Three times in the book of Acts the question is posed concerning what one must “do” to be saved. The Jews, on the day of Pentecost, framed the question (Acts 2:37), as did Saul of Tarsus en route to Damascus (22:10; cf. 9:6). The jailor in Philippi likewise inquired about this crucial issue (16:30).
This is a tremendously important question and every serious Bible student should carefully study the material accompanying these texts, synthesize them, and organize the “sum” of the truth on this matter (Psa. 119:160).
Another question—equally crucial—is this: What must I know to be saved?
Far too many people labor under the misguided conception that it matters very little how much one knows or understands, or whether he is precisely obedient, so long as his motive is genuine. This is a serious mistake. A “good conscience” does not validate error (Acts 23:1; 26:9).
The Nature of the Christian System
Everett Harrison began his book, A Short Life of Christ, in the following fashion: “Some Religions, both ancient and modern, require no historical basis, for they depend upon ideas rather than events” (1968, Eerdmans, 11).
Christianity is not of this nature. It is grounded in history. Did Jesus live upon this earth? Was he born of Mary, a virgin? Did he rise from the grave? If these events did not occur, then the Christian religion is a hoax.
The credibility of one’s religious persuasion, therefore, is determined by what he believes. Such is derived from his personal investigation or his confidence in a teacher who has pursued the historical evidence.
Sufficient teaching, therefore, must precede an acceptance of commitment to Jesus Christ.
Isaiah, looking forward to the Christian age, declared that those aspiring to be the spiritual children of God “shall be taught” of the Lord (Isa. 54:13). Jesus referred to this text and applied it to his own ministry.
“And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes unto me” (Jn. 6:45).
There must be teaching and learning before one comes to God (cf. Mt. 11:29; Jn. 8:32).
The Great Commission
Matthew’s account of the Lord’s great commission reads as follows:
“All authority has been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatever I commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:18-20).
Two things are apparent from this charge. First, there is a discipling (teaching) process that is culminated by immersion into a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This initially constitutes one as a Christian.
Subsequent to that, there is the “teaching them to observe all things” procedure that is intended to mature the new disciple in the faith. The formula thus is: teaching plus conversion plus teaching.
It is important, therefore, that one be able to separate the nature and volume of the pre-conversion teaching from the post-conversion instruction.
It should be obvious that one’s pre-conversion education is basic and compact compared to the subsequent lifelong teaching that will facilitate Christian maturity.
This is well illustrated by the fact that the auditors on the day of Pentecost heard the gospel for the first time, obeyed the commands connected therewith, and constituted the original church that very day. Perhaps even more dramatic is the fact that a pagan official was taught the truth and immersed into Christ the “same hour of the night” (Acts 16:33). Obviously only the most basic fundamental truths could have been imparted on these occasions.
Several things are stated explicitly, or logically implied, as requirements for becoming a Christian. Since both belief and repentance are initial obligations (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38) prior to the baptism that transitions one “into” the “in Christ” relationship (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; 2 Tim. 2:10), certain conclusions necessarily follow.
First, infants are excluded; they are not sinners, hence do not need to repent, nor to acquire salvation. Second, there are factual convictions that must be embraced to qualify one for baptism.
It is a fundamental requirement that the candidate for Christianity, who believes in God already, is obliged to accept the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is to be identified as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt. 16:16; Jn. 20:30-31). Recognizing Jesus as “the Christ” acknowledges that he is the fulfillment of the promised Old Testament Messiah. One’s confession (Rom. 10:10; 1 Tim. 6:12-13) that he is the Son of God proclaims both his birth to the virgin Mary (Lk. 1:35) and his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).
Of course, one will not fathom the full and glorious magnitude of those truths (who ever does?), but there is a threshold level of comprehension that may (and must) be embraced confidently and happily.
One’s conviction of the historical reality of the mission and message of Jesus will blossom into a loving trust and a willingness to surrender heartily to the principle of obedience (Heb. 5:9). The potential Christian needs to realize that he is yielding to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his life. The Lord accepts nothing less than priority devotion (Lk. 14:26).
The fledgling student will need to understand that in submitting to the “new birth” (Jn. 3:3-5) he will be uniting with Christ in a replication of the Savior’s death, burial, and resurrection. In repentance, he dies to the love and unrestrained practice of sin. He is buried beneath the water of baptism and is raised to walk in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).
In this consummating act of obedience, his sins will have been washed away by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Heb. 9:14), and he will be esteemed as a child of God (Gal. 3:27).
Progressively, he will come to appreciate the wonderful “household of God” into which he has entered (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15) and the great and wonderful family of which he is a part.
At this point, the new Christian is a spiritual “babe” (1 Pet. 2:2), in need of instructive nourishment and growth toward maturity. Patience by his kinsmen in the Lord must be exercised constantly.
The apostle Peter admonishes that children of God are to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Pet. 3:18). This will be a lifelong endeavor, and one who ceases to grow eventually will wither and die (Jn. 15:1-8).
Maturation will come from personal study of the sacred Scriptures, faithful attendance at regular assemblies where there is instruction by experienced and knowledgeable teachers, and through close association with godly and mature children of God where exemplary attitudes and rich conversations facilitate growth.
Unrealistic and Unscriptural Expectations
A problem occasionally overlooked is the fact that while one needs to appreciate certain foundational gospel truths preliminary to his initial obedience, such does not necessitate that he must have mastered an entire index of doctrinal errors common to the greater religious community. I’ve known of a number of zealous (though misguided) people who contend that if a person did not understand the various acts of New Testament worship prior to his baptism, he did not know enough to submit to the rite, hence should repeat the ritual.
If a person studies his New Testament and learns what is required to obey Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, and does so, is he or is he not a Christian?
What if, in his state of spiritual infancy, he wanders into a denominational group and becomes involved in unauthorized, sinful worship? Does his current lack of knowledge vitiate what he previously knew? In other words, does later error invalidate earlier truth? Common sense knows it does not.
When Simon the sorcerer committed his terrible post-baptism sin of trying to buy an apostolic gift with money, he was not instructed to be immersed again; rather, he was corrected and encouraged to pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:19-22).
About how many issues do you suppose Paul interrogated the jailor in Philippi? Does one need to be re-immersed if he cannot remember whether he had a complete understanding of the Lord’s supper at the time of his conversion?
What about the thousands of Christians who did not, and still do not, understand the biblical position on giving out of their income on the first day of every week (1 Cor. 16:2)? Were they not genuinely converted?
There is a desperate need for a more balanced sense of what one needs to know, and when he needs to know it—both before and after his conversion.