At least three times in the New Testament an important question is asked regarding salvation and eternal life. Each one receives virtually the same response and indicates the true way of receiving salvation. When this way is diverted from, or the preacher offers the inquirer an alternative, salvation cannot be received. The details surrounding the questions also reveal what can keep a person from everlasting life.
What shall we do?
“Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” (John 6:28).
Firstly notice how the question is framed by the Jews. Jewish theology, as well as being that of all the world religions, is based upon what a person might do to placate the divinity they worship. That is, they are convinced that they must do something to deserve eternal life. The Jew would therefore answer this by pointing the inquirer to the Law, or more precisely, dutifully and legalistically performing everything it said. This at its root is simply faithless obedience to buy salvation from the God who offers it freely. With this in mind, can we see how it must greatly sadden the Almighty when He sees people trying to purchase that which He gave “His only begotten Son” for (John 3:16). Also it is evident in the question that they had already rejected any notion of salvation being a free gift of God’s grace, but that they could achieve it through good works. Another Jew, a Pharisee from the same persuasion, got the facts straight about how one might be saved. The apostle Paul declared in Titus 3:5-6, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour”. Why are works out of the question? Works produce self-righteousness and self-glorification thus the Devil’s attempt to rob God of glory and the sinner of true righteousness. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In effect those who work to be saved are being told that all their righteous deeds and good works are as putrid and offensive rags in God’s eyes (see Isaiah 64:6).
Jesus’ response to the question is remarkable succinct yet incredibly powerful. “Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). Simply “believe” is what He said. Maybe they expected an exposition on the merits of the Law, but instead Christ spoke to them about faith. That was too easy! If He had sent them on pilgrimage or gave them a long list of religious deeds and prayers to carry out, that would have excited them. But no, ‘just believe in me’ is all He said. How sad it is to see very religious people working so hard to please God, yet one day they will realise they have rejected their only Saviour. Only faith pleases God because it accepts that His way of salvation is the absolute best. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Religion kept the Jews from the answer to their question.
What shall I do?
“And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).
The question is virtually the same as the previous one, but in this case the Lord Jesus amplified His answer, yet basically it is the same. The inquirer was questioned about his knowledge of and obedience to the Law. He obviously was someone who was trying to live up to the standards of God’s word, and for this Jesus commended him. He had reached a stage further than the religious leaders, for whereas they had only a head knowledge of the Scriptures, here was a man who put them into practice from the heart. Nevertheless, even after assuring himself that he was living a godly life, he knew there was something missing. He, in asking his question, realised that mere obedience to the prescribed laws did not satisfy the need of his soul. Living such an exemplary life did not merit salvation.
Of course Jesus could have simply given this young man the same answer that He gave the religious leaders, but that would have ignored the problem in his life that kept him from salvation. The Jews problem was their religion, this man’s problem was his riches. His wealth was keeping him out of the Kingdom of God. “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:21). Do you see why both answers are in reality exactly the same? To the first Jesus asked them to believe in Him, to the second He calls the man to follow Him. Does this mean he had to do something to be saved? Not really, for it is not that he had riches which was the problem, it was the fact that the riches had him. “And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). That “one thing” was enough to keep him from believing in Jesus.
What must I do?
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
Here is a man who asked the question from the heart and was eager to follow the answer he received. He was already willing to give up his physical life, “And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled” (Acts 16:27), so he was ready to receive what he knew he desperately wanted. Not religion, Rome was full of it, and as for riches, when would he ever get enough to make him happy?
The answer he received pointed him to the only One who could save his soul. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). Once again note the simple truth of what Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer. Just believing in Christ was all that was necessary for salvation. He could not very well be encouraged to observe all the Jewish laws, nor could he offer any money to purchase eternal life. What works could he perform as a sign that he was truly repentant? He was called upon to simply believe. “Only believe” (Mark 5:36) is the foundation of saving faith, anything short of or added to this is a rejection of free and unmerited grace offered to us by God.
Why do we ask sinners to do something to be saved? Attend a meeting, say a prayer, be obedient to the commandments and more besides. None of these can save a person from damnation. The Bible makes it very clear what we ought to direct the inquirer to do. We must tell them to believe in Jesus Christ. Yes, the life of obedience will follow, but it must start with faith. Let’s face it, if someone does not love God they cannot obey Him from the heart anyway. What can be done to be saved? Absolutely nothing! Why? Because God has done it all for us in Christ. Not to believe this, and live a life of good works to merit eternal life, is in effect calling God a liar and that He cannot be trusted. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).