The Christian life can be compared to a man who awakens to find himself floating in the ocean. The sky is black. The water is frigid. The wind is howling, the sea is raging, and the man is being tossed about by massive waves and forces pulling him under the water. Beneath the water there are creatures that seek to devour his body. The nearest land is one hundred miles away.
The man is consumed by fear. As hard as he tries, he cannot outswim the storm. His arms and legs are growing numb from the cold. His strength is nothing against the power of the waves and the undertow. He is no physical match for the creatures below who are preparing to rip him to pieces and consume him. He knows that even if he could survive the wind, the waves, the undertow and the predators, there is no chance whatsoever that he could swim one hundred miles to shore. There is no escape. He is helpless as he faces death. He has no power to save himself.
What happens next in the story depends upon how you perceive Christianity itself. How can a person in that much peril possibly survive? What action can be taken to save this man’s life? Can there be a heroic ending to this horrific tale? To answer these questions, I submit to you two possible outcomes that represent both classical Christian thought, and modern belief about how this man can escape his fate.
The first outcome begins where the story left off. Our drowning man is consumed with fear, and is about to be consumed by death. His mind is fading, his limbs are nearly motionless, and his lungs are taking on water. Then a burst of hope fills his eyes and his heart: he sees a ship! He pushes harder to stay afloat as he awaits the boat to come alongside him. He is battling to survive, and elated for the help that will soon be his. As the boat arrives, a smiling sailor leans over the rail and lifts a bullhorn to his mouth. “I’ve got great news for you buddy!” he yells to the drowning man. “You can do this! You’ve got it! Kick your feet! Use your big arms! Stay positive! You’re going to make it all the way! No one can swim as awesomely as you can!”
The second outcome begins the same way as the first. The man is drowning, his precious life is ebbing away, and the boat still comes. Only this time, when the boat comes alongside the man, the sailor’s response is utterly different. He leaps over the railing into the water with the drowning man, and wraps him in a life vest. He ties a rope around the man, and urges him to be still. “Hang onto me,” the sailor says, “You’re not going to die. I am going to save you.”
The drowning man in this parable represents all humanity. We enter into this world in a condition of sin. We are not sinners merely on account of what we do, but instead on account of who we are. We are sinful by nature, corrupted to the core. Even if we can evade committing certain bad behaviors, there are always a multitude of other sins we commit that will condemn us. The Bible tells us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and that “The wages of sin is death.” As we stare into the judgment of God’s Law, we stare into a certain fate. There is no self help. No amount of effort, or will power, or positive thinking, or “life coaching” is going to remedy the situation. Under God’s Law, we are all “drowning men.” We are all going to die. No escape.
The two outcomes represent the two ways salvation is confessed in Christianity, and the contrast between them is shocking. The first outcome demonstrates the belief that “If we live a good life, we will make it to heaven.” It emphasizes our work to try and reconcile ourselves to God by our own behavior. It is a salvation that comes from us, and our prayers, and our sacrifice, and our discipline, and our focus, and our committment. It is ultimately a belief that we are responsible to save ourselves in the face of impossible odds.
The second outcome represents the belief that salvation must come from outside of us. It is based on the scriptures that declare us judged and dead in the eyes of the Law. It demonstrates that we need to be saved because we cannot save ourselves. It is the proclamation of a miracle.
Christianity is not about swim lessons. It is about rescue. It is not about us “going the distance” and “overcoming the odds.” It is about Jesus Christ rescuing us from an eternal death we have no power to escape. In reality, the Bible does not recognize two possible outcomes to save the drowning man. There is only one: Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins. His death and atonement for sins calms the waves of God’s wrath, and takes us to safety. He crushes the beasts that would devour us with His fatherly divine goodness and strength. He heals our struggle-weary arms and legs with mercy and forgiveness. He brings us peace when He commands us to cease striving to justify ourselves, because by His death and resurrection He has justified us. He has ended our struggle in one decisive weekend. There is nothing to fear. Death has no claim on you. You are free.
It is by grace you have been saved, through faith (and not by swim lessons). Salvation does not come from you, it is a gift of God. Christianity is the gift of rescue purchased by the blood of Christ. Your warfare has ended. Go in peace.