Must You Believe Something to be Saved?

Posted in book review, christian thought, social justice, theology by Nathan Creitz on May 15, 2009
DSB Question 1 of 10

DSB Question 1 of 10

To my conservatively raised ears, this question really sounds irrelevant. Just off the top of my head I think of things like: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16 HCSB) and “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 HCSB) and finally, “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 HCSB)

So what’s the problem? Why ask that question?

In his book, Don’t Stop Believing, Michael Wittmer tells us why we have to ask this question. He brings up the question that all conservative Christians have been asked at one time in our lives. Like the father who asked “Would your God send my boy to hell because he never said, ‘Jesus save me,’ but he’d let Hitler go to heaven for saying the magic words?” To my knowledge, Hitler never did say “the magic words”, but this hypothetical scenario gets to the heart of what it means for God to be just. Is it really a few words spoken with sincerity that can make “the everlasting difference between me and the guy in the next cubicle”?

The question about Hitler was posed to postmodern Christian thinker Brian McLaren. He responded by saying that the man’s son “acted a lot like Jesus,” and that “God must be proud of your son.” All this because he did a good deed. Does Brian McLaren know the heart of the son? It seems to me that this enabled the father to conclude that Brian’s God respects good behavior – never mind about good beliefs. God doesn’t need that kind of PR because it doesn’t adequately respect who God is!

And by the way, my answer to the question about Hitler is that God has a track record of redeeming violently evil people. Think of the apostle Paul. What about Sam Berkowitz? To believe that God couldn’t save someone like Hitler shows a lack of faith in God. Had I been in Brian McLaren’s place I would’ve assured the father that God sent His innocent Son to die so that his son could live an abundant life fully in favor with God. Does that sound fair?

It makes me sick to think that a so-called Christian leader could dismiss the justice and mercy and the grand story of God so casually and make it sound like it’s up to your own good behavior to find favor with Him. Again, that’s not the kind of reputation that God Himself presents to us, so why would we spread those lies to others?

These are the reasons why we must answer the question: Must you believe something to be Saved? It’s because of people like Brian McLaren and Spencer Burke (who believes that we begin life accepted by God and that we “stay in his grace, unless we opt out”). Wittmer even describes meeting another influential “Christian” leader who said that we must update our theology to stay relevant to our culture.

There is nothing more relevant than the timeless Truth already given to us by God: We are hopelessly incapable of pleasing God, but God loves us and offers His Son as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Hitler doesn’t deserve that kind of forgiveness, but neither do I. I hate to say it, but without God’s grace and forgiveness, I would be closer in morals to Hitler than I would be to Jesus Christ. There is no comparison between my good behavior and God. That’s why good behavior will never be enough.

So why did God decide to let it be about belief and not behavior?

Why won’t He allow us into His kingdom if we can answer affirmatively the questions, “Did you experience joy in life?” and, “Did you help others to experience joy in life?” Why won’t He allow us into His kingdom if we simply follow a good path, but not necessarily the “Jesus path”? Why won’t He allow us into His kingdom simply because our good behavior outweighs the bad?

God made it about belief because His favor cannot be earned. He could’ve made it about love, or acts of kindness, or compassion, or mercy, but those things would then be a source of pride to us. Only belief says we are completely at His mercy. Only belief is humble enough to admit our own weakness and trust in His strength. No one can boast in their belief, as if they have more belief than another. Belief is belief. You either believe or you don’t believe. It doesn’t matter how much or how little belief you have, it’s not about you. Belief admits that it’s all about Him.

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 HCSB)

I guess some like McLaren and Burke can easily dismiss God’s revealed Word casually, but I can’t. Does that make me a fundamentalist? Well, according to Wittmer, I’m more of a postmodern conservative. I agree with him that it needs to be about belief and behavior, faith and works. Wittmer asks, “Doesn’t God demand right belief and right actions?”

What should we believe?

The part of this chapter in Don’t Stop Believing that I really like is the section on what believers must believe. We must believe that we are sinners and that it is through Jesus that we can find forgiveness. Not too complicated.

But Wittmer takes it a step farther by talking about the truths that a Christian must not reject: the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus, and the “historical truth and significance of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and return”. Finally, he advocates for some truths that we all should believe: perfections of God, humans are the image of God, Church is Christ’s body, Bible is God’s Word, Biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Of course, these beliefs may not be understood when someone first receives Jesus as Master of their lives, but if they trust Jesus enough to follow Him, these other truths will be easy to accept.

Wittmer writes, “Contrary to what some postmodern innovators believe, those who reject these foundational doctrines of the Christian faith cannot be saved, no matter how swell they are and how well they behave. Being good is not good enough. We must know and believe something – the basic facts about salvation – to be saved.” He is referring to the “must believe” and “must not reject” categories as essentials to being a Christian. Indeed, it is not enough merely to do good deeds. However, our faith leads to works. Because we recognize the love God has for us, we freely show others grace and compassion and love.

Good belief without good behavior is like mixing in all the ingredients for a loaf of bread but forgetting to put it in the oven. Good behavior without good belief is like putting a loaf pan in the oven without filling it with ingredients. Either way, the world doesn’t get to benefit from the Bread of Life because of our unwillingness to believe or behave in a way that brings glory to God. Belief isn’t really belief if it doesn’t inspire living like Jesus in the first place.

This post is the first in a series of posts that will answer the ten questions that Michael Wittmer raises in his book “Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough”. Read my introductory post to the DSB series here, and then learn how you can get a free copy of the book here.


10 Responses

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  1. Lia said, on May 15, 2009 at 10.32 am

    I’m a bit unclear on what Brian McLaren said about Hitler from what you wrote… perhaps I’ll have to go look it up. However, you don’t address the other side of that argument about the little boy. And as I think this is a major issue about salvation (the outcome of those who have not rejected Jesus, but also have not embraced him… due to time on earth, circumstances of birth etc.), I think it would be interesting to hear your take on that.

    • Nathan Creitz said, on May 16, 2009 at 10.37 am

      Hey Lia – Thanks for the questions. I do encourage allowing McLaren to speak for himself. My concern with his remarks is that he’s making excuses for God. He doesn’t bestow grace on people based on my preferences. Like I said, I think Hitler had no intention of turning to God as some sort of pre-suicidal conversion. He deserves the justice of God. My point is that whether your crimes are great or small, we all deserve the justice of God. Are there degrees to hell? I have no idea. I’m not talking about hell because I don’t know everything about it. All I know is that it is eternal separation from God and if that’s what people choose in this life (to be separated from God) then that’s what they get in the next life too. I tend to see hell as a literal place but even if I didn’t, the horror of hell is that there is no fellowship with God.

      So, for the father asking whether or not his son would go to hell and creating a hypothetical situation where Hitler might say some “magic words” and get in to heaven; I respond by saying that ANYONE who rejects God will be rejected by God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” So, to ignore or disobey his commands is to reject his love and to willingly separate yourself from him.

      Ultimately, what I would want to say to the father in the above story is “Forget about the hypotheticals. I don’t know where Hitler is now though I have a pretty good guess. I can’t see his soul, or yours, or your sons. All I know is that God is very clear how we can have a relationship with him and it is through his son Jesus.” I wouldn’t even want to qualify the hypotheticals with a response. But above all, don’t give empty platitudes that God is proud of the father’s son simply based on his behavior. My Bible says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Apart from transformation through the Spirit we can’t do anything to please God. That’s where the postmodern liberals go wrong because they place all their eggs in the basket of good deeds or good behavior. That won’t get anyone anywhere. That’s what the Pharisees were trying to do and Jesus told them “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Good deeds flow from good beliefs, but there has to be belief before salvation.

  2. NCSue said, on May 16, 2009 at 9.03 am

    Amen, and again, I say AMEN!

  3. Jason said, on May 18, 2009 at 2.59 pm

    The fact that we are everywhere commanded in the Scripture to “repent” suggests that there is/are certain belief(s) that have that we must change our minds about. For example, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He was telling the people to “repent” for the Kingdom of Heaven (God) is at hand (here). The people rightly expected the arrival of the King and His Kingdom, but they had a misunderstanding about it. They believed incorrectly…and thus they were in danger of missing it. Jesus is calling for them to believe rightly…to believe that He is the promised King who is bringing His Kingdom. If the people didn’t “repent” (of their wrong belief) and change their mind about what the Kingdom is and who is it’s King, then they would not enter into it.

    This is just one easy example of the fact that we are called to believe…something! We can’t expect to enter the Kingdom without the proper belief about Jesus and what He came to do. So, setting aside the riduculous and unbiblical claim of Burke (an extreme postmodernist; or maybe simply a consistent postmodernist), the question is, What Must a Person Believe? And I think Wittmer does a good job of explaining what Jesus and the N.T writers were calling for when they say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” His diagram (Fig. 2.3) is a nice visual, though I can see where there could be some beneficial discussion with regard to the outer two circles.

    I think his statement about the necessity of believing that Jesus was both God and Man is correct and yet also not fully developed. He states that Jesus must be human, because we owed the debt…. While that may be true (I’m not overly satisfied with the concept of “debt”), it is not, I believe, the main reason why Jesus must be human (as well as divine). I agree with Hughes in his book, “The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ” who says, in effect, that although Christ’s coming was, in fact, a “rescue mission”, He must have come as a human being in order for humanity to reach its goal. In other words, we are not fully human apart from Christ. Our humanity reaches its goal in the humanity of Christ.

    So (if we can even speak of humanity apart from sin), if Adam had not sinned, Christ would have still had to come in order to perfect humanity because we, as well as the rest of creation, find our fulfillment in Him. I accept the “debt” idea (so far as it goes); but it doesn’t really get to the heart of Christ’s coming in the flesh.

    As with the remaining chapters, Wittmer does a great job of showing us the difference in thought between the two camps and suggests the (biblical) way of understanding the important contribution of both.


  4. Joel said, on May 19, 2009 at 1.31 pm

    Remember what Jesus’ brother said when he said that even the demons believe there is one God. There must be more than a simple verbal proclamation of your intellectual belief in God. I am sure you agree with me on this point.

    Whether “conservatively raised ears” like it or not, there is something we need to be DOing as well. When Jesus was asked by someone what he must to do have eternal life, Jesus responded that he must sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Why did Jesus not simply say that the man merely needs to believe?

    One of the problems with the emphasis on belief (“sole fide”) is that it makes it easy for us to not do anything about the orphans and widows (again, paraphrasing Jesus’ brother).

    Does Wittmer say anything about the dangers of over-emphasizing belief?

    • Nathan Creitz said, on May 22, 2009 at 11.57 am

      Hey Joel,

      I think you misunderstand my post and my brief synopsis of what Wittmer seems to be advocating. The point is that we need to be both believing AND doing. I wrote, “I agree with him that it needs to be about belief and behavior, faith and works. Wittmer asks, “Doesn’t God demand right belief and right actions?”

      The post after this one deals more specifically with faith and works but here I’m simply pointing out that the answer is, “Yes!” we must believe something to be saved. Those who are following Jesus will be known by their fruits. It will be because of their actions and attitudes that people will know them for who they are. They will know we are His disciples because of our love for one another. We are saved by grace through faith and due to our changed hearts we show our gratitude by loving and serving others.

      The reason this question must be asked is that there are some liberals who believe the important thing is to act right. Well, many will say “did we not prophecy in your name, did we not cast out demons in your name, did we not work many miracles in your name?” Jesus will say, “Depart from me for I never knew you!” Didn’t we do a lot of good things in your name? It doesn’t matter apart from true faith and repentance.

  5. Jason said, on May 19, 2009 at 2.42 pm

    Are you suggesting that Jesus is simply telling the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matthew 19 that if he were to sell all of his possessions he would partake of Christ’s redemption? If that’s the case then anyone can DO something to “be saved”. But further down in the passage our Lord makes it clear that “With men this is impossible, but with God all things aer possible.” Only God can transform a person into His “son”.

    In response to your statement that there is something that we must be DOing…what is that? And if you can define what that is, then how much of it are we to do? If we haven’t done enough of it, then do we then simply have to start doing more of it in order to be recipients of God’s grace in Christ?

    There is no “problem” with Sola Fide–only in how people interpret it. Faith works (as James says). And it works, as the N.T. makes clear, by the power of the indwelling Spirit. The Scripture is clear that there is nothing that we must DO in order to to “born again” except BELIEVE…something (and the question of WHAT must we believe is the focus of the chapter).

    It still amazes me that there is a difficulty in understanding that faith is not dead. If “faith” is dead, then it is not present. No matter how many times people try to put it back on me, I will never wear the yoke of the Pharisees again. I don’t have to DO anything (but believe) to receive God’s mercy in Christ. But upon receiving His mercy in Christ my life will be progressively conformed to His by the work of the Spirit in me.

    If you (or anyone) must insist that I (or anyone) DO something, it is this: I must confess (the verbalization of belief) that Jesus is the Christ, that Christ is Lord, for if I don’t, then I don’t have the Spirit of Christ but of anti-Christ (1John).

    I don’t believe there is a danger in over-emphasizing belief for those who truly believe the Scripture. The “moralists” and the “legalists” (and “post-modern innovators”) may have a problem with it, but like I said, I refuse to allow them to put the yoke of the pharisees back on my shoulders.


  6. Silouan said, on May 20, 2009 at 9.26 pm

    If Hitler or Sam Berkowitz are too hypothetical, there’s always Jeff Dahmer, who came to faith in Christ not long before his own death. There’s an example to set some folks’ teeth on edge.

    I’ll have to read the book to see what MacLaren is saying in detail, but from what I’m seeing here one thing sticks in my throat: I question whether it’s *things* we need to believe. It’s the Person, Jesus Christ, that we believe and trust. The facts are not at all irrelevant, but they aren’t what we “trust in, cling to, rely on.”

    I’m reminded of the three young men who said, “O King, our God is able and will save us. But *even if He doesn’t,* we’re not going to worship your dumb idol!” They weren’t primarily trusting God to save them; they were just *trusting God.*

    And the jailer in Acts 16 wasn’t making any theological request; he just needed to be saved from the gruesome death penalty for letting his prisoners escape. But even so, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your family will be saved.” My own first fervent prayer To Whom It May Concern was a similar blind cry for rescue from a specific situation – but grace was present, and led me into the Church.

    Admittedly, though, without the Trinity, the Incarnation, my sin and death and Christ’s life, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to *stay* a Christian. And as an Orthodox, I’m the last guy to call any dogmatic point unnecessary 🙂 But I also recognize that grace doesn’t wait for us to be smart enough or well-enough catechized to believe all the right stuff.

    • Nathan Creitz said, on May 22, 2009 at 12.07 pm

      Hey Silouan – Thanks for commenting.

      I guess I should’ve made the example of David Berkowitz more explicit. I mistakenly called him Sam but that’s because he was known as the “Son of Sam” and he was a serial killer that terrorized NYC. David DID receive Christ while in prison and his transformation was remakarkable. That’s why I equated him with Paul (who was a mass murderer) who God transformed into a powerful apostle.

      I agree with you, we aren’t worshiping things or words. We are worshiping God. Propositions about God help us to know God, however. The propositions help us to worship God in truth. Statements like, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” are vital to understanding who God is and what He requires of us. When I was dating my wife I asked her a lot of questions and she gave me answers / words / sentences to help describe who she was. I know God because of what He has said not JUST by what I’ve experienced. So, though we don’t worship words, we worship God correctly thanks to the words that have been recorded for us to read.

      If it weren’t for the facts about God, we wouldn’t know who God is.

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