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What must one do to be saved?

Part 1 of three parts:
What did Jesus teach?

What must one do to be saved according to the Bible, Christian creeds, etc.?

To those who believe in an afterlife with two possible eventual destinations -- paradise in Heaven and eternal torture in Hell -- the topic of salvation is of extreme importance. All of the tens of thousands of Christian denominations, sects, faith groups etc., each teaches specific criteria by which a person will be saved. Unfortunately, their teachings differ greatly.

As listed in this section's menu on salvation, the Bible is ambiguous concerning salvation. It contains many conflicting passages that imply that:

bullet Salvation is by faith only, or

bullet Salvation is by works and faith, or

bullet Salvation is by works only, or

bullet Salvation is by faith motivated by love.

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There are also criteria for salvation contained in Christian creeds and other non-biblical writings:

bullet Salvation is pre-determined; we cannot influence our own salvation, or

bullet Salvation occurs at baptism, or

bullet Salvation for some infants and mentally challenged adults is automatic.

Finally, no agreement exists about whether non-Christians will be saved:

bullet Some passages in the Bible suggest that all non-Christians will be lost, while

bullet Universalist and liberal Christians generally believe that all will be saved.

There are over 20,000 of Christian denominations, sects, and faith groups in the world. One source says that there are over 30,000! They have never been able to reach a consensus about exactly what a person must do to be saved. Various groups select their favorite passages in the Bible, interpreting them literally. They then either ignore conflicting passages or interpret them symbolically. For example:

bullet Some conservative Protestants believe that one need only trust Jesus as Lord and Savior to be saved.

bullet Most conservatives add to the above requirement that one must first repent of one's sins.

bullet Most progressive Christians downplay salvation, interpreting many biblical passages on the topics of sin and salvation as poetry.

bullet The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a person is initially saved if they are baptized, that salvation can be lost by committing a mortal sin later in life, but that salvation can be regained through the church's Sacrament of Penance & Reconciliation.

One might logically conclude that:

bullet Although individual biblical passages teach precise criteria for salvation, the Bible as a whole is ambiguous on this topic.

bullet There are many different criteria for salvation in the Bible, Christian literature, and church teaching.

bullet Christian denominations hold many conflicting beliefs about what one must do to be saved.

bullet All or essentially all faith groups are certain that their beliefs are absolutely correct.

bullet Many Christians are not confident that they know exactly how to be saved. However, most adopt the teachings of their own faith group as truth.

How does one select a path that assures salvation:

Simply accepting the teachings of one's own denomination may be dangerous. With so many conflicting beliefs about salvation among Christian faith groups today, the chances are very high that a Christian's own denomination is wrong about salvation. Unfortunately, if a person believes in the reality of Hell, the stakes are very high. It is of paramount importance to be confident of one's salvation.

Some Christians believe that they can assess God's will through prayer. However, a small-scale pilot study that we conducted indicates that prayer is a very unreliable method of determining God's will.

One way to work out their salvation may be for Christians to go back to the basics: "WDJS" (What Did Jesus Say?).

In the following excerpts from the Gospels, the authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke record Jesus' statements on the topic of salvation.

How reliable are the biblical passages on salvation?

The reliability of passages dealing with Jesus' teachings is an open question:

bullet Many conservative Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant, and that these passages are without error. Thus, the words that Jesus actually said in Aramaic -- his native language -- were accurately translated into Greek and recorded in the original autograph copies of the books of the Bible without error.
bullet Many mainline and liberal Christians believe that the authors of the Gospel partly based their writing on an evolving oral tradition, and partly on a desire to promote their own group's teachings. Thus, there is a high probability that many the passages presented as quotations of Jesus' actual words were never actually said by him.
bullet Even if Jesus' thoughts were accurately recorded in the original copy of the author's writings, they may have been altered by subsequent scribes.

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Passage 1: Matthew 25:34-45:

Matthew 25:31-45 appears to precisely describe the details of the Last Judgment (sometimes called the "Day of the Lord"), when Jesus is expected judge every human who has ever lived. The passage explains that he will separate those who are saved (the sheep) from those who are not saved (the goats). The saved will "inherit the kingdom" -- that is, go to Heaven. The unsaved will go to Hell where a literal interpretation of the Bible implies that God has established torture chambers where the inhabitants will experience eternal pain without any hope of relief.

The passage in the King James Version of the Bible eloquently describes the scene:

"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:"

bullet "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat:

bullet I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink:

bullet I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

bullet Naked, and ye clothed me:

bullet I was sick, and ye visited me:

bullet I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Webmaster's comment: [bias alert]

The Sheep and Goats section in the Gospel of Matthew appears to state in very plain language that a person's admittance into Heaven after death is solely determined by their good deeds while they are alive on Earth. Religious beliefs, religious affiliation, gender, race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. appear to be of no significance.

Matthew was written circa 67 CE. 6 However, it is important to note that other passages referring to salvation in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) were written by followers of Jesus between 50 and 85 CE -- about 21 to 56 years after his execution by the Roman Army. Although the Epistle of James also stresses good works, most of the other gospels and epistles link salvation to specific beliefs rather than good deeds. Today, many conservative Christian denominations and sects largely ignore a literal interpretation of the Sheep and Goats section. They teach that a person can be saved only by repenting of their bad deeds, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Some groups have even dropped the need for repentance, because it is a "good work." Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Heaven is primarily a state of being rather than a place.

Unfortunately, if we assume that Heaven and Hell exist as the only two places where a person will spend eternity, then the Sheep and Goats section does not give sufficient information so that a person can determine for themselves what their personal destination will be after death. Everyone has performed some good deeds during their life that have helped other people and some bad deeds that have either hurt them or ignored their plight. The passage does not indicate how a person can compute whether their overall behavior has earned them a "passing grade."

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

The books cited are not necessarily still in print.

  1. Philip Comfort, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1990), Page 89-90.
  2. Ibid, Page 209.
  3. Ibid, Page 210.
  4. Harold Willmington, "Bible Handbook," Tyndale House, (1997), Page 544.
  5. Charles Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1971), Page 639 - 640.
  6. "Appendix 8: Chronological Order of the Books of the New Testament," Bible Study Tools, (2017) at:

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Copyright 2006 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-AUG-22
Latest update: 2017-MAR-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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