What does a person need to believe to be saved?
To Christians this is an important question; not so that we can bash people over the head with the label ‘heretic’ who don’t meet that standard, but for sake of evangelism to the world. We are, after all, called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19); one of the church’s greatest missions on earth, and one of the greatest ways she shows her love for her Lord, is to seek the salvation of the lost. This is something that should be near and dear to the heart of all Christians then, firstly as we ourselves know the great value of salvation, which should motivate us to share that with others; and secondly, if we genuinely love God and the Lord Jesus Christ, we will genuinely love and care about our fellow man as They do, and desire man’s salvation, to the glory of God.
The question of ‘what does a person need to believe to be saved?’ then, is very important one to be able to answer, if we are going to try to reach the lost. Faith is of course required for salvation; it is upon grounds of faith and repentance that scripture teaches a person may be baptized as a Christian and received into the fellowship of the church. But faith in which doctrines is required? Scripture, after all, teaches many doctrines; which together comprise “the faith handed down once for all”, as Jude calls it (Jude 1:3). Yet, scripture does not teach that a person must know and believe everything revealed in the holy scripture to be saved.
Rather scripture distinguishes between doctrinal ‘milk’ and doctrinal ‘meat’; there are some doctrines suited for new believers, who are not spiritually mature or discerning, and some that are suited for more mature believers. Less mature believers, which scripture at times refers to as “carnal” and ‘immature’ may not be able or willing to accept the ‘meatier’ doctrines of the faith right away; yet scripture does not for that reason declare these believers to be any less true Christians than those who are more mature. Scripture itself then distinguishes between parts of the faith which are required for all Christians to believe, and those which are not required to be saved, but are to be learned and accepted by the spiritually mature.
“Concerning him [Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” Hebrews 5:11-6:2 (NASB)
The “faith handed down once for all”, then, is much broader than what scripture calls the “gospel” or “foundation”. The gospel, or foundation, is what is must be known and believed in order to be saved; its acceptance is required for Christian baptism or reception into the church as a believer. The other doctrines of the faith are not required for Christian baptism, yet, they are true, revealed doctrines, that can be known with certainty to be true on the basis of the holy scriptures. These ‘meaty’ doctrines cover a much wider variety of topics than the gospel does, and include more detail on topics that are aspects of the gospel; and these doctrines, as true, known, revealed doctrines, are worthy to be taught, preached, believed, and known by Christians as important parts of that faith handed down once for all. Yet, their importance and value does not make them part of the gospel; and while knowledge and assent to them can be reasonably expected to accompany growth as a Christian, as one matures in their understanding and studies the scriptures, they are never to be added to the gospel as something which must be known and believed in order to be saved.
For when answering the question, ‘what must a person believe to be saved?’, we can err in one of two ways in answering this question, by either setting the bar too high, and requiring more of people than God does, or by setting it too low, and thereby giving people a false assurance of salvation when they have not met God’s standard. Both are serious problems; adding to the gospel can do great harm by making someone to trust in something other than the provision God has made for their salvation to save them; it can also simply set a stumbling block before them to accepting the gospel at all.
An example of this is found in the ‘Judaizers’, early Christian teachers who taught that in addition to believing the gospel preached by the apostles, a person must also be baptized and observe the law of Moses to be saved. This addition to the gospel, if believed, would cause a person to not only trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, but also their works of fleshly circumcision and law-keeping; and by causing a person to not trust solely in God’s provision for them, could jeopardize their own salvation, scripture tells us (Gal 5:4). In response to these teachings, the apostle Paul wrote:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel more than what we have preached to you, he is to be anathema! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel more than what you received, he is to be anathema!” Galatians 1:8-9 (NASB)
The above anathemas, or, declarations of curses, are one major motivation for us to not add to the gospel. Besides the great harm doing so can cause to others, scripture tells us that the one who preaches a gospel more than what the apostles taught is anathema, or accursed. This does not include merely the particular additions of the false teachers Paul was dealing with, but any addition to the gospel. That includes other works besides circumcision and those of the Mosaic law, as well as false doctrines. But let us also note that in addition to works and false doctrines, true doctrines which are not part of the gospel would be equally prohibited; for it is just as much an addition to the gospel to preach some revealed, true doctrine, that God has given as ‘meat for the mature’ as part of the gospel, as it is to add anything else to it.
This serves to greatly highlight how important the distinction between doctrinal ‘milk’ and ‘meat’ is then; for to mix them up, and to give doctrinal meat to spiritual infants as something that they must know and believe in order to be saved, may not only present an enormous stumbling block to those who are being saved, but may cause us to fall under the anathemas given by the apostle Paul. We may not add anything to the gospel of Christ, as preached by His apostles- even true doctrines which have been handed down by those same apostles as part of the Christian faith. We may not safely lay any other foundation, or preach any other gospel, than what the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ preached. Thus we have very good reason to want to be careful that we do not add anything to the gospel.
But we must avoid the opposite extreme of detracting from the gospel as well; for if we risk great injury by adding to it, we must remember that a watered-down gospel poses an equally serious problem; there are things scripture tells us must be believed by a person in order to be saved, in order to qualify for Christian baptism, or to be received into Christian churches as a brother in the Lord. A watered down version of this, missing some required component, will not be able to save a person.
An example of this is the Docetist heresy faced by the early church during the lifetime of the apostles. These false teachers taught that the Lord Jesus Christ had not really come in the flesh; He was, according to them, a mere phantasm or spirit of some kind, which although it appeared human, was not human. And so, they detracted from the gospel preached by the apostles Christ’s real humanity, and with it, His real suffering and death on our behalf, and His real bodily resurrection. In short, they preached a different Christ than the apostles. Although they would have affirmed parts of the gospel, their denial of other parts of it disqualified them from really being Christians in the eyes of the apostles; for scripture teaches that in order to be saved, one must believe the entire gospel. Thus 2 John 7:10 tells us Docestists were to be regarded as antichrists and false teachers, and to be rejected from Christian fellowship.
All this should highlight how important it is to get the gospel right; if we preach a gospel less than that of the apostles, it is insufficient to save; and if we preach a gospel more than the apostles, we ourselves are anathema. So scripture presents this as something which we must get right, neither adding to nor subtracting from the gospel.
What then, is the gospel? It is not, as we have said, all things taught in the scriptures; for many of those doctrine, while part of the Christian faith, are not part of the foundation, the gospel, required for Christian baptism, but are intended to be learned and known by those growing into spiritual maturity. And it certainly does not include anything not delivered in the holy scriptures; for although we may speculate about things not revealed, no such thing can be part of the gospel, for we have the gospel preached by the apostles repeated many times in the scriptures, full, and complete. The gospel is then, that simple message preached by the apostles, which men, upon believing and repenting towards God, could receive Christian baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). It then must surely include faith in “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”; and as we read earlier, the foundation includes teaching regarding “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (Heb 6:1-2 NASB). The gospel is likewise summed up by Paul:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NASB)
The good news of God’s coming kingdom, over which Christ is God’s appointed king, is also an important aspect of the gospel:
“Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:23 (NASB)
“But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.” Acts 8:12 (NASB)
This may sound like a lot, but ultimately, this gospel is simple. Combined with the teaching of the apostles throughout the book of Acts, we might sum up the gospel, or doctrinal “foundation” of Christianity as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible;
And in the man Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, our Lord, Who was crucified, died for our sins, and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead; Who ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, from which He shall come to judge the living and the dead;
And in the Holy Spirit;
And in the resurrection of the flesh, eternal judgement, the kingdom of God and Christ, and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. Amen.
This simple creed may sound familiar as the ‘rule of faith’ so frequently referred to by early church fathers in their writings as the doctrinal standard of their day. Creeds like this would typically be used as baptismal creeds; a summary of a person’s faith in Christ to be recited at the time of baptism. Belief in said faith and repentance from one’s sins was the only requirement for baptism for the remission of sins, and with it, reception into the Christian church.
This summary encapsulates the message found throughout the book of Acts as preached by the apostles. It includes all the elements of faith listed in Hebrews 6 (faith towards God, in the resurrection of the dead, and in judgment with eternal consequences), and the main points of Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, including the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It includes faith in the only true God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; for one can hardly believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, the anointed of God, without believing in the God whose Christ and Son He is. “For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you 21 who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” 1 Peter 1:20-21 (NASB). It includes all that according to Jesus is necessary for eternal life; “This is eternal life, that they may know You [Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 (NASB). In short, it includes everything that scripture reveals to us is part of the gospel, everything that during the ministry of the apostles, a person was expected to know and believe in order to be a Christian.
Its just as noteworthy what is not included here as what is. Notice that it does not include any teaching that a person needed to become a member of one particular church; in baptism a person became a member of the body of Christ, and as such, was qualified to become a member of a local church, but membership within a certain local church was not part of what saved a person. Likewise, while acceptance of a gospel other than that of the apostles could cause a person to “fall from grace”, and trusting in any other gospel was dangerous, notice that the gospel preached by the apostles did not include any very detailed teaching on soteriology. A person was to understand that they were receiving salvation, including forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit, as a gift from God on the basis of their faith in the gospel and their repentance; but the detailed mechanics of soteriology were not included in the gospel. For instance, when Peter preached to the Jews in Acts 2, or to the gentile Cornelius and his household in Acts 10, detailed breakdowns of God’s foreknowledge and predestination never seem to have entered the discussion, although scripture includes teaching on these subjects.
Its also worth considering what teaching about the Trinity is included in this apostolic gospel. Faith in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one God, the Maker of all things, was included; and although with many audiences in the book of Acts this point was able to be assumed and built upon by the apostles without much explanation, we see that when Paul preached to those not familiar with the Old Testament and the God of the Bible, he spent considerable time beginning his presentation of the gospel with an explanation of Who the one God is, as we see when he preached to the Athenians in Acts 17.
Regarding the Lord Jesus Christ we may note that his humanity is frequently asserted, as are the details of his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and the good news of his kingdom. His role as God’s appointed Christ, Lord, King, Savior, and Judge features heavily in the apostles preaching, and the fact that God will judge all men through the Lord Jesus Christ is emphasized much.
But it is very noteworthy that there is basically no mention whatsoever of the Lord’s pre-existence or divinity in any sermon in the book of Acts, or in any of the first three gospels; He is only spoken of as a man empowered, appointed, and sent by God. This indicates that even if these doctrines are true, delivered as part of the faith handed down once for all, they are not part of the gospel, or something required to be known and believed to be saved. The fact that, according to the book of Acts, basically everyone who heard the apostles preach would have been entirely ignorant of these doctrines when they were baptized for the remission of sins and reconciled to God, shows us that they are not part of the gospel which must be known and believed to be saved.
Finally it may come as a shock that while belief in the Holy Spirit can seen to be required by the baptismal formula’s inclusion of the name of the Holy Spirit, basically no detail about the Holy Spirit seems to have been required to be known or believed. Bare belief that, in addition to God and His Christ there is also a Holy Spirit, seems to have been enough for the apostles to view someone as having sufficient faith to receive baptism. Notice that not only is the Holy Spirit never explicitly taught to be God or to possess a divine nature, but it is also never even clarified that the Holy Spirit is a person. The personhood of the Holy Spirit is taught by scripture, and can be known with certainty to be a true doctrine; yet this is never shown to be a point emphasized as necessary to be understood in order to be saved.
Its noteworthy that the details of trinitarian doctrine are absent from the gospel. Of course there is an enormous amount that God has revealed to us about Himself, His Son, and His Spirit; there is much scripture says concerning the relationships between these persons, their roles, their attributes, etc. Yet these truths are not therefore part of the gospel, but are rather valuable truths revealed to us that we may grow in the knowledge of God and Christ as we mature in the faith. And if those many details revealed in scripture pertaining to these things are not part of the gospel, how much less could anyone rightly think that any extra-biblical speculation, or mere theories, or plausibilities, which are not revealed in the scriptures themselves, are part of the gospel?
Whatever one wishes to guess or theorize about concerning the nature of the Son or the Holy Spirit, or if the Son was begotten by the Father before the world was and literally pre-existed his conception in Mary, or other such questions, cannot even be regarded as truly being part of the Christian faith, unless they are delivered as such in the Bible; much less can they be considered to somehow be required of anyone for salvation, or made a requirement to be imposed upon a person without which they cannot receive Christian baptism, or be admitted to, or remain a member of, a Christian church.
Those then who believe such doctrines to be required for salvation should examine themselves and their beliefs closely, to see if these things they say are necessary for salvation really have warrant from the scriptures as such. For despite whatever any council or pope may have said, the anathemas of the apostle Paul, or rather, the Lord Jesus who spoke by him, will be of more weight than any decision of theirs; and when God has declared that no man may add to the gospel of His Son without being accursed, let us not suppose that popes and councils may have made it otherwise, or done anything to controvert what the Lord has said. Anyone who adds to the gospel preached by the apostles is, according to the scriptures, anathema; let us each beware lest that be us.
Finally, let us beware of any doctrine which so contradicts the rule of faith as to deny any part of it; for just as the Docetists denied the humanity of the Lord Jesus, and the Gnostics denied the Father of the Lord Jesus, teaching that He is not the one God, the Almighty, the Maker of all things, but that He was one of multiple Gods, and another besides the Maker of all; so too other false teachings have since arisen which deny the gospel as well.
Today there are still some who deny the true humanity and death of the Son of God; there are many who deny that the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only true God; modalism is today a rampant heresy, deceiving many, which, by making God and Christ one and the same, denies the Father and the Son, the first article and the second article of the rule of faith. For one does not believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, if they believe that He is the God Whose Christ He is supposed to be; and they do not believe that He is the Son of God, if He is the same God Whose Son He is supposed to be. For these do not really believe in a Christ of God or Son of God at all, but simply believe in a God which takes on Himself the role of Christ, who may be called both Father and Son.