The Dependable Lifeline

A Christian obedient to the Great Commission is like a seaman sent to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck. As the seaman approaches the scene of the disaster and notices people here and there struggling desperately to stay afloat in the rough waters, he must quickly bring them the right kind of aid. It is futile to shout, "Hold on, for when daylight comes and the sea subsides, all will be well!" These are the words of a liberal preacher. Also worthless is the legalistic advice, "Swim harder!" No, what the seaman must do is to give each victim something he can cling to until he is pulled from the water. So also, what every Christian must do to help the lost is to throw them the lifeline of the gospel. But it must be a sturdy line made of unbreakable truth. Too often today, however, preachers give out a gospel that has the look and feel of a strong cord, but some of the strands are defective. The imperiled soul who grasps such a gospel may find some temporary security and hope, but when he is caught by the merciless waves of death, the line gives way and he sinks without aid or remedy into hell.

The problem is that much preaching today is rooted in man's thinking rather than in God's thinking. Man's thinking is often pragmatic or political, seeking gain for self rather than gain for God's kingdom. Also, man's thinking is often subservient to traditions or theological systems that come disguised as the invention of God when they are really the invention of man. God's thinking can be known only by a thorough, honest examination of God's Word, the Bible. Therefore, if we wish to preach a true gospel, we must know and understand the Biblical answer to the question, What must a man do to be saved?

The Necessity for Repentance

Texts enjoining it. Any adequate presentation of the gospel begins with a call for repentance. On the authority of many texts, we may state dogmatically that repentance is necessary for salvation.

  1. The command to repent is part of the gospel that the church has been commissioned to preach throughout the world. After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples

. . . that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Luke 24:47

  2. The need for repentance was central to the very first proclamation of the gospel. On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood up before the assembled multitude and exhorted them,

. . . Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, . . .

Acts 2:38

Some assert that this command remained in force only during a brief transitional period between the Mosaic dispensation and the Church Age. But Peter makes it clear that he is speaking

. . . unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

Acts 2:39

  3. The objective of Paul's preaching was to bring men to repentance. On Mars' hill in Athens, Paul told the philosophers that repentance was now incumbent on all the gentiles.

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.

Acts 17:30

Before King Agrippa, Paul testified in defense of his ministry that he

. . . shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet ["appropriate"] for repentance.

Acts 26:20

  4. Paul specifically states that repentance is the avenue to salvation.

For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: . . . .

2 Corinthians 7:10

Definition of repentance. Everywhere in Scripture, repentance means simply a turning from sin.

. . . For I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Matthew 9:13

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Luke 15:7

Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, . . . .

Acts 8:22

And lest, . . . I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.

2 Corinthians 12:21

Thus, the requirement of repentance means that someone desirous of salvation must, with humility and sorrow of heart, acknowledge before God the great blackness of his sin. He must accept God's verdict that he is a sinner deserving of condemnation. He must utter the sinner's prayer, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13).

Sorrow for sin is no sorrow at all unless it is accompanied by a desire to be righteous instead of sinful. To fulfill the requirements of true repentance, the sinner must therefore want to escape not only the condemnation of sin, but also the power and practice of sin. Whether or not he says so explicitly, he must seek freedom from the innate overmastering desire to do wrong, and he must earnestly wish to cease sinful deeds.

The Object of Belief

Repentance is good and necessary, but it does not gain salvation. You are not saved by repentance. Repentance merely brings you to the place where you see your need for salvation and you desire to be saved. How can you be saved? You need a Savior, and the gospel identifies Him as Jesus Christ.

The best-known summary of the gospel is a verse that most Christians have committed to memory.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16

On the authority of this and many similar verses, all evangelical Christians agree that to be saved, a man must believe in Jesus. But what does it mean to believe in Him? Consider the following texts:

But as many as received him [Jesus], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.

John 1:12

He that believeth on him [Jesus] is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:18

And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Acts 2:21

Neither is there salvation in any other [than Jesus]: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Acts 4:12

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Romans 10:13

These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

1 John 5:13

See also Matthew 12:21 and Acts 3:16. These texts clarify what it means to believe in Jesus by affirming that to be saved, a man must believe in His name. No one should imagine that Jesus' name is just a label distinguishing Him from other beings. His name represents everything that He is. What precisely is His name?

Before Pentecost, Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth to His enemies, as Master or Rabbi to His disciples. But on Pentecost, the day marking the beginning of the Church Age, Peter announced that

. . . God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Acts 2:36

Henceforth Jesus was known as the Lord Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus the Lord, or Jesus Christ the Lord. This is the name that the seeker after salvation must believe and confess.

And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

Acts 16:31

The requirement to believe in Jesus' name makes it impossible to be saved through any false Jesus. Many who say that they have faith in Jesus do not have a saving faith. Why? Because they have a wrong idea of Jesus. Perhaps they think He was just a good man. By "faith in Jesus," they mean that everything will go well if we follow His example. Or they think He fully realized the divine potential in all of us, and "by faith in Jesus," they mean that we too can become divine. Besides these false Jesuses, contemporary religion is promoting many others, none of which has power to save.

To be saved, a man must believe in the real Jesus, the Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.

The Name "Jesus"

The object of saving faith is the flesh-and-blood man known to history as Jesus of Nazareth. The name “Jesus” therefore speaks of His humanity. In other words, the seeker who looks to Jesus for salvation must think of Him as a real human being. This elementary condition denies any hope of salvation to people seduced by either of two damnable heresies.

1. Ancient Gnosticism taught that Jesus was a supernatural being who merely pretended to be a man—who was aloof to real pain and suffering even during His crucifixion. To seek salvation in the nonhuman Jesus of Gnosticism is therefore futile. John connects Gnosticism with the spirit of the antichrist.

And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

1 John 4:3

2. The necessity of putting one's faith in a real, historical man exposes the danger in another heresy as well—modern neo-orthodoxy, the form of theology that still dominates many mainline denominations. This pernicious system of doctrine alleges that whether or not Jesus was a great man and even whether or not He existed are questions irrelevant to faith; that the value to be found in Christianity depends not upon the man Jesus, but upon the idea of Jesus; and that a man can exploit this idea and the language of religion to create for himself an uplifting religious experience. Those who embrace this heresy mouth praise to Jesus, but think of Him only as a noble fiction. So long as they withhold the love and devotion due the real Jesus, their religion is vain.

The Name "Christ"

Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah," which means "the anointed one," implying "the one commissioned and sent by God."

In the Old Testament, the term designates the man whom God would send into the world to put away unrighteousness.

25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.

26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

Daniel 9:25-26

The term "cut off" is used frequently in the law of Moses to signify a judicial sentence of banishment or death. The prophecy here clearly implies that the Messiah (that is, Christ) would be unjustly put to death by the rulers of His people. The Messiah must therefore be the same as the suffering servant in Isaiah.

13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.

14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:

15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

From this text we learn that God's hand of punishment for our sin would fall upon Christ, not us. As our sin-bearer, Christ would suffer and die in our place.

We have said that to be saved, a man must believe that Jesus is the Christ, and we find that the Christ of prophecy is the One who would come to save us from our sin. Thus, besides acknowledging he is a sinner, the seeker after salvation must accept Jesus as his Savior. In other words, he must understand and believe that Jesus made a complete payment for sin through His death on the cross, and he must trust in Him alone for salvation.

The necessity of accepting Jesus as Savior was central to the message that Paul carried throughout the Roman world.

1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;

2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.

3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

In this summary of his own evangelistic preaching, Paul affirms that a man is saved by receiving the gospel (the good news) that Jesus died to put away sin.

The Name "Lord"

The word “Lord” means “ruler,” and indeed the Bible teaches that Jesus is the rightful ruler of everything (1 Cor. 10:25-8; Eph. 1:20-2). One day in the future, every man and woman who has lived on this earth will acknowledge who He is (Phil. 2:9-11). Therefore, we have a simple choice. We can either confess His Lordship now in this life or wait until that future day when it will be too late to accept God’s offer of life forever. He deserves to be called Lord because He is God (John 3:16), the highest Being in the universe, and because He created all things including mankind (John 1:1). As the author of our existence, surely He has the right to govern our lives so that His purposes in creating us will be fulfilled and not frustrated.

It is true that a seeker after salvation must believe in Jesus as Lord, but we must avoid two distortions of this requirement.

1. It does not mean that a seeker after salvation must make Jesus the Lord of his life in a practical way, by starting to obey Him. A change of behavior acceptable to God is impossible unless it is accomplished by God’s grace through God’s power. You receive His power when the Holy Spirit comes to indwell you at the moment of salvation. So, you must be saved first before you can practice true righteousness. Anyone who says that you cannot get saved until you put sin out of your life is a false teacher, because he is degrading salvation by faith to salvation by works.

2. The requirement to believe in Jesus as Lord does not mean that the sinner must recite His name as a formula, saying perhaps, “I believe that Jesus is Lord.” In fact, it is possible to be saved without fully comprehending this truth. Many have been saved in response to gospel invitations that failed to identify Jesus as Lord although they presented Him as Savior. It is better, of course, if a sinner hears the gospel in a fuller version, clearly stating who Jesus is, but he can be saved even through a more abbreviated version.

Why? Because although a sinner may not grasp the Lordship of Christ, he can still be saved if he has a truly repentant heart. Think of what repentance means. Sorrow for sin is no sorrow at all unless it is accompanied by a desire to be righteous instead of sinful. The repentant sinner may not put this desire into words, but if he is truly repentant, his driving motive will be to escape from sin’s bondage and to win the freedom of life without sin. Also, he will understand that to live righteously, apart from sin, means that he must do the will of God, his rightful Lord and Master.

Repentance therefore involves a fundamentally new way of seeing self and God. Eyes newly opened to spiritual reality recognize for the first time a whole series of sobering facts. Self has been chasing foolish dreams offensive to God. In this conflict between two perspectives, self has been wrong, but God has been right. God’s law deserves to be obeyed, but self has never kept it. God is righteous, but self is a sinner. Self ‘s attempts to build its own moral universe, with good and evil defined to please self, have merely succeeded in trampling on true righteousness, as defined by God. Only God has the right to say what is good and evil. In other words, only God is the Lord, with the right to dictate how people should behave.

Thus in true repentance a person bows the knee to God and places himself under God’s command. But it so happens that Jesus is the same God he has decided to serve. So, whether or not the repentant sinner has come to a theologically correct conception of Jesus, he is in fact making Jesus his Lord. Yet any ignorance in this matter will not last long, because the Holy Spirit will soon instruct him that his God and Lord is Jesus. Then, if he has truly decided to accept God’s direction—if in fact he has forged a new relationship with God based on repentance—he will certainly respond with faith. He will without quarrel believe in Jesus as Lord. So, even though at first he may not understand enough to call Jesus Lord as well as Savior, his repentance is accepted by a merciful God as meeting the requirement to believe on Jesus’ name.

Truth beyond the Minimum

A common idea today is that complicated presentations of the gospel are detrimental. Better to keep them as simple as possible. Yet when we examine how the apostles preached, we find that their evangelistic messages were full of doctrine beyond what hearers strictly needed to know for salvation. More often than not, they told hearers that Christ rose from the dead (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 4:10; etc.). Both Paul and Peter instructed the sinner that he would stand in judgment before Christ (Acts 10:42; 17:31). Many other doctrines likewise appear in their preaching to unbelievers.

A principle of good preaching is that no amount of Biblical truth is excessive if it is not confusing. And it is not confusing to warn a prospective convert that the Christian life is difficult and demanding. To do so may be poor salesmanship, but witnessing is not like selling a used car. A frank picture of trouble ahead could only scare off someone whose conversion would prove false anyway. It could not hinder the conversion of someone the Holy Spirit is wooing.

It is the Holy Spirit who opens a man's heart and mind to spiritual truth and quickens the desire for salvation. To accomplish His purpose, He takes whatever the witnessing Christian says and fits it to the man's need. Thus, we cannot harm a prospective convert by giving him too much spiritual truth. If we tell him Christ's teachings on the costs of discipleship, for example, the Holy Spirit will grant him only as much understanding as He wishes him to have.

An Erroneous View of the Minimum

An alternative view of what a man must do to be saved derives from Paul's statement,

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Romans 10:9

Some have taken this verse to mean that verbal confession of Jesus as Lord and heart belief in the Resurrection are the two absolutely necessary and sufficient prerequisites for salvation.

In the context, Paul is contrasting the faith of Christians to the unbelief of Jews. The Jewish frame of reference is especially evident in verses 1, 4, and 5 of the same chapter. Jews ask (verse 6), "Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above)." In other words, they refuse to accept the Incarnation. Moreover, they ask (verse 7), "Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)." In other words, they also refuse to accept the Resurrection. The Christian, however, accepts the word of faith which Paul preaches—the word affirming that Jesus is the Lord, the Incarnate God, who rose from the dead (verse 8). This word so restructures the inner man that the believer's mouth readily confesses the Incarnation and his heart readily embraces the Resurrection (verse 9).

Yet, given Paul's choice of the Incarnation and Resurrection as two doctrines distinguishing dead Judaism from vital Christianity, we should not suppose that he means to exclude all other doctrines from the compass of saving faith. Will God save a man who believes in the Incarnation and Resurrection but who denies his own sinful condition?

Moreover, we should not suppose that a gospel presentation omitting one of these doctrines cannot be effective. A good soul-winner will certainly inform a prospective convert that Jesus rose from the dead. But will God reject a man who has not heard about the Resurrection but who has asked for salvation through Christ?

We see, therefore, that Paul's intention in Romans 10:9 is not to set forth two formal conditions of salvation.

The Gospel in a Nutshell

When we look for a single verse that most succinctly expresses the requirements for salvation, we find Paul's recollection of what he had preached throughout his career.

Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 20:21

Despite our long discussion of the gospel, it is really very simple in essence. To be saved, you must do this. You must tell God that you are sorry for your sins. Then you must ask Him to save you through the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s all you must do. Of course, these can’t be just words. You must mean everything you say.

Sometimes in dealing with children, we urge them to ask Jesus into their hearts. The language is figurative, but if presented properly, it contains all the essential truth. If you use this approach, make sure the children understand that something is wrong with their hearts. Make sure they understand also that the reason they need Jesus in their hearts is to fix the problem. It is best to tell them clearly that He will deliver them from the punishment for sin because He has already suffered it on the cross, and He will deliver them from the power and presence of sin by assuming leadership in their lives.