The following question was posed in a group on Facebook recently:
I’ve been wandering what is the minimum requirement for salvation or for one to be called a Christian. Paul says 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. Jesus says not everyone who calls him Lord will be saved though. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems that some correct beliefs are necessary but which beliefs are necessary for salvation?
Facebook isn’t always the best place for real conversation or soul searching questions, but I often feel compelled to provide as genuine an answer as I can muster. Especially, if I feel that the question is posted with sincerity.
As I took a moment to consider this question and wrestled with an answer, it seemed to me that he was asking, “What is “mere Christianity”, as my favorite author might have phrased it. I was tempted to launch right into a summary of my version of the essentials of Christian belief.
I considered for a moment what the minimum might be, but another strain of thought seemed to beckon me. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit? I yielded to it.
I was reminded of the rich young ruler, who asked Jesus the question, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17) Jesus began his response by observing that no one is good but God alone. Then Jesus began to reference the commandments. Jesus has not finished the thought when the young man cut in and said, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.” (Mk. 10:20)
We are left with the impression that, perhaps, the young man was proud of his piety and was looking for affirmation of his self-image. Perhaps, the young man was just naively enthusiastic about being good and holy. Neither attitude is one that really resonates in our modern, American world.
One thing that does resonate now, and likely resonated then, is the desire to quantify and measure what we must do to achieve the ends that we desire. This is a logical approach to life. Know what you are aiming for and take steps to achieve your goals.
This is a good way to live. I am not suggesting we should not set goals and take measured steps to meet those goals, but this is not how our relationship with God works.
The rich young ruler seemed to think he had kept all the commandments since he was a child. Thus, we might assume that he was looking not for a real answer to the question, but for affirmation that he had done what was required to inherit eternal life.
Perhaps, though, he sensed it was wasn’t enough. Perhaps, the question was more genuine than we give him credit for.
Either way, Jesus dispelled any notion that a person can be good enough, when he pointed out, “No one is good except God alone.” (Mk. 10:18) Jesus is clear, and later Paul, that a person cannot earn his or her way to heaven. That’s not how it works.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t argue with the young ruler about whether he had actually kept all the commandments. He glossed over it to ask to get to a more poignant point: Jesus said, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mk. 10:21)
This is so like Jesus! He could have flatly told the young man, “Your are lying, or fooling yourself, to say that you have kept all the commandments!” But, Jesus didn’t do that. Mark says that Jesus “showed love to him”. Jesus didn’t burst the bubble of the young’s man’s self image, but he still got the point across: you lack what you need.
Likewise, he didn’t preach in the Sermon on the Mount against committing adultery, murder, etc. Rather, he said, “You have heard it said, “Don’t murder… don’t commit adultery…, etc. I tell you that the man who is angry with his brother…, and the man who lusts in his heart…, etc. has already committed those sins in his heart.” (Math. 5:21-30)
The point isn’t how good (or bad) we are. We lack what we need to have eternal life regardless of our piety. It doesn’t matter how good we are. We still lack what we need to have eternal life without God giving us what we need.
The theme is that nothing we can do on our own is sufficient to earn salvation. It can’t be earned, and it isn’t quantifiable.
This makes sense in light of the statement Jesus made to Nicodemus: that a person must be born again. (John 3:1-3) We are not made of the right “stuff” in our natural selves to have eternal life. We need a dramatic change to occur – to be born again – to have the right “stuff”.
Thus, Paul says, “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:50, 53)
This is something we cannot do on our own anymore than we can cause our own birth. We are flesh and blood. We do not possess the imperishable “stuff” that is necessary to have eternal life. Only God has the “stuff” we need for that.
Thus, John says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:11-12)
We cannot earn it. We cannot inherit it physically through our parents. We cannot decide to have it or decide to award it to someone else. We can only receive it from God – being “born” as God’s children.
With all of that said, let’s go back to the question. The question invokes Paul’s statement that declaring that Jesus is Lord with our mouths and believing in our hearts that God raised from the dead is how we will be saved. (Romans 10:9-10)
The question juxtaposes Paul’s statement with the statement from Jesus, “Not everyone who keeps saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom from heaven, but only the person who keeps doing the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21) The two statements seem to contradict one another.
Implicit in the question, “what are the minimum beliefs necessary to be saved”, is the notion that not just any belief is sufficient: the beliefs need to be the right beliefs. The question begs for a formula of belief that is necessary to gain salvation (eternal life).
Paul actually provides us an answer in the statement quoted to preface the question. We must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead to be saved, according to Paul. (Romans 10:10)
Still, the example of the rich young ruler suggests that it isn’t that simple. I feel like Jesus might have answered the Facebook question similar to the way he answered the rich young ruler.
I would be surprised if Jesus would list out a formula of the correct beliefs that are necessary. In keeping with the theme, Jesus might ask, “What must a person believe to be saved?” To which question, we might respond, “That God raised Jesus from the dead.” To which response, Jesus might add, “You still lack one thing: go and sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me.”
The Facebook inquirer points out that people will call Jesus Lord who are not saved. Is that because they don’t believe the right things? I don’t think so!
I am reminded also of James, who says, “Even the demons believe and shudder!” (James 2:19) Belief isn’t enough, by itself. Not even the right beliefs are enough, by themselves, because eternal life isn’t a formula any more than keeping the commandments is a formula to eternal life.
Jesus didn’t say that keeping the commandments was not good; he said the rich man young still lacked something. It isn’t that keeping the commandments is not important; it’s that keeping the commandments is not a magical formula for salvation.
Likewise, it isn’t that the right beliefs are unimportant; it’s that the right beliefs are not a magical formula for salvation. Saying the right things and even giving intellectual ascent to the right beliefs is not the reality that is necessary for salvation or eternal life.
The reality that is necessary for eternal life is that we have “received” Christ and have entered into relationship with the Father as His children- that we are “born of God”. (John 1:11-12) It is the reality of receiving the Spirit such that we experience “adoption” as God’s children; it is an experience that wells up in us with the cry, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15)
It isn’t about formulas: keeping the right commandment or subscribing to the right beliefs. Not that those things are unimportant, but the reality must encompass those things and more.
I think we may be edging dangerously in the wrong direction to think that we can quantify what is necessary for salvation, whether it is right conduct or even right beliefs. Salvation doesn’t depend on us; it depends wholly on God and His grace.
There is no measure of the things we would need to do to, to accomplish, or to believe to be saved. We cannot possibly adopt just the right conduct or right set of beliefs to achieve eternal life because we are flesh. We come from dust, and to dust we will return. There is nothing in us that can change our makeup.
Only God can change us. God is the one who must cause a dramatic change in our “composition” for us to be transformed from the perishable “stuff” that we are to the imperishable “stuff” that God is. We receive it through God as a child inherits the DNA and genes from her parents. It is not our doing, but God’s doing.
It is impossible for us to achieve it. At the same time, eternal life is offered freely to all who will receive it. (John 1:10; Romans 6:23) There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, and nothing can separate us separate us from the love of God. It’s not a matter of formulas, but of relationship to God.
I should add that this reality should provide hope for those who struggle to be good and for those who struggle to believe. The corollary to the reality that we cannot be good enough and we cannot muster belief enough to have eternal life is that it doesn’t depend on us!
The reality is that we all struggle with doing the rights things, and sometimes we fail. We all struggle with doubt and uncertainty about what we believe. If we have relationship with God through Christ, we have the assurance that God is at work within us.
We can trust in God’s work in us to accomplish what is necessary for eternal life. It isn’t anything we do; it is something we become in the process of being given the right “stuff” – the imperishable seed – that we receive when we receive and embrace God in Christ. It isn’t a formula of intellectual ascent to the right doctrines, but an exercise of the will and heart that is yielded to God.