What must one do to be saved?
What did Jesus teach?
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:
|Salvation is by faith only.|
|Salvation is by works and faith.|
|Salvation is by works only.|
|Salvation is by faith motivated by love.|
There are also criteria for salvation contained in Christian creeds and other non-biblical writings:
|Salvation is pre-determined; we cannot influence our own salvation.|
|Salvation occurs at baptism.|
|Salvation for some infants and mentally challenged adults is automatic.|
Finally, no agreement exists about whether non-Christians will be saved:
|Some passages in the Bible suggest that all non-Christians will be lost.|
|Universalist 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:
|Some conservative Protestants believe that one need only trust Jesus as
Lord and Savior to be saved.|
|Most conservatives add to the above requirement that one must first repent of one's sins.|
|Most progressive Christians downplay salvation, interpreting many biblical
passages on the topics of sin and salvation as poetry.|
|The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a person is initially saved if they
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:
|Although individual biblical passages teach precise criteria for
salvation, the Bible as a whole is ambiguous on this topic.|
|There are many different criteria for salvation in the Bible,
Christian literature and church teaching.|
|Christian denominations hold many conflicting beliefs about what one must do to be
|All or essentially all faith groups are certain that their beliefs are
|Many 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
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:
|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 were accurately
translated into Greek and recorded in the original autograph copies of the
books of the Bible without error.|
|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.|
|Even 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:"
|"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: |
|I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: |
|I was a stranger, and ye took me in:|
|Naked, and ye clothed me: |
|I was sick, and ye visited me: |
|I 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:"
|"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: |
|I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink|
|I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: |
|Naked, and ye clothed me not: |
|Sick, 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,
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
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.
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. |
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
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:
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
Exodus 20:12: 7th
commandment: Do not commit adultery. |
Exodus 20:13: 6th
commandment: Do not kill.|
Exodus 20:15: 8th
commandment: Do not steal. |
Exodus 20:16: 9th
commandment: Do not bear false witness.|
Exodus 20:12: 5th
commandment: Honor one's parents.|
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,
Jesus adds three additional requirements for salvation. Again,
all are "works:"
To worship no other God than Yahweh. |
To not make images and bow before them.|
To not take the name of Yahweh in vain.|
To keep Saturday, the Sabbath day, holy.|
"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
"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.
"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:
One must also avoid certain evil activities:
Help the poor and disadvantaged:
Those who are without food. |
Persons in need of clothing. |
Those who are sick.|
Dispose of your assets and give everything that you can
to the poor. |
Honor your parents.|
Religious duties have little or no impact on one's
salvation. It does not matter whether one:
Bearing false witness.|
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
Worships Yahweh, or another God, or a Goddess,
or perhaps no God at all. |
Creates statues and other images and bowing down in front of
Takes the name of Yahweh in vain.|
Does not keep Saturday, the Sabbath day, holy.|
Comparing these passages with others in the Christian
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]
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:
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:
"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."
The gospel of John
primarily teaches that salvation is achieved by belief in Jesus --
particularly as the Son of God.|
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
Benefits and protections for common-law couples, same-sex
couples, and their children.|
Income tax rates, particularly for higher income earners.|
Physician assisted suicide.|
Universal health insurance.|
Philip Comfort, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible,"
Tyndale House, (1990), Page 89-90.
Ibid, Page 209.
Ibid, Page 210.
Harold Willmington, "Bible Handbook," Tyndale House,
(1997), Page 544.
Charles Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume
Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1971), Page 639 - 640.
Copyright © 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2006-AUG-22
Latest update: 2011-JAN-04
Author: B.A. Robinson