What Must I Do to be Saved?
Is Just Believing Really Enough?
by Dr. David R. Reagan
"'God has made Him both Lord and Christ - this Jesus whom you crucified.' Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:36-37)
It is the most important question anyone can ask. It would seem that Christendom could respond with a unified answer. But you are likely to get as many different answers as the number of Christians you ask.
Salvation by Selection
There are two extreme positions. One extreme, which is the Calvinistic interpretation of predestination, takes the position that God has already predetermined who will be saved and who will be lost. This viewpoint sees Man as so depraved that he is incapable of choosing to follow God. He must be selected by God.
The advocates of this viewpoint quote scripture passages like Ephesians 1:4-5: "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world . . . He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself."
But whom did God choose? Was it specific individuals? The scriptures do not say that. The so-called proof texts for predestination simply establish the fact that God foreordained that those who put their faith in Him would be saved.
The God revealed in the Bible is not a capricious and arbitrary deity who selects a few for salvation and consigns the majority to hell. He is the God who loved the whole world so much that He sent His only Son to die for the sins of all Mankind (John 3:16).
Salvation by Works
The other extreme viewpoint is known as "works salvation." It argues that people must earn their salvation by performing certain acts to appease the wrath of God. All cultic groups teach works salvation. That's how the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons are able to motivate their people to do door to door solicitation.
But many mainline Christian denominations also put an emphasis on works salvation, especially the more conservative, fundamentalist groups. I grew up in such a group, and although we denied a belief in works salvation, we ended up enslaving our people to it by emphasizing a mechanical "plan of salvation."
The essence of salvation, we argued, was a five step plan which many of our preachers referred to as "the five finger exercise." Counting on their fingers, they would name the five steps: "hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized." We definitely came away from such teaching with the conviction that God was obligated to save any person who performed those five steps in the plan. Some often added a sixth step, namely, a life of faithful obedience to the Lord's commands.
Salvation by Grace
The Biblical concept of salvation is not to be found in either of these extremes. Salvation is not conferred arbitrarily by God nor can it be earned by performing certain religious acts.
The Bible approaches the question of salvation by emphasizing that all persons are sinners who are separated from their holy Creator by their sins (Rom. 3:9-18). God's Word then makes it clear that no person can justify himself before God through good works. Isaiah says our righteous deeds are like "filthy rags" before the Lord (Isa. 64:6). Paul affirms that salvation can never be as a "result of works" (Eph. 2:9).
What hope then do we have? Very much. God has made it possible for us to be reconciled to Him by providing a perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins. God sent His Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life so that He could die, not for His own sins, but for ours. As He hung upon the Cross, the sins of Mankind were placed upon Him, and He received the wrath that we deserved (II Cor. 5:21). The blood of Jesus is our hope (Rom. 5:8-9).
This brings us to the central question: How do we appropriate that blood to our lives so that we can receive forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life? The Bible's answer is that salvation is a free gift of God's grace which we receive through Jesus by responding to Him in faith (Rom. 5:1-2). Here's how Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:8 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."
God's plan of salvation has always been the same - grace through faith. Before the Cross, the focal point of that faith was God the Father and His promise of a Messiah. Since the Cross, the focal point of saving faith has been God the Son, Jesus the Messiah, who died for our sins.
The Faith that Saves
Notice that in the previous sentence I used the term, "saving faith." That term was carefully selected because the faith that saves is something far more substantial than simple belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. After all, the scriptures say that "even the demons believe and tremble" (James 2:19).
Saving faith produces trust in Jesus as one's Savior (John 3:16-17). The faith that saves also produces obedience to God's Word (I John 5:3). And the saving faith is always manifested in good works (Eph. 2:10).
The latter point is a paradox. We are not saved by good works. Rather, we are saved to do good works (Titus 2:14). We don't work to be saved. We work because we are saved. True faith will always be manifested in works, "for faith without works is dead" (James 2:14-26).
The Role of Baptism
Where does baptism fit into the picture? The same place as confession and repentance. Saving faith is always demonstrated in repentance, confession and baptism. These are not acts we perform to be saved. Instead, they are obedient responses to God in faith. As a person responds to God in saving faith, he will be compelled by the Holy Spirit to repent of his sins, to confess Jesus as Lord, and to manifest his faith through the symbolic act of baptism.
Baptism is a beautiful symbol of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In like manner, it also symbolizes a death, burial and resurrection that has taken place in the life of the Believer - his death to the power and consequence of sin, the burial of his old fleshly self, and his resurrection as a new spiritual being in Christ (Rom. 6:3-8).
Some people have dismissed baptism as unimportant and therefore optional. This is a very un-Biblical attitude. Jesus commanded baptism (Matt. 28:19). The Apostles baptized all their converts and did so immediately after their confession of faith (Acts 2:38-41, Acts 8:35-38, Acts 10:43-48, and Acts 16:30-33). Peter characterized baptism as "an appeal to God for a good conscience" (I Peter 3:21).
Baptism is always portrayed as a vital step in the initial conversion process. It is the witness that the conversion process has been completed and the discipleship process is ready to begin.
Some people have seized upon baptism as the essence of salvation, and in doing so, they have converted this beautiful, symbolic act into a work to be performed in order to placate God. They argue that "you meet the blood in the water." This is known as "water regeneration."
To substantiate their position, they point primarily to two scripture texts: Acts 2:38 and I Peter 3:21. The verse in Acts is Peter's response to the people at Pentecost who reacted to his message in faith and then asked, "What shall we do?" Peter said, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . ."
The key here, of course, is the meaning of the word "for." Does it mean "in order to obtain"? Or does it mean "because of"? In I Corinthians 15:3 we find these words: "Christ died for our sins." Does that mean He died "in order to obtain" our sins, or does it mean that He died "because of" our sins? I think it is obvious that the latter meaning is intended, and I believe the same is true in Acts 2:38.
In other words, I do not believe that Acts 2:38 presents water baptism as an act to be performed in order to obtain salvation. How could it mean that in light of what the rest of the scriptures say about salvation by grace through faith? When developing a doctrine on any topic, all scripture related to that topic must be considered and reconciled.
The other verse that is often touted in behalf of water regeneration is I Peter 3:21, which is usually misquoted to say: "Baptism now saves you." The verse does not say that. It begins with a long qualifier: "And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you . . ." Corresponding to what? The preceding verse says the flood of Noah.
Did the flood save Noah? Not according to Hebrews 11:6-7. Noah was saved by his faith in God. The flood washed away the evil that surrounded him, and "corresponding to that," baptism symbolizes that we have been cleansed of our sins by turning to God in faith.
The baptism that truly saves is not water baptism but the baptism of the Holy Spirit that occurs when one puts his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Paul refers to this baptism in I Corinthians 12:13 where he says, "By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body."
The Mode of Baptism
The English word, baptism, is a transliteration (not a translation) of the Greek word, baptizo. The Greek word means "to immerse." Thus, "John the Baptist" was really John, the immerser.
Immersion as a symbolic rite of purification was well established among the Jews in the time of Jesus. There were many different occasions for such purifications. A woman would immerse herself after her menstrual cycle. Any person who touched a dead body or anything else considered unclean would immerse themselves. This is the reason that nearly all homes of the wealthy contained one or more mikvas - water pools for ceremonial immersions.
Modern excavations have revealed that there were several very large mikvas located at the southern entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. These were used for ceremonial cleansing before entering the sacred Temple area. And these very pools were probably the ones that Peter and the disciples used on the Day of Pentecost to baptize the 3,000 people who accepted the Gospel (Acts 2:41).
Even scholars from churches that accept other modes of baptism concede that immersion was the only form of baptism practiced by the early church. The alternate techniques of pouring and sprinkling were inventions of men and were never authorized or practiced by the Apostles or Christ.
Baptism is a symbol, and symbols are very important. Jesus is called in scripture "the rose of Sharon." He is not referred to as "the tumbleweed of Texas." A symbol is symbolic of a truth, and when we change the symbol, we change the truth it stands for. How can the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord be symbolized in pouring or sprinkling?
The Proper Candidate
Who is a proper candidate for Christian baptism? The first requirement is for the person to hear the Gospel (Rom. 10:14). The Gospel is defined in I Corinthians 15:1-4 as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The person must then respond to the Gospel with the kind of saving faith (Acts 16:31) that is manifested in repentance (Acts 17:30) and confession (Matt. 10:32).
These qualifications clearly exclude infants as candidates for baptism. The Bible does not contain one example of infant baptism. The only baptism that can be found in the New Testament is the immersion of believing people.
Does that mean that children who die in infancy are lost? Of course not. They are not responsible for their sins since they have not yet reached an age of accountability. On one occasion when children were brought to Jesus, He said, "The kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all" (Mark 10:14-15).
Salvation as a Process
There is an interesting point about salvation that is often overlooked. The salvation we immediately experience at the point of faith in Christ is the salvation of our spirit. The Holy Spirit regenerates our spirit which is dead in sin. The Bible refers to this as justification (Gals. 2:16).
But that is not the end of salvation, and that is the reason that the Bible speaks of salvation as an ongoing process (I Cor. 1:18). The salvation of the soul (the mind, emotions and personality) begins at the point of faith, but it continues throughout one's lifetime. This process is called sanctification (Rom. 6:18-19).
The change agent, once again, is the Holy Spirit. When a person is born again through the regeneration of his spirit, the Holy Spirit takes up residence inside the person and begins to shape his soul into the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29-30, II Cor. 3:18, and Gal. 4:19).
Our salvation will not be completed until the resurrection of the righteous. At that time, our bodies will be saved as God miraculously reconstitutes them and then glorifies them, making them immortal and perfect (Rom. 8:18-23 and I Cor. 15:50-57).
Thus, our salvation is past, present and future - justification (the spirit), sanctification (the soul), and glorification (the body).
The Assurance of Salvation
One final issue regarding salvation that is hotly debated among Christians is whether or not it is possible to lose one's salvation. Again, there are two extreme viewpoints.
I grew up with one of them. It is the view that you lose your salvation each time you sin, and thus if you die with one unconfessed sin, you will go to hell. This view produces spiritual paranoia. The person never really knows whether he is saved or not, and usually suspects the worst.
The other extreme view is the one that says, "Once saved, always saved." This view can produce cavalier Christians who take sin lightly and put grace to the test (Rom. 6:1).
The Biblical truth is that we can know that we are saved, and we can be confident of our salvation (Rom. 8:1 and I John 1:7. 4:17, 5:13 & 5:19). But the Bible also teaches that we can lose that salvation if we stop trusting in Jesus (Gal. 5:4, I Tim. 4:1, and Heb. 6:4-6).
Through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit we have the strength to overcome the world and walk faithfully with the Lord (I John 4:4). But we can stifle, quench and grieve the Spirit by refusing to allow Him to guide us and shape us into the image of Jesus (I Thess. 5:19 & Eph. 4:30).
When we suppress the Spirit in our lives, we open ourselves to willful sin. Although willful sin cannot, in and of itself, cause us to lose our salvation (I John 1:7), it can lead to a progressive hardening of the heart, if it goes unconfessed (Heb. 3:13).
Rebellious, unrepentant conduct can ultimately lead a person to the point where he, in word or in deed (or both), rejects Jesus as Lord and Savior of his life. Since his acceptance of Jesus is what led to his adoption into the family of God, this subsequent rejection of Jesus will result in his being disinherited from the family. The book of Hebrews teaches this very strongly in the following passages: 2:1-4, 3:12-14, 6:1-8, 10:16-31, and 12:12-17. Another powerful passage that teaches the same principle is II Peter 2:20-22 where a person who has come to know the way of righteousness and then decides to return to the world is compared to a dog who returns to its own vomit.
This is not a matter of losing one's salvation one day and regaining it the next. The book of Hebrews says that once a person has "fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame" (Heb. 6:6).
The True Meaning of Salvation
This brings us to the essence of salvation. It is a Man and not a plan. We become saved by putting our trust in a person, and we remain saved by continuing to trust in that person.
That person, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth who was God in the flesh (John 1:1-14). That is why Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (John 14:6). It is also the reason that Jesus said, "This is eternal life, that they know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
The essence of Christianity is a relationship with a person. You enter that relationship by an act of faith whereby you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
"Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6)
"I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." (The Apostle Paul - Philippians 3:8)s