[This week’s posts will be a continuation of a recent sermon at Adventure Christian Church, based on questions members submitted to our leaders. Some answers were not addressed from the stage and will be covered here as a supplement. Check out the live answers here.]
It happens all over our country, in many different contexts. Pastors who have a genuine heart for reaching the lost tell their audience or congregation to be saved by simply “accepting Christ into their hearts.” I don’t mean to diminish the pastor’s genuine passion. A pastor’s burden for the lost is strong, and really, anyone who believes in Eternal afterlife and salvation as opposed to eternal punishment for sin should care deeply about seeing people come to faith. But are the methods really biblically sound? Is walking to the altar a Scripturally valid way to become a Christian? To experience salvation?
I don’t think such methods go quite far enough. No where in Scripture do we see a sinner told to “raise your hand” if you’ve never accepted Jesus. No where do we see the “sinner’s Prayer,” although many of the concepts the classic sinner’s prayer holds are good concepts. No where do we see a “check a box on your visitor card” option offered by the apostles.
Does that mean people’s decisions by such means are less than genuine? No. But it does beg a deeper look into how to be saved.
What’s at Stake
One of the most important questions we can ask in discussions of biblical doctrine and Christian practice is “So What?” What is at stake by holding a certain view? And what other teachings are impacted by taking that position? In other words, what is the cascade effect? This can take a couple of different trajectories.
In a strictly pragmatic or “what works” sense, the sinner’s prayer is problematic. First of all, it may be totally driven by emotional impulse or peer pressure. Like the seed sown in the rocky places from Jesus’ sower parable, such a decision will often not sustain a life of faith. Not to mention that I don’t really know what it means to “accept Jesus into your heart.” I mean, I understand how people use the phrase, but what does it really mean? Aside from the fact that such a phrase is never uttered in Scripture, it could be far more accurately said that we are to submit to Jesus as Lord, or be involved with the Body of Christ from then forward, or anything practical.
We just say “Accept Jesus into your heart.”
“What must I do to be saved?”
In Acts 16, a jailer in Philippi asked this of Paul and Silas. In fact, it is a question that is often asked in Christianity. The truth is there is a wealth of information that’s been written on this, and a strong biblical precedent for everything that I will include here. Yes, we need to “accept Jesus.” All I’m offering here is what that “looks like.”
The fathers of the restoration movement (of which the Independent Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ movements have all emerged) had a “Five-finger” approach that I will use as the outline here. It goes as follows:
- Be Baptized
- ***”Live the Obedient Christian Life.”
The last one has asterisks because it is the one with which I have the most trouble. More about that below.
Believe it or not (see what I did there?), Christianity does have a certain set of beliefs that one must affirm to be a Christian. This is only the first step, but it forms a foundation for the rest of the rest of our faith. Often, I will point people to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, where Paul calls “of first importance…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures.”
Jesus is the center of our belief. We must believe that he came to earth and died for our sins. That means we must also believe we have sins for which we will be held accountable. We must believe that he was buried and rose again, conquering death. Theories supposing the body was stolen, or the disciples hallucinated, or that this was made up decades later simply don’t satisfy here. If we have any hope of conquering death, we must believe that Christ conquered death first.
Belief also entails that we believe on Jesus, or put our trust in his sacrifice. This is an essential part of belief, that we trust Jesus’ death freed us from the scorekeeping by which we were previously enslaved. No more “am I good enough?” language. Instead, we ask “was Jesus’ death on a cross sufficient enough.” The answer, according to the Scriptures is a resounding yes. This is the heart of the gospel message, that we are no longer going to be judged on how good or bad we are, but that we trust Jesus has wiped our debt clean.
It may not be popular to say out loud in our “God is love” culture (he is, by the way, but I’m driving at a different point), but a central theme to both John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’ own ministry was “Repent, because the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repentance is more than saying you are sorry. It is more than feeling bad about sin. When put in conjunction with “Kingdom” language it takes on new meaning.
“Repent and turn to God; since God is King, start living like it.”
This means we take his decrees (held for us in Scripture) and obey them, rather than negotiating his meaning for him. It means we bow to him and give him glory. It means we work for his agenda and his will, not our own.
It means we stop coming to him in arrogance with all of our religious do-gooding, and instead fall on our face, pleading “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The third part of salvation is to confess. Everywhere that we see people being saved, we see them confessing (or perhaps professing) Christ as Lord.
A public statement is necessary to become a Christian. Is God up in heaven judging whether or not a “raised hand” at a stadium rally was “public” enough? I don’t think God is a legalist in that way, but simply would state that in every case we see, people are making public decisions for faith in Christ, not a “private” decision made “in their heart.”
WHY is this important? Becuase the Church is described as the “Body of Christ.” We are called “one” body, and challenged to grow together, with a unified mission in the world. In order to be a Christian, we must make a statement that allies us with Christ’s Church. I could not cut off one of my fingers and expect it to go on being part of my body. It would eventually die and wither away. The same is true of the members of Christ’s body. When we withdraw from fellowship, we begin to wither spiritually. Therefore, we publicly confess our allegiance, and declare Christ is our Lord, and then engage with the local church to continue to grow.
4. Be Baptized.
This is probably the most debated of these points by most people. There is probably not space in this post for a treatise on Baptism’s role in salvation, so I will suffice it to say this: Baptism plays an important role in the salvation process throughout the New Testament. It is always done to believers, who are becoming Christians for the first time, and it is often linked with the forgiveness or “washing away” of sins from the convert. Here are a few passages that illustrate such a point:
Mark 16:16 “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Acts 2:37-38 – “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
Acts 22:16 – “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins,calling on his name.’”
Add to this the fact that Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 compare baptism to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, and the fact that Jesus included it as an important part of his “great commission” in Matthew 28:19, and what we see is that the first-century version of the sinner’s prayer or the raised hand was baptism of believers by immersion.
5. Living the Christian Life
This is the only teaching where I push back on this “five fingered” approach. The thought goes that obedience is how we stay in grace. But the idea that we are saved from slavery to sin, and plunged into slavery of good works seems to be the precise point where Paul so harshly censures the Galatian church.
Rather, I think a healthier view of this is to appeal to Ephesians 2:8-10, and James 2:17
Ephesians 2:8-10 – “We have been saved by grace through faith. And this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works so that no man may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
James 2:17 – “So also faith by itself, without works, is dead.”
The important thing to gather here is that you will not be condemned or counted righteous by your own works, but by your status in Christ’s sacrifice that God gave us in Grace.
However, we are saved FOR something. To walk in the good works of God’s will that he prepared in advance for us to live out. If we accept Christ and never do a single thing to grow in our faith or devote our lives to him, our faith will die (James 2:17), leading us to a place where we go back to trusting in our own deeds to save us. This is the ultimate rejection of Jesus’ sacrifice, and ultimately a voluntary choice to re-enter slavery.
So it is not simply by doing good works that we somehow earn our continued salvation, but it is in those good works that we feed, nourish and keep our faith “alive” throughout our time here on earth.
And indeed, what we see from all examples in the New Testament is that people accepted Christ and took whatever radical “next step” was demanded of them as a part of that decision.
Will we make a shallow decision and be like the plant with no root, or like the “good soil” that received the word, allowed it to take root and produced a mighty harvest?
It’s a costly and drastic decision, but it’s the most important one you will make for all of eternity!