How to Be Saved According to the Bible
Those of us who have spent some time reading the Bible probably understand already that Jesus came to Earth to be our sacrifice and to pay for our sins. Some of us have heard that in church or heard it from Christians we've met but aren't really sure where in the Bible to look to see this for ourselves. For those who are convinced that there's no validity to Christianity at all, this isn't really the hub for you. This is written primarily to seekers or to Christians who are interested in a more in depth study of salvation and how it works. All of the support for this hub is from scripture. I will not attempt to make a case for why I believe the Bible is trustworthy here. You can find that in another hub called "Is Jesus Who He Claims to Be?". For those of us who are genuinely seeking to learn, let's take a walk together.
I do have one disclaimer to make. I know going in that many of you have a different faith background than mine. While I could try to check my background at the door, I recognize that it's really no use. What I can do is present scripture that I believe is relevant to this topic and then give my opinion based on the research I've done. I acknowledge that there will be things you disagree with. All opposing view points are welcome. I love honest and respectful conversation, and am certainly interested in other opinions on what the Bible has to say. I am not trying to make anyone believe anything. I am simply trying to explore what the Bible has to say and spark some conversation in hopes that we will all learn something.
There has certainly been controversy over the years concerning the nature of salvation. Some may assume that salvation is based on church membership or affiliation. Some believe that its entirely based on our ability to follow either the Mosaic law, the teachings of Jesus, or both. Some believe that you can simply pray a prayer to get in, while others believe that no one goes to heaven without baptism. Some are even so specific that it must be baptism by immersion or the salvation experience was not genuine. So many different beliefs, all from people who use the Bible to find and define truth. So what does the Bible actually say about all this? Is it really that confusing?
First, we'll look at John chapter 3. Many of us actually memorized John 3:16 as children. Here Jesus is trying to give some insight to Nicodemus about the nature of salvation. The entire passage is worth reading again when you get a chance but there are some key quotes that are of interest. Here are the words of Jesus from John 3:3-6 without the conversational context (in the interest of space):
"Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God... Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3:3-6) NKJV
Without even bothering to wait for Nicodemus to ask the question, Jesus decides to answer it for him. When Jesus says "born again", I think this clearly describes an event that must take place. And, it is clearly a spiritual event rather than a physical one. Now let's look at verses 17-18.
"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:17-18) NKJV
If you look at the entire passage in context, there is a clear association between the word "saved" and the phrase "see the kingdom of God." Conversely, there is a clear association between the word "condemned" and NOT seeing the kingdom of God. We also see that more definition has been added to this strange idea of being "born again." Now He says that believing in God's Son is a requirement to be saved. So there is step one--believing in God's Son.
In addition, from the very beginning of Jesus' ministry He taught that we should "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (see Matthew 3). This is actually step two, according to the apostles in multiple places within the book of Acts.
"Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 2:37-38) NKJV
Here are the definitions of the word repent I found after a quick search:
To feel remorse, contrition, or self-reproach for what one has done or failed to do; be contrite.
2. To feel such regret for past conduct as to change one's mind regarding it: repented of intemperate behavior.
3. To make a change for the better as a result of remorse or contrition for one's sins.
Clearly when Jesus was saying that they needed to repent, he wasn't running around telling everyone to feel remorseful. He was telling them to make a change and turn away from their sin. So now we have believe and repent. But, in this same verse Peter says they need to be baptized. This part is tricky, so we'll cover baptism in a later section. If we look closer at this passage, we see that "the event" is actually more like a transaction. It's as if God is saying "You do these three things and I'll give you this (the Holy Spirit)." We'll discuss the role of the Holy Spirit later as well.
So the current list is believe, repent, and be baptized, but we're not done. Suddenly Paul comes on the scene. Paul also preached repentance (see Acts 26:20), but he adds one more thing to the list: confession.
“Salvation that comes from trusting Christ—which is the message we preach—is already within easy reach. … For 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. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved.” (Romans 10:8-10) NLT
It's clear that Paul believed that confession (sharing your faith verbally with someone) is a critical component to salvation. So the final list is:
4. be baptized (TBD)
Notice that in each of these cases, there is a clear "if-then" relationship. When Paul says if you do these things then you will be saved, he isn't saying you will have the opportunity to be saved. Instead, it's "you will be saved." There is no implication of a second "if" statement (ex. if you do these things then you will be saved IF....). While it may make sense to us that salvation is conditional on our behavior or staying the course, that's not how it's presented. More to come on that later.
These are the puzzle pieces we have so far to understand what it means to be "born again." So now let's look at the role of the Holy Spirit in the salvation process..
The Spirit of Adoption
As discussed, Acts 2:38 says that once you have repented and undergone baptism, you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (God in us). Paul made things even more clear in Ephesians when he said that the Holy Spirit is like a down payment or deposit that guarantees our place in heaven.
“And now you also have heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us everything he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. This is just one more reason for us to praise our glorious God.” (Ephesians 1:13-14) NLT
When you believe in Christ, God identifies us as one of his own by giving us the Holy Spirit. Here Paul says that the Holy Spirit is like a deposit or downpayment on our salvation. It is a "guarantee" to us that God will deliver what He has promised. At that point we are considered adopted by God. We have a new Father, and a new forever home.
"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God..." (Romans 8:14-16) NKJV
Jesus seems to say in the verse below that, once we are identified as belonging to Him, we will forever be considered His. We cannot lose our standing as adopted sons and daughters.
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.” (John 10:27-29) NKJV
Based on these three passages together, it seems that the Holy Spirit is like a tattoo. Once you have received the Holy Spirit, He doesn't go away. His presence is a sign of your permanent relationship with Jesus. Salvation is a transaction that can’t be undone. It’s a gift that can’t be taken away. This is not a license to sin though. That would be disrespectful of the incredible gift you’ve been given. Instead, it’s a reason to love God even more! How incredible that your salvation is not your responsibility to maintain! God makes it permanent so that your relationship is one of love instead of fear and anxiety. You are completely accepted, not based on your impressiveness, but based on His forgiveness. And over time, you will grow and become a better person as a natural part of a relationship with God. It won’t be a forced change. It will be change from the inside out that will require no gritting of teeth to maintain. God wants what’s best for you, and it turns out that what’s best for you is Him.
The Role of Water Baptism
In Acts 2:37-38, Peter tells those listening to him what they must do to be saved (repent and be baptized). Some read this passage and infer that baptism is required for salvation. But there are two verses that seem to contradict this belief.
1. Acts 10:44-45
"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also."
In this passage, Peter is speaking to some gentiles in Caesarea (family and friends of Cornelius the centurion) when suddenly, while he is still speaking, some of them receive the Holy Spirit. None of them have been baptized at this point.
2. Luke 23:42-43
"Then he said to Jesus, 'Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.' And Jesus said to him, 'Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.'"
This passage shows Jesus telling one of the criminals being crucified with him that he would be with Jesus today "in Paradise." Clearly this man was forgiven based entirely on his faith. He had no opportunity to be baptized and yet he was still saved.
Often 1 Peter 3:21 is used to show that water baptism is required for salvation as well.
"There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..." (1 Peter 3:21) NKJV
However, from a Biblical perspective there are actually two contexts for the word "baptism", which is why I said this is a tricky subject. One is water baptism, the other is spiritual baptism. Several new testament verses refer to being "baptized by the Holy Spirit." Ex. Matthew 3:31, Acts 1:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:13. Baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the moment when the Holy Spirit comes to indwell a believer. This type of baptism certainly is a requirement for salvation (in fact it is the culmination of salvation). I believe that this is where the confusion comes from. Based on this, my personal opinion is that the physical act of water baptism is not required for salvation. It is simply an outward expression of the change that occurred on the inside.
The bottom line is that salvation is a transaction that is wrapped around an event in which we:
1. believe in Christ
2. turn toward God and away from our sin
3. confess to someone that we have chosen to follow Christ
Additionally, baptism should follow the salvation experience to follow Christ's example but I don't believe that salvation is dependent on it based on the passages we read.
In short, our sin had created a debt that we couldn't pay. But like a shop owner at the mall, God didn’t require that the money comes out of your wallet. It’s as if you wanted to buy a shirt but didn’t have the money to pay for it. So Jesus walks up to hand you the money for the shirt. He doesn’t just walk up to the clerk and pay it for you. He hands the money to you. The gift is for you, not the clerk. It’s very relational. At that point, you have a decision to make. You can reject this gift and walk away without a shirt. Or, you can accept it, say thank you, and pay the man. With salvation there is a similar dynamic. You must accept the gift to be saved. And like the shop owner, God is perfectly happy accepting the payment from Jesus. He just requires that payment is made.