“What must I believe in order to be saved?” “That Jesus died for your sins.” Those are the usual evangelistic questions and answers. Both are sub-biblical.
Let’s look at one evangelistic encounter that is close to this question and answer, in Acts 16:31-32.
(The jailer in Philippi brought out Paul and Silas) “and said, ‘Men what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.’”
Note that Paul and Silas’ reply was not that he should believe “that” something, but rather “in” something. This is what we see throughout scripture. The call continually is to believe “in Jesus.” We are not called primarily to a cognitive assent to certain truths, but to a personal relationship. There is a call to believe certain truths about Jesus, but we shall see that these truths are very different from “that Jesus died for your sins.”
The second misunderstanding is around the word “belief.” The Greek word is “pistis,’ which means “trust, confidence, faith, reliability.” This makes the call to a relationship very clear: we are to put our trust and confidence in Jesus, to rely on Him. The proper question and response, then, are: “Whom must I trust in order to be saved?” “Jesus.”
What a difference it makes when you replace the word “believe” with the proper translation “trust” in the many passages that call us to “believe in Him.” This call is most common in the gospel of John, but also elsewhere. For example, imagine using the word “trust” in these passages:
Jn 3:18 – “He who believes [trusts] in Him is not condemned.”
Jn 9:35 – “Do you believe [trust] in the Son of Man?”
Jn 11:25-26 – “He who believes [trusts] in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and he who lives and believes [trusts] in Me, shall never die.”
Jn 12:36 – “While you have the light, believe [trust] in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
Jn 14:1 – “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe [trust] in God, believe [trust] also in Me.”
Acts 19:4 – “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe [trust] in the one who was to come, that is, Jesus.”
Phil 1:29 – “for the sake of Christ, you should not only believe [trust] in Him but also suffer for His sake.”
I Tim 1:16 – “Jesus must display His perfect patience for those who were to believe [trust] in Him for eternal life.”
I Pet 1:8 – “Though you do not see Him, you believe [trust] in Him.”
I Jn 5:13 – “I write this to you who believe [trust] in the name of the Son of God.”
Clearly, we are fundamentally called to establish a close, trusting relationship with Jesus in our lives. We trust in Him both for life and for eternity. His call to His disciples was “Come, follow Me.” His call to the rich young man who asked “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life,” was the same: “Come, follow Me.” (Mt 19:16, 21). A call to trust.
However, there also must be some content to this trust. There must be some reason for this trust. We must believe that something. What truth does scripture tell us we need to believe?:
Jn 11:27 – “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jn 13:19 – “When it does take place, you may believe that I am He.”
Jn 14:10 – “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?”
Jn 16:30 – “We believe that you came from God.”
Jn 17:21 – “that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.”
Jn 20:29 – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (that Jesus is risen).”
Jn 20:31 – “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that be believing you may have life in His Name.”
Acts 15:11 – “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
Rom 10:9 – “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
I Cor 12:3 – “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Phil 2:11 – “every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”
I Thes 4:14 – “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, with Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.”
Heb 11:6 – “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”
I Jn 5:1 – “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God.”
In summary, what truth are we called to believe? Basically, we are called to believe what the angels first announced to the shepherds, that He is “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:11). The recognition of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was key in the Jewish world. The recognition of Jesus as Lord was key in the Gentile, our, world. In his message to the Gentile world of the Corinthians, Paul clearly stated, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. (I Cor 12:3) We are, then, fundamentally called to trust in Him as our Lord, the Lord of our lives, our Guru.
The historic creeds, therefore, simply recite the truths of Jesus life with no mention of a theory of atonement to be believed. The Nicene Creed simply states that “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…. And was crucified also for us.” The earliest recorded sermons by Stephen (Acts 7:1-53) and Peter (Acts 2:22-36) likewise give no theory of atonement but simply call the hearers to accept that Jesus is “both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36).
We are free to develop whatever theological explanation of this lordship that is relevant to our culture and time:
- St. Paul and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, theologized a “sacrificial atonement for sin” explanation relating to their Jewish and God-fearers audience.
- The early church fathers, on the basis of I Cor 2:8 and other passages, preached the Deception Theory of the atonement.
- St. Anselm developed the substitutionary atonement explanation (“Jesus paid the price for our sins”) back in the 11th century, relevant to the penance system of the Western church of his time.
- As part of the Reformation rethinking, Luther promoted the ancient “Christus Victor” (Victorious Christ) theme of salvation.
- The historic Eastern church used a whole different approach grounded in Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection, not in the crucifixion.
- The mystical approach of a transformative personal relationship filled with trust and love.
- Personally, I gravitate toward the theme of the unfailing love and promises of God, expressed and enacted in Jesus Christ.
- And then there are figures like Noah and Abraham and Moses and Daniel and Paul that had supra-rational experiences of salvation that beg no explanation, as people still have personal visions, healings, miracles, answers to prayers, dreams, etc.
All of these conceptions of salvation are based on Holy Scripture. The point is: we are free–and called–to develop the explanation of salvation, consonant with scripture, that relates to our culture and time, our need and personality, our audience and situation. It would facilitate scripture’s clear, simple evangelistic call: “Trust in Jesus as the Lord of your life.”
For, in Him there is forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation. And, “repentance and forgiveness of sin should be preached in His Name.” (Lk 24:47) The fact is that the risen Christ is Lord, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” (Eph 1:21) You can entrust your life and eternity into His hands. He is your Savior.