The majority of the Christian world answers the question by saying “believe.” They usually provide a sample prayer for one to offer, inviting Jesus into the penitent’s heart. Is this the right answer to this most important question?
The question is asked several ways in the New Testament. The rich ruler asked, “[W]hat must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10; Luke 18 NIV84). The crowd on Pentecost asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The Philippian jailer asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Saul asked Jesus, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). Let’s look at the answers they received.
Jesus told the rich ruler he knew the answer: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother’ ” (Mark 10:19). While he claimed to have done all of these, he still recognized that something was lacking. The Bible says that “Jesus looked at him and loved him” and said, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man went away with great sorrow because he was unwilling to sacrifice his wealth for Jesus.
In this passage Jesus does not talk about belief, repentance or prayer. Jesus talks about actions. He talks about obeying God’s commands. He talks about the attitude of the heart. He talks about sacrificing to follow Him. The ruler was not willing to confess Jesus as Lord (Matthew 10:32).
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came on the apostles, and they began to speak in various languages. Peter stood up and proclaimed: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The people were “cut to the heart” and asked what they should do. “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ ” (Acts 2:38).
Speaking with the Spirit of God, Peter told the people they needed to do two things to be forgiven. “Repent” meant that they had to change their minds and their lives. They had crucified Jesus as a criminal, and now they must recognize Him as “Lord and Christ.” After repenting, they must be baptized in the name of Jesus. Acts 2:41 tells us how the people responded: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas had been unlawfully beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. A great earthquake freed the prisoners of their chains. Knowing his fate if the prisoners escaped, the jailer was about to claim his life when Paul said everyone was still there. The jailer fell before them trembling and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). I’ve often wondered if the jailer meant “saved” in a physical or spiritual sense. Regardless, Paul’s answer was “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
There is no indication that the jailer knew anything about Jesus. How could he believe? Could the jailer’s belief save his family? These questions are answered in the next verse where we are told, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.” Paul and Silas gave the jailer the broad answer to his question, and then taught him and his family what belief in Jesus meant. How did the jailer respond? “At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:33). His actions showed that he did believe and that he had repented. Then he was baptized.
Perhaps no story of conversion is more dramatic than that of Saul. He was a religious zealot devoted to persecuting, imprisoning and killing those who followed Jesus. Then he met Jesus in a blinding light from heaven.
He called out, “ ‘What shall I do, Lord?’‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do’ ” (Acts 22:10). Paul must have believed because he called Jesus “Lord.”
When Ananias came to Paul three days later, he did not preach to him about believing or repenting. Instead, he said, “You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:15-16).
What must I do to be saved? In these four biblical accounts, different answers were given:
- Rich Ruler – Obey the commandments; give up your treasure for the sake of following Christ.
- Pentecost – Repent; be baptized in the name of Jesus.
- Philippian Jailer – Believe.
- Paul – Be baptized and wash your sins away.
Are these conflicting answers? Are there four different ways to be saved? No. Scripture is consistent. Each specific answer given is appropriate to the situation of the person asking the question. The specific answer does not necessarily cover the entirety of what must be done but indicates the first steps needed for that person to take.
This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the story of the Philippian jailer. In Acts 16:31 Paul told the man to “believe.” But what does that mean? The very next verse says, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.” They taught him. And once he was taught, the jailer changed his ways and was baptized. Then Luke adds, “[H]e rejoiced, having believed in God with all
his household” (Acts 16:34 NKJV). “Believe” was a one-word answer that represented a process that resulted in change and action.
The majority of the Christian world responds to the question of “What must I do to be saved?” with the answer of “Believe.” That is a correct answer. Unfortunately in their definition of “believe,” they omit baptism as a necessary step. They often say that baptism is a work and that it is only by God’s grace that we are saved. We are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:5-8); without God’s offer of grace we have no hope, and we could never earn our salvation.
Yet 1 Peter 3:21 says, “This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is not a work of man, but a bestowing of God’s grace on obedient hearts.
I do not want to debate theology; I just want to do what God wants. God’s offer of grace to cover my sins demands nothing less than my all – just like what was requested of the rich ruler. It begins when I hear the story of Jesus and believe – just like the Philippian jailer. It continues when I repent – just like the crowd on Pentecost. It finds its public declaration when I am baptized – just like Paul, the jailer and the 3,000. It continues for eternity.
What must I do to be saved? This is life’s most important question. It was answered by Jesus Himself, the one who will be our advocate before God: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). How will you respond to his answer? o
Reprinted from the Jan. 2000, issue of Gospel Advocate.