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HOW DO I GET SAVED? CLARIFYING THE GOSPEL AS A PRECURSER TO OTHER DISCUSSIONS

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This post is a post about the gospel of salvation. There is nothing more important for a human being to know that how to begin a relationship with God and be saved from His eternal wrath. I choose to write about this for several reasons. First, it is always good to review the good news. Second, there are many in broader Christianity that seek to de-emphasize the importance of personal salvation in the name of other concerns, in particular, the need to combat societal evil. Third, I myself do see a need for Christians to combat societal evil. I have blogged about this somewhat, and I plan to do so a lot more. When one speaks to these kinds of issues, one often gets accused of not believing the gospel, or at least, not believing that the greatest need of human beings is to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Thus, I see fit to avoid that situation by making my views on the need and method of salvation clear. I hope that anyone reading this post that has never understood or believed in God’s offer of salvation will do so now. I further hope that those who do believe in the gospel will understand, once and for all, that I do as well. This is the foundation on which my life is built.

In this post, I will lay out the plan of salvation using a few crucial biblical passages. Should anyone feel I am doing too much “proof-texting,” I welcome follow up questions in our comments section. I am confident that I can demonstrate that every passage has been used in context. Also, I will not be treating every related theological issue in this post. My friends on the Calvinistic side might feel like I lay too much stress on the human will. To them, I would say that I do believe strongly in the doctrines of election and predestination, but do not believe that a gospel presentation is the place to develop these doctrines. To drive a wedge between God’s eternal plan and a human faith decision to create a false dichotomy. The Bible clearly teaches both.

The most concise summary of the gospel of salvation is given in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

In this passage we see the essential elements of the gospel. First, we observe that Paul says that it is by “this gospel” that Christians “are saved. What gospel specifically? “that Christ died for our sins (v.3), that he was buried and raised on the third day (v. 4), and that by faith in this truth a person is saved (v.2, 11).

The repeated phrase “according to the scriptures” means that these things were prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures. The phrase “for our sins” has built into it the idea that Christ was punished for our sins as our substitute. This is especially clear when we put “for our sins” together with “according to the scriptures. Among other passages, Paul certainly had in mind Isaiah 53, which describes Christ’s death as a substitute for sinners in great detail.[1]

While no other passage presents the points of the gospel as concisely as 1 Corinthians 15, going through a few others gives us more detail on the specific points. Why did Christ have to die for our sins? Because we are all sinners. To be saved from sin, you must understand and accept that you are a sinner. In the book of Romans, Paul spends most of the first three chapters demonstrating that all of humanity are born sinners. Thus, every human being is headed for God’s eternal wrath apart from salvation through Jesus Christ. This argument climaxes in Romans 3:9-20, which quotes several Old Testament passages to show how utterly sinful and lost human beings truly are:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

There is much we could say about this passage, but the crucial point is stated in verse 19. The whole world is accountable to God for their sin. This leads into verse 20. To spend eternity in God’s presence (“heaven”) rather than hell, one must be righteous before God. Since none are righteous, this puts human beings in quite a predicament. One that God solved through Jesus Christ on the cross. Understanding God’s salvation first requires a full recognition that one is a sinner.

To recognize that one is a sinner is not simply to acknowledge that God says certain things are wrong. It means to agree with God about our sin. To recognize how truly evil our sin is and recognize that God would be fully just in judging us for it.[2]

Once a person recognizes that they are a sinner, they are then prepared to understand that Jesus paid the price for their sin on the cross.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

Christ died on the cross for our sins, but he did not stay dead. He rose on the third day and now offers eternal life as a free gift for all who will trust in Him alone for this salvation. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul explains:

“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.”

To have faith means to believe that Jesus died on the cross for one’s sins and rose on the third day, and to trust in him alone as Savior, recognizing that nothing other than the death and resurrection of Christ can get one to heaven. The need for personal trust in Jesus Christ for salvation is stated in many places in scripture. For example:

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”  that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 10:8-13).”

To confess that Jesus is Lord means to confess that he is fully God – God the Son. For only God can forgive sins. Confession here does not mean that this must be acknowledged verbally (people born mute can still be saved), but that this confession is a truth to which one is fully committed.

Putting all of this together in review, we see that to be saved one must agree with God that they are a sinner who deserves hell. Believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and rose again on the third day. And trust in Jesus Christ, alone, as Savior and Lord. The Bible promises that anyone who puts their trust in Jesus Christ will instantly become a child of God. Their sins will be forgiven, and they will be given new life (regeneration) through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who comes to live in the true child of God, will then lead the believer to a life of good works in appreciation for the free gift of salvation. The results of salvation are described in many passages. For example:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).”

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:20-21).

being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

This last point will be the subject of our next post. We will discuss the reality of good works as the result of salvation. But we call this gospel the gospel of “faith alone” because good works are never the cause of salvation. We need to be very clear on this. Doing good things cannot save you! You do not get saved by feeding the poor, standing up for justice, staying sexually pure or telling the truth. All those things are important results of salvation, but the only thing that can save a person is simple trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross.

If you are reading this for the first time and have never understood what it means to be saved, I encourage you to trust Jesus Christ alone for salvation this very moment. If you have further questions, I hope you will contact me so we can discuss them.

 Before finishing, I want to briefly address a few common objections to the gospel of salvation as presented above. I will summarize the objections as questions and then give brief answers:

Isn’t that a reductionist gospel?

This is the accusation that the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone is trying to find a “least common denominator for salvation.” Or to find out what it the least a person can do and still be saved. This is a pretty silly argument because the Bible teaches that one cannot do anything at all to be saved. I would say in response that there is a difference between looking for a least common denominator and understanding precisely what the Bible says about how a person gets saved. Because the Bible does tell us precisely how a person gets saved, the latter is the correct approach. In my opinion, this objection usually comes from people who want to find a back door to make good works necessary for salvation.

Do we have to repent as well as believe?

Repentance is indeed necessary for salvation, but repentance is not separate from faith, it is a part of it. When the New Testament authors give gospel invitations (or commands), they usually use one of three words: “believe, “repent” or “turn.” This is important because repentance is often defined in gospel presentations as “turning.” It can carry this nuance, but this is not it’s primary meaning. We have a clearer, better word that is usually used for turning.[3] Repentance could be summarized as a total shift in understanding.[4] The words “believe,” “repent” and “turn” do not describe three separate things one must do to be saved, but three different perspectives on the conversion experience. This was explained by Darrell Bock in my class on the Book of Acts at Dallas Seminary. He explained that “repent” looks at where you start out. You realize that your sin is abominable, and you don’t want it anymore. “Turn” describes the process wherein you leave behind your former values and turn to God. “Believe” looks at it from the perspective of where you end up, which is full trust in Christ. In gospel contexts, these three terms function as essential synonyms with different emphases.

Was Jesus’ “gospel” different?

Some clever folk say that we rely too heavily on the apostle Paul, and that Jesus presented a different gospel than the “faith alone” gospel. This is a tricky ruse, but a few brief points should help clear it up. First, the letters of Paul are no less the Word of God then the gospels. If we see any contradiction, the problem is with our understanding, and we need to study the matter more deeply. Second, and perhaps most importantly, JESUS DID NOT PREACH A DIFFERENT GOSPEL THAN PAUL. Of the four gospels, the Gospel of John is the one that tells how an individual gets saved. While Jesus uses different terminology than Paul (due to different audiences), Jesus does present the gospel of faith alone clearly. In fact, the Gospel can easily be presented using only the Gospel of John or only the Book or Romans. It is the same gospel!

Third, this objection assumes that the word “gospel’ means the same thing in every context in which it is used. I was careful above to say that I was talking about “the gospel of salvation” for this very reason. On the one hand, the word can mean “a document about the life and teaching of Jesus.” Then we have “the gospel of the kingdom,” summarized in the phrase “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This was a corporate call to national Israel to return to obedience to God as a preparation for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. A lot of people read all four gospels as though they are about how a person gets saved. But the Gospel of John is the only one that is about this. That is not to say the others do not touch on this, but to say that this is not their driving purpose. If it were, we would not only have contradictions between Jesus and Paul, we would have conflicts between the gospels. If anyone needs greater clarification on this, I am happy to provide it.

Isn’t this a decision-based gospel?

Some of our more Reformed brethren and sistren feel like the plan of salvation, as articulated above, lays to much stress on a human decision, and thus not enough on the sovereignty of God in salvation. I would respond that this is a matter of perspective. From the divine perspective, salvation is a work of God from front to back. From a human perspective, believing is, among other things, an act of the will. The great Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof explained that faith has an intellectual element (notitia), an emotional element (assensus) and a volitional element (fiducia).[5] The word “volitional” has to do with the will. On this last aspect of faith, he writes:

“This is the crowning element of faith. Faith is not merely an act of the intellect, nor of the intellect and emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will, determining the direction of the soul, an act of the soul going out toward its object and appropriating this.”[6]

He further explains:

“This third element (fiducia) consists in a personal trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord, including the surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and of spiritual life.”[7]

While Berkhof does not use the word “decision,” he certainly recognizes that a decision takes place in human salvation.


[1] For any who doubt that this phrase means substitution, I recommend our Highpoint sermon on Isaiah 53:
http://highpointsd.org/th_sermon/isaiah-53-pete-vik/

[2] To put this another way, it does not mean saying “ok, God, you say those things are wrong, so I will believe that Jesus died for them, even though I think they are just fine.” Theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer explained this as “recognizing the sinfulness of sin.”

[3] The Greek word for repent is μετανοέω. The word for turn is ἐπιστρέφω.

[4] The root meaning of the word μετανοέω is to “change one’s mind.” The theological nuance of this in the New Testament is defined in the standard Greek lexicon as to “feel remorse, repent, be converted” (BDAG, 640). “Be converted” probably best brings out the meaning of New Testament repentance, because changing one’s mind and feeling remorse for sins are all part of the shift that takes place when a sinner encounter Christ. All of these things relate to turning to Christ (and thus away from sin), but the turning is better understood as a result of repentance rather than repentance itself.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 503-505.

[6] Ibid., 505.

[7] Ibid.

Author: Pete Vik

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