This is part 8 of a 10 part series on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. This reformed systematic theology for children was prepared for my own family. Much of the content is based on Bruce Ware’s Big Truths for Small Hearts. This article reviews the what the Bible teaches about our salvation.

God’s Kindness and Wisdom in Choosing Some to Save

If God were to leave it up to us, not a single person would ever want to be with God, and no one would ever desire to do what pleases God.

“As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

God, in his mercy and undeserved kindness, has decided that he will not leave all of us in our sin to face his judgment. Instead God has decided to choose some sinners to be the objects of his most precious love, to receive kindness and grace that they do not deserve, to have their sins forgiven by the death of his Son, and to enter into fellowship with him now and forever.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:3-6)

What Must I Do to Be Saved?

Sinners are saved when they “believe” in Christ or “trust” in Christ or put their “faith” in Christ. Belief, trust, and faith in Christ are different ways to talk about the same idea in the Bible.

To believe in Christ (or trust in Christ or put faith in Christ) means to rely completely on what Christ has done in his death and resurrection for my sin. My hope of being right in God’s sight is all because of Christ and has nothing to do with any good thing I might ever say or do.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)

While faith is the opposite of “works” (Ephesians 2:8–9), faith is also the opposite of “not obeying.”

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)

The Bible speaks about turning from our sin (repentance) and believing in Christ. Repentance involves seeing sin for the deceitful and deadly thing that it is, so that we turn from it. Belief in Christ involves seeing Christ for the gracious and powerful Savior that he is, so that we turn to him. These two acts go together in a person’s salvation.

“And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

“Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:21)

Declared Right in God’s Eyes When We Believe

At the moment that sinners trust Christ alone for the forgiveness of all of their sins and the only hope they have of receiving eternal life, God credits them with the righteousness of His own Son.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The plan of salvation involves three acts of imputation.

  • God imputes Adam’s sin on us.
  • God imputes (charges) believer’s sins to Christ.
  • God imputes (credits) Christ’s righteousness to believers.

Some have referred to this as “the great exchange.” God imputes our sin to Christ, and in exchange God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who believe.

When God imputes (credits) the righteousness of Christ to those who believe, those believers are seen by God as righteous. Believers continue to have sinful inner lives. They continue to struggle with not always thinking the right thoughts, having the right attitudes, saying the right words, or doing the right things. God declares as righteous those who are still very unrighteous only because they have been given the righteousness of another, the perfect righteousness of Christ.

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)

Made More Like Christ through All of Our Lives

Sin is both a penalty that we cannot pay, and sin is a power that we cannot overcome. The Bible talks about two ways that God works in believers’ lives that deal with the two ways that sin has hurt them. Through the work of Christ on the cross, God has planned a way to take care of the penalty of sin we deserve to pay and a way to take care of the power of sin that holds us as its prisoners.

God’s way to deal with the penalty of sin that we cannot pay is God’s plan of justification. God’s way to deal with the power of sin that we cannot overcome is God’s plan of sanctification. The term sanctification means to be set apart or separate, to be different, to be holy.

In sanctification, God goes to work in our lives to overpower sin’s power, to bring to an end sin’s control, to free us from sin’s slavery.

At the very moment that a sinner puts faith in Christ to be saved, God separates that person from the control of Satan and frees that person from slavery to sin. God does this as he places that person instead in Christ. We might call this way in which we are separated from Satan and unto Christ our positional sanctification.

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

A second way we should think of God’s work to remove sin from our lives, making us more like Christ, might be called progressive sanctification. This involves God’s daily work in us, helping us to turn from sin and become more like Christ day by day.

  • The Bible can work powerfully to change how we think, how we feel, and how we live. Giving much attention to reading the Bible and hearing it faithfully preached can bring about great growth in our lives.
  • Prayer is a very important tool that God uses to help us understand how much we need God, how dependent we are on God.
  • Fellowship of other believers can give us comfort, encouragement, correction, and instruction to see better how Christ would have us live.

Not Saved by Good Works But Saved For Good Works

While good works have nothing to do with why we have been saved, good works truly show that we have been saved.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)

If we say that we have trusted Christ, but we have no desire to obey Christ or please Christ or do the good works God wants us to do, then it may be that we have not truly trusted Christ. We are saved for good works, and those good works will begin to show more and more in the lives of Christ’s real followers.

Every person who truly puts faith in Christ alone for salvation and is justified will be made fully like Christ and glorified. (John 10:27-29; Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 1:8-9; Ephesians 1:13-14; Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 1 Peter 1:3-5)

People Must Know and Believe in Christ to Be Saved

Jesus’ teaching shows that the nations need to hear and repent to be saved.

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49)

  • What is the present condition of people, as Jesus describes them here? Answer: unforgiven and unrepentant sinners. And since they are still in their sin, they are not saved.
  • What must happen for them to be forgiven (saved)? Answer: they must repent of their sin.
  • What is needed for them to repent of their sin so they can be forgiven and saved? Answer: a proclamation is needed that calls them to repent.
  • What is the content of the proclamation? Answer: they are to hear a proclamation “in his name”; so the content must be about Jesus who suffered and rose on the third day.
  • Who are these unrepentant and unforgiven sinners who need to repent to be saved but who can only repent as they hear a proclamation of Christ and the gospel? Answer: “all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” All people in all the nations, even those in Jerusalem who have the Law of Moses and the whole Old Testament, need to hear about Christ in order to repent, to be forgiven, to be saved.
Paul teaches that even devout Jews, and everyone else, must hear and believe in Christ to be saved.

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-4)

“For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:13-15)

Cornelius’s story demonstrates that even devout Gentiles must hear and believe in Christ to be saved.

“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:38-43)

“He will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” (Acts 11:14)

Jesus is the only Savior, and people must know and believe in Christ to be saved.


Basic Christian Beliefs Series

Part 1Who Is God?
Part 2What Is the Trinity?
Part 3God the Sovereign Creator
Part 4Our Human Nature and Sin
Part 5Person of Jesus Christ
Part 6Works of Jesus Christ
Part 7Holy Spirit
Part 8Our Salvation
Part 9Church of Jesus Christ
Part 10Second Coming of Jesus Christ

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