QUESTION: How does a person get eternal life and the forgiveness of sins and avoid hell?
ANSWER: Of all questions we could ask, this is perhaps the most important one of all. While this answer could take up hundreds of pages, there are certain basic points which we need to be aware of as we answer this very significant question.
IDENTIFYING THE CORE ISSUE. The core issue in the matter of our personal salvation is that of “sin”. Sin is that which separates a person from God because He is holy and we are not. Sin can be defined as anything that is contrary to the nature of God; so sin can be things we do and even things we don’t do (but should do). And, it is clear to everyone, that all of us fall into the category of sinners.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” –Romans 3:23
Since God is holy and we are not, somehow the matter of sin must be dealt with in a satisfactory way. Can we handle this by ourselves? Can we give enough money or do enough good deeds to take care of our separation from God? Or do we need outside help? Because it is pretty obvious to most people that we need some help on this matter, religions have come up with a variety of solutions in their attempt to solve the problem of our separation from God. Universally, religions have proposed some combination of faith and works. But in the Bible, there is a very different answer to the reality of our separation from God. There is presented only one solution to the sin problem.
UNDERSTANDING THE SOLUTION TO THE CORE ISSUE. According to the Bible, the only way that our debt of sin is paid for is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many, many verses point to Jesus’ death on the cross as the one and only answer to the sin problem. Perhaps the Book of Hebrews summarizes the sufficiency and the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross as clearly as any. Hebrews states that the one time death of Jesus made a complete and totally sufficient payment for all of our sins. As far as the matter of sin is concerned, nothing more needs to be done and nothing more can be done. The debt we had was paid for completely. When Jesus was on the cross, He cried out, “it is finished.” He did not say it was “mostly done”, or that “I have done the major work, now you must do your share.” Note the words used in the Book of Hebrews.
“but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself…having been offered once to bear the sins of many…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time sat down at the right hand of God…for by one offering He has perfected for all time those are sanctified.” (Heb. 9:26, 28; 10:10, 12, 14).
And there is complete agreement among the Apostles that the death of Christ satisfied God and made it possible for people to be reconciled back to God (e.g. Rom. 3:21-25). But because the provision has been made does not mean that it is automatically credited to the account of every person in the world. There is something that the individual must do.
THE MEANS BY WHICH WE PERSONALLY APPLY GOD’S SOLUTION. The way in which a person receives eternal life and the forgiveness of sins is by faith in Christ alone. In His death, Christ took care of the sin problem so there is nothing we can do to deal with our own sin. In His death, Christ totally satisfied God’s righteous requirements as well as His wrath (the NT word is “propitiation” which basically means “satisfaction”—e.g. Rom. 3:25), so there is nothing we have to do to satisfy Him. The only thing we can do is to “trust” (believe in) Jesus for our salvation. The utter simplicity of this is seen in Acts 16:30 when the jailer at Philippi asked Paul and Silas what he had to do to be saved. Their answer was plain and simple: “believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved….” The idea of “believe” is to place your trust or confidence in the Lord Jesus. It involves receiving a gift that is being offered. If someone offers you a gift, what do you need to do to get that gift? If it is truly a gift then there is nothing you can do to get it. You simply reach out a take what is being offered to you. Salvation is that simple which is why a little child can receive this free gift of God.
The receiving of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins (salvation) is purely God’s grace towards us. Grace (which is God’s unmerited favor) does not allow for human works of any kind either before or after salvation. The idea of works to merit or maintain our salvation goes against the very meaning of “grace.” The very nature of a gift requires that it be free. If any conditions are added, at that moment, it ceases to be a gift. To add works of any kind is an insult to the God of grace who offers this free gift of salvation to people.
THE CONTENT OF WHAT WE ARE TO BELIEVE. As the Apostle Paul told the jailer at Philippi: “believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” And the Apostle John says the same thing.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” –John 3:16
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” –John 5:24
In these and many other verses, a person is told to place their faith in a Person, Jesus Christ. There are many theological truths that the sinner does not need to affirm a belief in, such as the virgin birth (though denying certain truths might call into question that individual’s understanding of their situation spiritually). But there are truths related to the Person and work of Jesus Christ that must be affirmed. To be saved, an individual must believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for our sins on the cross, and rose again from the grave; and that He alone paid the debt of our sin and He alone gives eternal life to the one who places their trust in Him.
In his gospel, John gave an important purpose statement for his writing of that gospel. In that statement, he states how one gets eternal life.
“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” -John 20:30-31
When we look at these verses, certain facts about the content of saving faith come to light.
FACT #1. The focus of saving faith is on a Person, Jesus Christ. There is salvation in no one else. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the object of faith. It is not the church nor is it some meritorious work we do. (Note Jesus’ statement in John 14:6).
FACT #2. Jesus is THE Christ. The definite article underscores the vital truth that He alone is the savior and there is no other. He and He alone is the way back to God. Jesus is not one of many ways to heaven.
FACT #3. Jesus is the CHRIST. The word “Christ” means “the anointed one” (set apart for sacred work) and its significance is sometimes overlooked. He is the only one, set apart by the Father to restore and reconcile all that was lost back in the Garden of Eden. All that was lost in Eden (fellowship with God, rulership of the planet and paradise itself), will be restored by the great work of the Anointed One. Personal salvation (restoration back to fellowship with God) is a critical part of His work. The very core of His work of restoration is to deal fully and completely with the sin problem. And He did that, as was revealed by His death and resurrection. Believing is Jesus, therefore, is believing in the only One who can remove my sin.
FACT #4. Jesus is God. He is not simply a good man, a great teacher, an outstanding prophet and an amazing worker of miracles. He is all of those things, but the main issue is that He is God in the flesh. The Jesus of the Scriptures is very different than the “Jesus” found in many religions and in the cultures of the world. For salvation, a person must believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. Even if it is in a very basic, unsophisticated way, saving faith includes the fact that the Jesus who saves is God.
OTHER ISSUES THAT ARE OFTEN BROUGHT INTO THE DISCUSSION OF PERSONAL SALVATION. This short article on salvation cannot deal with the many additions that are often brought into the subject of our salvation. But it is necessary to at least mention two and give a short response.
(1) Faith + water baptism. The two main verses used for baptismal regeneration are Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16. Acts 2:28 can be taken in two different ways: either saying that baptism is “unto” the forgiveness of sins, or it can be saying that baptism is not for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins but because of the forgiveness of sins. In cases where several possibilities exist exegetically, it becomes mandatory to view the entire teaching of scripture on the subject. In many passages, such as Acts 10:40-47, it is quite clear that salvation comes without works of any kind. For example, the salvation which came to these people at Caesarea, came to them based on faith alone, and that water baptism is offered to these who are already now saved. Acts 10:47 reads, “no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”
Acts 22:16 contains four key words; two participles and two imperatives with each command (imperative) connect with a participle. The verse would then read, “arising be baptized; wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord. The washing away of sin is connected with calling on the name of the Lord and not with being baptized.
(2) Faith + commitment. Does a person have to make Christ Lord of his/her life in order to be saved? The view, often referred to as “Lordship Salvation”, explains that a person must believe in Jesus. But this saving faith includes yielding to Christ’s authority and establishing Him as the lord of their life; with every area of life surrendered to the control of Christ. The sinner cannot be saved unless he does this. This view maintains that salvation is a free gift but it will cost a person everything; or put another way, if Jesus is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all, and if He is not Lord He is not savior. Proponents argue that there must be “total surrender” or “complete commitment” before a person can be saved. Several points about this view must be noted.
First, this view is characterized by double talk. It says that it is by faith alone that one is saved, and yet, at the same time declares works are necessary. It says that salvation is “free”, yet says that it is “costly” to the individual.
Second, it contradicts the very meaning and concept of “grace”, which is God’s unmerited favor bestowed on people. Salvation simply cannot be a free gift (which is what the NT declares) and at the same time require works and commitment from the individual. No amount of convoluted explanation can cause grace to include works or commitment.
Third, it is a very unrealistic position in that it requires total commitment and surrender. It is unrealistic because no one (especially an unsaved man lacking understanding of the standards of God in the Scriptures) can do this. Do you know of a single Christian who is 100% committed to Christ? Not even the Apostle Paul made such a claim of Christ being 100% Lord of his life (see Phil. 3:12). If there is not 100% surrender, could we not call this view “easy lordism”? We, of course, should be totally surrendered to Jesus, but no one has arrived at that point. (This is why the serious adherent to this view never has complete assurance of their salvation). All in all, it is a very subjective view.
Fourth, this position confuses justification and sanctification. It includes the idea of being a disciple of Jesus as part of a person’s justification. All of us ought to be devoted disciples of Jesus, but that is what the Christian life is all about. It is not part of the requirement for gaining eternal life.
So much could be discussed here, but it is beyond the initial question. Below are listed just some of the resources that a person could go to in order to understand the details of this subject.
(For a detailed discussion of this important subject, one can go to a number of credible sources. “So Great Salvation” by Charles Ryrie. “Sin, the Savior, and Salvation: The Theology of Everlasting Life” by Robert Lightner. “Getting the Gospel Wrong: Case Studies in American Evangelical Soteriological Method in the Postmodern Era”, by J.B. Hixson. “Lordship Salvation: A Biblical Evaluation and Response” by Charles Bing. “The Faith That Saves: The Nature of Faith in the New Testament” by F. Chay and J. Correia.)
But thankfully, the receiving of eternal life and the forgiveness of our sins comes about simply by placing our trust in the God-man, the one and only savior from sin, who died and rose again. Upon believing in Jesus, we possess eternal life and for that we will be eternally grateful.