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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

What must a person believe in order to be saved?

The question came up in yet another long and fraught debate about the divinity of Jesus whether belief that Jesus is God is required for salvation. Reference was made to an article by C. Michael Patton, who thinks that the following beliefs are essential for salvation: belief in God, in Christ’s deity and humanity, that “you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy”, that Christ died on the cross and was raised bodily, and that faith in Christ is necessary—in other words, you have to believe in belief. He comments:

These are the most essential doctrines of all. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

To my mind this is a standard, if rather rigorously worded, rationalist-theological summary of what is required for personal salvation. It takes the form of a set of abstracted propositions parenthetically and uncritically supported by proof texts. It assumes that salvation is primarily an existential-individual concern rather than a historical-corporate concern.

If we take the narrative-historical approach, however, we have to begin not with the personal dilemma but with Israel’s story. We will then find that the criteria for salvation are constructed not abstractly and propositionally but historically and eschatologically. Salvation is essentially something that happens to God’s people in history at a time of eschatological crisis. Those who are saved are those who believe in the decisive significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for what Israel’s God was doing at this critical moment.

He will save his people from their sins

In the Gospels salvation is the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. It is the salvation of a people from destruction at the hands of their enemies (Matt. 1:21; Lk. 1:69, 71, 77; 2:30). Individual Jews were saved or not saved as part of that narrative (eg. Lk. 19:9). The main point of belief was that the kingdom of God—the decisive, game-changing intervention of God at the end of the age—was at hand (Mk. 1:15).

For the disciples salvation consisted in faithfully following Jesus down a narrow path of suffering that would eventually lead to life for God’s people in the age to come (Matt. 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24). Salvation for the rich young ruler meant trusting Jesus enough to abandon his possessions and adopt the dangerous calling and lifestyle of the disciples (Lk. 18:22). Only those who made it to the end of this path would be saved (Matt. 24:13, 22; Mk. 13:13, 20). John’s Gospel, written from a very different perspective, tends to highlight the significance of Israel’s salvation for the world.

Salvation in the Gospels is eschatologically framed. It is part of—and inseparable from—a historical narrative. Salvation for Israel required people to think, live, and act on the assumption that YHWH was about to judge and restore his people and dramatically change their relationship to the nations. The message is not very different for the post-Easter church.

Judge of the living and the dead

Peter tells the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:14, 21). He tells the rulers of the people and elders that Israel will be saved only by appeal to the name of Jesus, whom they crucified and God raised from the dead (Acts 4:8-12). Cornelius and his household are saved by believing the message that God raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him to be “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:40-42; 11:14). The jailer in Philippi is told: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Paul’s message to the Greeks in Athens is that his God is about to judge their world by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31).

The “eternal gospel” proclaimed by the angel in Revelation 14:6 is a message of the coming judgment on the idolatrous and unjust empire of Rome.

Paul says of the Thessalonians that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, …to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10). Again, this is fundamentally an eschatological belief: like Cornelius and his household, they believed that God had raised his Son from the dead and had appointed him as the one who would come with authority to judge and with power to deliver his followers from the wrath of God against the pagan world. Through Paul”s gospel the Thessalonians were saved “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14).

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord

The same argument is found in Romans. Paul’s “gospel”, which is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”, is that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh but was appointed “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4, 16). Similarly, Paul’s gospel is “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David” (2 Tim. 2:8).

Michael Patton offers Romans 10:9 as evidence for the necessity of belief in Christ’s divinity. In this passage Paul is discussing the salvation of the Jews. They are a people facing destruction (cf. 9:22), from which they will not be saved by works of the Law, for reasons which Paul has explained earlier (eg. Rom. 2:1-3:20). However, as a demonstration of his own righteousness, his faithfulness to the covenant, God has put forward an alternative basis for righteousness (cf. Rom. 3:21-22)—belief or faith or trust in Christ or in something about Christ.

The word of faith is as near to Israel as the word of the Law (cf. Deut. 30:11-14). It is a matter simply of confessing that Jesus is Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead. That is what it will take for a person to be saved, to have the assurance that when the day of wrath comes—against Israel first, then against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē—he or she will be reckoned to have been in the right, in the eyes of God. Because there is nothing to stop Gentiles believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord, they too may have a share in God’s future.

The death of Jesus for our sins

That Jesus died for the sins of God’s people is certainly part of the story that was believed by Jews and Gentiles. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are being saved by the gospel which he handed on to them:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor. 15:3–5)

But this is not given nearly as much weight as the belief that Jesus has been made Lord and king, judge and ruler of the nations.

The “gospel of your salvation” in Ephesians 1 is that they have been redeemed through his blood in order to share in the inheritance that will be given to them as a consequence of the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of God, given a status and authority far above all other powers. In other words, they can confidently expect to share in the coming kingdom, when Christ will be confessed by the nations to the glory of God the Father. Similarly, the saints in Colossae believed the good news about the “kingdom of his beloved Son” and have therefore been qualified to share in the coming inheritance (Col. 1:3-14). The argument, in effect, is that these Gentiles have been redeemed by his blood because they have believed that Israel’s God has given his Son the authority to rule over the nations.

Finally, because Jesus learned obedience through his suffering and was “made perfect” (teleiōtheis), he “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). The writer has particular reasons for presenting the risen Jesus as a high priest, but the basic argument is the same. Jesus did not glorify himself in order to become high priest but was declared by God to be the king who would rule the nations; by his resurrection he became the priestly king who would rule forever (Heb. 5:5-6, 10). This is Philippians 2:6-11 in a different idiom.

What must a person believe in order to be saved?

So, in answer to the question “What must a person believe in order to be saved?”, I would say that we need to believe that Jesus died for the sins of his people, that God raised him from the dead, and that he was made Lord, seated at the right hand of God, given authority to judge and rule the nations. We are not living through the same crisis, but I think that works as well for us as for Jews and Greeks in the first century. We are justified now by our belief that this is really what happened in the period envisaged in the New Testament.

To confess that “Jesus is Lord” was not to confess that Jesus is God. That is not what is being said. If Paul had meant anything as convoluted as “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is God and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead”, that’s what he would have said. I don’t think Dunn does justice to the eschatological context but I think he is right to say with respect to Romans 10:12 that kyrios is:

a status given to the exalted Christ by God, and though it consists in a sharing in God’s sovereign authority it is always derivative from God and therefore to be distinguished in the end from God.1

For Jews and Greeks alike in the first century the essential criterion for salvation was the public, lived out confession that Jesus had become king as a consequence of his resurrection from the dead, which meant that sooner or later he would be recognized by the nations of the Greek-Roman world as sovereign over all authorities, dominions and powers.

That is not a theological confession. It is an eschatological confession. To reduce it to a set of general propositions leaves us a long way from the pounding historical heart of the New Testament and the worse off for it.

  • 1. J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, 610.

Comments

So to answer the question at the head of this post, you say:

Those who are saved are those who believe in the decisive significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for what Israel’s God was doing at this critical moment

The word “significance” needs explaining. Was it a significance only for them at that time, or for us today? What is the significance for us today of what God did for them at that time? What difference does it make to us today whether we believe or not what God did then for them? On what grounds do we participate in the benefits which they enjoyed?

Was the exodus only significant for the Jews of Moses’ generation or was it also significant for Jews of later periods—such as the exile period? Did Jews of later periods benefit in anyway from the redemption from slavery in Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the long journey to the promised land?

I’ve addressed your questions at length in three posts:  The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Perhaps you should complain there if you haven’t done so already.

It sounds like your saying we are saved by believing in a set of historical facts about Jesus. But doesn’t the NT make faith and belief something more than just mental assent? James says we must have works to go along with our faith. If we believe Jesus is Lord, then we will obey him. So do will need to believe that Jesus is still Lord over all people and nations, or is it enough to believe that he was made Lord over the nations 1700-2000 years ago? Seems like if we take the latter route, his Lordship means very little to us here and now?

Kent, the question addressed in the piece was: What do we have to believe? So yes, believing a set of historical facts about what God was doing through Jesus in the first century is my answer to the question. But this statement was meant to register the fact that such a belief had to be lived out, which entailed a radical form of trust in the God who was establishing his kingdom in this way:

For Jews and Greeks alike in the first century the essential criterion for salvation was the public, lived out confession that Jesus had become king as a consequence of his resurrection from the dead….

For the church to believe that Jesus is Lord today means that we recognize that we are accountable to him and that he will safeguard our integrity as we seek to live faithfully as God’s new creation, as a priestly-prophetic people in the midst of the nations and cultures of our world. This is our positive calling. We have a king so that we can fulfil that calling. The lordship of Jesus is of importance to us because we cannot effectively be God’s people without it.

The following seems to be your formula:

“So, in answer to the question “What must a person believe in order to be saved?”, I would say that we need to believe that Jesus died for the sins of his people, that God raised him from the dead, and that he was made Lord, seated at the right hand of God, given authority to judge and rule the nations.”

My first problem with this is that since it’s a selfconsciously eschatological approach, it means that everyone who takes a different view of eschatology, or who simply ignores the eschatological issue, is not saved (and that would include almost everyone in the history of the church). I doubt that’s what you actually mean, but it does seem to be what you said.

Second, it doesn’t explain how saving Israel is designed to, or is able to, save men outside of Israel. One of the things that is interesting to me in the Biblical narrative is the question, Why Israel? What is the point? If the goal is to provide a way of salvation for all of Adam’s decendants, how does Israel accomplish this? The best sense I can make of it is that they were a sort of morality play designed to demonstrate in tangible terms how God is engaging man spiritually. We know from the epistle to the Hebrews that the physical types of the Old Testament were designed to teach about spiritual anti-types or truths. I won’t repost my Titanic parable here again, but it seems like a bigger spiritual message is being transmitted through the tangible history of the nation of Israel. If you don’t accept this, then I’d appreciate it if you could answer the question of why Israel (or, the decendants of Abraham both by the flesh and of faith) exists as a solution to the problem of all men?

Doug

No, obviously I’m not going to say that people who don’t agree with my eschatology are not saved. My main contention is that the New Testament appears quite consistently to say that Jews and Greeks alike would be saved by their lived out belief that the God of Israel was pursuing this eschatological agenda through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The question then simply arises whether it would be enough to say that we are now saved by believing the same thing. I don’t think we would lose anything of importance and might gain a great deal if we took this approach. What’s at issue, however, is not people’s salvation but how we understand what it means to be engaged in the “mission” of God.

Your morality play suggestion is certainly interesting. My view is that we have overemphasized salvation. I don’t think God called a people for his own possession in order to save the world. Our calling is to be new creation, to represent to the world how God intended humanity to function, to be a mediating body as priests and prophets between the creator who lives in our midst and a world that is alienated from him. That doesn’t seem very far from your own paradigm.

Salvation becomes an issue at times of eschatological crisis: Israel needed to be saved from the Babylonians; Jews needed to be saved from God’s wrath against Israel in the first century; Greeks needed to be “saved” from God’s wrath against an idolatrous empire. When people today become part of God’s new creation people, they are “saved”, if you like, from the final judgment of death on human sin. No less importantly they are saved from the futility of our secular-materialist culture. But they are saved to be part of the family of Abraham, part of this corporate witness to an alternative way of being human. At least, that’s how I see it.

I think that a combination of Walton’s view of creation as a setting up of the whole world as a temple, and Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (not necessarily his Open Theism) of God’s attempt to set up bona fide love relationships with a unique creature called man (which has to, by definition, allow them to rebel and sin) helps pick up the loose ends of my point. It seems to me that God’s original creation was based on setting up a way of engaging man in a bona fide love relationship on earth. When that was spoiled (what we typically call spiritual death, relational death, or covenantal death) God began efforts to fix the problem. In my view, he eventually found a representative on earth, Abraham, who got it right. This man had faith/faithfulness to God instead of idols. He incrementally built his rescue program around him. The story of his descendants was a real historical one, but was guided by God to teach all men about their predicament. So, when Christ came there was a historical narrative to be fulfilled in the object lesson which typologically matched a larger spiritual event that affected all men. Now, the new creation (I’d call it the New Heavens and New Earth, but I understand you wouldn’t go that far) is a renewed paradigm in which God again has a functional temple on earth in the form of his individual believers and once their physical lives are completed they have access to the presence of God in eternity. I think you are absolutely correct that it’s a mistake as a believer to focus too much on the eternal state when believers are supposed to act as God’s temple on earth as part of the package. This approach makes the story of Israel and the Law of Moses critically important to understand typologically what God was trying to do as a spiritual work, so narrative based theology helps us learn spiritual truths in the way that God intended to reveal them through scripture.

Doug

I assure you, I have scoured and devoured the depths of your blog haha, but please correct me if anything I say is an incorrect understanding of what you believe or have said. I understand that it is no longer our mission to proclaim that God’s wrath is coming and Jesus is about to become king, and our focus should be telling the entire historical story in a way that is true to the original context and intentions at the time Scripture was written. In the past month, I have felt extremely disturbed by 1.) the complacency and hypocrisy of the dominant first-world lifestyle and 2.) the two-fold confusion of a.) the tension between do I save lives (social justice) or save souls (Gospel) that is b.) complicated by the factor of hell, that anyone who died right now not believing in Christ would be sentenced to an eternity of suffering. Reading your blog has eased my anxiety, allowing me to live without the ax of eternal torture for any non-Christian who were to die right now hanging over my head.

But I am confused by : “When people today become part of God’s new creation people, they are “saved”, if you like, from the final judgment of death on human sin.” In other articles/posts, I believe you’ve written that there will be a final judgment for which all will be resurrected and to which all will be subjected. God will be the one to bring about the final renewal of all things and final destruction of death. Our purpose is not to get as many people as possible to believe that Christ’s death is for their personal salvation and a guarantee of Heaven and that this crux of all Christianity primarily serves that singular individualistic purpose. But if becoming part of God’s new creation people saves people from ultimate death, how and why could Christians not try to convince others to join God’s people?

I am guessing by your comment you did not mean Christians are not subject to the final judgment, only that their belief secures them against the possibility of death as their sentence. I understand and agree that Christianity is not JUST social justice or JUST proclamation or JUST a dualism of the two, rather that we ourselves need to become righteous to justify and glorify our God to live as an example of the new creation God has the power to create. We don’t have clear prophecy from Scripture of our current mission, and I believe I understand your logic leading up to your conclusion that “The point is that our calling is not to save the world, not to assimilate all cultures and peoples into the kingdom of God…” (in your “What must a person believe in order to be saved” article), since God is the only one who saves and renews. But I don’t see how the falsity of the concept that our mission is to save people from hell means it is not our (ideal) mission to assimilate all cultures and peoples into God’s new creation, if still, non-Christians are at risk of the wrath of death come the final judgment.

This turned out to be a really, really long comment haha. I can’t explain how much I would appreciate your best effort to respond, nor how much I already appreciate the innovational, open-minded, laborious work of your exegesis and writing and discussion of it.

Thank you so much,

Emi

Hi Emi, thanks for persevering. Response here.

I’m reading with interest your approach in all you have said Andrew. What I don’t understand is what you make of sin? Why is salvation necessary? Is it because as in Adam all men sin and salvation is from God’s wrath against sin? Modern evangelicalism majors on personal salvation, but isn’t that salvation the same salvation which was accomplished on the cross - yes for the Jews but also for all those who believe that Jesus’ salvation and substitutionary atonement makes peace with God? Sorry, I’m just a simple layman trying to follow your reasoning form Scripture. (I probably would agree with most of what you say). [Oh does Jesus take away the sin of the whole world? Will there be universal salvation, ultimately]?

What I’m suggesting, Scott, is that we understand salvation in the New Testament—and a whole lot of other things better—better if we first consider how the concept works within the corporate-national narrative about Israel and the nations.

If the family of Abraham faces destruction  or obsolescence, then the family of Abraham needs to be saved—otherwise God will no longer be true to his promise to Abraham. Why does it face destruction, the wrath of God? Because the Jews have shown themselves to be as much under the power of sin as the rest of humanity. How are they to be saved? By believing that Jesus died as an atonement for Israel’s sins and that God raised him from the dead and gave him authority to judge and rule over the nations.

What happens when this salvation of Israel through Jesus is proclaimed across the Greek-Roman world is that Gentiles also believe, and somewhat to the surprise of the Jewish Christians initially, they also receive the Spirit of God. If they believe the same thing and worship God with the same Spirit, what is there to stop them becoming part of this eschatological remnant? Nothing. So they come to share in the inheritance promised to Abraham.

In the process, of course, they are also “saved” from a corrupting pagan culture (cf. Rom. 1:18-32) that also faced divine judgment.

So I think that the core argument is that Jesus died for the sins of his people. When Gentiles come to share in the salvation and hope of Israel, this becomes in effect a salvation for the world—in the sense that anyone can become part of this redeemed and transformed people. I do not think the story allows us to say that Jesus died absolutely for the all humanity in the universalist sense.

Well I think we get off on the wrong track by using the word “believe” rather than “trust”. The OT story seems full of trust as God’s requirement for his people. This is most obvious from the start with the simple provision of manna and the fact that it couldn’t be stored. The essential thing to learn for the oridinary Israelite was that they could trust God to look after them.

Come forward several centurues and Isaiah’s message to Judah (chaps 7-39) is God is sending you into exile because you haven’t learnt to trust me. You keep putting your trust in the nations (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon); you should be trusting me.

Come forward to the NT; if we translate pisteuo as trust rather than believe it starts to make a lot more sense of the requirement and gets away from some passive statement of belief into something much more active. When I read the story of the rich young ruler it doesnlt make a whole lot of sense if the only requirement is to believe, but if it is to trust then I can understand what his probem might be: he is trusting his riches as the way that he will be alright in the end, but he needs to trust God.

So I don’t really disagree with your statement (we need to believe that Jesus died for the sins of his people, that God raised him from the dead, and that he was made Lord, seated at the right hand of God, given authority to judge and rule the nations), especially when you add to it the need for a lived out belief, but I do wonder whether we could in fact get to the lived out bit without the detailed theology. In other words, I can live the life that does not worry about the future because God has everything under control (including my rescue), knowing that somehow this is all possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while only having the vaguest notion of how this all works.

Actually Peter Enns had an interesting post on this recently: www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/03/why-i-dont-believe-in-god-anymore/

…but I do wonder whether we could in fact get to the lived out bit without the detailed theology

Are you really dismissing that brief statement about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation as “detailed theology”? Without those details the early Christians had no good reason to take the sort of radical and risky course of action that the young ruler was asked to pursue (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-19).

The other thing I would say is that what was at stake—and still is at stake—was not detailed theology but a controlling narrative about what the God of Israel was doing. Theologians are anxious to defend all the details of their theological systems, but what drives the New Testament is not theology but a prophetic-apocalyptic narrative about how YHWH is using Israel’s crisis in order to establish his rule over the Greek-Roman world.

I know I tend to overstate the contrast between theology and history, but I think it is important to get to grips with it: The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses.

My view is that it is not enough today to get on with our own personal walk with God “knowing that somehow this is all possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while only having the vaguest notion of how this all works”. But the alternative is not theological details. The alternative is to recover a compelling overarching narrative about what God is doing in our world in the wake of the failure of Christendom.

I guess where I’m coming from is imagining a conversation with the person in, pretty much any church, who is least able to articulate what they believe. My bar is pretty low in terms of what I think they need to believe to be saved.

Now obvioulsy we would be in a pretty bad state if everyone was at that level of understanding, but that wasn’t your question.

To go with your history rather than theology angle, is the way to think about it the difference between the history of ordinary people and the history of those that wrote the books? We only get a few glimpses in Scripture of things from ordinary people’s perspective, but I think the manna story is a good example of the requirements of faith for the ordinary person.

The issue you highlight is a really important one. I don’t think, however, that it is simply about the difference between a sort of literary or theological elite and ordinary lay folk. It is about different worldviews. Throughout much of Christian history we have inhabited a theologically constructed worldview, some very self-consciously and intellectually, most unself-consciously and intuitively. My interest is in whether we can eventually learn to inhabit a narratively and historically constructed worldview because I think this will give us a much better grasp of scripture and a much more robust basis for mission. But if we were to inhabit such a worldview, most of us would still do so unself-consciously and intuitively. The problem we have in the meantime is that most ordinary people have no real interest in leaving the worldview that they are familiar with.

This.

The fact is that the kinds of things you talk about would not be academic historical criticism accessible only to the elite if these were the stories the church were telling in the first place.

The only reason things like the traditional doctrines of substitionary atonement or Trinitarianism seem “simple” is because this is the framework the church has provided for understanding. They are certainly not simple, basic concepts presented in the text for any and all observers to stumble across. Someone has to -take- you there.

Every so often, someone wings this objection up there. “If what you’re saying is true, then only academics and historians could possibly understand the Bible.” No, that’s a situation we’ve largely created by providing ahistorical theological frameworks as part of our common discourse. Nothing about salvation being a historical event is “hard.” Nothing about the idea that God’s judgement is a historical event is complicated. It’s just that we have ingrained other stories so deeply into a believer’s defaults that to see those things any other way requires a monumental effort of criticism and exposition.

Agreed.