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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is the Bible Clear on How Someone can be "Saved"?

This post appeared on Luke's CommonSenseAtheism blog on Monday of last week. I am re-posting it here for any that may not have seen it.

One of the factors in my de-conversion from Evangelical Christianity was my realization that the Bible does not read as one would expect a divine revelation to read. First, it simply reflects the ideas and beliefs of the time and culture in which it was written. It would seem that if it were a divine revelation, it would present ideas that would transcend those of its times. For example, why doesn't it condemn slavery? Why does it attribute mental illness or epilepsy as demon possession? Second, it contains much information and detail that seems to be unimportant and unworthy of a divine being. For example, the detailed genealogies in 1 Chronicles (9 chapters) and the gathering of 100 Philistine foreskins by David (1 Sam. 18:25-27). Third, it is ambiguous on important matters such as how one is to be "saved" or redeemed to God. In an interview that I did with Luke on his Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, I said:

If the Bible is really a revelation from God and if God really loves man and really wants to reconcile man to himself, would he not have made it much clearer how someone is to be saved? I know that if my children were separated from me and I had the opportunity to write them a letter to tell them how to get back to me, I certainly wouldn't do it in parables and language that's ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted a thousand different ways. I would do my best to make it crystal clear how they could find me .. and if I would do that as a finite human being, certainly God being infinite and being omniscient could find a way to do that. So as I looked at the Bible, as I read it, as I studied it I just came to the conclusion that it cannot be from a divine being.

Most Evangelical Christians will maintain that the Bible is clear on how to be saved. For example, Kevin Bauder, the President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, writes:

In other words, the aspect of Scripture that can be understood by anyone is its saving message. Any truth that is essential to salvation is clearly and comprehensibly revealed "in some place of Scripture or other." Anyone can learn the way of Salvation by reading the Bible. It is no small matter that the way of salvation has been revealed in language that any person can understand. We do not have to rely upon sophisticated intellectual tools. We do not have to rely upon specially-endued ecclesiastical spokesmen. If we can read the Bible in our hands, then we can know how to be saved ("Fundamentalism: Whence? Where? Whither? Part 8").

Bauder is espousing one of the main tenets of the Reformation--the perspicuity of Scripture. The Reformers argued that one could understand the major teachings of the Bible without any help from the Roman Church. The RCC, on the other hand, maintained, that they, and only they, could properly interpret the Scriptures. One Roman leader is reported to have said that if we allow each person to interpret the Bible for himself there will be total confusion and an unlimited number of sects. That is precisely what has happened.

The fact is that Evangelicals cannot even agree among themselves as to what the Bible requires for salvation. They unanimously maintain that faith is required but they disagree on the meaning of faith, the exclusivity of faith, the origin of faith, and the object of faith.

The Meaning of Faith: What Exactly is Involved in Saving Faith?

Those who believe the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God cannot agree among themselves as to what exactly is involved in having saving faith. For some, faith is simply intellectual assent. For example, on the website of the Grace Evangelical Society, one reads:

Faith is the conviction that something is true. To believe in Jesus (“he who believes in Me has everlasting life”) is to be convinced that He guarantees everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him for it (John 4:14; 5:24; 6:47; 11:26; 1 Tim 1:16).

No act of obedience, preceding or following faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, such as commitment to obey, sorrow for sin, turning from one’s sin, baptism or submission to the Lordship of Christ, may be added to, or considered part of, faith as a condition for receiving everlasting life (Rom 4:5; Gal 2:16; Titus 3:5). This saving transaction between God and the sinner is simply the giving and receiving of a free gift (Eph 2:8-9; John 4:10 ; Rev 22:17).

For others, such as John MacArthur, John Piper, and J. I. Packer, saving faith is much more than simply intellectual assent. It is that plus submission to the Lordship of Christ? In his very popular book, The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith? , MacArthur argues that obedience

• is included in the "definition of faith, being a constitutive element in what it means to believe" (p. 171).
• is "an integral part of saving faith" (p. 174).
• is "synonymous with faith" (p. 174)
• is "indivisibly wrapped up in the idea of believing" (p. 176).

This is no minor controversy as it involves precisely what is required in order to be saved. It has evoked a number of books in which evangelicals debate one another on the nature of saving faith (1). The various positions are diametrically opposed to one another and cannot be harmonized.

The Exclusivity of Faith: Is Faith Alone Sufficient for Salvation?

While evangelicals such as John MacArthur and the Grace Evangelical Society disagree on what constitutes saving faith, they do agree that faith alone is the single requirement for salvation. Others who also believe the Bible to be inspired and inerrant, though, disagree. They would insist that water baptism is also required. Those evangelicals who trace their lineage to Alexander Campbell (including the churches of Christ, the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, and the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) believe that faith plus baptism is necessary for salvation. Campbell, a former Baptist, became convinced that the Bible demanded baptism in order to receive forgiveness of sins. He maintained that he was following the clear teaching of Scripture. Campbell’s maxim was: "Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent."

On the churches of Christ website, one reads that through baptism:

•You are saved from sins (Mark 16:16 1 Peter 3:21)
•You have remission of sins (Acts 2:38)
•Sins are washed away by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16; Hebrews 9:22; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21)
•You enter into the church (1 Corinthians 12:13; Acts 2:41,47)
•You enter into Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 6:3-4)
•You put on Christ and become a child of God (Galatians 3:26-27)
•You are born again, a new creature (Romans 6:3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:17)
•You walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-6)
•You obey Christ (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 10:48; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

Other evangelical groups also insist that baptism is an important element for salvation, although they would disagree with Campbell that it follows faith (and must be by immersion). For example, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, holds that baptism precedes faith and somehow produces faith. On their website, they state:

Baptism, we believe, is one of the miraculous means of grace (together with God's written and spoken Word) through which God creates and/or strengthens the gift of faith in a person's heart (see Matt. 28:18-20; Act. 2:38; John 3:5-7; Act. 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5-6; Gal. 3:26-27; Rom. 6:1-4; Col. 2:11-12; 1 Cor. 12:13).

Although we do not claim to understand how this happens or how it is possible, we believe (because of what the Bible says about baptism) that when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant. This faith cannot yet, of course, be expressed or articulated, yet it is real and present all the same (see e.g., 1 Peter 2:21; Acts 2:38-39; Titus 3:5-6; Matt. 18:6; Luke 1:15; 2 Tim. 3:15; Gal. 3:26-27; Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:11-12; 1 Cor. 12:13). This faith needs to be fed and nurtured by God's Word (Matt. 28:18-20), or it will die.

Evangelical Anglicans also hold that baptism regenerates. (2) The vast majority of evangelicals, however, disagree; but, yet all claim to be following the "clear" teaching of the Bible.

The Origin of Faith: How is Faith Generated?

Bible-believing evangelicals also cannot agree on how man acquires faith. Calvinists say that faith is a gift from God. According to them, Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of salvation - it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God (see here). While Arminians say that faith originates in man. According to them, The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God's Spirit and be regenerated or resist God's grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit's assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man's act and precedes the new birth. (see here).

So, some Christians read the Bible and conclude that God determines who is saved and implants faith in those people and other Christians read it and conclude that any man can choose to have faith. This is a crucial matter but yet Christians reading the same Bible come to different conclusions.

The Object of Faith: In Whom Must One Have Faith?

Most evangelicals would hold that one must have faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. However, there is a growing movement among evangelicals who maintain that one can be saved without ever having heard of Jesus. For example, the evangelical John Sanders writes:
Saving faith … does not necessitate knowledge of Christ in this life. God’s gracious activity is wider that the arena of special revelation. God will accept into his kingdom those who repent and trust him even if they know nothing of Jesus ("Is Belief in Christ Necessary for Salvation?" The Evangelical Quarterly 60.3 (July-Sept. 1988): 252-53).

Similarly evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock states:
Faith in God is what saves, not possessing certain minimum information… A person is saved by faith, even if the content of faith is deficient (and whose is not?). The Bible does not teach that one must confess the name of Jesus to be saved ... The issue that God cares about is the direction of the heart, not the content of theology (A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions [1992], p. 158).

In other words, these evangelicals hold that as long as one has faith in accordance with how much revelation one has of God, that is sufficient for salvation. Other evangelicals violently disagree. They insist that one must have faith specifically in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. (3) But then this group of evangelicals disagree among themselves on precisely what one must believe about Jesus in order to be saved. Must one believe that Jesus is a member of the Trinity, co-equal with the Father and the Spirit or is it adequate to believe that Jesus is the Son of God without being more specific? The debate goes on.

So, what must one do to be saved? It depends on which bible-believing evangelical you ask. Even though they all agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, they cannot agree on what it says. As I stated at the beginning, it seems to me that if the Bible were really a divine revelation, it would be clear and unambiguous throughout but at the very least it would be plain on how one is to be saved.


(1) After MacArthur published his Gospel According to Jesus in 1988, Zane Hodges, a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote a book opposing his position: Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (1989). Charles Ryrie, another professor at Dallas Seminary, tried to take a middle of the road position in his book, So Great Salvation: What It Means to Believe in Jesus Christ (1989) disagreeing with both Hodges and MacArthur.

(2) See Article XXVII in the Thirty Nine Articles (1563) and "The Public Baptism of Infants," in the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

(3) See D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (1996) and John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? (2010). For a debate among evangelicals on this subject, see John Sanders, Ronald Nash, and Gabriel Fackre, What About Those Who Have Never Heard?: Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized (1995).


  1. The Rich Young Man asked Jesus point blank how to get eternal life in the kingdom of God and Jesus told him to "keep the commandments." An evangelical pastor would cringe at someone saying that to a seeker nowadays.

    And what does it mean that a woman will be "saved in child-bearing"?

    As you said, why the ambiguity, when so much is at stake?

  2. I see the Bible now as a bunch of "books" that were chosen from a larger bunch. Men pared it down to these certain books, hoped they meshed well enough, and declared them "the Word of God."

    I guess they were trying to limit the confusion, and they planned to be the interpreters of what the "Bible" said.

    Would some of the writers themselves be shocked to learn that what they wrote was now considered "Holy Scripture?"

  3. This article, coupled with Bart Ehrman's books, should be required reading for anyone wanting to be truly educated regarding the Bible as we know it.

    As usual, yet another excellent article. I'm really glad you continue to share your knowledge here.

  4. Yeah, Ehrman is awesome! Here's a cool clip of Bart again punking on a believer:

  5. Great clip of Bart. Thanks!

  6. When Christians tell me that I can be saved, I always answer "Saved from what?" That is generally greeted with silence.

  7. Ken, this is one of the best blogs you've done. You really have the credentials, the depth of knowledge and the ability to articulate your point of view that it practically begs for a book (or three). You could easily sit along side someone like Ehrman in terms of prominence in the public forum.

    Some people who read my blog have told me I should write a book, but I'm not sure who would care what a personal trainer thinks about God.

  8. Why?
    Is scheming over life after death a proper function for a religion? Are endless, noisy discussions about life after death worth the discord they cause? Does belief in life after death justify the hideous behavior of Jesus Worshipers?
    What if what we do in this life has nothing to do with what happens when we die? Or, more to the point, what if what we believe has nothing to do with our post mortem existence?

  9. Kudos, Kudos! I have lots of formal theology and lots of for-fun study I've done, as you know, Ken. And I consider this right at the core of what is most flawed and dysfunctional in orthodox Christianity. And it ties very tightly into your difficulties-with-atonement work.

    For most Christians, being "saved" (or equivalent) is the starting point and determines one's eternal destiny. And Luke and you are entirely right... there is no clarity whatsoever on just what constitutes "saving faith" in the Bible. Thus, there is no consensus either, nor can there be. The logical conclusion is that something in the system MUST be wrong... but the majority refuse to look there. However keeping reminding believes of core issues like this potentially can "save" some from feeling they need to be saved (and hoping, but often not being sure they are)!

  10. I wonder what the Jews to whom Jesus preached thought about "being saved". Judaism hadn't developed the complicated afterlife of modern Christianity yet, with heaven and hell and all that. Instead, they tended to believe in some kind of eventual resurrection and judgment with the coming of the Messiah, who I gather was to kick out the Romans and establish a new Jewish kingdom. As Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and preacher of sorts, they would have expected his message of "salvation" to tell them how to participate in this event and be judged favourably. I don't think they would have understood salvation as a mystical ritual for avoiding an afterlife of torment.

  11. With the name of Allah, Peace be unto those who follow the guidance from their Lord.

    Ken I think the material you put on here is very amazing. Some others have made the comments that you need to write a book or could be on stage with Ehrman. This is all true, however you give humanity a great service by giving the critique that you do.

    I have found many of your articles and points of view to be very refreshing. You also do not come off as abrasive and filled with ego like so many others.

    Thank you for the time, research and effort you put into blog post.

  12. Lynn asked: "Would some of the writers themselves be shocked to learn that what they wrote was now considered "Holy Scripture?"

    Answer: I don't think they would be shocked at all: Peter referred to Paul's writings as scripture.

    2Pe 3:16
    (16) As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

    * * *

    Clare asked: "Saved from what?"

    You should ask them that question, but it's their shame that they don't know how to answer. The correct answer is "death."

    Rom 6:23
    (23) For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    * * *

    To Hacksaw Duck, Jesus did not merely tell the young ruler to "keep the commandments." He did list the latter "love thy neighbor" commandments but did not mention the first four "love God" commandments.

    When the man responded that he already had kept those commandments, Jesus told him he still lacked one thing.

    Mar 10:21
    (21) Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

    Mar 10:26
    (26) And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?

    That's how to apply "Love God with all your heart" and that's how Christ defined the meaning of "saving faith."

    * * *

    For Ken, who wrote:

    "As I stated at the beginning, it seems to me that if the Bible were really a divine revelation, it would be clear and unambiguous throughout but at the very least it would be plain on how one is to be saved."

    It's not that hard to figure out. There are a lot of different descriptions and they do not disagree.

    If you asked a dozen different people to describe a random animal or object in 20 words of less you would probably get many different answers. The full object is described by the combination of the descriptions, not contradicted because it is described in 12 different ways.

    In this thought experiment, we asked a dozen normal people. Your problem is compounded in that you're asking a dozen different theologians many of which probably have their own agendas.

    It's not that hard and the Bible's not that cryptic on this. I think you could figure it out if you *wanted* too.

    Your repeated argument (from other blogs) that this "disagreement about salvation" represents proof that there is no God remains illogical. So what if there are people who wrest the scriptures to their own destruction?

    "Believe and be baptized" is another way of describing "sell all that you have and follow me." When you can see this you'll understand.

  13. "It's not that hard to figure out. There are a lot of different descriptions and they do not disagree."

    They *do* disagree. That's the whole point.

    'You should ask them that question, but it's their shame that they don't know how to answer. The correct answer is "death."'

    If that's what Jesus saved us from, then he failed, because we're all going to die.