The only reason anyone needs to be saved (in the biblical sense of the word) is because he is already lost. “Saved” and “lost” have reference to one’s standing with God. If a person has never sinned against God—a young child, for example—he (or she) does not need to be saved because he is already innocent before Him. No one is “lost” who has never violated God’s own holy nature. Once a person sins against God, however, he is no longer innocent but guilty: he has fallen, and now is condemned to (spiritual) death (Romans 3:23, 6:16). Even one sin makes a person a law-breaker rather than a law-keeper (James 2:10). God’s perfect, absolute, and unchangeable justice cannot look the other way in the case of a guilty soul. That person will either pay for his own sins in hell, or he can seek to be forgiven of his sins through the blood of Christ. It is this latter decision that results in being “saved”—a decision that is only made possible through one’s obedience to Christ’s gospel. Romans 5:6-10 and Ephesians 2:1-10, for example, offer both sides of the picture: what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.
“Being saved” is synonymous with becoming a Christian (in the genuine sense of the word). A person is saved by two concurrent and essential factors: God’s divine grace and that person’s obedient faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). These two components of salvation are not equal in power or scope, but are both absolutely necessary. “Grace” is anything and everything that God does to compensate for one’s human limitations regarding salvation. This means that God does for a person what he cannot do, not what he will not do. Thus, salvation is dependent upon divine grace, which necessarily involves the atoning work of Christ and sanctification [lit., the act of being made holy] of the Holy Spirit. Included in this grace is God’s: divine mercy and patience; forgiveness of sins; access to the “throne of grace” for help (Hebrews 4:16); all spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3); and whatever else the human soul needs for nourishment, direction, and salvation. This saving grace is not the same as God’s general kindness that He extends to all people (Luke 6:35-36, for example). Saving grace refers to salvation; God’s general kindness refers to what He does for all people in order to bring them to salvation (Romans 2:4).
At the same time, salvation also requires one’s sincere faith in all that God has done, presently does, and promises to do for that person. Faith involves an acceptance of what is not seen based upon the evidence of what is seen (or, has been proved to exist) (Hebrews 11:1-3, 6). “The righteous man shall live by faith,” and this faith must be defined by obedience (Romans 1:17). The Bible nowhere teaches that a person is saved by personal merit or human effort; however, it also nowhere teaches that a person’s faith is approved by God if it is not demonstrated by works of faith (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:17, 26). Thus, God requires that each person who comes to Him does so in faith—that is, with a full willingness to do whatever He requires of him (or her). No one can prove his faith in God—or his love to God—without keeping His commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 2:3-6). The believer’s obedience is not a payment for grace, because grace is a free gift of God (Romans 6:23, 11:6). Yet, the believer must prepare his heart to receive such grace. This requires humility, self-denial, obedience, and complete confidence in God’s willingness and ability to do everything that He said He would do.
“What must I do to be saved?” This is what the gospel of Christ teaches:
- Knowledge: you must hear the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). We have no example in the New Testament of anyone becoming a Christian without first hearing the message of salvation—i.e., the gospel of Christ. The Holy Spirit uses this gospel to call all people to God (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). Knowledge is not equal to faith, nor is anyone saved by knowledge alone. On the other hand, it is impossible to be pleasing to God until He tells you (through His written word) what is required of you (Ephesians 5:17).
- Humility: you must demonstrate humility and reverence toward God and His word. God hates human arrogance and pride, but demands a surrender of these things before a person can come to Him (James 4:6). Humility requires that you put God’s Son (Jesus Christ) above all others, including your own will, and that you follow His word above all other authority or instruction. Humility means that you accept whatever God says about you, because He is perfectly righteous and just, and you are not.
- Conversion: you must respond to this Word with obedient action. This obedience must not be according to your own choice, or of someone else’s choice, but God’s doctrine.
- Believe in what is written (John 3:16, 36; 20:30-31). To “believe” in the New Testament context of salvation always necessarily implies “to obey in belief.”
- Confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, not only upon your conversion (Romans 10:9-10), but also as a way of life (Matthew 10:32-33).
- Repent of your sins (Acts 3:19). This is not merely having a feeling of regret for what you have done wrong, but is a change of attitude (heart) and action (life). You must stop doing what God says is sinful and at the same time begin practicing righteous behavior instead (Titus 2:11-14). In order for Christ to be your Lord, you cannot allow anything in your life to compromise His rule over your heart (Matthew 6:24, Romans 13:14, and 1 Peter 3:15).
- Deny yourself, take up your “cross,” and follow Jesus for the rest of your life, vowing to be faithful to Him “until death” (Matthew 16:24, Revelation 2:10). To “deny yourself” means to honor God’s will above your own (Matthew 7:21). Your “cross” is whatever sacrifices or losses you accept in order to be Christ’s disciple. To “follow” Him requires your conformity to His commandments and to His holy nature (Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:3-6). You make Christ your Master, and you voluntarily choose to become His disciple.
- Undergo a symbolic death, burial and resurrection like that of Christ’s own literal death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7). In other words, you must be united with Christ through this death-like experience. Thus, you must be buried in water (baptized), putting to death the selfish life you have led until now, and be resurrected to a new allegiance. Having done this, you are thus spiritually-reborn as a “new creature” according to the will of God (2 Corinthians 5:17, John 1:12-13). While this “death” is symbolic in nature, it is still required. You cannot walk in “newness of life,” receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), obtain a “good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21), or be “clothed” with Christ (Galatians 3:27) without it. You cannot be “born again” until you have first “died with Him” (John 3:5, 2 Timothy 2:11, emphasis added).
- Through this process, God will do everything for you that you cannot do with regard to your salvation. Yet, you will have done what He requires of you for this same objective. You cannot duplicate His saving grace, but neither will He exercise His grace instead of (or, in the absence of) your obedient faith. His grace through your faith will provide the forgiveness of sins that you desperately need in order to live in fellowship with Him and enter into eternal life with Him in the hereafter (1 John 5:13, 20).
- Transformation: After your conversion is complete, you must continue to follow the Lord by walking in agreement with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17). Your conversion is, in essence, your agreement to a covenant of salvation with God. You are expected to remain faithful to that covenant; you essentially renew that covenant every Sunday (first day of the week) by observing the Lord’s Supper (communion). Thus, you must:
- Deny the things of this world (ungodliness) and accept instead the things of God (Titus 2:11-14).
- “Hold fast to that which is good” and “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)—not one or the other, but both.
- Continue in the instruction of Christ’s gospel, and thus be rooted, grounded, and firmly built up in Him (Colossians 2:6-7).
- Attend to the needs of others as is appropriate, and especially those of fellow believers (Romans 12:9-21, Galatians 6:9-10, and 1 John 3:15-18).
- Demonstrate godly love to all people—including your enemies, but especially your fellow Christians—just as God loves all people unconditionally (Matthew 5:43-48, John 13:34-35, and 1 Peter 1:22-23).
- Put your love for Christ ahead of all other loves (Matthew 10:37-38, Luke 14:26).
The above information describes an appropriate response to God’s kindness. This is how a person calls upon the name of the Lord for salvation (Acts 2:21, 22:16 and others). Remember, salvation is from God; He sets its terms and conditions. His offer to save you cannot be amended, negotiated, or customized. His truth must become your truth; He will never accept your “truth” (i.e., your opinion or expectation) in place of His. Each person who is confronted with the gospel either chooses to accept it entirely or reject it entirely. We have no authority to accept it in part or deny it in part. Anyone who alters the gospel so as to change its content, requirements, or conclusions stands in awful condemnation by the gospel (Galatians 1:8-9). One who worships God must worship Him—in every assembly, in his own heart, and in his own life—“in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Such reverence and compliance with His Word find great favor with God: “To this one I will look,” He says, “to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2b).