What Must You Believe to Be Saved?

What is the “minimum” content that a person must believe in order to receive eternal life? I’m asked that question fairly often, and it’s a tough one to answer.

For example, if a person believes that Jesus died for his sin and rose from the dead, yet does not understand or affirm Christ’s deity, does that person possess saving faith? At what point does a failure to accept certain widely held tenets of Christianity disqualify a person from being considered a Christian?

Just a few thoughts:

First, it’s nearly impossible to know another person’s spiritual condition with certainty. We can listen carefully to somebody’s expressed beliefs and attempt to make a judgment, but it’s rarely (if ever) an easy judgment to make. Only God knows for sure if a person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev 21:27).

Second, there is a distinction between ignorance regarding a particular doctrine and rejection of that doctrine. I think it’s possible for a person to be a Christian without understanding the Trinity. It’s a complex and difficult subject. It’s a doctrine that many, if not most, Christians misunderstand. On the other hand, if a person rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and believes that one member of the Godhead is not God, or that Jesus is something less than God in the flesh, then that person is placing himself outside the stream of Christian orthodoxy. That’s why I don’t consider Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to be members of “Christian” denominations. Again, I don’t know any individual’s spiritual condition, but if a person actively rejects key tenets of Christianity, I’m going to operate under the assumption that he is not a Christian. However, it’s quite possible for a genuine believer to be confused or uninformed.

Third, the Scripture gives us some key aspects of the Gospel that leads to eternal life. When I present the Gospel, I always make sure to include three main points: First, we are sinners in need of saving (Romans 3:9-20; 23). Apart from God’s intervention and grace, we are destined for an eternity in hell. Second, Jesus provided a way for us to be reconciled to God and to receive eternal life. He died in our place and rose from the dead, proving that God had accepted His sacrifice (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; 1 Peter 2:24; Acts 2:24). Third, God offers eternal life to those who will trust in what Jesus has done on their behalf (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-26; Eph 2:8-9). Although there are many other valuable points to be made about Jesus, these key points seem to be at the heart of the Gospel presented in the New Testament.

Fourth, our ultimate goal is not simply to present the “minimum” possible content, but to make lifelong disciples of Jesus. For that reason, our task does not end after we present the basics of the Gospel message. With our children, for example, we begin with simple concepts and words, but our ultimate goal is for them to have a rich and deep understanding of God’s Word. One danger of focusing too intently on the question of who is “in” and who is “out” is that we fail to consider the years of discipleship that ought to follow one’s initial profession of faith. That’s not to imply that the question of one’s eternal destiny is unimportant — it’s hard to think of a more important topic. However, we are called to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and to “press on to maturity” in our Christian faith (Hebrews 6:1-3). Only God really knows when a person moves from spiritual death into life, but we do know that that moment is only the beginning of a person’s relationship to Jesus. For that reason, we ought consistently present the Gospel to everybody and consistently encourage people to move forward in their spiritual life.

(On a tangential but related topic, this is why I present the basic message of the Gospel in every sermon. First, I don’t know the spiritual condition of everybody present. Second, for those who are believers, the reminder of Christ’s death and resurrection is always necessary. However, each sermon ought to also present the implications of Christ’s work for the maturing believer, and should do so from the biblical text at hand).

What are your thoughts and questions on this critical but difficult subject? 

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Once Saved, Always Saved?

I had the privilege this past weekend of speaking to the congregation at Grace Bible Church on the subject of eternal security. Most Christians wonder from time to time if they can lose their salvation, or whether it is secure. Is it possible for a person to believe in Jesus but to later fall away to such an extent that they will no longer receive eternal life?

I realize that there are some tricky passages in the New Testament on this issue (if you’re interested, I’ve addressed a few of them in sermons on Hebrews 6, Hebrews 10, and James 2), but I do believe that the Scripture clearly communicates that our salvation is secure. Why?

Here are four key reasons why those who have trusted in Christ for eternal life can be sure that they will never lose it (to get the full impact of these points, you really need to read the passages I’ve linked in parenthesis):

We didn’t earn it in the first place (Ephesians 2:8-9). If salvation is a truly free gift, then we can’t possibly pay for it by works we do before or after we believe. If the presence of sin or the absence of good works could make me lose my salvation, then it isn’t really a free gift. It would amount to receiving a Christmas present and then getting a bill for the price of the gift. Grace that requires payment — at any point in time — is not truly grace.

Jesus paid for all of our sins (Hebrews 10:11-14; Colossians 2:13-14). Old Testament priests never sat down, because there was always another sacrifice to be made for sin. Jesus made one sacrifice for all time — for everybody’s sins past, present, and future — and then sat down when the work was finished. If my future sin or disobedience can cancel Christ’s work, then His death and resurrection are not as sufficient as the Bible says they are.

God preserves our salvation (Romans 8:31-39; John 10:27-29). God’s character is such that He always keeps His promises. If He has promised to give salvation to those who believe, He will do it! If He has promised to forever adopt us as His children, that means we are forever His children. Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ — and Paul includes “any other created being,” which includes…me! Because of God’s perfect character, nothing can separate us from the life He has given us in Christ.

The Holy Spirit guarantees our salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). God’s Spirit lives within those who have believed in Christ. Ephesians 1 says He is like a seal, or a down payment guaranteeing that God will give us the inheritance He’s promised. When you and I became believers, something fundamental changed within us, and we can never go back to who we were before (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Holy Spirit is proof of that change, and a guarantee of the eternal life to come.

Why does this matter? Because the best foundation for spiritual growth is not fear and paralysis, but security. When I confidently know that my eternal destiny is secure, I am free to love and serve Jesus from gratitude and joy, instead of resentment and fear. I think that’s why John wrote of the importance of knowing that we have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).

Questions or comments about the doctrine of eternal security?

[Image via istockphoto.com]

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