Early on in local church ministry I was convinced that the primary topic that needed dealt with locally in the church was not that of empowering believers to share the gospel, nor was it in bringing sinners to repentance, but it was instead to give believers assurance of the salvation that they had in Christ. As time has passed this conviction has grown. Often times assurance of salvation is taught as one important thing among many important things, but rarely is it taught as the one thing most important. Many other topics have taken precedence in the church leaving assurance often neglected. The common refrain is that believers know the Gospel but need to be taught to live empowered lives, or need to become more proficient in evangelism, or need deeper prayer lives, or what not. Assurance is too often assumed. In some more fundamentally liberal or conservative circles the idea of assurance is almost shunned. For instance listen to your typical fundamental conservative’s take on Matthew 7 and you will no doubt hear a call to question your salvation when you hear the words of Jesus “depart from me I never knew you.” Look no further than David Platt’s blockbuster “Radical” series for an example. Your fundamental liberal (this is not an oxymoron) does the same thing when taking Jesus’ words “I was naked and you did not clothe me, I was sick and you did not visit me…” These verses in both contexts are used against believers to bring them to question their own authenticity.
The question we must ask ourselves with regards to the New Testament is what parts, if any, are meant to bring us to question our faith? The lens we read scripture with will always drive our interpretations of the text. Without acknowledging that we read scripture through different lenses we will never be able to come down to any common understanding of any individual text, or even the whole scripture itself.
Let’s start with a basic multiple choice question:
With regards to salvation the New Testament….
a. Teaches us how to be included in the saving work of Jesus Christ and how to get others included in His work.
b. Announces the already completed saving work of Christ for those who believe.
c. Both a, and b.
The first response of most readers here would be ‘c. both a, and b’. Upon deeper examination you will find that most believers lean far more heavily on either ‘a’ or ‘b’. However I think the validity of ‘a’ should be brought into question altogether.
The notion that the New Testament is teaching us how to be included in the salvation of Christ should be brought into question. In evangelical circles Romans seems to be the go to book of the bible for instruction regarding ‘how to be saved’. Most of us have seen, or even used the ‘Romans Road’ for instruction on ‘getting saved’. Rarely have we questioned whether or not that is what Paul was writing about when he penned his letter to the Romans. Was the unbeliever even on his radar when he wrote to the early churches? Were his letters evangelical in the sense that we typically think of evangelicalism? The first clue to answering this question is the audience Paul addressed in Romans and all his letters. Note that he always writes to believers. The fact that his audience is believers should at least cause us to hitch just a little bit at the idea that these passages are meant to be read as a ‘how to’ with regard to salvation. He is writing to the already redeemed.
So when we read a text like Romans 10:9-10 which teaches that “if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved” is it fair to take this text as teaching how we are to go about being saved? Or ought we teach it to ‘already believers’ as a positive assurance that their confessing and believing evidences their salvation in Christ? Remember the audience here is not the lost who need to be saved instead it is the saved who are struggling in first century Rome to live in light of their confession. To the broken believer who believes that Jesus was raised from the dead and confesses that even in the midst of their doubts and the midst of a world which denies their confession this text of Romans 10:9-10 should be a source of great assurance. However if we take Romans as a ‘how to’ book these verses at worst get relegated to a once in a lifetime event of believing and confessing to get saved, and at best give us assurance based on ‘our’ believing, and ‘our’ confessing. In other words we take our assurance from something we have done as opposed to finding our assurance in what Christ has already done for us. While I know I run the risk of losing many on this point, it is not trivial. The natural question is “Jay, why cannot it not be both instructional and assuring?” Remember the audience is believers leaving it unlikely that this is an instructional text for the lost. Moreover these verses are entirely indicative, there is no command to ‘confess’ or to ‘believe’. Quite simply it states ‘if you confess’, present tense, you will be saved. This is an announcement of fact in the present tense for believers. It is about assurance, not about apprehending salvation. If we are to believe that we were ‘saved’ and ‘regenerated’ at a specific point in time, and that point in time was when we confessed and believed then this verse should read “If you confessed” past tense and “if you believed” past tense “you will be saved.” That is not how the verse reads though.
Again this is not hair splitting. If we are to view confession and mental ascension (belief) as the means by which we are saved then we ultimately lay claim to our own salvation. When someone asks “how were you saved?” in this paradigm you would be right in answering “I was saved when I confessed and believed.” What is wrong with this? Everything! If you read these texts this way your assurance of salvation is tied to your own doing, your own work as it were in believing and confessing. The reason this is a problem is that it causes us to look inward for our salvation, we’ve tied it to our ability to believe and the validity of our confession. A proper conception of salvation is this; “I am saved because the Lord Jesus Christ lived died and rose for me.” That conception of salvation looks outward to the work of Christ for assurance, a finished work in real history, and not our inward confession of that work. If we are not precise here we will attribute salvation to our work of confession. Instead if we see this as being written to believer who knows “I was saved by the Lord Jesus Christ living dying and raising for me” Romans 10:9-10 become a great comfort. Why? Because their confession is what Jesus has done, and their belief also is what he has done. Yes they confess and believe, and can have assurance in light of their confession and belief, but the assurance does not come from their decision to confess and believe but instead comes from the cross and empty tomb.
Some would agree that these texts are intended for assurance and that they are indicative of our salvation, but they diverge and say that those indicatives still point back to the imperative to believe and confess. Again the problem is that the text does not say ‘if you have believed, and if you have confessed’. If the verse pointed to a past tense occurrence then that reading would be fine, but it doesn’t.
Romans 10:9-10 is one simple example of where we have confused imperatives and indicatives and taken verses that have the singular intent to give assurance and turned them into instructions. There are countless others as well.
This is not to say that the question ‘when did I get saved’ or even ‘how did I get saved’ is an invalid question. The question is fair. However to answer that question we must find an imperative that deals with the unsaved becoming saved, not an address (like the epistles) to those who already believe and are being given assurance of faith.
The audience of the New Testament is believers, every single book in it was written by believers to believers. You could possibly claim an exception with Hebrews as that might be written to Jews who do not yet believe, but other than that the New Testament is the Church’s book, not the world’s.
So where can we go to deal with the question “how do I get saved?” You have examples in Acts of unbelievers coming to faith. While acts was written to Theophilus, a believer, it does chronicle unbelievers coming to faith in its narrative. What do we find there when unbelievers ask ‘what must we do’? “Repent and be baptized and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” While I think we should exercise some caution establishing doctrine from Acts given that it is narrative and not doctrinal in nature we do at least get some clues into how the doctrine from the epistles played out in real time. The imperative for salvation was not ‘confess and believe’ it was ‘repent and be baptized’. This isn’t isolated to Acts 2:38 either. Even Paul recalling his own conversion points to his sin being washed away at baptism.
So then if baptism is imperative for being redeemed by Christ’s work we should at least expect that the epistles being written to believers should reference baptism as such. If we look at Romans 10:9-10 we see confession and belief in the present tense indicating an assumed action of believers, but how is baptism referenced? If you check Romans 6 starting at verse 3 we read:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
Notice here how Paul was not pointing to a present tense action like he was in Romans 10:9-10, instead he was pointing back to something that has already occurred. “Baptized, buried, raised, united, crucified, and died” are all pointing to something that has already happened for these believers. Of course this meshes perfectly with Acts 2:38 and other narrative examples from Acts about unbelievers becoming believers.
When read the Epistles we only find a few past tense things being referenced to, one being the work of Christ in his life death and resurrection, another being baptism, and the others all involve examples of God’s actions among his people in the past. We do not find a multitude of examples calling us to reflect inwardly upon something we have done.
Got to cut this short for now. Hopefully I will find time to continue this at a later date.