This is a delicate subject. Our faith is something that is near and dear to our hearts, and I want to be intentional with approaching this gently. I also want to be intentional with encouraging each one of us to examine the scriptures for truth and equipping the saints to teach it as well. We are living in times that many label themselves Christian, but do not follow the teachings of the Christian church. We are living in a day that new age and prosperity preachers are under the same label. The bible isn’t preached in some churches anymore. In some places, sermons are all feel-good motivation and no compass for the Christian walk. And we are all under the label of Christian.
As a convert from atheism to Christianity (November 2005), I did not know how to study the bible. I did not know there were disagreements on salvation matters. I did not know how to test a person’s statement for truth. There were cliches that were taught to me I thought were bible verses. There were manmade acronyms and prayers that were taught to me I thought was based in scripture. I trusted the long-time Christians, especially those who grew up in church, to teach me whatever truth was. A few years later, I started reading the bible. It was 5 years into being Christian that I did a bible study including salvation. It was then I realized the difference between salvation based on the word of God versus salvation found in manmade sayings and opinions. I ask that you examine this topic with an open mind and an open heart testing each perspective against the scripture. We can agree that the bible is the source of truth. We can agree that the bible teaches us how to be saved and we hold those scriptures to be truth. Let us each examine what we have been taught and also what we teach.
Salvation… is it taboo? It’s the most important conversation we need to have. It is the eternal decision. Yet we skirt around it avoiding our great commission out of fear. We fear others taking offense more than we fear what will happen to them if they don’t receive the message.
Some water it down. Make the message more worldly so people will want it. Make it easier. Take out the sacrifice. Take out the transformation. Take out the requirements. Ignore the commands. Simplify until it’s something else, something so far removed that people don’t recognize the biblical salvation. Dilute it more with each generation. Rip out pieces until one day it’s only believe God is real, do nothing, make no changes, and live the same as the unbelievers. Truth gets cut, hidden, silenced, disagreed with straight from the word of God.
The word of God is pure truth. It is sharp and able to divide. It is also a weapon against falsehood. What happens when the gospel message is being shared with someone who the bible is foreign to? Will they know how and where to check for accuracy? Will they know how to test with fire? Of course not. They will most likely take your word for it. Your word… is it aligned with the word of God?
I’m going to share some things I was taught in my first few years of Christian faith. These statements are about salvation, and I believed it as truth.
“Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and you’ll be saved.”
“Ask Jesus to come into your heart.”
Or some combination of those two popular sayings such as, “Accept Jesus in your heart and ask him to be your savior.”
“Just believe and you are saved.”
Say the Sinner’s Prayer and you are saved forever.
Once saved, always saved
I assumed “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” was a bible verse. I heard this repeatedly. I took these things to heart and I lived by them as a Christian. I believed in Jesus, I followed him, and I loved him.
When I got in church in 2009, I was going to a Southern Baptist church. I accepted the invitation and answered “yes” when the pastor asked me if I was secure in my salvation. I did get baptized although they taught baptism was not necessary for salvation. They actually directly taught against the necessity of baptism. What if you go to get baptized and you get hit by a bus when you’re crossing the street? Would God send you to hell? Of course not. He loves you. Once saved, always saved. It’s like having a child; they are always your child. We’ve been adopted by the Lord. These are the things I was taught. I didn’t question it. It made sense. It never occurred to me that no scripture was being referenced for most of the things I had been taught about salvation. I remember volunteering with Vacation Bible School. There was a little handout called the ABCs of salvation. It said “Admit, Believe, Confess”.
Fast-forward to early 2011 and I had begun attending an Apostolic Pentecostal church. I was taught a bible study, and that was the first time I’d ever studied the bible on salvation. There were a lot of verses I’d never heard taught before and admit I hadn’t taken particular notice of in my reading. This church taught things differently. They did not teach only believe in God and you’ll be saved forever. They did not teach a sinner’s prayer. They did not teach any of the cliches above. They taught scripture.
I went over these verses again and again. This was something that really got to me because I questioned my own salvation and I worried about the salvation of many believers I love. This was also when I started to feel like I had been lied to with the well-intended cliches. My Southern Baptist church had directly told me baptism was not necessary. Yet the bible is clear it’s a command to obey. I had been taught once saved always saved. The bible told the disciples to endure to the end. It says we can shipwreck our faith. It says we can be grafted in and broken off (John 15:1-17, Romans 11:17-21). Why had people told me things like “Ask Jesus to come into your heart” or “Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” when these sayings are not in the bible? None of the common sayings above are in the bible. I went searching for them thinking they were bible verses, but this message is nowhere to be found. That bothered me quite a bit. I did not want a catchy message to tagline my Christian label. I wanted to know truth and I wanted to follow it. Why had people given me cliches instead of giving me scripture? I needed to study this deeply. I needed to pray for understanding. I needed to know.
It seemed the early church in the book of Acts paints a different picture than the message of so many churches today. These people believed and they’d repent of their ways. They’d turn to the Lord. They’d follow Jesus. They obeyed the command to get baptized. They took the time to pray to receive the Holy Spirit. They gathered together. They had prayer meetings. They changed their ways. They dedicated their lives. They lived right. They pursued holiness. They were set apart. They were all in. When did the church today become only partially in first step in the water of faith and then done? I wanted the narrow path. I wanted to pursue the Lord and walk in his ways. I wanted to understand the full picture. Aren’t we supposed to be following the same ways of the early church? Isn’t this what Jesus wants for his people?
At this point, I felt confused on what seemed like conflicting messages. On the one hand, there’s the message to believe and you are saved. On the other hand, there’s the message that we have to repent and we have to be baptized and we have to be born again receiving the Spirit and we have to stay connected to the vine. I know the bible never contradicts itself. I knew I was missing something here. We can’t pick out random verses that we like and ignore the verses that don’t fit what we want to promote.
So, I began asking myself the question “What does it mean to believe?” I don’t think this is a casual belief. I don’t think this is the same thing as “Yeah, I agree that’s true.” and eh nothing more. What do we do when we believe in something – I mean really believe in something? We live by it, right? If I were to promote recycling but turn around and litter, do you think I really believe in the cause of recycling? (I’ve never littered. I will pick up trash though.) That’s just an example of a cause people believe in that’s supposed to be something that changes the way they do things. If you know me, you know I’m big on being frugal and sustainable. I’m a ditch-the-disposables kind of person. Less in the landfill is better for the planet; less to buy at the store is better for the budget. I do not buy paper plates or plastic cups. I avoid buying plastic for the kitchen. I use dish rags, cloth napkins, hankies, etc. That’s my lifestyle. I like to be green. If I were to tell you that I believe in being green like that but then turn around and do nothing to live by the principles of what I claim to believe in, would you consider me to be a frugal and sustainable person? Of course not. Why? Because if you really believe in something as a way to live then you follow the values of what you profess to believe in. If we can get behind a non-religious cause to the point that we make changes in our lifestyle and day-to-day living even when it’s not convenient and even when it’s a sacrifice, shouldn’t we be even more dedicated to living for the Lord if we are true believers? What is the greatest commandment? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.
So, again I ask the question “What does it mean to believe?” This is not a casual belief that’s little more than an agreeance to truth. This is a wholehearted belief. This is a with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind kind of belief. This is a follow what you profess kind of belief. These messages are not contradicting each other. If you believe Jesus is Lord and you believe this with all that you are (heart, mind, and soul), obedience to the next steps is part of that. In Mark 16:16 it says those who believe and have been baptized will be saved. In Acts 2:41 it says those who received his word were baptized. This comes right after the instruction in Acts 2:38 to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.
What do we do when we wholeheartedly believe in Jesus? We follow.
Belief is the first step; it’s not the full picture. Teaching people that if they simply believe Jesus is God they will be saved is a fragmented gospel that leaves out obedience to what saves, what makes you born again, and what transforms you.
I didn’t become a Christian so I could stay the same way I was when I was atheist. Listen, following God will change your life. You can’t live to follow your flesh and live by the Spirit at the same time. Is it too much? Is it too much to ask to obey these commands? Is it too much to preach repentance? Is it too much to teach we must all be baptized? Is it too much to tell people they need to be born again? Is it too much to tell people they need the Holy Spirit living inside of them and guiding them throughout their Christian walk? All of these things are freely available to anyone. It costs no money. It requires no riches or elite status. It is equally available to the rich and the poor. It is for every nation, every people, every individual who will turn to the Lord Jesus. I don’t want to be a bare minimum Christian. I don’t want to scrape by and say I did the absolute least that was required to escape hell. I want to follow Jesus and live for Jesus. I want to obey his commands with no question on how little obedience I can get away with. If the bible says be baptized, I want to do it – not argue about if I have to do it. If the bible promises me the gift of the Holy Spirit, I want to receive it – not debate over its necessity. If the bible says we need to stay connected to the vine, I don’t want to shipwreck my faith and hope my sunken passport still counts – I want to keep on living for the Lord all of my days. If we begrudgingly approach these foundational things, what does that say about our dedication to live by the bible?
These things are not too much to ask, and they are not too much to teach.
But what happens if you don’t teach anything beyond the first step of faith? What happens when a Christian teaches a false message on salvation? Their student is given a shorted good news. They miss out on the cleansing power of repentance. They miss out on being buried with Christ in baptism and coming up out of that water with one of the best feelings we can experience. They miss out on the power of the Holy Ghost. They miss out on the fullness of transformation and the growth they could have. They could miss out on heaven. You could be held accountable for what you’ve taught (James 3:1). If you’re going to teach on the subject of salvation, make sure you’ve studied it deeply. Examine what you’ve been taught and examine what you teach.