Friday, May 10, 2013
What Must I Do to be Saved?
To anyone who has given serious thought to the question, "What will happen to me when I die?," and has thought about the moral dimension to the problem, the obvious follow-up question is, "What must I do to be saved"? To the one who come to understand what the stakes are, there can be no more important question.
As we have seen, Christ offered Himself up as an atonement for sin, but that does not mean that everyone is automatically saved. In order to receive the forgiveness of sins we must be personally joined to Christ in a kind of legal and mystical union, and that requires action on our part.
But exactly what action? At first the answers found in the Bible seem confusing and even contradictory. When the Jews at Pentecost asked the apostle Peter, he said "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. . ." (Acts 2:38; NKJV). But when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas the same question, they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31).
There is no real contradiction here. The fact of the matter is that repentance, faith and baptism are three different aspects of the same thing. The essential thing is faith – we are "justified by faith." But in order for faith to be genuine it must be accompanied by repentance, and then it must be expressed in a formal commitment to Christ in baptism.
It is the repentance part with which most modern Americans have difficulty. Americans are possessed with a consumer mentality (see our book America's Deadliest Enemy), and the church has sometimes made the mistake of trying to market Christianity as a consumer product. Evangelists are eager to tout all the advantages of Christianity without mentioning any of the demands of discipleship. It all sounds so easy! "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"!
The Bible makes it clear, however, that if we would receive the forgiveness of our sins we must first repent of them. "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins bay be blotted out . . . " (Acts 3:19). The whole problem is our sin and our guilt, and we are hardly sincere in asking for forgiveness is we don't repudiate the lifestyle that created the problem in the first place.
The point was beautifully illustrated in a story told by Jesus. In Luke 18:9 we are told that He confronted "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." Jesus proceeded to tell them one of His famous parables, or stories. Two men went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of a very strict sect of observant Jews who were scrupulous about keeping the Jewish law. The other man was a "publican" or tax collector. The publicans, however, were not tax collectors in the modern sense of the word. They were generally private contractors who were hired to collect taxes for the Roman government. They were notoriously dishonest and corrupt, little better than extortioners in some cases. To make matters worse, because they worked with the Roman authorities who, of course, were Gentiles and did not keep the Jewish law, the publicans were regarded by their fellow Jews as ceremonially unclean. They were, in effect, unholy renegades. In other words, in this story the tax collector represented the opposite end of the social spectrum from the Pharisee. The Pharisee represented the elite of Jewish society; the tax collector the filthy scum.
Jesus goes on to describe the prayers of these two men. The Pharisee's prayer went like this: God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector" (v. 11). He then proceeds to list his own accomplishments: "I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (v. 12).
Far different was the tax collector's prayer. "Standing afar off," he "would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast" (v. 13). His request was simple, frank, and to the point: "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (The text literally reads, "the sinner," as if in his own eyes he was the only sinner in the world, so mortified was he with his own guilt – cf. NASV; Amp.) He did not pretend to be a righteous man. He knew all too well that he was not. He frankly admitted the case and begged for mercy. He realized that that was all that he could do under the circumstances.
Jesus then drew the moral of the story: "I tell you, this man [i.e., the tax collector – RWW] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14).
For many it is this element of repentance that prevents them from coming to Christ in a genuine way. It is our pride that stands between us and Christ. We don't like to admit that we are lost sinners, and we don't like to be in the position of humble suppliants. We would rather pretend that we are basically alright and would like to think that we are doing God a favor by lending our good name to the membership rolls of His churches. But there is no true Christianity where there has not first been sorrow and contrition for sin. Salvation begins with heartfelt repentance.