Answer to Question: What Must a Person Know/Believe to Be Saved (or to Be a Christian)?
Recently I invited questions and this (or these) was one asked by several people. I’ll put their questions into my own words and hope to do justice to their thoughts. “What must a person know (cognitively) in order to be saved?” And “What must a person know (cognitively) in order to be a Christian? I think it is safe to assume that the questioners meant to fold “believe” into “know.” So when I talk her about what persons need to know, I include “believe.”
Naturally, this is not an easy question to answer. Sure, some people think it’s easy to answer, but when pressed they acknowledge it’s more complicated than they initially thought. And why? Because scripture itself gives several somewhat different answers, sometimes in narrative form and sometimes in more propositional form.
Let’s begin with the seemingly clearest and most concise propositional answer, one embedded in a narrative. According to The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 16, apostles Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi. When the jailer asked them “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answered “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Nothing more, just that.
So, according to this report, Paul and Silas believed that all one needed to know (and believe) to be saved was who Jesus Christ was, that he is Lord, and believe “on him.” The “on him” indicates something like trust. So, traditionally, Christians have required that, for salvation, all that a person must know and believe is that Jesus Christ is Lord and must place his or her trust in him (to save them).
Following that simple rule of faith for salvation, however, it says the apostles “spoke the word of the Lord” to the jailor and all who were in his house. It is safe to assume that this was some kind of catechism, instruction in Christian belief and life. The implication is that being saved is very simple while becoming a Christian is a bit more complicated.
My interpretation is that the jailer was saved, forgiven by God and adopted as his son into his human family, the moment he believed on the Lord Jesus. My interpretation also is that he did not become a Christian until he was baptized and accepted the word of the Lord taught by the apostles. We don’t know all that that included but probably some truths about Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.
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There is another story in the New Testament, however, that should give us pause. Think about the one thief crucified with Jesus who simply asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. (Luke 13). Jesus responded “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Clearly, the implication is that all it took for the thief to be saved was to ask Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Now, we can rightly, I believe, read into that the idea that the thief placed personal, heartfelt trust in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of God.
A question that arises here is this: Did the saved thief die a Christian? I think the answer must be no. It takes more to be a Christian than it takes to be saved. I cannot escape that belief.
Think about all the saved Jews and God-fearing gentiles who had a right relationship with God but who died without ever hearing about Jesus. (We know there were more of them living outside of Palestine than inside Palestine in 33 A.D.) Did they have to become Christians to be saved? What if no Christian apostle or messenger or even “gospel tract” reached them before they died? Did Jesus’s death on the cross unsave them? That would come close to blasphemy.
So there we see that there were saved people, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, who were saved without having any cognitive knowledge of Jesus or the gospel. But it would be very difficult to consider them “Christians” (followers of Jesus Christ).
I do not think we can know with certainty, in detail, what one must know or believe in order to be saved. Only God knows that. And scripture tells us that God looks at people’s hearts, not their heads. Knowledge and belief (about Jesus Christ) are good, but in some cases that comes after one dies. And even in this life, before death, it appears that very little cognitive knowledge and belief is required for salvation. But, in the end, only God knows for sure who is saved and how and why.
However, scripture tells us much about what it takes to be authentically Christian. Also, however, it is not easy to put that “much” into a nice, neat, systematic formula.
Remember, the question is about cognitive knowledge and belief, so I will go out on a limb here and say that, based on all that scripture says about the subject, being authentically Christian requires knowledge about Jesus Christ as the Son of God and God the Son, God incarnate, his saving death and resurrection (including the empty grave), repentance and trust in him, and a commitment to live according to his “way”—his teachings and example.
However, having said that, I have to add that there are people, people I have known personally, people whose books I have read, who have that knowledge and affirm that as true and make that commitment who fail miserably to live up to authentic Christianity by things they deny (e.g., Jesus’s miracles) or by things they affirm (e.g., that there are other saviors besides Jesus Christ).
So, the answer is not simple; it is complicated. In fact, I would say there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question. It has to be answered on an ad hoc basis, individually. There is no simple litmus test. But there are a few fundamental items of fact that must be known and affirmed in order for someone to count as authentically Christian. That is not to say they are necessary for someone to be saved – as I explained above.
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