What Must I Do to Be Saved?
There is a tendency as humans to want to feel that we must do something to secure our salvation. God may have done the lion’s share of the work, but we have to do our part and without our part salvation would not have been possible. This enables us to pat ourselves on the back and take some credit. We, in partnership with God, earned our salvation and became righteous.
Is this what the Bible teaches? If we contributed in any way to our salvation then we first must have sought God. If you don’t seek God how can you know God and know what to do to be saved? Yet the Bible says:
“There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.” (Romans 3:11)
Well that doesn’t sound very good but maybe that was part of God’s contribution. Surely our good works counted for something, right? That must have been our part. I mean, we had to believe and we’re not all bad so surely the good in our life must count for something in God’s eyes? The Bible says salvation is:
“not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
What? Are you telling me God did it all and I had no part?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8)
You see, man has two problems. The first is that God hates sin. God cannot sin and will not allow sin to dwell in His presence. Why is that a problem? Because we are sinners! We can’t go one day without sinning much less a lifetime. Well, what if we don’t sin too much? First, if we could see our lives through God’s eyes, we would realize we sin a LOT more than we think. Remember, sins are not just things you do or say but includes your thoughts, your motives, your desires. God can see all that. How many sins does it take to be a sinner? ONE. That’s it, just one. Raise your hand if you have never sinned? No hands. Didn’t think so. So, by definition you ARE A SINNER. What did we say about God and sin? He hates it and won’t allow it to dwell in His presence.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
Is God going to be in heaven? I know, dumb question. So, if God hates sin, and God won’t allow sin in His presence, and God is in heaven, how can we, sinners, go to heaven? Well that’s only in God’s presence. God must have a fancy throne room in a fancy building in heaven and so long as we don’t go in there, we are free to enjoy the rest of heaven. Oh really? Does God have a body? No. Jesus does but not God the Father, not the Holy Spirit. Can God be contained in just one location? No. God is omnipresent which means He is everywhere all at once. There is no place you can go where God is not. Since God is everywhere at all times, I think that includes heaven! So, no sin in heaven.
“Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:24)
Well I can’t live a perfect life, and I have sinned, so I guess I can’t go to heaven? You can! Because
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
You see when Jesus went to the cross, for a moment the sin of all the world for all time was put on Him. Even though Jesus had never sinned, He suddenly became sin. But Jesus was righteous. Jesus had never sinned. Jesus was the Son of God. His blood is sufficient to wash away all our sins. Just one drop. God demanded the death of the sinner. Look back at Romans 6:23 I quoted earlier. What are the wages of sin? Death! Are wages gifts? No. You earn your wages. They are due you. You have sinned against God and you have earned the wages of death. Not physical death, though that will happen, by spiritual death which means eternal separation from God!
Jesus took our place and He died for us. God’s justice was satisfied. The sin problem was dealt with. It was literally nailed to the cross. That’s why Jesus went to the cross. He went there to take on our sin and die for it. It’s like you committed a capital offense, were found guilty, and sentenced to death but then Jesus came and sat in that electric chair for you. Because He died, you don’t have to. Jesus gave His life for yours. It was a free gift.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8)
We call that mercy which means unmerited favor. Unmerited means you didn’t do anything to deserve it. Jesus didn’t die for your sins because you’re a nice guy and He felt sorry for you. No, there was nothing special about you that caused Jesus to die for you. He did it out of love and now is offering you the free gift of His death and His blood to pay the penalty for your sins and to wash them away in His blood. It’s a gift. Can you earn a gift? No. If you earn it then it’s not a gift. Gifts are freely given by the giver. Don’t let our modern holiday and birthday gifting taint your view of gifts. You might give a gift in certain circumstances because you feel it’s expected. You would rather not give it but you feel you have no choice. We might call that a gift but if you feel obligated to give it then it’s not a gift. Not really. True gifts are given because YOU want to give them. You don’t have to, you’re not obligated to, you simply want to. Jesus wants to give you His gift. He loves you. He really wants you to have it. To get a gift though you have to receive it. The gift is not yours until you receive it. How do you receive Jesus’ gift then? We’ll get to that.
You said there were two problems? What’s the other one? Glad you asked. God has another requirement to enter heaven. It’s not enough that you have no sin. You have to also be perfectly righteous. Ah, that’s where our good works come in right? Wrong. You cannot do enough good works to be perfectly righteous. Plus, do you think a sinner is perfectly righteous? Well maybe once God washes us in the blood of Christ, and removes all our sin, then we are perfectly righteous? Nope. That’s kind of like someone paying off all your bills and so you owe no one anything but you have zero dollars in your bank account. Do you get a perfect credit score of 800 if you have zero dollars but no debt? No. Even if after you are saved, you go on to do lots of good works through the Holy Spirit you still haven’t done enough to be perfectly righteous. Well then, it’s impossible!
Every heard of imputation? Impu-what? Imputation. No. Fancy word but to have something imputed to you means to have something not of you credited to you. It’s like having that zero-bank account and less than 800 credit and someone with a perfect credit score gives that score to you and the credit bureaus now view you as having a perfect credit rating. You didn’t earn that credit score. You did absolutely nothing to get it. That’s imputation. When it comes to salvation, God takes Christ’s (Jesus’) perfect righteousness and imputes it (credits it) to us. Now in God’s eyes we are perfectly righteous. We weren’t but we were made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2nd Corinthians 5:21)
So, if we except Jesus’ gift we can have our sins forgiven and washed away? Yes. Good news. What? Jesus really has two gifts for you. The first is His shed blood and death for you. The second is the imputation of His righteousness. So use the money analogy, you started out in terrible debt and facing a death sentence. Jesus came along and paid off your debts and took your place on the electric chair and died for you. You are so thankful because you know you were in terrible debt and that was your own fault. You also know you deserved to die. All you had to do was say yes and all this happened for you!
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
That’s probably the best-known verse in the Bible. Ever see the guy in the background at football games or other TV events and he’s holding a sign that says “John 3:16?” This is the verse. What did God do according to this verse? He gave his only begotten Son (Jesus). Note God gave us Jesus. That’s a gift. Why did God offer us this gift? Because “God so loved the world.” God did it out of love. How do we receive the gift? “whoever believes in Him.” You have to believe. Is believing a work? No. It takes place in your mind and in your soul. What results from the gift? “[you] shall not perish, but have eternal life.” God offers you a gift out of love. The gift is His Son Jesus who died for your sins and offers you His righteousness. If you believe, you are no longer deserving death and God gives you eternal life!
What’s the catch? I mean, this sounds too good to be true and usually things that are too good to be true come with a catch so what’s the catch? There’s no catch. No hidden clauses. However, in accepting these gifts you have to acknowledge the giver of the gift. Jesus isn’t just some guy. He’s God. He’s sinless and perfectly righteous. He created time and space and everything in it. He is Lord. He is above all kings, all rulers, all countries, all armies, all royalty. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. You have to know that and believe that. You can’t just say Jesus was a good man, or a prophet, or a guru, or some great philosopher or teacher. If Jesus were any of those things or all of those things that still wouldn’t have made Him perfectly righteous and no amount of His blood could have washed away your sins. It’s because He is God that He is perfectly righteous because only God can be perfectly righteous. It’s because He is God that His death could satisfy God perfect justice. We sinned against God and it’s God we have to answer to and our own death would not be enough to pay the price for our sins. Only Jesus’ death could do that. If you believe Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords then what should you do? What did regular people always do in the presence of their king? They got down on their knees and prostrated themselves before their king. They also pledged their allegiance to him and promised to do all he commanded. In return he protected them and provided for them. We don’t bow to Jesus to earn salvation. We bow in recognition of who He is. We humble ourselves and bow before our God and Savior.
If you have any other concept of who Jesus is then believing in that Jesus will not save you. There are a lot of counterfeit Jesus’ out there and lots of groups who claim they’ve got the real Jesus or they claim it’s doesn’t matter who or what you believe in just that you believe. They are wrong. You have to bow your knee and accept the free gift from the one and only true Son of God. He is the only one who can save you. You don’t need to know everything about Him when you ask for His forgiveness. You just need to acknowledge He is God. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and that your sinned against Him and need His forgiveness and His righteousness. Do that and He will give you His gifts and welcome you into His family.
How can you know more about Jesus? Read his book. It’s called the Bible and is the number one best seller of all time even today. He’ll help you to understand it too even though it’s not hard to understand. He will give you the Holy Spirit to live inside you and guide you. He will always be with you. Don’t buy the lie that God has other books. Just the Bible.
Jesus did it all and He offers all of us the free gift of salvation. Don’t make the mistake though of thinking your earned it nor the mistake of thinking you have to add to it. You can’t accept His gift and think you earned it at the same time. You have to acknowledge that you sinned and became unrighteous and that you could not save yourself or contribute anything to your salvation. It’s all Him. Our pride might not like that. We want to think we had some part to play. If we think that then we have no idea how bad our sin is and how useless we are in contributing to our salvation. You have to come to Jesus humbly acknowledging that your only hope for salvation is found in His death and His righteousness. If you believe it was me + Jesus, then you got the wrong gospel and you have not been forgiven. It’s not me plus Jesus. It’s just Jesus.
Once we’ve been forgiven then we begin a new life. Now we have the Holy Spirit of God within us. When we obey God and do good works, it’s not to earn our salvation or maintain it. Jesus did it all. It’s done. Past tense. We do good works now because we love God and want to do His will.
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Notice we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus. Who did the work? Not us. God did it. What did he also do? He created good works for us, beforehand, so that we would walk in them. God has big plans for you. We aren’t doing good works to get right with God. We are doing good works to please God, to obey Him, and because we love Him.
One more thing. Ever heard of an “Indian giver?” Thankfully that saying is out of style. It means someone who gives you a gift and then changes his mind and wants it back. That’s not what the Indians did. The term came from a cultural misunderstanding in the 1700’s. In Indian culture when a gift was given, something of equal value was expected back. If you did not want to give something back then the Indian might be offended and take his gift back. Hence the term.
We already established that you didn’t do anything to earn your salvation and that you didn’t do anything to receive except to believe. We also learned that God offered us salvation out of love. God doesn’t care if you’re wealthy or poor, young or old, have light skin, dark skin, or any other shade of skin, if you’re from America or Russia, you’re a man or a woman. God’s gift is for everyone. God does not play favorites. Once you receive God’s gift, you have eternal life. You can’t lose it, have it taken away from you, or stolen from God.
“and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:28)
Some people teach that once you are saved you have to keep doing good works or you could lose your salvation. That’s not what the Bible teaches. We read the verse earlier that God prepared “beforehand” good works for us to do. He prepared these for us to do after we received His gift of salvation. We just read that we can’t lose our salvation so there is nothing more we need to do after receiving God’s gift. These people think that you have to keep your salvation by adding good works. They get this idea from something James wrote:
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14)
If you read what James wrote, all of it, you see he’s trying to make a point here. An important point. Anyone can go around claiming to be a Christian; claiming to have saving faith. We have some expressions, talk is cheap. The proof is in the pudding. Put your money where your mouth is. Actions speak louder than words. We all know what those expressions mean. Walk your talk.
What did Ephesians 2:10 said God did? It said he prepared good works for us to do. Salvation is about more than making us right with God. God loves you so much that He wants you to be like Jesus. He gives you the Holy Spirit to aid you in living your new life of faith. Those good works you do, that God prepared beforehand, that are the “proof in the pudding.” They are the evidence of the salvation you already possess. That’s what James was arguing. If you say your saved and have faith but your life is not showing any evidence of it, then maybe your faith was not true faith. Maybe you didn’t really mean it. Maybe you talked yourself into saying the words but in your heart they were not true. If that’s your “faith” then that faith cannot save you. You are saved by faith alone but your faith does not leave you alone. You change. God begins working on you. Some things might change quickly while other things might change more gradually. You don’t become perfect. Not this side of heaven. We still have that old habit of sin hanging around that we have to resist. But you do change. If you live a long life after your claim faith and nothing ever changes, then you ought to question if your faith was genuine.
The Apostle Paul, in writing to the believers at the church in Corinth, said:
“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test?” (2nd Corinthians 13:5)
Paul was warning them against complacency and false faith. It is always a good thing to take a good hard look at your life and ask yourself the hard questions. If you see some answers you don’t like, then you know what to work on. A changed life and evidence of a relationship with Jesus is a good test. Was your salvation a one-time event in your life and after that you just went back to your old life and never spent time with God? You never changed, you never sought God in prayer, you never read His Word (the Bible), you never sought the company of other believers. That’s what Paul means by testing. He’s not saying you can lose your salvation but maybe you’ve stopped walking in those good works or maybe you never had saving faith.
So, no you don’t need good works to be saved. You just need faith. That faith is a seed from which a new life will sprout and grow and produce good fruit. That is the outworking and evidence of our faith.
If you have never asked God’s forgiveness, do so now. Ask Jesus to forgive you. Ask for His blood to wash away your sins and His righteousness to be imputed to you. Tell Him He’s your Lord and you will strive, with His assistance, to lead a fruitful life out of love and obedience to Him. There are no special words. You don’t have to be in a church when you pray this prayer. Prayer is just talking to God. He can hear you. No matter where you are. He loves you no matter what you’ve done. More than you know. He will make you beautiful in His eyes. No matter who you are, what you’ve done He loves you. You think God could never love you because you’ve done so many bad things? You’re wrong. God’s love is unconditional. He loves you despite who you are and what you’ve done. He has seen it all. No one is beyond God’s reach. You can’t be too bad for God. Don’t believe Satan’s lie that you’ve cross a line, are too far gone, and God could never forgive you. God can and will even when you are not ready to forgive yourself. Maybe you’ve never experienced that kind of love and forgiveness and it’s totally foreign to you. That’s ok. God understands. Trust Him. I promise you will never regret it.
Whole books have been written on justification and imputation. I am not going to attempt to replicate them or give as full of a treatment. My purpose here is only to give an overview.
Let’s start with the term impute or imputation. It comes from Latin and is an accounting term that means “to apply to one’s account.” In finances, expenses are debited and income is credited. So, if something is imputed to you, it is credited to you or your account. The Reformer’s chose this term to differentiate it from the term the Roman Catholic church used which is infuse or infusion. When something is infused it is added to and mixed in with what is already there. Some people have health conditions that require them to receive infused medication. Instead of receiving a pill or a shot, they spend hours hooked up to an IV that drips and infuses the medication into their blood. An example of this is chemotherapy. Theologically, the term double imputation is used. Consider 2 Cor. 5:21:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This verse (though not only this verse) shows us double imputation. The first imputation is that of ours sins being imputed to Christ: “for our sake he made him to be sin.” Our sins were not infused into Christ’s as He “knew no sin.” No, our sins were imputed to Christ. Though He had never sinned he took upon Himself all our sins. God did this so that Christ’s death could atone for our sins. Jesus had no sins of His own to atone for but by imputation, he had our sins to atone for. The second imputation is that His righteousness was imputed to us: “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The righteousness of God is a righteousness that only God can have. We can never, on our own, posses such righteousness. We become “the righteousness of God” through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Infusion says Christ’s righteousness is added to ours and it is this mixed righteousness that becomes our righteousness before God. What can we add to the righteousness of God? Since God’s righteousness is perfect and complete there is nothing we can add to it. Can you add more time to eternity? Can you add more numbers past infinity? If you have the righteousness of God then you have perfect and complete righteousness. The very righteousness of God Himself! That is what this verse teaches us. Christ took on our sin and atoned for it so that we could take on His righteousness and be saved. One theologian said that two of the most beautiful words in the Bible are for us. Jesus lived, died, and resurrected for us. For us, He took our sins upon Himself and shed His blood to atone for them and gave us His righteousness.
Underlining has been added for emphasis:
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:17)
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. (Romans 4:13)
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith (Romans 9:30)
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction (Romans 3:21-22)
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30)
Note here we become “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Sanctification is listed as separate from righteousness and after it.
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:4)
“In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The LORD our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 23:6)
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17)
Note that righteousness is a gift. If it was something, even in part, we earned it would not be a gift.
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:5)
Here we see the world credited which is the same concept as imputation. This verse expressly says faith is “credited as righteousness” to “the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly.” God justifies “the ungodly.” That does not sound like someone who has had Christ’s righteousness infused into his own. Were that the case, he would not be ungodly. What is credited to him as righteousness? His faith. It is his faith, not his works that are credited as righteousness.
I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19)
for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26)
Who does God justify? The “one who has faith in Jesus.” Faith, not works.
and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Phil 3:9)
Again, our righteousness is not derived from the Law (works) but “through faith in Christ.” That righteousness “comes from God on the basis of faith.”
I hope these verses show that we are justified on the basis of having been imputed the righteousness of Christ on the basis of our faith in Him, itself a gift of God.
As I have previously written, sanctification necessarily follows justification. Sanctification is an ongoing and progressive work in our lives as we gradually become more and more like Jesus Christ:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6)
Sanctification is that ongoing work that God has begun and will one day perfect.
One misconception I find about salvation by faith alone, is that it becomes a license to sin. Since you are “saved by faith alone” then you can sin all you want once you express faith. Paul addressed this and wrote “May it never be!” Here is the fallacy in that. First, you can express faith but not possess faith. In other words, no expression of faith saves you unless you truly possess faith. You can say all the right words but if in your heart you don’t truly believe what you are saying then that is a counterfeit faith. Ever heard the term, “foxhole faith?” It’s been said “there are no atheists in foxholes.” In times of crisis men will sometimes cry out to God for protection or deliverance. Such faith may not be genuine. It may be just a “hail mary” (i.e. just in case God exists I will ask for his help). That’s not to say deathbed faith or foxhole faith is never genuine. God, who alone sees the heart, knows. True faith, while it can be born in a crisis, remains even when the crisis has passed. In His parable of the seed, Jesus talks about how some of the seed sown gets choked out by weeks or never grows. There are those who respond to an invitation of faith, but we see over time that their faith was not genuine. The thief on the cross, one might say, was a “foxhole believer” yet Jesus said he would be with Him that day in Paradise. While his faith might have been expressed under extreme crisis, He possessed true saving faith.
I wrote previously, that God saves us to “walk in good works He prepared beforehand for us.” If you truly possess saving faith it will produce fruit in your life. When God declares you just on the basis of Christ’s righteousness through your faith, He doesn’t just change your status from sinner to saint and then leave you alone. That is a misconception! That is not what salvation by faith alone teaches! When God saves you, He changes you. You are given a new nature. That new nature cannot help but produce faith. Thus, a changed man will not have an attitude of “I can sin all I want because I am saved by faith alone.”
When we realize how sinful our sin is, and how Christ took our sin upon Him, how can we not want to please and obey Him? If someone saves your life, would you not be grateful to them? If we would be grateful to someone who saved our physical life, would we not be much more grateful to someone who saves our spiritual life and thus our eternal soul?
Sometimes, to try and question salvation by faith alone, people will put hypothetical questions to you like “Could you murder someone, feel no remorse, and still be saved?” My answer would be no! It’s possible a saved person could murder someone (though unlikely) but not without remorse. The Holy Spirit would convict their conscience of their sin. Usually these hypothetical questions presuppose situations that would never occur with a truly saved person. However, if you answer (even with qualification) that yes that person would still be saved, they say “Aha! See, you don’t think how someone lives matters at all. You can say you believe, live like the devil, but still be saved.” If someone is “living like the devil”, and never repents, then I would seriously question their possession of saving faith. I would suspect they never had saving faith and thus are not saved. It is exactly this time of “easy believism” that James and other NT authors write against. Their writings do not teach that we need works to be saved, but that without works we weren’t saved. God does not wait to see those works before He saves us. He saves us when we possess no good works, but transforms us such that good works necessarily follow.
I believe the key to all this, is to understand that saving faith is a gift. God choses who receives this gift. The possession and expression of saving faith is a work of God through us. Without that gift, we can express faith but it is an empty faith and not from God. We should not confuse the two. If you merely express faith without possessing it, you might “live like hell” or have an attitude that you can sin all you want because you are saved by grace, but you will be mistaken and find yourself on Judgment Day hearing “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23)