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What must one do to be saved?

What did Jesus teach?

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

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

bulletSalvation is by faith only.
bulletSalvation is by works and faith.
bulletSalvation is by works only.
bulletSalvation is by faith motivated by love.

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

bulletSalvation is pre-determined; we cannot influence our own salvation.
bulletSalvation occurs at baptism.
bulletSalvation for some infants and mentally challenged adults is automatic.

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

bulletSome passages in the Bible suggest that all non-Christians will be lost.
bulletUniversalist and liberal Christians generally believe that all will be saved.

The thousands of Christian faith groups in the world 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:

bulletSome conservative Protestants believe that one need only trust Jesus as Lord and Savior to be saved.
bulletMost conservatives add to the above requirement that one must first repent of one's sins.
bulletMost progressive Christians downplay salvation, interpreting many biblical passages on the topics of sin and salvation as poetry.
bulletThe Roman Catholic Church teaches that a person is initially saved if they are baptized, that salvation can be lost by committing a mortal sin, but that salvation can be regained through church sacraments.

One might logically conclude that:

bulletAlthough individual biblical passages teach precise criteria for salvation, the Bible as a whole is ambiguous on this topic.
bulletThere are many different criteria for salvation in the Bible, Christian literature and church teaching.
bulletChristian denominations hold many conflicting beliefs about what one must do to be saved.
bulletAll or essentially all faith groups are certain that their beliefs are absolutely correct.
bulletMany Christians are not confident that they know exactly how to be saved. However, most adopt the teachings of their faith group.

How does one select a path that assures salvation:

Most Christians simply accept the teachings of their own denomination. This 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:

bulletMany conservative Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant, and that these passages are without error. Thus, the words that Jesus actually said in Aramaic were accurately translated into Greek and recorded in the original autograph copies of the books of the Bible without error.
bulletMany 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.
bulletEven if Jesus' thoughts were accurately recorded in the original copy of the author's writings, they may have been altered by subsequent scribes.

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 they will be eternally tortured without any hope of relief.

The passage in the King James Version of the Bible 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:
bulletI was thirsty, and ye gave me drink:
bulletI was a stranger, and ye took me in:
bulletNaked, and ye clothed me:
bulletI was sick, and ye visited me:
bulletI was in prison, and ye came unto me."

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:"

bullet"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:
bulletI was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink
bulletI was a stranger, and ye took me not in:
bulletNaked, and ye clothed me not:
bulletSick, and in prison, and ye visited me not."

"Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." [Emphasis ours]

Interpretation of Matthew 25:34-45:

The message appears clear and easy to understand. Personal salvation is by works only. It is given to all those who care for the poor and disadvantaged -- people who care for anyone who is without food, without friends, in need of clothing, are sick are imprisoned, etc. Salvation and eternal life in Heaven is denied to anyone who did not help the needy while he or she was alive on Earth. One interesting twist is that the "sheep" were surprised that their good works were in any way related to Jesus. They had apparently helped the poor and disadvantaged out of love and compassion, and not with any expectation that their good works would have an effect on their eternal destiny.

One interesting feature of this passage is that salvation is solely based upon a persons acts of charity to others; it is in no way dependent upon what the individual believes about Jesus' status, or what God -- if any -- the person worships. So, Matthew 25 would imply that Agnostics, Atheists, Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Hindus, Muslims, Satanists, Wiccans, and others will attain Heaven after death if they are kind to others by observing their faith's Ethic of Reciprocity -- the Golden Rule.

The literal, straight-forward interpretation of this passage reveals that salvation is by works, not faith. This is a profound thought, which leads directly to religious inclusivism and pluralism.

This conflicts with the teachings of many religions that only their followers will attain Heaven. Also, fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians generally teach that salvation is by faith, not works. They have various alternate interpretations of this passage that make it compatible with their beliefs.

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Passage 2: Mark 10:18-25, etc:

This passage appears, with a few differences, in Mark 10:18-23, Matthew 19:16-23 and Luke 18:18-24.

bullet Most conservative Christians believe that the authors of the Gospels were inspired by God to write material that is completely free of error. So it does not matter much which of the parallel passages is studied.
bullet Most liberal Christians believe that Mark is the first of the four canonic Gospel to be written. The anonymous authors of Matthew and Luke extensively recycled material from the Gospel of Mark circa 80 and 90 CE. Since the original message of Jesus became corrupted with developing oral traditions in the decades after Jesus' execution, the earliest Gospel would be typically the most accurate.

The author of Mark wrote:

"And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother."

"And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" [Emphasis ours]

Interpretation of Mark 10:18-25:

The first two verses in this passage are curious. The person asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life -- that is, to be saved -- referred to him as "Good Master." All three gospels agree on this wording. Jesus replied that only God was good, and that everyone else is not good, including himself. This is one of the verses used by the original Christians -- the Jewish Christian movement which was centered in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus. The verse supported their belief that Jesus was fully man, was the latest and greatest of the Jewish prophets, was not a God, and was not conceived in a virginal conception. Being a fully human prophet, Jesus would have sinned, and thus not been completely "good." The Pauline Christian movement, which arrived on the scene some years after Jesus' execution, disagreed with these beliefs. It expanded and eventually became the Catholic Church.

The remainder of the passage indicates that Jesus taught that personal salvation is by works only: Jesus first lists five of the Ten Commandments as instructions that must be followed in order to gain salvation. These are all related to works that one must do or avoid. Using the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox sequence of Exodus 20:

bullet Exodus 20:12: 7th commandment: Do not commit adultery.
bullet Exodus 20:13: 6th commandment: Do not kill.
bullet Exodus 20:15: 8th commandment: Do not steal.
bullet Exodus 20:16: 9th commandment: Do not bear false witness.
bullet Exodus 20:12: 5th commandment: Honor one's parents.
It is notable that Jesus does not list any of the first four commandments as being necessary for salvation. These are related to one's relationship with Yahweh:

bullet To worship no other God than Yahweh.
bullet To not make images and bow before them.
bullet To not take the name of Yahweh in vain.
bullet To keep Saturday, the Sabbath day, holy.
The implication appears to be that one's beliefs about, and responses to, God are not important to one's salvation. Only one's works -- particularly those activities involving other people -- that are important.

Jesus also does not include the 10th commandment as needed for salvation. It states that one is not to covet any of one's neighbor' possessions: their house, wife, male slave, female slave, animals, etc.

Jesus adds three additional requirements for salvation. Again, all are "works:"

bullet "Defraud not." Jesus adds this requirement between his reference to the 9th and 5th commandment. He may have considered it to be a type of corollary or a commentary on the 9th commandment. Defrauding someone might be considered a type of false witness. On the other hand, some commentators somehow believe that defrauding others is equivalent to coveting other's possessions; they suggest that this is a reference to the 10th commandment. 2
bullet "Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor." This appears to mean that one is to convert any assets not absolutely needed to maintain a simple standard of life, and give the proceeds to those in need. However, some suggest that the sentence should not be interpreted literally; it really means that one should value God more than one's riches. 3
bullet "Come, take up the cross, and follow me" This apparently means to become a member of Jesus' inner circle, accept a life of simplicity and poverty, and travel the countryside with Jesus and his disciples. This option does not appear to be applicable to people alive in the 21st century, unless it is interpreted symbolically.


According to these statements attributed to Jesus, salvation is by doing good works:

bullet Help the poor and disadvantaged:
bullet Those who are without food.
bullet Strangers.
bullet Persons in need of clothing.
bullet Those who are sick.
bullet The imprisoned.
bullet Dispose of your assets and give everything that you can to the poor.
bullet Honor your parents.
One must also avoid certain evil activities:

bullet Adultery.
bullet Killing.
bullet Stealing.
bullet Bearing false witness.
bullet Defrauding others
Religious duties have little or no impact on one's salvation. It does not matter whether one:

bullet Worships Yahweh, or another God, or a Goddess, or perhaps no God at all.
bullet Creates statues and other images and bowing down in front of them.
bullet Takes the name of Yahweh in vain.
bullet Does not keep Saturday, the Sabbath day, holy.
If we are to accept these two passages at face value, it would appear that Jesus taught that salvation is purely a matter of ones good and bad works. A person's beliefs and practices concerning God do not matter. Thus, followers of any religion -- or none -- have an opportunity to go to Heaven.  The only criteria for salvation are the acts that one performs which involve other persons -- particularly one's parents, the disadvantaged, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned, etc.

Comparing these passages with others in the Christian Scriptures:

bullet A passage in Revelation 20:11-12 supports the concept of all people being judged according to their works, as recorded in books in Heaven:
"And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works." [Emphasis ours]

bullet Many passages in James also supports salvation through works. Centuries later, Martin Luther demoted the book to a mere appendix at the end of the Christian Scriptures, because of its emphasis on works.

Consider James 1:27:
"Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

There is also James 2:14-24:

"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?"

"If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone."....

"But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?"

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God."

"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."

Many additional verses in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke reinforce the concept of salvation by good works only. However, most of the other books in the Christian Scriptures teach very different criteria for salvation:

bullet The gospel of John primarily teaches that salvation is achieved by belief in Jesus -- particularly as the Son of God.
bullet The writings of St. Paul mainly teaches salvation by belief in Jesus -- particularly belief of his resurrection.

Implications in today's society:

In today's culture, the passage in Matthew 25 might translate into alleviating the suffering of all persons in need, whether they are on welfare, are sick and lack health insurance, are imprisoned, etc. That passage and Mark 10 appear to call into question the prime directive in North American society: The American Dream, which is to work hard, accumulate wealth, and enjoy one's possessions.

The passages provide much food for thought for government laws regarding:

bullet Abortion access.

bullet Benefits and protections for common-law couples, same-sex couples, and their children.
bullet Hospice care.
bullet Income tax rates, particularly for higher income earners.
bullet Physician assisted suicide.
bullet Universal health insurance.
bullet Welfare services.
bullet etc.

Reference used:

  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.

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or Home > Christianity > Christian themes > Beliefs > Salvation > here

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Copyright 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-AUG-22
Latest update: 2011-JAN-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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