Unless we believe that everyone is going to be saved, we must come to grips with the fact that some are going to be lost. And if some end up being lost, it’s important to ask what separates those who will be lost from those who will be saved. In other words, what are the conditions of salvation? What must we do to accept the gift that God has made available in Jesus Christ?
Some say that faith is necessary in order to receive the forgiveness of our sins, and this is certainly true. If we turn away from faith in Christ, we reject the salvation that He offers. Jesus said it plainly: “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). And our faith must not be kept secret but be confessed and openly acknowledged. Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9,10).
Others would add repentance as a condition of salvation, and this also is true to the Scriptures. It is our sins that have separated us from God, and unless we’re willing to turn away from those sins, we will remain under their condemnation. Peter urged one group of hearers, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). To another audience, he said that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
Still others say that baptism is a requirement, and once again, this is what the Scriptures teach. Outside of Christ, we are lost, and we are not “in Christ” unless we’ve been baptized into Him. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
The third position (faith, repentance, and baptism) is the only one that does justice to the full, complete teaching of the Bible. Saul (later to be called Paul) is a good example of what happened when people were converted to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. He had been a believer, grieving for his sins, for three days when Ananias arrived and said, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Saul’s sins were not washed away at the point of faith, and they were not washed away at the point of repentance. They were washed away when he — as a penitent believer — obeyed the command to be baptized.
So God’s grace is not automatically applied to everybody. To the contrary, God’s grace has to be accepted — and those who accept it are those who choose to receive it on His terms. We must come humbly before God asking, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
Consider the following two points about faith and grace:
- Faith is the most basic element in our salvation, but Paul said that the aim of the gospel is to produce the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26), and James said that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17,26). In the gospel, faith and obedience work together.
- Grace is what saves us, but grace may be received “in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 6:1). If we refuse the grace that God offers, or presume to receive it on anything other than His terms, God’s goodness will have been for nothing as far as we are concerned. We can’t imagine any greater tragedy, and it is heartbreaking to hear Jesus lamenting those in His day who had refused His grace: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
We may wish that grace were automatic or unconditional, but it’s hard to see how God could have made it so without taking away our freedom of will. As long as our wills are free, all God can do is invite us, exhort us, and urge us to accept His grace. He will not compel us to be saved against our will. It is, however, His fervent desire that we accept His salvation, and He awaits our decision with the loving heart of a Father (Luke 15:20).
So by God’s grace, our salvation has been made possible. The way back home has been opened up — and the decision now rests with us whether we will receive God’s gift or refuse it. It is time for us, as the old hymn said, to “trust and obey.”
“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).