“What must one do to be saved?” is a common question in Christian churches. Our answer has become an unofficial creed. Indeed, this question seems to be our only standard for orthodoxy.
The expected answer is straightforward enough: one must believe in Jesus as God’s Son, repent of their sins, and be baptized in His name. This is certainly how people responded to the gospel throughout the book of Acts.
But what if this question isn’t valid? What if we need to change the way we talk about being saved?
Putting the Question in Context
Before we answer the question, let us offer up a few considerations:
Salvation is up to God
The most fundamental answer to the question, “What must one do to be saved?” is that one must be saved by God. In order for you to be saved, God has to save you. We tend to focus on ourselves and give the impression that God’s saving work depends on us. However, it is His work and not our own.
We must also remember that our salvation depends on the fact that God chose us, not that we chose Him. As He told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). We should not think that we can somehow force His hand or change His mind.
Salvation is a process
We talk about salvation as if it were a single point in time. However, it is a process throughout time that includes several steps or phases. The phase of salvation that this questions refers to is our conversion. It might be better to ask, “What must one do to be a fully converted Christian?”
We were dead in sin
Paul says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). He says elsewhere, “The mind governed by the flesh is death…it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:6-7).
We were dead in sin and unable to submit to God’s law. This shows our question to be illegitimate. Would you ask, “What must a dead person do to be made alive?” No, because this cannot happen. You would rather ask, “What can a dead person do to be made alive?” And the answer is obviously nothing.
In the same way, we shouldn’t ask, “What must one do to be saved?” Rather we should ask, “What can one do to be saved?” Again the answer is obviously nothing. There is nothing we must do to be saved because there is nothing we can do to be saved.
All We Can Do is Respond
There is nothing we can do to receive God’s grace. Paul goes on to say He “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:5). In other words, God gave us His saving grace when there was nothing we could do to receive it. All we can do is respond to it in faith and obedience.
So now let us answer the question. There is nothing we can or must do to be saved, but we can respond to the fact that God has saved us. When the Holy Spirit makes us alive in Christ, we yield to His converting power by placing our faith in Jesus, repenting of our sins, and being baptized in His name.
This is not done to receive God’s grace as if our salvation depended on us. Rather, it is done to respond to His grace in acknowledgement that our salvation depends on Him. The question, “What must one do to be saved?” is simply a wrong question.