Guarding the Gospel: Do We Have to Do Anything to be Saved?

Monday, September 24, 2007

At the outset I'll say that this is more an article length post than it is a blog-length post. But those who've stopped by from time to time know that this is to be expected. While it is hard to consider deep theological truths in a blog post, it is not altogether impossible. So bear this in mind before you continue reading: this is a long post; it may stir you up; you may get mad at me; and you will probably be mentally tired when you're finished reading it. Nonetheless, I do think it worthy enough to write and work through. So let's get busy!

The Key Texts to Consider

Acts 2:37

In Acts 2:37 we find the most wonderful response to any sermon ever given: "Brothers, what shall we do?" They asked this question to the convicting words of Peter's sermon about the divinity and death of Jesus. His death and resurrection proved He was God and Messiah. Undoubtedly, the piercing of the heart they experienced was due to the fact that (1) they realized they killed the Messiah, and (2) they thought He was probably really ticked off. Peter's statement in verses 34-36 would have elicited both of these responses from them.

But the focus in this post is on their question: "what shall we do?" There's this troubling little issue of doing connected with salvation. Those of us who associated ourselves with reformed theology get very, very antsy on points like this. The reason is because of what follows in verse 38: "Repent and be baptized every one of you..." These are clearly things one has to do, and not only that, but do in order to be saved.

Now I'm not comfortable at all with the idea that one must do something in order to be saved. This constitutes works-righteousness. If I have to do something to be saved, then being saved is contingent on my doing something. The net result is that when I am saved, I did something to get saved. And we reformed folks hate that statement with a passion! "We didn't do anything to get saved! God saved us apart from anything I did! Are you nuts?!!"

Acts 16:30-31

The Philippian jailor complicates things a bit more. I mean, it's not as if this passage in Acts 2:37-38 is this exegetical hapaxlegomena, something that appears only one time in the entire NT, which can be summarily dismissed as a "difficult passage." In dreadful fear because of the earthquake caused by Paul and Silas' jailhouse rock worship service, the jailor was (1) scared to death because he no doubt connected the earthquake to their singing, and (2) now that the doors were open he headed for a sword to commit hari-kari.

And what is his response when Paul and Silas yelled out, "Don't do it! We are all here!" (v. 28)? "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" There's that pesky word again: do. All he knew is that he wanted to "be saved." And therein lies the help we need to get the bigger picture on any doing which is to be done.

The jailor was scared to death...literally. He probably figured that he had angered whatever God it was who protecting them, because they had been falsely imprisoned. After all, they were landed there for casting out a demon, something only divinity could do in that culture. What is more, the religious culture then seemed to hold that an earthquake was usually associated with the presence of deity. This whole situation here was orchestrated to bring this man to the point of asking what in the world he had to do to be rescued, saved, and delivered from anything else that might happen. He wanted peace and calm. I love what Jameison, Fausset, and Brown said about this situation.

Only one explanation of it can be given - that he had become all at once alarmed about his spiritual state, and that though, a moment before, he was ready to plunge into eternity with the guilt of self-murder on his head, without a thought of the sin he was committing and its awful consequences, his unfitness to appear before God, and his need of salvation, now flashed full upon his soul and drew from the depths of his spirit the cry here recorded.

So here this guy was, about to kill himself out of fear and dread, and he considers that there may be some other way...something else he could do. The Greek phrase here leaves no doubt that we are talking about something he must do to get what he wants: poiein hina sotho. The Greek word poieo is defined as carrying out, executing, performing, acting out, etc. The Greek infinitive hina is a conjunction meaning "so that" or "in order that." The Greek word sotho comes from the verb sozo, which means to be rescued from danger, destruction, or suffering. Simply put, the jailor wants to know what things he's got to carry out, to perform, to do in order to be rescued from what he fears. There is no doubt. Doing is undeniably connected to saving in this passage (as it is also in the Acts passage above).

The response on the part of Paul confirms this: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved..." (v. 31). Believing is something the jailor must do. Believing is an act which must be carried out, and it has to be done in order to be saved by God. By the same token, repenting is also an act which must be carried out in order to be saved by God. That's what Peter clearly implies in the Acts 2 passage.

What's My Point?!

Am I trying to pick a fight here? Not at all. There is simply a need to preserve and protect what is often ignored or covered up in order to affirm a presuppositional theology. Justification by faith apart from the works of the law or works of righteousness cannot mean that a person can't or doesn't do anything in order to be saved. Peter and Paul say otherwise: believe and repent. The reformed thinker rightly notes that these acts, in and of themselves, are righteous works that a person would not be able to perform if the Spirit weren't acting in their hearts in the first place. Touche. But I've yet to meet a lost person who knows or realizes that. Furthermore, that totally trainwrecks the point of the passages. There is a pathway to being saved by God and it is obedience to the commands of "believe" and "repent."

This is a protection of the gospel which is eroded by those who would define believing as just "accepting" what Jesus has done for us. "Accepting" or "inviting Jesus into our hearts" is not what Peter and Paul commanded here, is it? Such statements have no theological teeth in them. But 'believe' and 'repent' most certainly do. And all my reformed friends would say 'amen' to this point, so there's no issue here, necessarily. But I'll clarify these two commands for the rest of the readers of this post, just to make sure.


'Believe' is from the Greek word pisteuo which means to be persuaded of something, to put your confidence in something, to credit something as true and worthy of being followed, to entrust, etc. This is an act of the mind, whereby a person perceives the truth about Jesus to be true and trustworthy. It is also an act of the emotions, whereby a person feels strongly and strangely attracted to what he hears. And it is an act of the will, whereby a person makes a decision to commit himself to what he has heard. This is what we must persons to do when we share with them the truth about the person and work of Jesus.


'Repent' is from the Greek word metanoeo, which means to change your mind by amending your thoughts and feelings, abhorring what you've done in the past and desperately desiring to change. This too is an act of the mind, emotions, and will. And it is a command.

Believe and Repent are the Two Sides to the Coin called "Conversion"

These two commands are two sides of the coin called conversion. A person perceives and feels that what they have thought before is no longer the truth, but that what they have heard in the gospel is, in fact, true. This, in turn, is followed by a decision to stop thinking and doing what they did before, and start thinking and doing what Jesus tells them. When this happens, they 'convert' to Christianity. So the gospel is a command to convert: "stop doing what you are doing now...stop thinking the way you are thinking now and start doing what Jesus tells you to do...start thinking the way God tells you to." The gospel brings a person to a specific point in time where a decision must be made on their part as to what their future course of action will be from that point onward. So then, conversion is decisive. It is also divisive. It requires them to divide themselves from their former way of life. This is why conversion is so difficult because it brings divisive consequences to such a decision.

Becoming a Believer IS Synonymous with Making a Decision...

Tim Challies, arguably one of Christianity's greatest bloggers, wrote back in November of 2004 against the subject of 'decisional regeneration.' This is the notion many reformed people argue against, because it is defined as the act of God regenerating me because of a decision I made. On Billy Graham's last crusade and the ensuing invitation, a trademark of 20th century crusade evangelism, Challies writes: "Becoming a believer became synonymous with making a decision and proving that decision by taking physical action. It is important to note that this system is entirely foreign to the Scriptures." To be sure Challies is taking great issue with the process of the invitation system whereby a person responds to an altar call, walks a church aisle, speaks with the preacher, pastor, evangelist, or counselor, and makes a decision to follow Jesus. We reformed types get really antsy on this point, too. And to an extent I wholeheartedly agree, since so much of what is now the "altar call" and invitation system is more about eliciting an emotional response to the preacher's message in order to make a good showing for the preacher's message in order to make the preacher feel good about his message.

But I have to take issue with Challies' statement. Clearly we can see from the Acts 2 and 16 passages that for those at Pentecost and for the Philippian jailor, becoming a believer was, in fact, "synomyous with making a decision and proving that decision by taking a physical action." In both cases they made a decision to believe the truth and repent from their sins, and they proved that decision by taking the physical action of baptism.

The Two Questions That REALLY Need to be Asked...

I think that the typical reformed reaction to the invitation system and decisional regeneration is a pendulum swing. It is a reaction to a heretical form of the gospel. But reactions usually end up in a trajectory just as heretical as the teaching it is reacting against. For it is just as heretical to ignore or reject the biblical fact that belief and repentance are absolutely essential things a person must do in order to be saved by God. One must make a decision whether to or not to follow Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, Messiah, and God. We must dispense then with the fights over form and give way to function by asking two key questions.

First, is the true gospel of Jesus Christ being presented? It seems that in both texts, the proper response of a gospel message is the hearers asking what they have to do to be saved...not the preacher telling them what they have to do to be saved. Does this mean the preacher can't tell people what they must do? Of course not! That's what preaching is! It is preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and the commanding people to believe and repent. This is completely and entirely what the focus of the "Great Commission" is about in Matthew 28:19-20. But even in this text the gospel is about the teachings of Jesus and whatever He commands us to do. That's the true gospel, the full gospel.

Second, we must ask what precisely is it that we are asking people to do. When they are asked to respond to the message, what is that response to be? That's got to be clearly defined. And this lack of clear definition is probably why the whole invitation thing gets so blurry and headed towards an unclear gospel. We are asking and commanding that people believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are asking that they repent from their sin. But even those words can be fuzzy if they are not defined. Believe and repent must be clearly defined so that those we are asking to respond can do so with full understanding. Such a response is about mind, emotions, and will...not just emotions. Again, this falls on the shoulders of the preacher who must know the gospel before he preaches it and before he calls for a response to it.

One Final Question: Are We Laboring With Souls?

A proper view of the nature and connection of belief, faith, and repentance guards against a hyper-Calvinistic or ultra-Reformed view of the gospel. My experience is that such a view of the gospel doesn't work, pray, or preach hard enough or long enough so as to labor with souls until God has done to others what He did do those in Acts 2 and 16. God still pierces people to the heart today, and strikes fear and terror within them so that will ask what those in Acts asked: what must we do?!!! what must we do to be saved?!!! But do we labor long enough, pray hard enough, and preach earnestly enough so as to bring them to this point?

From my reading it seems that this feature of gospel preaching and pastoring is what was present in both Great Awakening preachers, and hence what is missing today. I haven't met anyone like these men I read about. I'm not like them. I can think of a couple of examples where I intensely labored with a soul or two for a lengthy season until God had brought them to a place of true regeneration. But that was not the mark of my ministry. I want it to be though. And I long for more of this in today's gospel preaching and pastoring.

Instead, today we preach the gospel, tell souls what they must do to be saved, and then pack up and go home. We tell them to believe and repent, but provide no follow up to help them sort out the various difficulties they are presented with amidst such gospel-commands. That's why someone like Asahel Nettleton (see here too) used the inquiry room after sermons to converse, discuss, and labor with souls who were in doubt about the state of their souls. This, unfortunately, was something hijacked by Nettleton's adversary, Charles Finney, who seems to have been the one to have invented the 'anxious seat' which appears to have a served a similar purpose as Nettleton's but with a different purpose: to speed up the time in which a person comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

This is why the biblical gospel is in a state of difficulty today in churches. It is a message that wants or even worse, requires a decision too quickly because it fails to realize that although believing and repenting are things a person must do to become saved, they are also things that only the Holy Spirit of God can create and foster and produce within a person's heart and mind. And that takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. Thankfully, however, this is changing and this understanding of the biblical gospel is making a comeback in local churches.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, there is something lost people must do in order to be rescued, delivered, and saved from the judgment of God in the coming of the Lord Jesus. They must wholeheartedly throw themselves on Jesus for forgiveness of sins, entrusting themselves to One who acted as their substitute in life and death, repenting of everything and anything in their lives that smack of resistance or rebellion towards Him.

In the final analysis, guarding the gospel happens when full commitment is given to biblical texts without regard for how uncomfortable they make me feel when my theological priori is challenged. No matter how much I may cherish my reformed theology, any tendencies in it to ignore, reject, abandon, or worse yet, redefine teachings and texts by a presupposed theological system is itself to be abandoned and rejected. Let the texts speak! And let us wrestle them. But let us also believe what they say and do them!

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