by Bob West
When Does God Save Us?
Is it when we believe? Some people say that all we have to do is believe, and the Bible seems to support their claim. Consider the following scriptures for example.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16 NIV).
The jailor asked what to do to be saved. Paul and Silas replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved -- you and your household" (Acts 16:31 NIV).
In addition there are other verses that speak of belief and salvation.
But there are also verses that say that faith alone will not save us. "Faith by itself, if it is not accomplished by action, is dead... You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone... As the body without the spirit is dead so faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:17, 24, 26 NIV).
And there are also other passages concerning salvation that don't mention faith at all. What about them?
An example is Acts 3:19: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord"(NIV).
So, does God save us when we repent?
Or is it when we confess? These scriptures say that confession is involved in salvation. "For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" (Romans 10:10 NIV). "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9 NIV).
Is it when we are baptized? Water baptism is connected with the forgiveness of sins and salvation several times in the sacred writings. Here are two examples: "Whoever... is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16 NIV). "...baptism now saves you..." (1 Peter 3:21 NASB).
Or is it when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ? "He that endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13).
The "Steps to Salvation" Approach
How do we reconcile all of these verses?
I thought we had the answer to that question in the Church where I spent much of my life. In our "plan of salvation" we saw conversion as what amounts to a mathematical formula whereby, in order to become a Christian, one had to (1) hear, (2) believe, (3) repent (4) confess, and (5) be baptized. In effect, salvation was given the numerical equivalent of 5, and each step the equivalent of 1. When each step had been accomplished, the sum total gave the correct result of salvation.
To say that belief, repentance, confession, and baptism all play important parts is decisively different from repeating a rigid formula requiring certain "steps to salvation." One might suspect that something is wrong with this particular formula by the apparent need to include step number 1 -- hearing -- as a requirement for salvation. While hearing (or reading) the Word of God is a prerequisite to faith and for the acts of faith that follow, "hearing" hardly qualifies as a spiritual requirement on a check-off list for salvation.
The danger of replacing an active heartfelt decision with a legalistic formula whether it is the one outlined here, or another, such as the widely-used Four Spiritual Laws, ought to be apparent.
In fellowships where it is taught that one is saved at the point of faith, it is common to hear someone say something like, "Have you heard the good news? John got saved last night!" In other words John repeated the "sinner's prayer" and asked Jesus to come into his heart.
In our fellowship, however, where the focus for salvation was on water baptism, the often used expression was "Mary obeyed the gospel!" Translation: Mary was baptized. Being baptized and "obeying the gospel" were interchangeable concepts. This approach suggests that baptism is the focus of one's obedience to the teaching of Jesus. Not the beginning of one's obedience, but the consummation of it.
To be fair it must be said that there was abundant teaching that baptism, though very significant, is only one way we obey the gospel of Christ. A daily life of obedience was also stressed. Even so, the implication remained. Baptism was the focus of one's obedience. Therefore, there lay the danger that one could believe his salvation was complete at baptism, regardless of how he lived his life thereafter.
The "Faith Only" Approach
The same danger exists for those who think that belief is simply the acknowledgment of a certain fact. Today the meaning of the word "believe" has been weakened. To many it has nothing to do with obedience. As a result, they think that all they are required to do is believe that Jesus existed and died on Calvary, and that puts them in good standing with God. If this were the only requirement, demons would be in good standing with God. The devils believe and tremble (James 2:19), but there is no salvation for them.
The word "believe" has more meaning in the Scriptures than just mentally affirming a fact.
The Faith That Saves
"The law and the prophets point toward this truth: Committing oneself to Jesus Christ is what makes a person right with God. Salvation is for anyone who believes! It makes no difference who you are, because everyone has sinned and is far away from God's glory. But with God's gracious love, we are made right with God through Christ Jesus who sets us free. And, all of this is free! God offered Christ as a sacrifice. When Christ died, this became the way that sins are taken away -- if we believe. This showed God's justice, too. God passed over sins which had been committed before this time. God was tolerant, but now, at this present time, to show His justice, He makes a person right who trusts in Jesus, and He is still fair" (Romans 3:21-26 SEB).
"The main elements in faith in its relation to the invisible God," according to W. E. Vine, "are (1) a firm conviction, producing a full acknowledgment of God's revelation of truth, e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; (2) a personal surrender to Him, John 1:12; (3) a conduct inspired by such surrender, 2 Corinthians 5:7. Prominence is given to one or other of these elements according to the context... The object of Abraham's faith was not God's promise (that was the occasion of its exercise); his faith rested on God Himself, Romans 4:17, 20, 21." (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1966). p. 71).
Abraham trusted God, and so God declared him a righteous man (Romans 4:3). When Abraham encountered God's promise (that he would become father to many nations), a promise which was humanly impossible and unreasonable to believe (Romans 4:18-19), he did not look to his own ability to bring this about but relied entirely on God's faithfulness and ability to do what He had promised (Romans 4:20-21). This is why God declared him a righteous man.
This verse about Abraham's acceptance was written not only for Abraham; it was also written for us (Romans 4:23-24). We, too, will be declared righteous by God in the very same way Abraham was, by faith, by trusting God. He promises us: Jesus "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Romans 4:25 NIV). Everyone who trusts God to keep that promise is justified and made right with God.
"By faith" is primarily Paul's answer to "how" one receives God's grace, not "when."
So, when does God save us? The "when" question need never arise as long as people simply proclaim the good news, promise salvation to those who surrender themselves to Jesus, and faithfully baptize believers as they come to faith. "When" only becomes an issue when we take our eyes off what God has done in Christ to focus on ourselves and what we are doing.
Those who truly trust in Jesus will want to do what He says. That certainly includes being baptized in Jesus' name. It includes observing all else that Jesus has taught, confident of His empowering presence, although we do not see Him with human eyes (Matthew 28:19-20). But our obedience will always be imperfect. Even our best efforts will always come up short of God's righteous standards. We can only trust in Jesus for salvation, never in anything we have done.
Love and Submission
Several years ago, my first wife Sylvia and I were at a nearby mountain retreat. Two or three people told me about a path that leads to a beautiful location called Cathedral Rock. Soon I forgot that I did not like going for long walks on level ground, much less rugged terrain, and I had a strong desire for Sylvia and me to walk the path to Cathedral Rock.
Someone told me how to find the beginning of the path, and we began our journey. But Sylvia stopped after taking a few steps. She said, "I don't understand what is happening. Why are we doing this? Where are we going? I don't feel comfortable about this at all."
I don't think I was able to convince her that it was okay, but I was able to talk her into continuing. After that, I began to feel uneasy myself, and before long we turned back.
The next morning the Lord told me that He had given me that strong desire for Sylvia and me to walk the path. We were in the Spirit's "husband/wife classroom" again. He was continuing to teach me how to provide leadership and protection for my wife, and He was continuing to teach Sylvia to trust me and to submit her will to mine.
A few minutes later the Lord used this experience for Sylvia and me on an unfamiliar path to show me clearly what it means to believe in Jesus. Paul's letter to the Ephesians came to mind. "Wives, you must put yourselves under your own husbands' authority as you do for the Lord. A husband is to be the leader of his wife like Christ is the Leader of the people called out by God. He is the Saviour of the body. Wives should put themselves under their husbands' authority in everything, as Christ's people put themselves under His authority. Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved those called out by God. He gave His life for them" (Ephesians 5:22-25 SEB).
If I really believe (trust) in Jesus, I will follow Him down any path He leads me even though I have never walked that path before. And I will do whatever He tells me to do whether or not I understand the reason He is asking me to do it. This applies to every decision I make each day for the rest of my life.
Jesus is saying to each of us: "Trust Me! Follow Me down those unfamiliar paths. Obey Me. Submit your will to Mine." It is not difficult to obey when you know the character and love of the one to whom you are submitting. Love is the bottom line in our relationship with the Lord -- not love of principles or teachings, but love for the Person of Jesus Christ.
Loving responses to Jesus will include repentance, confession, and baptism (not necessarily in that order). But that's just the beginning of the journey.
He that endures (trusts Jesus) to the end shall be saved.