What Must One Believe To Be Saved?
On our latest podcast episode, we explore a listener’s question: “How much and what exactly must one believe to be saved?” This is one of the best questions we’ve been asked to investigate thus far, and it brings many issues into immediate consideration. First of all, we need to understand nature of the question and how to formulate an initial answer to it.
Of course, it’s reasonable to think that believing something is part of salvation, and that’s why this question is stated understandably. But I don’t actually think there’s anything anyone believes to be saved, but only something they believe as a result of being saved or in concurrence with being saved. We aren’t saved by believing the right thing, nor are we saved by virtue of our efforts; we’re saved by the grace of God exhibited in the love of Christ. Beliefs emerge as the proper response and effect of this grace.
So maybe moving forward with this question we could ask “what sort of beliefs accompany salvation?” If salvation belongs finally to God, then what sort of beliefs emerge as a result of this salvation? Well I argue that, far before either right beliefs or right actions for that matter, a salvific relationship with God is marked by a genuine trust, commitment, and faithfulness to God. This necessarily comes along with particular beliefs, but relational trust is always the primary aspect—it is the primary response effected by God’s grace.
THE CONTENT OF BELIEF AND THE OBJECT OF BELIEF
Now this is the interesting part, because though of course we must affirm that, for example, a belief in Jesus as Lord accompanies salvation, there is this deeper commitment beneath that belief, of which that belief is an expression. And we have to be nuanced in this way because certain individuals have maintained a salvific relationship with God without a specific belief in Jesus as Lord as we currently understand it. Abraham, Moses, David—all the other children of God in the Old Testament—none of them had the specific knowledge of Christ and his death and resurrection that we do, and none of them believed this. However, they trusted God, and the mark of their trust was an admission of their faults and an appeal to God for help—and through this they entered a salvific relationship with God of the same quality we have with him through Jesus. The point is that while the specific content of their beliefs was different than ours, the object of their belief and trust was the same—it was God.
Of course this doesn’t mean one can believe anything so long as they have a trust in God; the beliefs that come along with this trust are never arbitrary, they’re never separated from the trust. Instead, in cases from the Old Testament until today, individuals trusted God because they responded appropriately to the way in which God revealed himself to them. They didn’t accidentally trust God nor did they trust him while considering him to be someone he wasn’t—God revealed himself to them, and they trusted him by believing that he was who he revealed himself to be. And the medium of revelation previously employed is like the medium of revelation currently employed—just as God revealed himself as Creator, as Yahweh, speaking through the prophets and covenanting with his people, so he has now revealed himself in Jesus, and in his life and work. So now, in the present age, God has pointed to Jesus and said “this is who I am, this is what I’m like.” That’s what people need to believe to have access to the proper object of salvific trust—Jesus is now the way to God.
I’m not saying there’s no chance that God reveals himself otherwise to certain individuals (and of course he can reveal himself to non-Christians), it’s just that we just have no reason whatsoever to think that he does. God has revealed himself decisively in Jesus, so, given what we know, a salvific relationship with God is marked by the specific beliefs of who Christ is and what he is like—such that one trusts in him over themselves. This really isn’t that much to believe at all, and we certainly shouldn’t expect salvation to be accompanied by a fully developed theology. Our concern is simply the formation of right beliefs generated as the result of a right response to God’s gracious revelation that establishes a trust in God over oneself.
RIGHT BELIEF, RIGHT LOVE, AND RIGHT RELATIONSHIP
Now if we want to come to a more sophisticated understanding this issue, we should entertain some rejoinders to my argument—let’s explore a few of them. Some argue that mere right belief as I’ve enumerated it doesn’t amount to salvation because of hypocrisy; namely that there are some individuals who claim to be Christian, and assumedly maintain right belief, and yet they’re the furthest thing away from a Christian we can imagine. So maybe right belief is unnecessary to the salvific equation.
I don’t find this convincing at all, not least because though right belief seems unnecessary for salvation in some ways, it is entirely necessary in other ways. Think of where we end up if belief was really unnecessary. Could wrong belief amount to salvation? Of course it couldn’t, inasmuch as you couldn’t have much of a relationship with God if you thought he was Satan or your wife. You could have some wrong beliefs, as we all do, but they wouldn’t amount to salvation. We have to remember that the deep trust with which one enters a salvific relationship with God is established through the formation of right beliefs generated as the result of a right response to his gracious revelation. However, it does still seem that one can have these right beliefs without the deeper trust from which they’re supposed to emerge.
Now others argue that it really isn’t right beliefs that amount to salvation but right love. Yet again, right love is necessary in some ways and unnecessary in others. A virtuous atheist with the right love certainly doesn’t have the right faith—they don’t have a relationship with God, they’ve rejected a relationship with God. But on the other hand, an abused victim or a former oppressor who comes to love Jesus can certainly enter into a salvific relationship with God though they struggle to love anyone in the right way. So then we end up back with Jesus, asking at last, is it right relationship that amounts to salvation? Exactly, but this is impossible without some degree of both right beliefs and right love, among other things. We have to understand who God has revealed himself to be, we have to respond appropriately to him, and we have to trust in him over ourselves. So we can’t dispose of right beliefs, but we also can’t delude ourselves into supposing that right beliefs will get us all the way.
BEYOND BELIEF AND LOVE TO A DEEPER TRUST
I have two ways by which we can more clearly understand how right belief and right love play particular roles in salvation while ultimately emerging out a deeper trust in God.
First, Jesus parabolically speaks of branches and of fruit, and of himself as the vine. The branches represent believers in Jesus, and so for the sake of our discussion they represent right beliefs, and the fruit represents their actions, and so right love. Fruitful branches apart from the vine are good with regard to fruit yet transient and unsupported; they’ll dry up and be burned. Fruitless branches on the vine are good with regard to a union with the vine yet will be broken off and taken away. So Christ is suggesting that right love without a union with him through right belief is great but ultimately bankrupt; and union with him through right belief without right love is great but ultimately inauthentic. So on one hand, this is like the virtuous atheist who is to be commended for their right love, but who also doesn’t have a salvific relationship with Christ because of their rejection of right beliefs. On the other hand, this is like the hypocrite who, though they have the right beliefs, seems like they’re the last person in the world that has a salvific relationship with God. Jesus is showing us how salvation doesn’t reduce either to love or to belief but rather is founded upon a unique union of these two as they emerge from a deeper trust in him.
Here’s the second way to think about it: Many would argue that if one simply has the results of this belief and love without explicit knowledge of Christ or God then they’re still genuinely loving the real God and are accepted by him salvifically. So, for example, some might be inclined to say that the virtuous, humble, self-sacrificing Buddhist is actually worshipping God and is saved by him. But the line isn’t drawn both ways, and insisting that the Buddhist is in a proper relationship with the real God because they bear the results of a proper relationship with God ultimately commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.
Imagine that from knowing my father, I learned to play music and now compose songs; it simply doesn’t follow that anyone who then composes songs therefore knows my father—they could have learned music from anyone. Similarly, the same virtuous or seemingly-Christian actions can have totally different sources; some sincere, some manipulative, some from Buddhism, some from secularism, some from Christianity. And this, I argue, is why Jesus cares so much about a personal, intimate relationship with those who follow him. Obviously those who live humble, virtuous lives are tapping into what God sees as good, but to say that they therefore know God salvifically simply strips God of his intimate, dramatic, covenantal personhood by which he enters into relationships—it ends up making him just some general “force” that is somehow unwittingly trickled into people who do certain things. The point isn’t to play music and, thus partaking in the general “force” of sonic harmony, come to unwittingly know my father who is now just some force instead of a real person. Rather, it’s to first know my father, then to go forth, compose music, and fill the world with harmony on his behalf. It’s about having a relationship with God through Christ and living a life founded upon that relationship.
To hear the rest of my argument, namely my take on how this topic relates to the question of Christianity among other religions and worldviews, check out our latest podcast episode.