

In his preaching, Whitefield was laser-focused on urging his listeners to be born again and receive eternal life through Jesus, with himself having come to true faith after reading the Scottish theologian Henry Scougal’s small book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Whitefield says of this revelation, “I must bear testimony to my old friend Mr. Charles Wesley, he put a book into my hands, called, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, whereby God showed me, that I must be born again, or be damned.”[9]

John 3 was a favorite chapter preached by Whitefield, which contains some of the most recognized statements made by Jesus (e.g. John 3:16). But it also contains words that speak to the sovereignty of God that is involved in a person being born again: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:6–8).

What proof is there that such a thing actually happens with those who receive Christ as Savior? Beyond the countless testimonies of shipwrecked lives that have seemingly been resurrected from the dead is the historical resurrection of Christ Himself. Paul says, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

Because Christ was raised from the dead, we can have confidence that His sacrifice on the cross was accepted by God and that everyone who trusts in His name is regenerated by the Creator. This is why Paul told his Roman audience that Jesus was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4).

As to the historically validity of Christ’s resurrection, an objective look at the account using a minimally accepted facts approach is enough to start any skeptic down the road of believing that the hypothesis, God raised Jesus from the dead, is the best explanation for the still-empty tomb of the Nazarene carpenter.[10]


No Church historian disagrees with the claim that George Whitefield was one of the most powerful and effective preachers of all time. For those of us interested in bringing people to Christ, I can think of no better pattern to follow than Whitefield’s three R’s of explaining the gospel.

Although sin has left a destructive path through humanity, the great news of the gospel is that there is freedom from its power and a better life waiting for those willing to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior. Calvin perhaps summed it up the best when he wrote, “For certainly, Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.”[11]

[1] As one example, see Steven Lawson’s work, The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield.

[4] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., online). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] “Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die” – Antiquities 18.3.3 (undisputed rendering).

[6] “Nero substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men loathed for their vices whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor.” – Annals, Book 15.

[7] “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites and was crucified on that account… these misguided creatures … deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws” – The Works of Lucian of Samosata.

[8] “On the eve of Passover Yeshua was hanged … since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!” – Sanhedrin 43a.

[9] From a sermon in 1769. Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, pp. 25–26.

[10] For a review of the resurrection’s minimal facts and a defense of those facts, see my blog post: that also links to an in-depth PowerPoint presentation on the topic.

[11] Calvin, Commentary on Romans.

Robin Schumacher