Salvation before the Law
To understand God’s requirements for salvation, we must first understand why salvation is necessary at all. Salvation is necessary because Adam and Eve sinned against God. This original sin was disobedience to a command of God: Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of a tree that God had forbidden them to eat. The original sin was not a failure to believe in God.
Salvation before the Time of Abraham
How did God deal with people who lived after the Fall and before the time of Abraham? The Bible only gives us fragments to evaluate. The Bible states that the people of that time knew that they were to offer sacrifices to God (Genesis 4:3-4 and Genesis 8:20-21). How they knew that is not stated. Nor does the Bible state the purpose of the sacrifices other than they were pleasing to God.
The Bible states that God had direct conversations with people. These conversations could become a personal relationship. Enoch and Noah were said to walk with God but what this entailed is not explained (Genesis 5:22-24 and Genesis 6:9).
God had a standard of behavior for people on earth. In fact God seemed to be very concerned about the behavior of people. He told Cain that if he did what was right, he would be accepted. God also told Cain that he must master sin (Genesis 4:6-7). God grieved over making man because of his wickedness (Genesis 6:5-6) and wickedness implies a failure to meet a standard of conduct. The Bible notes that Noah was righteous (Genesis 6:9); he met God’s standard of conduct. In this time period, God was mainly concerned about the actions taken by people; beliefs are never mentioned.
It is interesting that the Bible says Noah was blameless among the people of his time. God added the qualifier “among the people of his time” for a reason. Noah obviously was not perfect and we probably would find fault with him, but God considered him to be blameless considering the culture in which he lived. These passages indicate that God judges people according to the knowledge they have and not according to some absolute standard.
In summary, before the time of Abraham, God was most concerned about the actions of people and people having a relationship with God. Also God judged people based on the knowledge those individuals had. Nothing is stated about beliefs.
Salvation from Abraham to the Law
The Bible indicates that God’s dealings with mankind changed with Abraham. God decided to bless the human race through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Why God decided to make this change is not explained. Even with this change, most elements of God’s relationship with humans remained the same. God still had a standard for humans and when humans consistently rebelled against that standard, God at times destroyed them. The Bible does not say how people knew what God’s standards were. The previous section notes that God did talk to certain individuals but it is doubtful that God talked personally to everyone in the world at that time. Sodom and Gomorrah are the prime example of a people who violated God’s standards. The Bible talks about an outcry to God resulted in God investigating the evil that was occurring in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21 and Genesis 19:13) but it does not say who or what produced the outcry. God is a patient God. He was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah is he could find a small number of righteous people in those cities (Genesis 18:20-33). God puts up with a certain amount of evil in people’s lives before he destroys them as is evidenced by God saying he would punish the Amorites in four generations when their sin had reached full measure (Genesis 15:14-16).
A New Testament passage indicates God overlooked the ignorance of the people of this time worshipping idols (Acts 17:29-30). Even Jacob’s household had idols (Genesis 35:2). Why would God overlook people worshipping idols? As we will see in the next section, God told Israel that he was a jealous God and punished them severely for worshipping other gods. The only explanation is that God judges people according to the knowledge they have.
God’s relationship with Abraham did have one change as is described in Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness”. This passage is very interesting for two reasons. First, it is the initial mention in the Bible that belief in God can substitute for the failure of humans to act according to God’s commands. Second, it indicates righteousness is more important than belief. If belief was the only requirement, God would not have credited Abraham’s belief as righteousness; belief would have been sufficient. Righteousness is the standard. It is obvious from this passage that Abraham’s actions were not in accord with God’s standard and so God, in his mercy, used Abraham’s belief to make up for the failure of his actions.
From the time of Abraham to the Law was given to Israel, it is obvious that God was primarily concerned with people’s actions: whether people were evil or righteous. Only one passage talks about beliefs and it places beliefs subordinate to righteousness.
Salvation after the Law
One of the first times God intervened in this word in a major way was when he came down to Mt. Sinai and gave the nation of Israel very specific instructions on his requirements for them. The major elements of his instructions included the following.
Belief in God
One of the first requirements God gave to Israel was to believe in him. God judged Israel harshly because they worshipped other gods (Jeremiah 5:19, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Jeremiah 16:10-13, Ezekiel 14:6). The Bible mentions several times that God is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:24, Joshua 24:19-20, Nahum 1:2). He wants people to worship only him.
A major part of the law included God’s prescription of a way for forgiveness when Israel did not live up to God’s requirements. That way was a sacrifice of an animal or grain (Leviticus 17:11, Leviticus 4:35, Leviticus 5:5-19).
I confess that from an intellectual standpoint, I cannot understand why the all-mighty God, the creator of the universe, would command humans to kill animals to prove their devotion to him and for forgiveness of sins. It is obvious that God did not need these sacrifices; he is totally sufficient in and of himself. It would seem that the purpose of the sacrifices was for the impact it made on the humans; they had to give up something of value. Indeed the definition of a sacrifice is: “giving up, destroying, permitting injury to, or foregoing of some valued thing for the sake of something of greater value”. In Biblical times, the society was primarily agricultural and for these people to take their most valuable possessions and offer them to God spoke of a great commitment to him. The other reason for the sacrifices was to support the Levites who were the priests (see Leviticus 6 and 7, Numbers 18:8-38, Deuteronomy 18:3-5, II Chronicles 7:4-6). The Levites received most of the sacrifices offered (the grain, sin, guilt, and fellowship offerings); very little was burnt on the altar. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 9:13 that those who worked in the temple ate from the altar. The people offering the sacrifice also received some of the sacrifices as shown in Deuteronomy 14:22-27 and I Chronicles 29:21-22—kind of like a church supper.
The author of Hebrews states that the sacrifices were a reminder of sins and a shadow of what was to come (Jesus’ death for our sins). Sacrifices could not take away sins; they only could atone (to make amends or reparation for wrongdoing, satisfaction given for wrongdoing or injury). A sacrifice had to be made for every sin (Hebrew 10:1-4).
Conduct More Important Than Sacrifices
But just like before the Law was given, God placed a high priority the actions of an individual. God let Israel know many times that right conduct was more important to sacrifices.
“The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
Many of the other writers in the Old Testament agreed with Isaiah and Amos. 1 Samuel 15:22, Proverbs 21:3, Jeremiah 6:19-20, Jeremiah 7:21-26, Jeremiah 14:10-12, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8, and Malachi 2:11-14 all state that God prefers obedience to sacrifices. These passages leave no misunderstanding of what is important to God: right actions. Right actions were more important to God than the sacrifices which were established by God for the forgiveness of sins and which Christians teach foreshadowed Christ’s death and shedding of his blood for our sins.
The idea that actions are more important that sacrifices is not just an Old Testament concept. Jesus also taught the same idea. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 in which the prophet says God desires compassion, not sacrifice (Matthew 12:7). Jesus also said repairing relationships comes before sacrifices (Matthew 5:23-24).
Conduct and Motivation
God was very explicit in stating that he would judge and reward the children of Israel according to their actions and motives (1 Chronicles 28:9, 2 Chronicles 6:30). A well known passage in Jeremiah also states the God reward people according to their conduct.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:9-10) Also see Ezekiel 7:27 and Jeremiah 32:19.
Verse 9 of the Jeremiah 17 passage is quoted so often to show how evil humans are and that they can do nothing right without God. Yet one rarely hears what verse 10 says: God rewards humans according to their conduct. Evidently humans do have the ability to do right or God would not reward people according to their conduct. Our logic also says humans have this ability. From our own experiences, people who do not believe in Christ do much good. There are people who are Christians who do evil.
God considered the importance of conduct and seeking the truth as so important that he told Jeremiah that he would forgive an entire city if Jeremiah could find one such individual (Jeremiah 5:1). There are no passages in the Bible where God states he will forgive an entire city if he could find one person to offer a sacrifice or to believe in him. Why?
Persistence (Pattern of Behavior)
Ezekiel 33:12-16 and Ezekiel 18:20-24 tells us that Israel’s pattern of behavior was important to God. If Israel turned from sin to justice and righteousness, their past sins would not be remembered. If Israel changed their behavior to evil, their past righteousness would not be remembered. God is interested in the type of people the children of Israel were becoming; he was not concerned about who they were in the past.
Judgment Based on Knowledge
The Old Testament tells us God decided to work with the nation of Israel in a special way. God gave Israel specific instructions on what they were to do—the Law—and promised to bless Israel in a material way if they followed his commands (Deuteronomy 7:11-15). However with this blessing came a price. Because of Israel’s special relationship with God, they were held to a higher standard than the rest of the people in the world (Amos 3:1-2 and Isaiah 5:1-7). These passages remind us of Christ’s teaching in Luke 12:47-48 where he states that: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
What the Gospels Say about Salvation
The apostle Paul tells us the Law is the very word of God but the Law can only make us conscious of sin; it cannot forgive our sins. God determined to send Jesus into our world to accomplish what the Law could not (Romans 3). While the Old Testament gives us some insight into how God has dealt with people over time, it is the New Testament that will provide the definitive answer of what God requires for our salvation.
John the Baptist
The Bible teaches that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Just before Jesus’ ministry began, John the Baptist preached that people must repent and be baptized for their sins to be forgiven. He also emphasized that actions demonstrated repentance. John’s teachings make it clear what is important to God. Belief would undoubtedly come before repentance. People do not repent until there is belief in some standard of human conduct and recognition that one’s conduct does not meet that standard. The next step would be a resolution to change one’s ways, but John said this was not good enough. Unless people actually changed (produced fruit in keeping with repentance), not just resolved to change, they would be destroyed (Matthew 3:7-10, Matthew 3:1-3, Luke 3:3, Luke 3:8-9, and Mark 1:4). Belief and repentance are a good start but God wants more than a good start; he wants people to follow through.
Understanding what John the Baptist taught about salvation is important because Jesus spoke highly of him (Matthew 21:32 and Matthew 11:11-14). Jesus did not correct any of John’s teachings. In fact we will later discover that Jesus’ teachings included the same ideas.
What Jesus Says about Salvation
According to Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ is the son of God who came to earth in human form to tell us about God. There is no better way to find out what God is like than to listen to his son. It would serve us well to pay special attention to what Jesus said about God’s requirements for our salvation.
Belief in Jesus
There is ample evidence in the Gospels to support the Christian doctrine of salvation—that belief in Jesus and his death for our sins is a requirement for salvation. We are told that if we acknowledge Jesus on earth, he will acknowledge us in heaven. If we disown him on earth, he will disown us in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33, Luke 12:8-9 and Luke 8:12). Jesus tells us that if we believe in him we shall have eternal life and that if we do not believe in him we will be condemned (John 3:14-18, John 3:36, and John 6:40). Jesus asserted that he was “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, John 10:9, and John 11:25-26).
Belief in God
In conversations with Christians about salvation, I often find that they mix belief in God with belief in Jesus and his death for our sins. These are two different beliefs. Jesus taught that he and God were distinct (e.g. he was doing the will of his father—John 6:38-39). There is a difference between believing in the historical events of Jesus’ existence, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead and believing that a supreme being of the universe exists and that he is concerned about us.
Jesus stated those who hear his words and believe in God (the one who sent Jesus) have eternal life (John 5:24). In Luke 10:25-28, a prominent person asks Jesus how to obtain eternal life, Jesus responds by stating he was to love God and one’s neighbor. Nothing is said about belief in Jesus and his death for our sins.
And then there are all the passages in the Gospels that tell us the way to salvation is by obedience to God’s commands. Jesus tells us that anything that causes us to sin is to be discarded. In Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:42-48 he uses the extreme example of cutting off a hand or foot if they cause us to sin. Jesus explanation is that it is better to be physically crippled then to be sent to hell because of our sin. In saying this Jesus tells us that it is our actions that will determine if we go to heaven or hell; he says nothing about beliefs.
There are several passages which state those who are righteous will go to heaven and those who are evil will be sent to hell. In fact, whenever judgment in the afterlife is mentioned in the Gospels, it is always in regard to one’s actions, one’s beliefs are never the sole criteria. In Matthew 13:41-43 Jesus, in explaining a parable to his disciples, states that at the end of the age he will send angels to throw those who do evil into a fiery furnace for punishment but the righteous will be in the kingdom of God. Further on in Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus uses another parable of fishermen who separate good from bad fish and he explains this parable by using the same terminology of angels separating the wicked from the righteous.
In Matthew 16:27, Jesus says that when he comes back to earth, he will reward “each person according to what he has done”. The reward is based on our actions alone. Perhaps the best-known passage is Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus talks about the nations gathered before him for judgment. And how will we be judged? It is whether we gave the hungry food to eat, the thirsty something to drink, those needing a place to stay a room in our houses, clothing to those who needed it, and visited the sick and incarcerated. In giving these examples, Jesus is very specific about what God requires of us and what determines whether we spend eternity with him or receive eternal punishment. However, because this conflicts with the doctrine that only belief in Christ impacts our eternal fate, all manner of interpretations are made of this passage including that this judgment does not involve Christian but only the heathen. However, is there anything in the context of this passage that would lead to such an interpretation? In chapters 24 and 25, Jesus is talking about the end times and his coming. He uses several parables to illustrate the fact that we must be prepared for his coming. Why do Christians apply these parables to everyone and then suddenly apply the last part of chapter 25 only to the heathen? Nothing in the context implies such an interpretation and Christians are distorting this passage to make it fit into their belief system. Even if this passage applied only to the heathen it would invalidate the idea that salvation is only through belief in Jesus because the heathen would have the opportunity to go to heaven if their actions toward others were as described in this passage.
When individuals asked Jesus what they must do to get eternal life, Jesus always responded by addressing their actions, not just their beliefs. In Luke 10:25-28, a prominent person asks Jesus how to obtain eternal life, Jesus responds by stating he was to love God and one’s neighbor. Now it is obvious that we must believe in God to love God but belief in Jesus is not mentioned. Also one’s actions are placed on a par with loving God. In Luke 18:18-30 and Matthew 19:16-22 a ruler asked Jesus the same question. Jesus responds by quoting some of the commandments. The ruler answered that he had kept all these commandments, but Jesus knew his weakness which was his love of money so Jesus told him to sell all he had, give to the poor, and then come follow Jesus. Here is a person asking Jesus the most important question of his life and Jesus responds by addressing his actions and values. Why?
Jesus used parables to point that one’s actions determine if one will enter the kingdom of God. In Matthew 21:28-31 Jesus uses the illustration of two sons who were asked to work in their father’s vineyard. One says he will and does not. The other says he will not and does. Jesus asks, which son did what his father wanted? If our words were all that mattered, the first son did what his father wanted. But all of us recognize that the son who actually worked in the vineyard, even though at first he said he would not, is the son who did what his father wanted. So why do we think that salvation will be any different? Do we think we can tell God we believe in him but act contrary to his commands and still go to heaven?
Another parable in Matthew 24:45-51 is of a head servant who is given the responsibility for the other servants while the master is away. The head servant is expected to fulfill his responsibilities until the master returns. If the head servant has acted irresponsibly during the master’s absence, he will be destroyed. The head servant’s beliefs are irrelevant; what is important is his actions.
When Zacchaeus entertained Jesus in his house after Jesus invited himself, Zacchaeus announced that he would give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he cheated. Jesus’ response was: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9). While Zacchaeus’ beliefs would need to change for him to make such a statement, the emphasis in the passage is that beliefs must produce a change in conduct for salvation to occur.
Jesus, in talking about his relationship with God, states that God has given him the authority to judge humans. This judgment occurs after death and the judgment is whether one has done good or evil (John 5:28-29).
When Jesus was debating with some people in Israel about who was truly following God, he states: “. . .if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51). Jesus does not state that if one believes in him that person will not see death. Instead Jesus asserts that one must keep his word.
Belief and Actions
In the above section, we noted instances in which belief was implied when the Bible talked about our conduct as being essential for salvation. There are other statements of Jesus in which he talks about both belief and actions being necessary for salvation. In John 12:44-50 Jesus begins by talking about beliefs: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness”. Belief gives us knowledge (we are no longer in darkness) but Jesus goes on to say that he will not judge the person who “hears my words but does not keep them” but God will judge that person. In this same passage Jesus says that God’s “command leads to eternal life”. While beliefs educate us as to God’s requirements, Jesus states we will be judged on how well we live up to those requirements.
Jesus said that “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21 and John 14:23). Just having Jesus’ commands is not all that he requires; we must obey them.
Before Jesus left this earth, he gave his disciples what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission. Jesus’ instruction was that we were to make disciples of and baptize all the nations but an additional part of the Commission was to teach “them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). If salvation is only by belief, then why would Jesus in his last statement to us while he was on earth include both belief and obeying his commands? The only reason I can think of is because both are important and both are necessary for salvation.
Persistence or the Person We Become
What is referred to as the Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5 and continues through chapter 7. Within this sermon (Matthew 7:16-24), Jesus talks about what is required to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is one of the most interesting passages in the Gospels on salvation and it is quoted below.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:16-24)
In this passage Jesus does not say that we must believe that he died for our sins to go to heaven. Jesus states that only those who do the will of his Father will go to heaven and that prophesy in his name, driving out demons in his name, performing miracles in his name is not necessarily doing the will of his Father. So what is doing the will of God? According to this passage it is putting Jesus’ words into practice; it is producing good fruit. Putting Jesus’ words into practice is obvious but what does it mean to produce good fruit? The type of fruit a tree produces is dependent upon the tree. Likewise, the fruit we produce is dependent upon who we are at the core, the type of person we are when no one else is around, the type of person we are when there is no possibility of being caught doing what we are doing. Just performing various actions in Jesus’ name does not necessarily indicate the type of person we are. All of us take certain actions based upon how we want others to perceive us, not based upon who we actually are. What Jesus is saying is that our salvation depends upon who we really are. If we do not produce good fruit, which indicates our true nature, we will be “thrown into the fire” which does not sound like heaven to me. This passage tells us that many people on judgment day will be surprised when Jesus denies them entry to the kingdom of heaven. Why will they be surprised? Obviously because they believe that salvation is though doing great works in Jesus’ name but this belief is wrong and people will not enter heaven because of it.
Jesus wants a change in who we are as a person and this change is not a decision at one point in time but a process throughout one’s life. Persistence in our actions and beliefs is essential. In Matthew 10:22 Jesus describes the persecution that will come to his followers and states: “he who stands firm to the end will be saved”. The parable of the sower in Mark 4 and Luke 8 also indicates that action over a period of time is essential for salvation. In this parable, some seed that falls upon rocky soil spouts and this describes people who initially accept Christ. However, when hard times (lack of rain) come, they fall away (Luke 8:13-14). It is not that they no longer believe, it is that they fail to persevere; they fail to develop into the person they should.
Use of Abilities
To even confuse the issue even more, there are other passages in the Gospels that indicate salvation is obtained by other means than belief in Jesus or one’s conduct. Jesus taught that the proper use of what is given us is essential in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In this parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man goes on a journey and entrusts his servants with certain property. Upon his return he evaluates his servants’ performance in handling the property of which they were entrusted. Those who increased the value of the property were praised. It did not matter what the percentage increase was; the only thing that mattered was they used what was given them. The one servant who did nothing with the property was called wicked, lazy, and worthless and was cast “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” which is a description the Bible gives to hell and not heaven. This parable tells us that God’s kingdom includes giving us abilities and property which we are to develop and increase. If we do not, there will be a harsh penalty for us.
Jesus instructed us to use worldly wealth wisely because learning to use it wisely will teach us to be able to handle true wealth (I assume he means spiritual) wisely (Luke 16:9-11). While Jesus does not say that handling worldly wealth wisely will lead to salvation, he does state that it is the key to spiritual wealth because God will not entrust us with “true riches” unless we have proved ourselves capable of properly handling what we have been given on this earth.
Jesus emphasized the importance of humility. He says we must humble ourselves like children if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-4). Jesus makes a distinction between those who act righteously and are proud of it and those who act righteously and are aware of their sinful tendencies. Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer was about how good he was: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-14). The Pharisee had all the right beliefs but he did not recognize he too had his failings. The tax collector’s prayer was simply: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Jesus says that only the tax collector was justified before God. Now it would be obvious that the tax collector had some belief in God and his requirements or he would not have known that he was a sinner but Jesus says nothing about this belief justifying him before God, it was only his humility. Humility is important to God. It makes sense given our human failings. Unless we are willing to recognize our errors, we will not change.
Jesus also tells us that we must forgive others when they sin against us. If we do not, then God will not forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:14-15). Now if our sins are not forgiven, we will not enter heaven.
Judgment Based on Knowledge
Jesus also stated that God will judge people by what information was available to them not by some absolute standard such as whether they believed in Jesus or not. When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples, he told them that if anyone did not welcome them or listen to their words that “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:15). Now cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Biblical days and in our own day as well, are synonymous with the most depraved people in the world. So why will Sodom and Gomorrah be granted such favored treatment? It is because they did not have the full and complete revelation in the person of Christ that the people of Jesus’ time did. This illustrated God’s justice. Not everyone in the world has the same knowledge of God’s requirements and God will not judge those who do not have this knowledge the same as those who do.
In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus criticized the people of Galilee for not repenting because of his (Jesus’) miracles. He compared the people of Galilee to people of three Old Testament cities. Sodom was so wicked in God’s eyes that he destroyed this city (Genesis 18). Tyre and Sidon were on friendly terms with David and Solomon, providing them with materials and skilled laborers to build the temple and palaces (I Kings 5:1). But Isaiah and Joel list their sins as pride (Isaiah 23:1) and the mistreatment of Israel (Joel 3:4-6). These three cities were destroyed by God for their wickedness but Jesus says that God will go easier on these three cities in the day of judgment than he would on those who heard Jesus’ word and saw his miracles but did not repent. Now this passage does not address the criteria upon which God will base our judgment. The sole purpose of Jesus’ statement concerned the knowledge the people in these cities possessed and how that will impact their judgment. Those with more knowledge of God’s requirements will be judged more harshly than those with little.
Jesus also used a parable to illustrate the point that judgment in the afterlife will be based on one’s knowledge. He states that a servant who knows his master’s will but does not do what the master wants will be beaten with more blows than a servant who does not know what his master wants (Luke 12:47-48). Jesus follows this up with a warning to those of us who have knowledge of what God’s requirements are. We have been given much and much will be demanded of us. One size does not fit all with God. Those who have not heard of Christ will not be judged like those who have.
John 15:22-24 sums up all we have been talking about in this section. Jesus states that the world would not be guilt of sin if Jesus had not spoken to them and had not performed miracles among them. He obviously means the people of Jesus’ time since there are the ones he spoke to and performed miracles in their presence. This passage should raise the possibility that those who have not heard of Jesus are not guilty of sin. Or based on the other passages, the world will be guilty of only those sins of which they are aware.
What the Epistles Say about Salvation
The epistles of the New Testament were written by the followers of Jesus. It is no surprise then that they teach the same way of salvation as Jesus did.
Belief in Jesus
The apostles teach that salvation is obtained by belief in Jesus and his death for our sins. It is obvious why Christians developed this view of salvation: there is ample evidence in the Bible for it. Both Peter and Paul stated that salvation was found only in Jesus (Acts 4:12 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6). John says that we must have the Son to have eternal life (I John 2:23 and I John 5:11-12). Paul says that though belief in Jesus we are justified whereas the law of Moses could not justify us (Acts 13:38-39, Acts 16:30-31, Romans 1:16, Romans 3:22-24, and Romans 10:8-10). We are justified not by observing the law (which is our actions or conduct) but through faith in Jesus (Galatians 2:16). It is only though God’s grace, Christ’s work, and our faith, not by our own effort that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:4-6).
Belief in God
Like the rest of the Bible, the apostles maintain that God requires that we believe that he exists. The emphasis is on turning to God for acceptance and forgiveness of sins which results in a change in our conduct. Jesus is not emphasized. Peter says “that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-35). Paul told the people of Lystra to turn away from their idols and to God. Paul also informed them that God, in the past, has let all nations go their own way but he still works in the world through nature and people’s hearts to let people know he exists (Acts 14:15-17). Paul states in Romans 4:24-25 that God will credit righteousness to those who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead, which is God. And the author of Hebrews states that we must believe and have faith in God if we are to please him (Hebrews 11:6).
The apostles also left no doubt that salvation includes one’s actions conforming to God’s requirements. Paul quotes Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12 in saying that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” (Romans 2:6). Paul then becomes real specific about what he means.
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Romans 2:6-10)
Paul states that our adherence to a particular lifestyle indicates in whom we truly believe and to whom have submitted ourselves (Romans 6:16). He then notes that sin leads to death and obedience to righteousness. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul states: “that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
In I Corinthians 13, Paul teaches us that love is not an emotion or feeling but an action. At the end of the chapter he notes that: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Why is love greater than faith or hope? If faith in Jesus is the only way of salvation, why does Paul place love greater than faith? Paul states that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). Even if we “have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if [we] have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, [we are] nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). This is very similar to Jesus’ statement that even if we perform miracles in his name we will not go to heaven unless we put his words into practice (Matthew 7:16-24). It is obvious that God requires more than a belief system; he requires a belief system produce actions that conform to that belief system.
Paul in talking to the Galatians about what the relationship between Christians should be states:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)
Paul is not talking to unbelievers and is not addressing any issue involving unbelievers. He is talking about Christians and Christian problems. In this context he states that if we develop our nature so it is in tune with God, we will receive eternal life and if we develop our sinful nature, we will receive destruction. Another passage in Ephesians 5:5-6 repeats, to Christians, the same theme: no immoral or greedy person has any inheritance in the kingdom of God and Christians can be immoral and greedy.
In Colossians 1:21 Paul states that we were alienated from God and were enemies of God because of our evil behavior. This passage says not a word about our belief system being the cause of the alienation from God. I Thessalonians 4:7-8 says that we are to live a holy life and if we reject this command that we reject God. II Thessalonians 1:8-9 states that everlasting destruction will be the punishment for “those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus”. II Thessalonians 2:12-13 states that all who do not believe in the truth but delight in wickedness will be condemned. Paul admonishes Timothy to he must persevere in his life and doctrine (actions and beliefs) to be saved (I Timothy 4:16). Hebrews 5:7-9 tells us that Jesus became perfect through his obedience to God and that likewise he is the source of salvation to those of us who obey (it does not say believe) him.
There is a reason why Martin Luther called the book of James “an epistle of straw”. Martin Luther was attempting to convince the world that salvation is through faith in Jesus alone and James states in no uncertain terms that: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). If words have any meaning at all, this verse makes it impossible to believe that salvation is by belief in Jesus alone. This passage is so clear about this point that it is quoted below even though it is a lengthy passage.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds if useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ (Genesis 15:6) and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14-26)
James makes the point that if belief is all that is necessary for salvation, then Satan and his angels will be in heaven as well and we know this will not be the case (Matthew 25:41). How can Christians ignore or attempt to explain away this passage? If we do, we are deliberately ignoring part of God’s word to us.
John makes the same case as James. He states that we know Jesus if “we obey his commands” (I John 2:3). If we claim to know Jesus (believe in him) but do not obey Jesus’ commands then we are a liar and do not know the truth (I John 2:4 and 9, I John 3:10, and I John 4:20). If we claim to believe in Jesus we must live our life as Jesus did (I John 2:6 and I John 3:6).
Revelation tells that when the dead are judged, they will be judged according to what they had done, not what they had believed (Revelation 20:12-14). It also lists unbelieving as just one of eight things that will send us to hell (Revelation 21:7-8). Among the things that will send us to hell besides unbelief, all the others are actions we take. On a side note, cowardly is included on the list. How many sermons have you heard on the evils of being cowardly?
What is the Christian’s goal in life? It is to become like God. That is what the Bible says when it says we are to be holy (1 Peter 1:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, and Hebrews 12:14). Unfortunately the word holy has a lot of baggage these days as in the expression “holier than thou” which we reserve for people who think they are better than everyone else. However, the dictionary definition is sound: “dedicated to religious use; belonging to or coming from God; consecrated; sacred; spiritually perfect or pure; untainted by evil or sin”. Being holy involves not only belief but also actions, conduct, the type of person we become. It is very obvious from the definition of the word that one is not holy just because of one’s beliefs alone. Also being holy is not something that takes place in the future. The Bible says we are to be holy now. It is the goal toward which we are to work now.
Being holy or like God is the positive side of Christianity. God is the supreme being in the universe, he created the universe, he is all knowing, he is all-powerful. He is the ultimate role model. Unfortunately Christians spend too much time emphasizing the punishment or negative side of sin. One hears endless sermons on the horrors of hell that await those who do not believe in Jesus. But there should be just as much emphasis the positive side; humans should want to be like the supreme being of the universe. It is the ultimate “Be like Mike” motivation.
Unless we are willing to acknowledge that we need to change, no change will occur. It is no wonder the Bible states repentance is a condition of salvation. Peter tells the astonished people of Jerusalem after he had healed a crippled man to “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:18-20). Paul states: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). And John tells us “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
Whether Christians can lose their salvation has been debated for ages. But three passages (Hebrews 6:4-6, Hebrews 10:26-27, and 2 Peter 2:20-21) directly state that those who have been saved and have even received the gift of the Holy Spirit can lose their salvation if they do not obey God. These passages say nothing about individuals losing their salvation because they ceased to believe in Jesus. Instead the emphasis is on their actions. These passages are very similar to the passages in Ezekiel 18:20-24 and 33:10-20 we discussed in chapter 12.
James tells us that if we persevere even though we experience hardships, we will receive the crown of life (James 1:12). The crown of life is promised to those who love God and as Paul tells us love is an action, not a belief (I Corinthians 13).
Christians talk about the importance of making a profession of faith, of accepting Christ as one’s savior. They believe that one is saved at that moment. However three passages state that salvation is a process over time, not an event: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15), “. . .continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), and “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Salvation that is a process has more to do with one’s actions, motivations, and pattern of behavior than a decision at one point in time.
What the Bible Says about Other Religions
The first thing that comes to mind when discussing what the Bible says about other religions is God absolutely prohibited Israel from worshipping idols and judged Israel harshly because they violated that commandment (Jeremiah 5:19, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Jeremiah 16:10-13, Ezekiel 14:6). The Bible mentions several times that God is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:24, Joshua 24:19-20, Nahum 1:2) and he wants people to worship only him. God went so far as to have Elijah slaughtered 450 prophets of Baal after the Mount Carmel incident (1 Kings 18:40). All this suggests the God is Israel is the one true God and all other religions are false. However, as we have repeated over and over in this blog, we must look at what the entire Bible says about a subject and not just what a few select passages say.
How God Dealt with People Other than Israel
While God had decided to bless the human race through the nation of Israel, he did not totally ignore the rest of the world. The Old Testament tells us God did initiate some contact with the other nations but most of the time it was through Israel. The problem is: How did those people know God was the one true God and how did they know what God required of them? The Bible indicates the other nations were to see the laws of God made Israel a great nation and then believe (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). However, God punished Israel for their many failures to abide by God’s laws so it is obvious they were not a vibrant testimony to the one true God. In spite of this deficiency of Israel, did God send the people of those other nations to hell anyway? The Bible does give us hints that God did in fact work with other cultures and people in other ways beside through Israel and these other peoples were aware of God.
The Bible tells us that God spoke to people of other nations through dreams (Genesis 20:3-6 and Daniel 2:27-28). Neco, king of Egypt, was commanded by God to fight at Carchemish but Josiah opposed him against God’s will and was defeated (2 Chronicles 35:20-22). The Bible does not explain how God spoke to Neco nor how Neco knew that God was with him, but the Bible is clear God in some way spoke to, motivated, and used Neco to fulfill his purposes. God spoke directly to Nebuchadnezzar from heaven (Daniel 4:30-31). God wrote on a wall to Belshazzar (Daniel 5:3-24). God sent a reluctant Jonah to Nineveh to preach to that city (Jonah 1:1-2). God’s statement to Jonah about Nineveh reveals so much compassion that one has to believe God did work directly with other nations but we have no record of it.
But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I [God] not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11)
There are a couple of passages in the Old Testament that give us surprising information about how God viewed nations other than Israel.
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
God had commanded Israel to conquer the land of Canaan. In the above passage when Israel entered the Canaan, Joshua had an encounter with the commander of the army of God. God proceeded to tell Joshua how the conquest of Jericho would occur but before that information was passed to Joshua, the commander of the army of God states that he was neither for Israel or their enemies. That is an amazing statement given the fact that God had told Israel to conquer Canaan! But it should not be so because in another passage God equates Israel with the Cushites, Philistines, and Arameans.
“Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7)
God worked in a special way with Israel but that does not mean he did not work at all with the other nations of the world. The problem is the Bible tells us very little how God worked with these other nations. God is the God of the entire world and he has intervened in history and dealt with peoples other than the nation of Israel.
Naaman was a military leader of the nation of Aram who God had given victory in battle (II Kings 5:1). Unfortunately, Naaman had leprosy. Through a young captive Israeli girl, Naaman learned of someone who could cure his leprosy. Naaman visited Elisha who told Naaman what to do to cure himself of leprosy and Naaman eventually complies (II Kings 5:8-14). Naaman then returns to Elisha and requests that he be forgiven when he accompanies his master to the temple of Rimmon and his master bows to the idol. Elisha grants his request (II Kings 5:17-19). This passage is similar to Acts 17:29-30 where Paul tells the people of Athens that in the past God overlooked people who worshipped idols. However, he severely punished Israel for it. What is significant is that as Christians we must realize God dealt differently with people who were not Israelites; he held Israel to a higher standard which parallels other Biblical passages which indicate God judges people based on the knowledge they have (Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48, John 15:22-24). Today, does God deal differently with people of different religions?
The Bible does tell us in detail how God dealt with one person who was not an Israelite. In fact the Bible devotes a whole book to him. Job lived around 2000 to 1000 BC. The NIV Bible states that it is more likely closer to 1000 BC because iron is mentioned (Job 19:24) and iron did not come into common usage in that area until the 12th century BC. The Talmud credits Moses with the authorship of the book of Job which would mean that Job lived around or before 1500 BC. Others believe Job was a contemporary with Abraham and Jacob who lived around 2000 BC. The fact is that we do not know the exact date of Job’s life. We do know that Job lived in Uz which was east of Jordan and includes Edom and Aramean. Like the people before the Law was given, he offered sacrifices to God and had an idea of right and wrong (Job 1:1-5).
Reading the book of Job is interesting because it tells us what people of that time believed about God and how he relates to us. Job’s friends were of the opinion that if one were righteous, one would have success on the earth. Eliphaz believed that justice was served on the earth. Those who did evil were corrected—punished—by God. If one repented, then success on earth would return (Job 4:7-8, Job 5:17-18, Job 22:5-10). Elihau believed that God interacted with people in a personal way through dreams, visions, angels but he still believed that Job had sinned in some way to bring all the trouble upon him (Job 33:14-19, Job 33:22-24, Job 35:6-8). Job was of a different opinion. Job believed that he had not sinned (Job 29:11-17) and that God was testing him and that he would emerge as a better individual. Job did not talk about receiving his wealth back. He talked about how this time of testing would impact him as a person (Job 2:10, Job 23:10).
Nowhere are we told how Job and his friends acquired their beliefs. Job and his friends disagreed on the meaning of trials in one’s life. How did they know who was right? They had no Law given to them by God. They had no prophets that we know of to tell them what God said. Did God leave it up to them to decide? Did God consider it important that they know? God never does tell us.
What the book of Job really tells us is that God, while stating to Abraham the world would be blessed through him, continues to work with the peoples of the rest of the world. God called Job his servant. God noticed Job’s belief in him and Job’s righteousness, and brought this to the attention of Satan (Job 1:6-8). Christians have become so engrossed with God’s dealings with Israel that they tend to slight the passages in the Old Testament where God deals on a personal basis with the rest of the world. We have become so wrapped up with how God is blessing the world through the nation of Israel that we ignore other aspects of God’s work. We, in our own minds, have limited God.
What the New Testament Says about Non-Christians
The New Testament also gives us hints about how God deals with those who are not Christians. Jesus states that the Holy Spirit is working with every person in the world right now, not just those who are Christians, to convict them of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-8). How does the Holy Spirit accomplish this? The Bible tells us the law of God is engrained within us (written on our heart) which is revealed through our conscience (Romans 2:13-15).
In John chapter 10 Jesus used a parable of a shepherd and his sheep to illustrate his purpose on earth and this passage gives us insight on how God perceives those who are not Christians. In this passage Jesus is talking to Pharisees after he had healed a blind man on the Sabbath. He uses an illustration of a shepherd and his sheep to describe his relationship with the human race.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me–just as the Father knows me and I know the Father– and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)
The interpretation of this passage in most Bible commentaries is that Jesus is talking about the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are the sheep who Jesus leads and the “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen” are the Gentiles. One of the basic rules of hermeneutics is that one must interpret the Bible based on the context. In this passage, Jesus is not talking about Jew and Gentile; he is talking about those who hear and follow him, and those who do not. Now the Jewish nation as a whole did not follow Jesus or they would not have crucified him. Therefore, we must conclude that Jesus is talking about anyone who follows him, not the Jews specifically. Jesus is saying he has other people who are not those who hear and follow him, which means non-Christians. Jesus states that these people will eventually hear and follow him but that is in the future, but even in the present, these people belong to him. This can only mean that people other than Christians can belong to Jesus.
It is obvious that non-Christians can do good and God notices when non-Christians do good (e.g. Job and Cornelius). The passage about Cornelius has been used by Christians to demonstrate that if non-Christians want to know God, God will provide a way for them to hear of Jesus. While this does occur at times, history is full of examples of times when it does not occur as we discussed in the blog dated March 7, 2011. Will God send people like Cornelius to hell if they do not hear of or accept Jesus?
As we have noted above when we discussed what the Gospels say about salvation, Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48, John 15:22-24 indicate God judges people according to their knowledge. Acts 17:29-30 states God overlooked people worshipping idols which can only mean God judges people according to the knowledge they have. Given our sinful nature and the fact we are finite, we all should be thankful God overlooks our ignorance. Sometimes we feel that our understanding of the Bible is so advanced that we are superior to everyone who has lived in the past. That is obviously a very arrogant feeling. There were undoubtedly people in the past who had a grasp of the Bible that is superior to ours in many ways and there will be people in the future who will have an understanding that is superior to ours. These people could look at us and declare how ignorant we are and they would be right. God undoubtedly looks at us all—past, present, and future—and notes how deficient our understanding of him is. The Bible teaches that in the past God overlooked man’s ignorance of his law. God still does and each of us should be appreciative of that fact.
The human race is not without knowledge of God. Every culture has a concept of a superior being and Paul tells us God’s power and divine nature are displayed in nature (Romans 1:20). Every culture has a concept of a moral code and Paul tells us God’s requirements are already written in our hearts and conscience (Romans 2:13-15). These passages teach that God and his requirements are evident in creation and our conscience, and everyone has access to this knowledge. The standard Christian doctrine of salvation states everyone must believe in Jesus to be saved. The problem with this doctrine, as we have noted in previous blogs, is the majority of people who have ever lived do not have knowledge of Jesus. To hold to this doctrine is to say the majority of the people have sufficient knowledge to send them to hell but do not have sufficient knowledge to gain entrance into heaven. Is this a loving and just God? It makes more sense logically to believe that people will be judged on how well they lived up to the moral code that is revealed to them and, as we are seeing, there is plenty of Biblical support for that logic.
Paul in Romans 3:20 and 5:13 states where there is no law, there is no sin because it is through the law that we become conscious of sin. Jesus said that if he had not spoken to people they would not be guilt of sin but since he had spoken to them, they would have no excuse for their sins (John 15:22-24). In other words, if people are not aware something is a sin, it is not taken into account as being a sin.
Jesus, in issuing what is known as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20, states that we are to “. . .go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. . .” Most Christians have taken this to mean we have the primary responsibility to convert the world to Christianity. But as my dad has said for years, the correct interpretation of the great commission passage is: “as you are going about in the world, make disciples of. . .”. Jesus was telling us to simply tell others of what he has done for us during our travels around the world. It is not our responsibility to save the world. God is handling that task (John 16:7-8). God is quite capable of accomplishing his purposes without assistance from us. The apostles were not in any hurry to leave Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection to tell the world about Jesus.  Why? Evidently they understood the Great Commission better than we do.
 Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity (Present Testimony Ministry, 2002), p. 63.