What does it take to be saved?

July 19, 2010

I was at a coffee shop last week working on a sermon when an old friend from college walked in. I’ll call her Janet. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years. She’s a Facebook friend, which nicely streamlines the process of catching up with one another after being apart for a while. In other words, I kinda sorta knew what was going on with her, and she kinda sorta knew what was going on with me. Easy!

She had one pressing question for me—which caught me off-guard and left me feeling slightly bothered. She said, “I don’t mean this in a judgmental way at all, but is Steve a Christian?”

Steve (not his real name) is a mutual friend from college, who also happens to be perhaps my closest and best friend today. I met him, as did Janet, at the Baptist Student Union, when all three of us were still Baptist. (Oddly enough, none of us is today—not that it matters.)

Registering a flash of annoyance, I asked, “What kind of question is that?” Steve, as I happen to know, is a Christian in thought, word, and deed. Our mutual faith is something that binds our friendship together. It always has. He professes the faith. He’s been baptized. He’s an active churchgoer. Like me and everyone else, he’s also a sinner constantly in need of God’s grace, but that goes without saying, I hope. The point is, of course he’s a Christian!

But I thought that Janet knew that, too. She is at least his Facebook friend. (His profile even includes a quote from Jesus, for heaven’s sake!) I think she stays in touch with him to some extent.

She continued, “Of course we can’t truly know what’s in someone’s heart…” I said, “Yes, but can’t we agree, at a minimum, that being baptized and professing the faith makes someone a Christian? Steve is a Christian.” She said she agreed with me but went on to explain that another mutual friend from the BSU had become agnostic and renounced the faith. “By all means,” I said, “we can say that he’s not a Christian”—because he himself says he’s not a Christian! But what did that have to do with my friend Steve?

In all fairness, I might have misunderstood her. Maybe she thought that Steve, like their agnostic friend, had also abandoned the faith. I don’t know what would make her think that, but whatever…

What I do know is that this conversation put me back in an uncomfortable place I hadn’t been to in a long time. It’s a certain kind of stereotypically Baptist or hyper-evangelical mindset that insists on looking beyond the obvious marks of being a Christian—baptism, profession of faith, churchgoing—and attempts to discern something deeper, more spiritual, and less tangible.

According to this mindset, it’s almost impossible to know for sure who’s in and who’s out—because the church pews are filled with people who profess Christian faith but are not what one popular blogger sarcastically calls RTCs (Real True Christians).

For people of this mindset, I want to ask: What does it take to be saved? What do you have to do to be saved? Surely they would agree with me that, in a sense, you don’t have to do anything. We are justified through faith alone, not through meritorious work. We can’t do anything to earn salvation. Paul makes this point loudly in Galatians and somewhat more softly in Romans when he talks about Abraham’s faith being “credited to him as righteousness” long before circumcision or Law enter the picture.

But we need to say more. One problem with Christians of this hyper-evangelical bent is that while they loudly profess “justification by faith alone,” they twist faith itself into a kind of meritorious work. They say, in so many words, if only you believe strongly enough or sincerely enough—or if only you believe in these right doctrines—then, and only then, will you be saved.

This is why they can never be sure who’s in and who’s out, who’s an RTC and who’s not: It’s all so subjective. It all depends on the unsearchable quality of one’s faith. No one can know that but God, of course. All they can do is look for these indirect signs pointing to this kind of faith—like, for instance, using certain Christian codewords in conversation. So maybe someone like my friend Steve is suspect because he fails to exhibit these signs. Who knows?

While I’m sure that many hyper-evangelicals can recite Ephesians 2:8-9 from memory, I fear that they miss an important point: this thing “that is not your own doing” is faith. In other words, saving faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not something that we muster on our own. To believe otherwise is to be guilty of the heresy of Pelagianism.

The truth is that none of us can believe strongly or sincerely enough. Fortunately, that’s not what it takes. All we do in order to be saved—if this counts as doing anything—is say “yes” to what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And of course, we’re only able to say “yes” to begin with because of the Holy Spirit, who brings us to this point of decision.

Much more to say, but that’s all for now. Someone remind me to write a related post in the near future entitled, “Why Methodists Don’t Do Altar Calls Very Well.”

2 Responses to “What does it take to be saved?”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Hi Brent. I appreciate your uneasiness about the question, however I believe you miss out on an opportunity to assuming faith because of a profession of faith. Peter commends us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” The writer of Hebrews commends us to “exhort one another day after day.” James commends us to distinguish real faith from empty faith. In other words, faith isn’t faith if it doesn’t produce something. I would never be offended if someone questioned my Christianity. Why? Because I still sin, and perhaps they’re seeing a sin I don’t and need to see. Or perhaps I’ve not been clear in my confession of faith. In any regard, those who love me MOST will never assume I’m a Christian because I said something 10 years ago. It’s what I’m doing today that matters. Your friend turned agnostic appeared (probably) to be a Christian once. I would encourage you, instead of simply saying ‘of course he is’ to instead examine him – as a loving friend and always open to his return examination – according to the active confession of his faith today. We rarely can love our brothers and sisters more than when we exhort them to love God – to confess our faith.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I think you misunderstand. Why should I have to “examine” my friend “Steve”? He professes faith today. He’s baptized. He’s actively involved in church. I’m not talking about something he did 10 (or more like 30) years ago; I’m talking about right now. Moreover, he’s my best friend and a very close confidante. The thought that, in spite of all outward appearances and in spite of his own words and actions, he isn’t a Christian is ridiculous. Not that “Janet” knows him nearly so well.

      To be clear, I don’t assume faith because of a person’s profession of faith. I assume faith because of the atoning work of Christ on the cross and the gift of life that God makes available through his Spirit. My emphasis is on what Christ has done. That works should follow as grateful response doesn’t change this emphasis.

      I’m a Methodist, by the way. No “eternal security of the believer” here. We believe that backsliding and apostasy are real and frightening possibilities. I would say that my agnostic acquaintance not only “appeared” to be a Christian but was a Christian. Now he isn’t. I hope he will be again!

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