I know what you're thinking: salvation is simple! After all, just look at John 3:16: God loved the world so much he sent his Son so that whoever believes in him will be saved. Surely that is simple, right?
It might seem so, but the closer you look, the more that initial veneer of simplicity dissolves into an unsettling complexity.
What do you need to believe to be saved?
Let's start with this question: what does it mean to believe in Jesus?
At first blush, Paul appears to provide a simple answer to that question in Romans 10:9: "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (NIV) So believe Jesus is Lord and God raised him back to life: that's what you need to believe to be saved.
Simple? Actually, no, it isn't.
Here's the problem: there are many groups outside of historic, orthodox Christianity that affirm those two claims. Mormons, for example, profess to believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. Does that mean that Mormons are saved?
Many Christians believe the answer is no: Mormons aren't saved. The reason is that while they may accept the claims of Romans 10:9, they also accept many other claims that are incompatible with orthodox Christianity. For example, Mormon theology asserts that God was once a human being who evolved to become God and that human beings can themselves become gods. These claims are directly opposed to Christian theology, and that conflict is considered by many people to be sufficient to overwhelm any benefit the Mormon might gain from affirming Romans 10:9.
However, if that is true then it follows that Romans 10:9 does not provide a full summary of the belief requirements of salvation. It turns out that in addition to believing Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, you also need to disbelieve many other things, including the Mormon claim in evolving deities.
And with that, we find that we are back facing our original dilemma. What exactly is the full list of beliefs you need to accept and what is the full list of beliefs you need to deny in order to be saved? And why isn't this clearer? Why should we have to debate this at all? Why aren't the belief requirements of salvation indisputably clear and available to all?
How do you need to live to be saved?
As troubling as the question of belief is, there are other problems when it comes to salvation. For example, consider the question of good works. What do we need to do in order to be saved?
Again, a simple answer suggests itself. In this case, we can find that answer elegantly stated in Ephesians 2:8-9: "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."
And once again, after a closer look that initial simplicity dissolves. To be sure, we can all agree that the basis for salvation is Christ's atoning work: we are not saved on account of our good works. Nonetheless, that does not change the fact that there are many warnings in Scripture which describe particular behaviors which are expected and even required of those who are saved by Christ.
To note one unsettling example, in Matthew 25 Jesus provides a sobering description of salvation and judgment with respect to two groups: the sheep who are welcomed into eternal life and the goats who receive punishment. Notably, Jesus never describes the sheep as those who believed the right doctrines. Rather, he identifies the sheep in terms of their actions, namely how they treat the poor, sick, imprisoned, and so on. I don't know about you, but I can say that my track record on embracing the least of these is mixed, at best.
This focus on the ethical dimension of the life of discipleship is not limited to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul provides another angle on moral action, and his treatment is no less unsettling than that of Jesus. He lists several behaviors that he warns will exclude a person from the kingdom of God. The list includes wrongdoers, the sexually immoral, idolaters, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers.
Paul's kingdom exclusion sin list invites many questions. What exactly does it mean to be a wrongdoer? How greedy do you need to be for your greed to exclude you from the kingdom? Have you ever slandered or gossiped about anyone? Is lusting after a person sufficient to qualify you as sexually immoral? Jesus seems to say it is (Matthew 5:28). And just how much of this bad behavior is sufficient to undermine your salvation?
Perhaps the most disturbing fact of all is that we human beings tend to be rather adept at spotting sin in others but rather poor at spotting it in ourselves (Matthew 7:3-5). Given that fact, it seems possible that we might spend our lives deluding ourselves into thinking we're walking a holy journey on the narrow road when, in fact, we're sinners on the broad path to destruction.
When do you need to believe to be saved?
Many other questions about salvation arise in my mind but here I'll consider just one more: when do you need to get your beliefs and actions in order so that you may be saved? This question hit me with renewed force some years ago when my daughter was born.
Evangelicals have long had a ready answer to this question: in short, they say that there is an age of accountability. Prior to this age, children do not need to believe in Jesus in order to be saved, but once they cross that accountability threshold, God expects right belief and holy living.
The fact is, however, that you won't find a verse in scripture which clearly teaches an age of accountability. And if there is such a threshold of accountability, when is it? Unfortunately, there is absolutely no consensus on this question. As a result, the birth and rearing of children occur in the shadow of possible damnation.
No wonder my parents were insistent that I pray a sinner's prayer when I was five years old: better to be safe than sorry!
In one sense, salvation is simple. At least, it is simple if we focus on the general fact that God sent his Son to die for our sins so that we might be saved. But once you apply that general truth to the particularities of an individual life, that simplicity begins to dissolve. In its place we are left with a myriad of questions like these: Precisely what do you need to believe (and not believe) in order to be saved? How do you need to live? Are there sins that undermine your salvation altogether? Are there sins that undermine your salvation when they reach a particular level of frequency? And if so, when is that? Finally, when are you morally accountable for your beliefs and actions?
I've been wrestling with these questions for forty years. I started the journey as a child. It continued as I grew into a teenager and then went off to university. I've now been a seminary professor for sixteen years and while I don't have it all figured out – far from it! – I recently wrote my own answers to these questions in the book What's So Confusing About Grace?
Through it all, two things are clear to me. First, God is infinitely more loving, merciful, and wise than I can ever imagine. And second, however it is that the salvation of each individual is to be understood, that understanding must be consistent with God's infinite love, mercy, and wisdom. And that's good news, indeed.