I was talking with a friend of mine about God and Christianity recently, and he said he was trying to get clear on salvation. Specifically, he said he had been trying to hammer down an answer to the question, “How am I saved?” He asked, “Is it by professing faith in Jesus to forgive me of my sins against him and the father and then continuing in that belief and attitude each day?” Furthermore, he added, “What about if/when my faith waivers or I’m apathetic for a season?” As a Christian, I myself have asked these same questions. What follows is how I responded to my friend (via email).
You asked a great question: “How am I saved?” I think an analogy will explain it better than anything. Think if you had an affair on Jill (name changed for privacy). Okay, she learns of it and confronts you about it, both with tears and anger. Surely she is right to be sad but angry too, right? Well, you are cut to the heart. You feel terrible. She should leave you. She absolutely should. But as you hang your head in shame, she does something incredible. She offers you forgiveness! Still in tears, she says if you are truly sorry for what you have done and you vow to not do it again-if you vow and endeavor to love her with all your heart the rest of your life-then she will receive you back as her husband. Astonished, you accept her forgiveness, and from that day forward you are faithful to her and love her with all your heart. You aren’t perfect. Sometimes you don’t treat her the way you should. Sometimes you don’t give her the attention she deserves. But you do this less and less, and certainly less than before your adultery since you appreciate her so much more now, especially in light of her magnanimous forgiveness.
That’s what I think God requires of you to be “saved.” Don’t get hung up on the New Testament terminology, e.g. “salvation,” “faith,” “works,” etc. Most of that comes from Paul who is notoriously difficult to understand (2 Peter 3.16). In terms of the New Testament, you should focus more on what Jesus said. Essentially he said, “Repent and accept the good news of God’s forgiveness” (Matthew 3.2, 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5.32, 13.3, 13.5, 24.47). Just like Jill in the scenario I painted. She would be telling you, “Repent and accept the good news of my forgiveness.” Is that an easy-believeism? No, you aren’t just believing Jill. You are pledging your fidelity to her. Is it some kind of “works righteousness” then? No, not that either. You aren’t meriting anything with Jill. Again, you are pledging your fidelity to her. That’s what God requires of us. We have all prostituted ourselves out to other lovers, forsaking our great God, even our Creator-the one who gives us life, breath, and everything. He has every right to be sad and angry. And he is both of those things. But, astonishingly, he does not cast us off. That’s what we would do, right? But with respect to this very issue, God says in Isaiah 55.8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways” (see 55.6-9 for the context of God’s incredible willingness to forgive, unlike human beings). God is so loving and generous-indeed “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” is the central confession of the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 34.6, Numbers 14.18, Psalm 145.8, Joel 2.13, Jonah 4.2, Nahum 1.3)-that like Hosea, he offers “marriage” again to us prostitutes, the Gomers. And what’s more, he even gives up his son to death by crucifixion-and Jesus himself gives himself for us in this death-so that he can safely pardon us and promise us eternal life in the age to come without compromising his good moral government (Romans 3.25-26). What he asks of us is to stop our prostitution, to receive his free forgiveness, and to live henceforth in fidelity to him and Jesus-not perfection, but fidelity. It’s a life, a walk that he calls us to (Romans 4.12, 8.4, 14.15; Ephesians 5.8; 1 John 1.7, 2.6; 2 John 1.6)-halakah as the Jews would say (halakah is Hebrew for “walk”). Yes, we are to believe in Jesus (John 6.29, Romans 10.9-10, etc.). But that means believing that Jesus is God’s messiah, the man whom God has been pleased to exalt to the highest place, to make him Lord over all other lords, even seated at the right hand of God (Acts 2.22-36, Philippians 2.9-11, etc.). This is what the Jews would not do. They would not receive Jesus as their Lord, as their God-anointed and appointed Lord. And God said, if you reject him and the standing I have given him as my only-begotten, beloved son, then I reject you. The Jews were trying to tell God that he cannot reject them for rejecting Jesus as Lord. Paul is trying to explain to them in Romans 9-11 that yes God can and is doing so, and that does not contradict any of the covenants he made with the Hebrew patriarchs. As God had told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Exodus 33.19). So that’s where the language of “faith” and “believing” comes in in the New Testament. It’s all very context specific, but it’s been taken out of that context and turned into timeless principles of believing versus doing, or faith versus works. But I digress. Does God require you to believe in Jesus, to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, the one whom God has highly exalted and given the name (Lord) that is above all names (Philippians 2.9-11)? Absolutely he does (Romans 10:9-10). Does God require you to believe that God is God? Yes, you have to believe that too (Hebrews 11.6, etc.). But even the demons believe those things and shudder as James explains (James 2.19; compare Mark 1.24 and Acts 16.17). What distinguishes us from the demons is that we do not just believe God is God and Jesus is Lord, we pledge our fidelity to them as God and Lord, respectively. We bow our knee to God as our Creator, ultimate Lord and Master, even our Father and Friend. And we bow our knee to Jesus as well, since God has been pleased to make him his vice-regent, the Lord who sits at God’s right hand. “The LORD (Hebrew: Yahweh) said to my lord (the Messiah), sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Psalm 110:1 - the most quoted text in the New Testament). In short, we confess with the earliest Christians, “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him” (1 Cor 8.6). And by confessing this we are declaring not simply our intellectual beliefs but our commitment as well. We hold the one God, the Father, as our God; and the one Lord, Jesus Christ, as our Lord or Master or King (Messiah/Christ = “anointed king”).
What does that look like in the day to day? It looks like what it looks like in the day to day of being Jill’s husband. You love her with all your heart, endeavoring every day to be her faithful, loving husband-when you feel like it and when you maybe don’t feel like it too. Likewise with God and Jesus. Fidelity to them is simply loving them with all our heart-when we feel like it and when we maybe don’t feel like it too (Deuteronomy 6.5, Matthew 22.37, 1 Corinthians 16.22). It’s walking in the Spirit, not in the flesh, to use some Pauline terminology (e.g. Galatians 5.16). And that is simply to say, it’s resisting the strong desires of the flesh and doing what’s right as God reveals to us through his Spirit. As Paul says in Galatians 5.22-24, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . . those who have pledged fidelity to Jesus as the Christ (God’s anointed Lord) have crucified (resolved to not indulge) the flesh with its passions and its desires.” I could go on, but I think you get the point. God created us with the greatest gift of all: the ability to freely choose to become like him and live in a mutually loving relationship with him (Genesis 2.15-17). To that end, he has given us desires, or passions, that test us, to make it a real choice to love God, to live according to what God reveals via his spirit in our minds through his law written there, so to speak. God also allows Satanic forces to tempt and lure us. Again, this is to make it a real choice to become like God and to love God. It’s the greatest gift God could give to a creature, which is what makes human beings the pinnacle of his creation (Psalm 8). Yet, we have all turned away from God and prostituted ourselves out to the flesh and its desires, to Satan and his kingdom of this-worldly delights and pursuit (Romans 3.9-18) (which is why the world is so messed up). But God offers us his free forgiveness if we will repent (turn) from our former ways, from the flesh and its desires, from Satan and the kingdom of this world, and live in fidelity to God and his Christ (Isaiah 55, etc.). And through the atonement, God has made it safe, in terms of his moral government, to do this (Romans 3.25-26). And God has given us further resources to help us be faithful to him. He has given us his special revelation of himself and the truth in the Scriptures (John 17.17, etc.). And he has given us his Spirit in great measure, which is to say he himself in our minds convicts us of sin and righteousness, guides us in the truth, etc. (John 16.5-11, 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, etc.). In other words, he personally teaches us in our minds through his presence or Spirit to help us resist the world and its desires and be faithful covenant partners to God. When you feel guilty for something, that’s God through his Spirit. When you feel strengthened in resolve for God and his kingdom through reading or hearing the truth, that’s God through is Spirit. He’s forgiven us. He’s made it safe to forgive us (through the atonement). And he inhabits our minds through his Spirit to help us be what he created us to be, faithful covenant partners, even friends to him, freely choosing against the temptations of the flesh, the world, and Satan to truly bear the image of God (Colossians 3.10), becoming like him in character. That’s the great drama that is occurring in this world.
So I hope that answers your question. Like I said at the beginning, think of the analogy of adultery and marriage and don’t get caught up with the technical New Testament terminology of faith, works, salvation, etc. I have tried to touch on the meaning of all that too in passing, but even if some of that is still a little unclear, I hope you see positively what I’ve laid out. In short, what God requires of you to be saved, rather than condemned, in the great judgment coming at the end of days is that you turn from the desires of your flesh and this world and pledge your fidelity to God and Jesus, and live out that fidelity every day in the power of the Spirit of God, convicting you of evil and righteousness, teaching you to say “yes” to righteousness and “no” to sin (Titus 2.11-13).