Note: This is a simple chapter on salvation from a biblical perspective, and will seek to avoid such weighty theological terms as soteriology, supra/infralapsarianism and a detailed discussion of the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. Sometimes we over complicate things, and the article below is an attempt to be very simple, and very biblical.
Perhaps the most important question of all is centered on salvation, and how to live eternally in Heaven. This is a BIG question, and it comes in many different flavors: How do I become a Christian? How do I get saved? How can I go to Heaven when I die? How can I inherit eternal life? People in the Bible frequently asked this question in its various forms. Probably the most common answer in the church today, at least in the American church, is an answer that contains an element of praying, and an element of somehow “asking Jesus to come into your heart.” You might be surprised to discover that this formulation is not particularly biblical at all! Think about it: The most common answer that Christians give today when somebody asks them how to spend eternity in Heaven with Jesus is not really based on the Bible at all…that is a problem!
Interestingly, the Bible does not have a standard and uniform answer to the question of how to be saved. (More on that in a moment…) But there are multiple passages where the question is asked. Consider the Rich Young Ruler of Matthew 19. This was a young man who was zealous for God and had apparently lived an extremely holy life, seeking to please God by keeping all of the commandments. One day, that young man encountered Jesus, and asked Him the BIG question:
“Just then someone came up and asked Him, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask Me about what is good?” He said to him. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”18 “Which ones?” he asked Him. Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; 19 honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. 20 “I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack? 21 “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” 22 When the young man heard that command, he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:16-22)
How did Jesus ultimately answer the man? He told Him two things: #1 – To sell His possessions, and #2 to Follow Jesus. Is this THE definitive answer to the question of how to be saved? Must all who want to inherit eternal life sell all of their possessions and then follow Jesus?
The same question is asked again in Acts 2. Peter has just preached his Pentecost sermon to thousands of people. Many of them are cut to the heart, and they approach him and ask the big question – what should they do? How can they be saved? Note how Peter’s answer is somewhat different from Jesus’ answer:
“When they heard this, they came under deep conviction and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Brothers, what must we do?” 38 “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” 40 And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them.” (Acts 2:37-41)
When Peter is asked the question, his response is slightly different than Jesus’ response to the Rich Young Ruler. This time, Peter tells those asking the question to #1 Repent and #2 Be baptized in the name of Jesus. Does this represent a contradiction between what Peter said and what Jesus said? Absolutely not, but there is an important reason for the differences. Before we discuss that, however, let’s look at yet another passage. This time involving the apostle Paul:
“Then the jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the message of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house. 33 He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized. 34 He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had believed God with his entire household.” (Acts 16:29-34)
Yet another different answer! This time, when Paul answers the BIG question, there is no mention of baptism OR selling all of one’s possessions OR repenting, only that belief in Jesus is the necessary thing. Here’s one more Scripture from Paul that clearly states what a person needs in order to be saved:
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
In Romans 10:9, confession is a key element, but baptism, repentance, and selling possessions are missing. On the surface, this could be quite confusing – especially if we are looking for the steps to be saved – why doesn’t the Bible have ONE simple formula for us to follow and for Christians to tell the world about? And that question brings us to the crux of the issue: The reason the Bible never gives a consistent series of steps to salvation is because there isn’t a formula to be saved! There aren’t steps that, by carrying them out, we can ensure salvation. There does not exist a certain set of instructions that, when followed properly, will ensure that somebody has eternal life. It doesn’t work that way at all! JESUS is at the center of every answer to every salvation question asked in the Bible. Follow Jesus, believe Jesus, confess Jesus, be baptized into Jesus, etc. It is all about Jesus, and what He has done! Consider Paul’s famous description of salvation in Ephesians:
“In the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Salvation is NOT by works. Not by a series of steps. Not by a series of activities. Salvation is found in a PERSON. You aren’t saved because you prayed a prayer or saved because you were baptized, or saved because you did what a pastor asked, and took a few steps down to the altar at a front of the church. NONE of those things are sufficient for salvation. Salvation requires a savior. Rescuing requires a rescuer.
Think about it this way – you are on a boat that sinks in a fierce storm, and you are plunged into 40 degree waters. The waves violently toss you about, and you are at the absolute end of your strength and in desperate need of rescue. Your arms are almost useless, and your lungs are beginning to fill with water. Which is a better scenario: #1 A Coast Guard Cutter pulls up, and an officer shouts down instructions to you as to what YOU must DO to save yourself from the water. OR #2: A Coast Guard Cutter pulls up, and a rescue diver is lowered down to you, and he grabs you and pulls you to safety? Though not all analogies are perfect, the point of this one is that a person drowning in the water does not need instruction on what to do in order to save themselves, they need a rescuer. A person lost in sin doesn’t need a few steps to follow to make themselves acceptable to God and worthy of eternal life – they need a Rescuer, Jesus, to save them completely. The focus is not on the steps to be saved, it is on the Savior!
THAT is why the Bible never gives the same instructions on what must be done for somebody to be saved…because it is NOT about what YOU must do for salvation – it is about Jesus and what HE has already done. Consider the words of Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation. Apart from Jesus, prayer is meaningless, baptism is just water, repentance has no power, and selling all of your goods may be noble, but it won’t save your soul.
“So,” I hear you asking, “What does all of this mean? What should I do??” It is a fair question. The answer is: Look to Jesus, and live! Jesus is the Root of salvation (Revelation 22:16), He is the Way of salvation (John 14:6), He is the Door of salvation (John 10:9) and He is the beginning and end of salvation (Revelation 1:8.) Go to Jesus, and He will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28) Go to Jesus, and He will give you life. (John 14:6) Go to Jesus, and He will give you living water that will spring up into eternal life! (John 4:14)
I will close with this one last simple verse, which is an amazing and precious promise of Jesus. You may bet your life on it, and I hope you do. John 6:40, “For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Yes! It is as simple as that, according to the Master Himself. LOOK to Him and BELIEVE. Should you get baptized? Absolutely, it is a command, but it doesn’t save you. Should you repent, and turn away from your sins? YES, you must, but repentance doesn’t save you, Jesus does. Should you follow the commands of God? Yes! in gratitude for salvation, but NOT because you think that obeying God’s law has the power to save you. Look to Jesus, and Believe the gospel – the good news that a perfect and sinless Jesus died the death of a sinner – you and I! – on the cross, to pay the price for our sin, so that we could have eternal life forever in Heaven.
“I remember I concluded preaching at Exeter Hall with these three words, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” and I think I will conclude my sermon of this morning with the same words, but not till I have spoken to one poor forlorn soul who is standing over there, wondering whether there is mercy for him. He says, “It is well enough, sir, to say, ‘Look to Jesus,’ but suppose you cannot look? If your eye is blind—what then?” Oh I my poor brother, turn your restless eyeballs to the cross, and that light which gives light to them that see, shall give eyesight to them that are blind. Oh! if thou canst not believe this morning, look and consider, and weigh the matter, and in weighing and reflecting thou shalt be helped to believe. He asks nothing of thee; he bids thee now believe that he died for thee. If to-day thou feelest thyself a lost, guilty sinner, all he asks is that thou wouldest believe on him; that is to say, trust him, confide in him. Is it not little he asks? And yet it is more than any of us are prepared to give, except the Spirit hath made us willing. Come, cast yourselves upon him; fall flat on his promise; sink or swim, confide in him, and you cannot guess the joy that you shall feel in that one instant that you believe on him. Were there not some of you impressed last Sabbath day, and you have been anxious all the week? Oh! I hope I have brought a good message to you this morning for your comfort. “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth,” saith Christ, “for I am God, and beside me there is none else.” Look ye now, and looking ye shall live. May every blessing rest upon you, and may each go away to think of that one person whom we love, even Jesus—Jesus—Jesus!” Charles Spurgeon sermon, “Looking Unto Jesus” May 23, 1858
“There are, in the end, only two questions to ask as we read the Bible: Is it about me? Or is it about Jesus? In other words, is the Bible basically about what I must do orabout what he has done? Consider the story of David and Goliath. If I read David and Goliath as a story that gives me an example to follow, then the story is really about me. It is an exhortation that I must summon up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I accept that the Bible is ultimately about the Lord and his salvation, and if I read the David and Goliath text in that light, it throws a multitude of things into sharp relief! The very point of the Old Testament passage is that the Israelites could not face the giant themselves. Instead, they needed a champion who would fight in their place — a substitute who would face the deadly peril in their stead. And the substitute that God provided is not a strong person but a weak one — a young boy, too small to wear a suit of armor. Yet God used the deliverer’s weakness as the very means to bring about the destruction of the laughing, overconfident Goliath. David triumphs through his weakness and his victory is imputed to his people. And so does Jesus. It is through his suffering, weakness, and death that the sin is defeated. This vivid and engaging story shows us what it means to declare that we have died with Christ (Rom 6:1–4) and are raised up and seated with him (Eph 2:5 – 6). Jesus is the ultimate champion, our true champion, who did not merely risk his life for us, but who gave it. And now his victory is our victory, and all he has accomplished is imputed to us.” (Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel Centered Ministry in Your City, location 2003, copyright 2012)
Post Script: 5 Things that Salvation is NOT:
- Salvation is NOT simply believing that God exists and that Jesus died on the cross. For years, I have have (off and on) engaged in the practice of street evangelism. Living in the south, almost everybody here believes that they are Christians, so if you ask somebody if they are saved, or if they know where they would go if they died tonight, they will almost invariably indicate that they are sure to go to Heaven. They have a genuine belief in the existence of God, but that is NOT a saving faith as defined by Jesus and the apostles. Consider that ALL of the Pharisees and Sadducees believed in God, and that many of them believed that Jesus died on the cross, because they saw it happen. Consider James 2:19 here also, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Mere belief is not salvation.
- Salvation is NOT earned by doing good deeds, or keeping God’s commandments. Another common occurrence when talking with people in the south about Jesus is that many people are quick to say that they are trying their best to be a good person and to do good deeds. That is admirable, I suppose, but it is completely inadequate to gain eternal life and salvation. Remember Ephesians 2:8-9, which clearly says that salvation is by grace and NOT by good works. Not even the best among us can possibly earn entrance into Heaven by our good works. Romans 3:20, “For no one will be justified in His sight by the works of the law” AND Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed.” If you are relying on good works to save you and attract the attention of God, then you’d better hope you are absolutely PERFECT, and that you have kept EVERYTHING in the book of the law. Spoiler alert: You can’t be perfect for even a day, let alone a lifetime.
- Doing miracles, prophesying, and generally appearing to be remarkably spiritual does NOT indicate that you are saved. I have been in churches with some remarkably gifted people who seemed to have an unusual ability to walk in the Spirit. I’ve seen what appeared to be signs, miracles and accurate prophecies, and I rejoice at all such works of the Holy Spirit that are genuine! However, just being able to give a prophetic message, or seemingly perform a miraculous deed does NOT indicate that you are saved, at least according to Jesus. (See Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!”) What is a far more reliable indicator of salvation than miracles and prophecy? Spiritual fruit! (Matthew 7:17, “In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.” and Matthew 3:8, “Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.”
- Salvation is NOT merely a one-time decision to walk the aisles, or pray a prayer. If you are truly saved, you will persevere – continue to follow Jesus. It is possible to believe vainly, or just believe for a moment in time, but in a very superfluous, shallow and ultimately meaningless way. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (“Now brothers, I want to clarify[a] for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. 2 You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you—unless you believed for no purpose“), and Jesus addresses this in Mark 4:15-19. (”These are the ones along the path where the word is sown: when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, immediately they receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root in themselves; they are short-lived. When pressure or persecution comes because of the word, they immediately stumble. 18 Others are sown among thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the worries of this age, the seduction of wealth, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.“)
- Salvation is NOT simply a low-stakes choice you make to follow Jesus in order to avoid Hell. Following Jesus involves dying to your self AND obeying His words. Consider these two challenging passages from Luke 6 and Luke 9:
“Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to Me, hears My words, and acts on them: 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. When the flood came, the river crashed against that house and couldn’t shake it, because it was well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The river crashed against it, and immediately it collapsed. And the destruction of that house was great!” (Luke 6:46-49)
“Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. 25 What is a man benefited if he gains the whole world, yet loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)
Obedience to His commands and dying to your own wishes are both integral components of following Jesus, and thus being saved.