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.