Then who can be saved?
Thanks again for the conversation about salvation and more specifically how a person enters the journey of salvation in Jesus. As I read your emails and reflect on your questions, I hear a primary concern around what it is that marks the beginning of an individual’s journey of salvation. You have always been taught that salvation was critically tied to a particular event in the life of an individual. This particular event was framed using language such as: “confess your sins”…”accept Jesus into your heart”…”I got saved”…this language set was not tied to baptism in your experience. Hearing me tie it to baptism is a new way of thinking about the way we respond to Jesus. Am I hearing you correctly?
Let me talk about what is shaping my view of salvation from Scripture (extra-biblical historical sources will have to wait for another time). I particularly want to pay attention to the voice of Jesus and the actions of the early church.
The voice of Jesus…
In the gospels we see Jesus framing salvation in a variety of ways (my sermon on Sunday will focus on the encounter with Zacchaeus). He doesn’t just boil it down to one nice and neat formula or prayer. Nor does he seem to be primarily focused on dealing with sin in some forensic kind of way. It is always organic to the real issues people are caught it. Mammon. Family obligations. Anger.
Jesus never makes it easy to enter. Count the cost before you come to the altar–before you begin the race. It is never merely about words–a prayer, assent to beliefs. With Jesus, salvation seems inherently to be connected with behavior. We see this in a conversation recorded in Matthew 19:16-22. Someone essentially asks him: What must I do to be saved? The NRSV translates it like this: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” We notice that Jesus does not first of all correct the works theology of this young man. Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. He also tells him if he wants to be perfect to go sell his possessions and give the money to the poor; and he will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow…” Why would Jesus make salvation so complicated, so demanding? Isn’t it simple? Besides, isn’t he concerned that this person won’t be saved if he sets the bar too high?
Later in the chapter as Peter and the disciples are trying to understand what it means to be saved (v. 25 “Then who can be saved?”) He says, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (v. 28-29).
Jesus does not separate salvation from discipleship as Christianity has done from Constantine to the present day. It involves following–leaving family even. It involves a response far more comprehensive than what modern evangelicalism reduced to a formulaic transaction which provides assurance of heaven. Does Jesus’ invitation have anything to do with assurance of salvation? I believe it does. But is the assurance of relationship. The language Jesus uses is pastoral–my sheep know my voice (John 10). This seems to connect assurance to relationship and behavior that arises from following the shepherd. This is quite different from the way assurance is usually talked about–referring not so much to a present reality, but a future benefit. Perhaps we should be asking not so much: do you have assurance of your salvation, but rather do you know how to hear the voice of Jesus? Salvation is about encountering Jesus, hearing his voice, following.
Jesus invites us to make decision(s). In the conversation with the rich young ruler, the invitation was not just to pray a prayer, but to follow. Even to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. Matthew 25 bears out this view of salvation even further. This chapter envisions the day you spoke of in your email when we stand before the judgement seat of God. On that day, what will determine who is saved or not?
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (Matt 25:31-33)
Jesus goes on to describe a scene in which judgement of our lives is not based on a prayer we prayed, words we said, or even what we believed (although belief is implied inasmuch as our actions arise out of our beliefs). Listen to verse 41: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…” for you did not pray the sinners prayer, confessing your sin, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and being saved. That’s not how he finishes the sentence. Rather, he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ The judgement: “Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We may want to say: But Jesus, isn’t salvation through faith alone, not by works, lest anyone boast? Isn’t salvation a free gift that we receive apart from the things we do? Why are you talking about eternal judgement in light of how we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner? This sounds like social gospel? Isn’t this salvation by works? We sit with these questions and ponder how these words of Jesus contained in Scripture fit with our vision of salvation.
The actions of the early church…
As we think about how we respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and live, we should also pay atttention to how people are responding and entering the journey of salvation, the kingdom of God, the church in the early years after Jesus was on earth. I mentioned that it is worthwhile to do a survey of Acts as we think about how the early Christian movement invited people to Jesus. Let me just note several salvation/conversion stories and observe what is the marker:
Acts 2:37-38 “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
What marks the beginning of the journey of salvation for those gathered on the day of Pentecost? Repentance…baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are also connected with baptism.
Acts 8:12-13a”But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized…”
Again, the good news is proclaimed about the kingdom of God. Salvation is tied to proclamation of the kingdom of God. Remember that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. This is a now and not yet reality. But we are to pray for it. Philip is proclaiming kingdom of God as good news in the present. What is the way individuals respond who want in on this? Baptism…both men and women. There is no separation between belief and baptism. Baptism is not some secondary inconsequential act.
Acts 8:35-36″Then Philip began to speak, and starting with scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?'”
Acts 9:17-18″He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediatedly something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized…”
Acts 10:47Peter speaking at the house of Cornelius (a soldier in the Roman army) after he has proclaimed the good news about Jesus…”‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Acts 16:14b-15aAfter having proclaimed the good news about Jesus in Philippi, Lydia wants to respond…”The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized…”
Acts 16:30-33″Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.”
Again, a story of the good news being proclaimed. The response called for: Belief and Baptism
Acts 18:8″Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.
As we invite people to receive the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God, is it important that we see the connection between belief and baptism? The witness we see of the early Christian movement recorded in Acts is a consistent yes. It is also the witness of the early Christian community.
So how should we respond to the scenario and question your present: …what do you believe happens in the following scenario: if a person has confessed his sins and responded to Jesus…but didn’t get baptized prior to his untimely death? Do you think this person would be saved?
Does this scenario somehow change the way we think about baptism as the primary way we see repentance and belief being expressed? I don’t think so. You are talking about a situation which should be seen as an exception, not the rule. If baptism is tied to repentance and belief as we see in Acts, there will be a priority in responding in this way. A question to be asked in your scenario might be: Was their a delay between the persons desire to respond to Jesus (confession of sins) and baptism or was the person pursuing baptism at the time of his death? What ever the answer to these questions is, we can say with full assurance that God, who is merciful and just, will judge this person with mercy and justice.
Let me summarize. Our mission as the church is to proclaim (in word and deed) the good news about Jesus, inviting people to respond through repentance and belief. As people hear this message and want to give their lives to Jesus, we invite them to do so and be baptized. Then their story becomes a part of God’s redemption story–a story of reconciliation made visible through the new humanity. It is a story of the redemption of all things through Jesus Christ. We speak the good news and embody it as we pray for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. My prayer is that God would continue to add to our number those who are being saved and that together we would embody the way of Jesus–which is a way of faith, hope and love.
I join with the psalmist in the prayer that was part of the morning office (Divine Hours) this morning: “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy Name and glory in your praise.” (Psalm 106:47)
Grace and peace,