It would seem that, among the many Christian denominations , there is a nearly uniform consensus that belief in Jesus as God is essential for eternal salvation. Since the beginning of the Church many learned men and women have formulated different theologies but almost all of them would have at least this much as a foundation.
But is it reasonable to assume that this is so? And if this happens to be the case, is this the only requirement for salvation or are there further steps that need to be taken?
Not everyone can even seem to agree on what ‘salvation’ is. There are those, probably in the majority, who see salvation as an eternal existence with God, in Heaven. The alternative to this salvation is generally thought of as being consigned to eternal suffering in a place called Hell. (My thoughts on the validity of Heaven and Hell are written elsewhere on this blog so there is no need to pursue that line at this time.)
Other Christians see salvation as being a divine release from the emotional and psychological pain of human bondage, often coupled with a heavenly reward as well. But a reward for what?
If we hail from one of the more works-driven traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, then we are rewarded for a life well lived, engaging in acts of charity and mercy as well as adhering to religious laws and traditions. Protestants on the other hand feel that no amount of work or action on the part of the believer can ever earn God’s approval, as God is perfectly holy. In this case it is only the good graces of God who spare the believer from a punishment that he deserves only too well.
But in neither case does it seem that only God’s grace is the means of salvation. Just the personal decision to accept God as lord is an action in itself. Our salvation would seem to require at least some effort on our part.
(The Calvinists get around this by saying that we are not allowed this choice, that God has determined before time began who would be saved and who would not. The doctrine of election is point that divides the church, if only on academic grounds. But is it really necessary to craft these tortuous explanations, when we may be only addressing the problems inherent to other equally artificial explanations?)
Our salvation apparently required an effort on God’s part as well, resulting in the sacrifice of his son as an atonement for our sins. And scripture is clear on how important our individual actions actually are. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2: 14-17) and the disciple of Christ will grow “fruit of the spirit”(Galatians 5: 22-24), attitudes and actions that would identify the true believer as such.
When Peter asks Jesus what he should do to prove his love for him, Jesus repeatedly tells him to ‘feed my sheep’ (John 21: 15-17) Even with this and other clear cut instructions from Jesus, the idea that God requires more from us than a mere profession of faith is not something that Protestants tend to emphasize. In fact, it is often stressed that no matter what a person does, he can not lose his salvation – “once saved always saved”.
I wonder where we find the biblical basis for this unambiguous doctrine. It is possible for someone to exhibit mean spirited, even evil behavior throughout their lives and stay confident that once they said the sinner’s prayer their salvation was assured. Of course an intentional lifestyle along these lines would likely be hypocritical so perhaps all bets are off. But what of the deluded person who does not see the error of their ways? (this may describe most of us)
I would hesitate to suggest what God may do with anyone, whether they appear good, or bad (by my standards). Yet many Christians do not hesitate to make assumptions about the fate of those whom they call the ‘unsaved’.
I know personally (and you probably do as well) people of other faiths or even of no faith, who seem to more closely follow the ways of Jesus than quite a few of our pew-mates. I have heard many people say that it doesn’t matter how good a person you are, if you have not professed acceptance of Jesus as God and King, then you are hell bound. Of course, the converse of that would be that no matter what you say or do, publicly or privately, if you are one of those ‘saved’ by your profession of faith, then you will be with him in eternity.
Does anyone else see a problem with this? Oh, I expect to hear from people who will say that I am denying God’s word, but when I read the Bible I don’t see this doctrine (even in John 3:18 – this conversation with Nicodemus can be interpreted differently). I speak regularly with a number of atheists, mostly on the net. They seem to be fairly riled up over a lot of things that religious people say and do, but in my experience this particular doctrine of the elect seems to antagonize them the most. One of my concerns is that if this doctrine is not even biblical then what damage is it doing to our ability to share the Gospel with skeptics?
St. Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:
When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences. Romans 2:14-16
Jesus himself once said this of a pagan, a man who professed Caesar as god incarnate and messiah:
Taken aback, Jesus said, “I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” Matthew 8:10-12
So what is it that God requires of us? Is it the belief in God that is important or is it our faith in his Way, a faith that some non-believers seem to hold as well? Is an atheist who holds faithfully to the ‘golden rule’ somehow less in God’s eyes than a believer who has trouble keeping it? I would suggest that none of us, even though we may believe, have the right to pronounce death sentences on those who do not.