Over the last two posts I’ve been looking at what salvation means; what we’re saved from and to. But how are we saved; what are we saved by? And what if anything do we contribute to the process; what part do we play in our own redemption, and that of the world?
In short, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, as the gaoler in Acts put it.
Evangelical and Pauline answers
The usual evangelical answer is that to be saved we must confess and repent of our sins before God, putting our faith in Christ as our Lord and saviour (and specifically in his saving self-sacrifice on the cross) to save us from our sins. In many cases this has become abbreviated into two steps: saying the ‘sinners’ prayer’ and ‘making a commitment’ to Christ. And that’s pretty much it – the rest is kind of the icing on the cake.
There are of course one or two passages in the NT that could lend credence to this rather truncated or attenuated notion of how we ‘get saved’; of how we sign up for or become part of God’s salvation. When the gaoler asks ‘What must I do to be saved?’, Paul replies ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household’ (Acts 16:31). That’s an even shorter version than the one I’m critiquing – there’s not even any sinner’s prayer or explanation of Christ’s saving sacrifice.
Of course, this story needs to be read in the full context of Acts and of the whole NT; in the light of the early church’s shared understanding of who Christ was, what he had achieved, and what salvation meant. Nonetheless, though Acts’ first readers might have had this understanding, it’s unlikely that the gaoler did. Perhaps Paul laid on a prison Alpha course that Luke forgot to mention. 😉
Reading on though, Paul does do something crucial for the gaoler. He may not explain the full theology of salvation to his new would-be convert, but what he does instead is baptise him and his household into the church – into the family and body of Christ. Baptism is the act of inclusion, the initiation into a new mode of living ‘in Christ’; it’s the mark of belonging and the symbol of new life. As a baptised member of Christ and Christ’s church, the gaoler will be able to grow both in the understanding and the experience of salvation; he doesn’t need it all spelled out at the start. All he needs at this point is the willingness to ‘sign up’.
If we’re looking for a more theological answer from Paul, his standard statement of course is that we’re saved by grace through God-given faith in Christ, by virtue of his saving self-sacrifice on the cross (Ephesians 2:8). I can’t really argue with that. I might just want to expand on it slightly; to put it in a different perspective or different words. I’ll come back to that later.
Jesus’s different answer?
Interestingly, when Jesus is asked a very similar question he appears to give a very different kind of answer. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ asks the rich young ruler in Mark 10, to which Jesus of course replies ‘sell everything you have and give to the poor… then come, follow me’. What on earth does that have to do with Paul’s answer?
But actually there is a deep connection between the two stories and the two answers. Jesus’s call to ‘follow me’ is the equivalent of the call to be baptised. They both mean to leave behind the old ties and enter into a new life with Christ, being part of Christ’s community and following his ways. For the rich young ruler, ‘sell everything you have’ is simply part of this wider long-term call, just as in the gaoler’s case ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus’ is the gateway into the community of faith where salvation is made real. Both Paul’s ‘believe’ and Jesus’s ‘sell and follow’ require trust, love and obedience to a higher calling. Both also require a direct, active response to the person of Christ.
Action not assent
For us in the post-Enlightenment west it’s all too easy to see Paul’s ‘believe in the Lord Jesus’ as a call to passive assent to an intellectual doctrinal position about Christ. We might imagine that it means we have to mentally accept that Jesus is the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, fully human yet fully divine, born of the Virgin Mary, etc.
I don’t think it actually means that at all. It’s a call to believe in Jesus, to believe in Jesus; to trust him, put your faith in him, throw yourself on him, follow him. It’s an act of trust and love more than one of intellect. It’s about relationship more than rational agreement; reason plays an important but not a primary role. And what we’re believing in is Jesus’ person, his character, his faithfulness, his ability to redeem us and renew us and remake us.
In the Matthew 25 Sheep and Goats story, those who are ‘saved’ and go to heavenly reward are those who have lived lives of practical love. They have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, visited those in prison; and in so doing they have loved Christ. There’s no mention of them having prayed the sinners’ prayer or believed in Jesus’s sacrifice (which obviously hadn’t happened at the point when Jesus told the story). This is not in opposition to believing in Jesus, or to turning to him as saviour. Rather it’s the outflow of that belief, the sign that that belief is genuine, expressed in action even if never in words or creeds.
Saved by faith
There are several occasions in the gospels where someone comes to Jesus for healing, and he says ‘your faith has made you well’. I’ve said that the Greek word Jesus uses for ‘made well’ is the same as for ‘saved’. Salvation and healing are part of the same thing. Salvation involves being made well or whole or complete in the fullest, deepest sense; healing of the inner being and the whole self.
And what is it on the person’s part that enables them to enter into this healing, this salvation – is it their deeds, their credentials, their status, their intelligence, their doctrinal correctness or ability to reel off a creed or catechism? No, it’s their faith – in other words, their attitude (and act) of trust in Jesus, in his character, his love, his goodness, his ability.
This isn’t the Prosperity Gospel parody of faith, the ‘Name it and claim it’ magic of mentally working yourself up into a state of confidence in a desired answer to prayer. It’s simply trust in Jesus; that he is who he says he is and can do what he says he can; that in him we see the Father’s goodness and reality. (Actually, it may not even be that much; it may just be the willingness to come to Jesus, while not being altogether sure who or what Jesus is.)
Something like this is surely what Paul means when he says ‘believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved’; this is what ‘justification by faith alone’ means. It doesn’t mean that putting your faith in Jesus is a one-off act or prayer and the rest is just waiting for heaven, any more than saying ‘I do’ is all there is to marriage. That’s just the preliminary; the sign of the commitment which will shape and direct the rest of your future shared life.
Signing up for salvation
We can’t turn salvation into a formula: say these words, do these things and you’re in. Salvation is entering into a new way of life based on a transforming relationship with the one who is love, peace, joy, truth, justice and goodness incarnate. The ways that can happen may be as many and various as the different personalities of all the people on earth.
I’ve talked slightly flippantly of ‘signing up’ for salvation. I don’t mean signing up to a creed or set of doctrines, at least not in a way that doesn’t change the heart or life. It’s more like signing up to the army, or signing up to a vocation or order. It’s a giving of the whole self, the whole being to Christ, a taking on of a whole new way of being and living and relating and thinking. That’s what the idea of repentance is getting at, far more than merely saying sorry or feeling remorse. It’s signing up to the hard lifelong project of character change, of growth and renewal, of living out a life of Christian love and faith, hope, goodness and reality. Perhaps most of all it’s like signing the marriage register – entering into a committed, lifelong relationship of mutual service and trust and love.
I said earlier that I might want to rephrase Paul’s theological statement of how we’re saved, what we’re saved by. I’d perhaps put it that we’re saved by God’s infinite and unstoppable love, truth, kindness and mercy. We’re saved by God’s perfect and total identification with us in Christ, identification right down to the depths of our lostness and brokenness and hopelessness. We’re redeemed by a transforming love which stops at nothing and goes to the utmost lengths and depths – even death and hell – to redeem and restore the beloved.
And what must we do? Respond the call of Christ in whatever form it comes to us; participate in the ongoing incarnation of Christ in and through our lives, to our healing and the healing of the world.
Redemption and resurrection are not just one-off past events, nor are they merely future states to look forward to. They start in the past and continue into the future, and in the meantime we can participate in them and be a part of them here and now. So go on then – no time like the present. 🙂