In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, Paul and Silas are beaten and cast into prison in the city of Philippi for casting a spirit of divination out of a sorceress. Let’s pick up the text there:
And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:
24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.
27 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.
28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.
29 Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,
30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (my emphasis)
31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved?”
That’s it? That’s all one must do1 to be saved?
Most Christian commentators would say, “of course not, there is more to it than that.” And the “more to it than that” can run the gamut from saying “you have to repent and get baptized,”2 as Peter commanded all the believers at the end of his sermon in Acts 2, to claiming you must continue “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded…” a command given by the Lord in his final words to his disciples, often referred to as “the great commission,”3 to be “truly” saved.
In fact, there is not a more confused issue in Christendom than the issue of salvation, and how one may attain it. And this is a tragedy, because the doctrine of salvation is the gateway doctrine into every other Christian doctrine, as it must precede all the others.4
One of the reasons for the confusion is the failure to apply 16th century Bible Scholar Miles Coverdale’s formula for understanding Scripture:
“It shall greatly help thee to understand Scripture, if thou mark, not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after.” 5
I like to delineate this down to an acrostic I call “the five Ws:”
- What: What is the context of the passage (“what goeth before and what followeth after”)
- When: At what time, historically speaking, was it written
- Where: Where, and under what circumstances is it spoken.
- Who: Who is the writer (speaker), and to whom is he speaking.
- Why: to what intent, or purpose, is it being spoken.
I believe this to be the essence of Paul’s command in his second letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 15, to rightly divide the word of truth.
We must consider the “five Ws” in order to comply with this command.
First, the context within which Paul gives the charge to the Philippian jailer is what he referred to in his first letter to the Corinthians as the “dispensation of the gospel,” i.e., the publishing of what he called “my gospel,”6, “the gospel of Christ”7, “the gospel of the uncircumcision,”8 “the gospel of your salvation,”9 and “the gospel of the grace of God.”10
Second, This journey into the Macedonian region, where the city of Philippi was located. would have occurred during Paul’s second missionary journey.
Third, It is in a region (Macedonia) of the world that was predominantly of Gentile populations, one far removed from Israel and Jerusalem.
Fourth, we know the writer of Acts is Luke, who was part of Paul’s entourage in his missionary journeys, who was also connected to the Lord’s 12 disciples, because he is the author of the gospel of Luke. But since Luke was simply writing down what he saw and heard during this pivotal period of Biblical history, and Paul is the central figure in the Acts at this time, then we need to consider Paul as the “who,” and his audience as the “to whom” in considering the meaning of this passage.
Last, the why, or to what intent is this part of Scripture being written down is to show11 a transition from the ministry of Peter, and the gospel of the kingdom,12 who dominates the first 12 chapters of Acts, to Paul, and the gospel of Christ, who dominates the last 15 chapters.
The first order of business in determining the answer to our original question, what must one do to be saved, is not to confuse what Paul prescribed for salvation in his letters, with what the Lord and his disciples prescribed for it in the gospels, the Acts, and in their respective letters. In other words, we must strike a distinction (divide) between what Paul said from what they said, because, traditional Christian theology notwithstanding, they are different.
How so are they different? The former (Paul) does not require that any “works” precede or follow being saved; the latter does. The former is by grace alone; the latter is by faith, displayed and validated by a series of righteous works.13 The former is for Jews and Gentiles alike, but primarily Gentiles who are outside of Israel’s covenants14, the latter is for Jews, primarily, and only Gentiles who are included in Israel’s covenants. The latter is to people who will exist in a future period on the Biblical timeline; the former is for RIGHT NOW.
Salvation now, is by grace alone, through faith15, apart from any works,16 through belief of the truth,17 which brings us to the question: what is “the truth” we need to know and receive in order to be saved?
It is briefly stated in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written sometime between Acts 18-20:
1 Cor 15:1-4
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
Taking into consideration that Paul wrote this not long after the Philippian jail incident, we have to believe that where it says Paul “spake unto him (the jailer) the word of the Lord,” that this would have been what he preached. He would also have included who the Lord Jesus Christ was: the only begotten Son of God– indeed, God come in the flesh–resurrected from the dead, the only mediator between God and men,18 as well as the “cause” or necessity of his sacrifice, i.e., that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”19
Indeed, these would be the things that one would have to believe, receive and agree with, concerning themselves and the person of Jesus Christ.
But some will contest that “the devils also believe”20, and surely they aren’t saved.
In the context of James’ letter and the gospel he’s under, 21 he is saying that if works of righteousness don’t follow a claim to belief, then the belief (faith) is invalid. But as I’ve pointed out earlier in this essay, while what James says here is indeed truth for someone else in a future dispensation, this doctrine doesn’t apply to NOW.
Nevertheless, salvation according to Paul’s gospel is not a matter of merely believing in the historical figure Jesus Christ, or even that he was actually crucified and raised from the dead. This would not be equal to saving faith. Lot’s of unsaved folks in the world believe these things. True saving faith is a matter of believing that you are a sinner, unable to attain salvation through any efforts of your own,22 but trusting that his sacrifice was all sufficient to pay for all your sins, for all time, save you, seal you, and place you in right standing with God.23 This is what it means to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, have you, dear friend, ever “Believed on the Lord Jesus Christ” in this way? If not, why not believe on him now?
All Scripture references are taken from the King James Bible. Please feel free to freely publish this essay as you see fit.
believing something is not really tantamount to “doing” anything, i.e., “acting upon a challenge,” so to speak, but because the jailer includes the word in his question, and Paul does not correct him, it is appropriate to use it here ↩
it does say he submitted to being baptized, along with his entire household, following Paul speaking unto them “the word of the Lord.” re: verses 32 and 33 ↩
Matt 28:18-20 ↩
e.g., redemption, justification, sanctification, glorification, etc. ↩
Prologue to the 1535 Coverdale Bible ↩
Romans 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8 ↩
Rom 1:16; Rom 15:19; 15:29;1 Cor 9:12;19:18; 2 Cor 9:13; 10:14; Gal 1:7; Phil 1:27; 1 Thess 3:2 ↩
Gal. 2:7 ↩
Eph. 1:13 ↩
Acts 20:24 ↩
underlying the surface reason of chronicling the acts of the apostles ↩
Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:14 ↩
Ref. Matt. 7:16-20; Mark 16:16-18; James 2:14-18 ↩
Romans 1:16; Eph. 2:11,12; 3:1-3 ↩
the faith of Christ, ref. Romans 3:22; Gal. 2:16 ↩
Eph. 2:9 ↩
2 Thess 2:13 ↩
Romans 1:1-4; Col. 1:12-20; 1 Tim. 2:5 ↩
Romans 3:23; 5:12 ↩
James 2:19 ↩
gospel of the kingdom ↩
including religious affiliation, performing religious rituals, e.g., baptism, the Lord’s supper, keeping the commandments, performing acts of charity, etc. ↩
Romans 3:22; 4:4,5; 5:1,2; Eph. 1:12-14 ↩