What must we do to be saved?

April 4, 2012

My daughter drew this on my iPad.

This is a question that comes up surprisingly often, in one form or another, in various Bible studies and Sunday school classes I teach. Usually, the questioner asks me, not because they’re worried about themselves, but because they want to know that a loved one—perhaps someone who, like the Prodigal Son, has wandered far away from the path of faithfulness—will be saved.

Of course, sometimes even faithful Christians, struck anew—as all faithful Christians will be from time to time—by a sense of their own sinfulness and the magnanimity of God’s grace, will seek reassurance. Am I really saved, and how can I know for sure? (I heard someone on a Christian talk-radio show ask this very question yesterday. The fact that he was conscientious enough to ask was a good sign!)

The answer, depending on whom you ask, can be more or less complicated. The first and best part of the answer, however, is that we don’t really have to do anything. Jesus did it all for us. As we approach Good Friday, it’s helpful to reflect on the objective fact of the cross. Through Jesus’ faithful obedience, not our own, we are reconciled to God.

One of the Protestant formulations that we loudly affirm—alongside sola scriptura—is another sola: sola fide. By this we mean that we are justified (made right with God) by faith alone. We can bring no righteousness of our own to the equation that will make us acceptable to God.

And this should quiet our troubled souls, except it often doesn’t. We worry about the content of our faith: do we believe the right things. Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters are notorious for offering us a list of things that we must believe—as if it were possible to simply will ourselves to believe things that we don’t believe. In which case, faith itself becomes a meritorious work that we must perform in order to be saved. And didn’t the Reformation stand against that way of thinking?

No, let’s be good Protestants and go back to the Bible. If scripture is our guide, it would seem to require very little on our part to be saved. Adam Hamilton gets at this when he talks about the “thief” on the cross (who was himself likely a violent revolutionary). Hamilton writes:

He turned to Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42); and Jesus raised himself up yet again and said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). I love this. Jesus, hanging on the cross, was still seeking to save those who were lost. This man did not understand theology. He did not know Scripture. He had not recited a creed. He had not joined a church or been baptized. He had not had the chance to do anything righteous or to clean up his life. He was hanging on the cross for his crimes when, at some very simple level, he caught the vision of Jesus’ kingdom and asked if he might become part of it; and that was enough… For us, as for the thief on the cross, this is a sufficient starting point.[1]

A “sufficient starting point.” I like that. Because, while I said earlier that it seems to require very little to be saved, it actually requires everything—if we understand the gift that we’ve been given. But it takes a lifetime to learn how to give everything, and the vast majority of us will never do so perfectly (although my man Wesley held out hope!).

But the thief’s words are a sufficient starting point. And for my brothers and sisters whose consciences cause them to doubt their salvation, I would add that it’s a sufficient “starting over” point.

Maybe some of us need to start over as we look to the cross this Friday? If so, hear Jesus’ reassuring words: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 107.

2 Responses to “What must we do to be saved?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I agree that there is not some list of things we must “do” to be saved, but I think I am at variance from you to some extent. You say, for example, “Besides, saving faith, which must be freely accepted or rejected, is itself a gift from God. See Ephesians 2:8-9.” I recognize the phrase, “And that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Sorry, memorized in KJV.) However, we have to take a step back here. First, if we attribute the faith SOLELY to God, then we tread perilously close to predestination. In other words, if only those to whom God bestows faith may be saved, it is pretty difficult to see how salvation is the “choice” of the individual, as opposed to God. I am not sure this “problem” gets “solved” by saying, “freely accepted or rejected” (in other words, I guess you are saying, God gives faith to everybody–some just push it away?); that would still add in “something we do.”

    As opposed to that one reference (which I would argue is somewhat ambiguous as to what “that” is referencing–it might mean that “the fact of salvation being by faith rather than works” is a gift from God, i.e., we don’t have to “earn” it through works (which we can’t do)–were “works” the route, we could boast about how many works we did), most references to faith suggest it is something the PERSON is “responsible” for. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.” “Go your way, YOUR faith has healed/saved you.” “When he saw that he had faith to be healed … “By faith, Abraham …” Etc.

    Also, “faith without works is dead.” Nobody can actually have faith which does not result in a “changed” life (from what it would be were there no faith). So, as Paul says, “Test yourselves, whether you be in the faith.”

    In my humble estimation, I think salvation is accomplished by a “my life for your life” exchange. I want what God has to offer so much that I am willing to offer myself to him to get that. Of course we don’t maintain that “level” of devotion constantly (even Abraham seemingly had doubts that God could/would fulfill the promise, or take care of him, from time to time), but it is the general “tenor” of a saved life, I think. Naturally there has to be some cognitive content to such a commitment–you can’t very well devote yourself to someone you don’t believe in. And I am oversimplifying–you have to recognize that you don’t deserve salvation on any terms, and that salvation could only be accomplished by Christ’s death. Nevertheless: “But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a REWARDER of those who diligently seek him.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Congratulations, Tom! You convinced me to delete the offending paragraph. It was the weakest in the post, anyway, and I know the Ephesians reference is ambiguous. I don’t believe that the quality or purity of our faith saves us. Nor do I think that it’s only a gift. The kind of faith that saves us is the kind that turns to Jesus—in trust, in repentance. And that’s not nothing on our part.

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