“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.
It is right for us to ask this. It is a very biblical question. The rich young ruler asks Jesus, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) And the jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)
Unfortunately, most Christians give an unbiblical answer. They say we must “make a decision” for Jesus. In other words, we must choose to be saved. We express this choice through belief, repentance, and baptism.
That answer seems biblical. After all, isn’t it the answer Paul and Silas give the jailer? “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’…then immediately he and all his household were baptized” (Acts 16:31, 33).
So why is our answer incorrect? What makes it unbiblical?
Salvation Is up to God
The problem is our emphasis. We portray salvation as a decision we make for ourselves. We imply that people choose to be saved of their own free will.
Nothing could be further from what the Bible says.
After his conversation with the rich young ruler, Jesus’ disciples ask, “‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:25-26). He says something similar after feeding the 5,000: “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65).
It is impossible to be saved of our own volition. We cannot “make a decision” for Jesus unless God makes it for us.
The jailer’s story underscores the same truth. Paul preached at Pisidian Antioch before voyaging to Philippi. After he preaches there, Luke concludes, “All who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The jailer believed only because God had appointed him to it.
The simplest answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is that God must save me. We tend to focus on ourselves and imply that His saving work depends on us. However, it is His work; not ours.
This shows that our starting point for understanding grace must be passive. We are not active when we first receive God’s grace. We don’t decide to receive it or incline ourselves toward Him in any way.
Brought from Death to Life
The Bible’s primary analogy for conversion supports this. 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).
Notice the strength of the analogy. Paul doesn’t say we were handicapped, crippled, or paralyzed by sin. He says we were dead in sin.
So let me ask you: what must a dead person do to be made alive? Must they take a few deep breaths? Or drink a glass of water? Or eat something? No. They can’t do these things because they’re dead.
This is why we can’t do anything to receive God’s grace – because we were dead in sin. Just as a physically dead person cannot show physical signs of life, neither can a spiritually dead person show spiritual signs of life until God makes them alive in Christ.
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). God gave us His saving grace when there was nothing we could do to receive it. All we can do is respond with the faith and obedience He provides.
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 acknowledgment that our salvation depends on Him.
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