What must I do to be saved?

The Bible leads people to salvation, but sometimes is unclear about what is required. What are the core beliefs that one must have to be a Christian? When the apostles tell us to follow the fundamental truths of the Faith, what do they mean? What can followers of Christ disagree on without breaking fellowship? What differences in theology are so serious that Christians must separate themselves from people who hold wrong views

By Mark D. Harris

Our Sunday School class has been working through the letters of John for the past several weeks. In them, the Apostle repeatedly calls for his readers to know the truth. Most people, even those who deny objective moral truth, believe in some kind of truth. Religions, and non-religious philosophies, claim to contain and convey truth, and ask their adherents to accept it.

The word “saved” differs from one religion and/or philosophy to another. To a Christian, one is saved from separation from God. To a Buddhist, one is saved from false beliefs. To a Marxist, one is saved from economic oppression. To a Muslim, one is saved from hell. Keeping in mind that “salvation” differs by context, we will investigate how to achieve it.

How to be “saved” in major non-Christian religions

Every religion requires adherence to a set of beliefs and actions by those who wish to be part of that faith. For example, Islam expects its followers to do the five pillars:[1]

  1. Shahada – testify that “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His prophet.”
  2. Zakat – pay tithes.
  3. Salah – pray towards Mecca five times per day.
  4. Sawm – fast during Ramadan.
  5. Hajj – make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslims are likewise required to perform good works, having just dealings with others, and may be called to fight in a holy war (jihad). Islam has dietary requirements, such as prohibitions on alcohol and pork, and rules for the social order. If one believes and does these things, he or she can justly consider him or herself to be a Muslim and will be considered so by others.[2] After death, if a Muslim’s good deeds outweigh the bad, or if he is killed in a jihad, he or she will enjoy paradise.

Hinduism and Buddhism approach “salvation” differently than the Abrahamic religions. Both posit reincarnation after death, resulting in a cycle of lives and deaths on earth (though some perhaps as an animal, not a human), known in Sanskrit as samsara. Hindus believe that one’s eternal essence, the atman (“soul”) moves from body to body until finally, typically after thousands of lives, achieves moksha, release from samsara, and merges with the universal soul.[3] Hindus achieve moksha through ascetism, good works, meditation, and bhakti, reverence toward their god. Historically, Hindus have been required to follow Hindu social law, the foundation of which is the caste system, to be considered true to their faith.[4]

Buddhists and Jains hold similar opinions to Hindus on rebirth and release, but Buddhists specify their philosophy in the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Duhkha – Life is suffering.
  2. Samudaya – Desire (craving) causes suffering.
  3. Nirodha – To end desire is to end suffering.
  4. Marga – The path to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration)

To be a Buddhist, and to be considered as one by others, one must believe in the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.[5] Men are thought to live many lives as a layman, a few lives as a monk, and then become an arahant, bodhisattva, or buddha. Women live as laypersons or nuns, are reborn as men, become monks, and then progress to the goal.

How to be saved in Christianity

In Acts 16:30-33, the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas “what must I do to be saved?” The question resonates throughout history, asked by everyone whom the Father has given to the Son. Paul’s answer was simply “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” The answer is simple, but vague. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 removed all requirements for Christians to follow the Jewish Law of Moses. The Council specified that Christians should avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols and abstain from adultery, but did not make either a requirement for salvation.

Followers of Jesus are not required to adhere to any social system, class hierarchy, or form of government. Christians have no dietary laws (Acts 10:9-16). There is no specified system of ritual cleansing. No occupations are excluded, though a strong argument can be made to exclude occupations which are specifically forbidden in the Old Testament. For example, anyone can follow Jesus, from prostitute to axe murderer, but they must give up whatever evil they committed in their former life.

The Christian faith differs from all other major religions in its requirements for salvation. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ embodies the truth, so knowing the truth is knowing the Truth. This means having a personal relationship with Jesus. Knowing Christ in a personal way, just like knowing anyone else, requires the following:

  1. Apprehending facts about the person known.
  2. Feeling emotion of some kind towards the person known.
  3. Spending quality and recent time with the person known.
  4. Committing to be in a relationship with the person known.

A relationship can be positive or negative and it can be weak or strong, but if these four requirements are not present, no current relationship exists. Many people have come and gone in my life, and our interpersonal bonds were tight. My memories of them are fond, but we no longer have a current relationship.

Given the nature of relationships, the question remains, “What must I do to be saved?” What does it mean to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?” For this article, what facts must one adhere to in order to consider oneself a Christian, and be considered one by others?

Until the Council of Carthage (AD 397), Christians only had the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) as accepted scripture. The Church leaders at the Council reviewed many letters and other documents that were used by churches in their teaching and worship. Based on these documents’ teaching, their apostolic authority, and how widely they were accepted by the churches, these elders admitted them to (or rejected them from) the canon of accepted Scripture…the Christian Bible.

Men and women lived and died as Christians for nearly 400 years and Christianity grew to become the majority religion in the Roman Empire without a complete founding document. How did they know what was fundamental to Christianity? How did they know what to believe? How did the Church not splinter into a thousand different sects with varied beliefs and eventually die off?  How did they know, specifically, what to do to be saved?

In building the early Church, God through the apostles, especially Paul, set up an organization that would endure forever. It had four major characteristics:

  1. Leadership, both at the local and at the regional level. Local leaders helped to ensure faithful teaching at each local church. Regional leadership constituted a hierarchy to prevent leaders from going bad and correct or remove them if they did (Elders and deacons – Acts 6, 1 Tim 3, Titus 1, James 5, 1 Pet 2).
  2. Differentiation between pastoral leadership (the apostles, the elders) and service leadership (the deacons).
  3. Independence of the church from the secular and political authorities. Christians by and large obeyed secular authorities (Romans 13) and the church developed into an independent center of spiritual power and moral authority.
  4. An accepted creed. Creedal statements encapsulate Christian teachings, are easy to memorize, and align thoughts and priorities. See also the Value of Creeds at MDHarrisMD.com. Paul wrote early creedal statements in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and in Hebrews 6:1-3. Many other creeds followed, including the Rule of Faith (2nd century) and the Old Roman Symbol/Creed (Latin Creed, early 4th century).

The Roman Empire was another major factor in the spread and cohesion of the early Church. Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ensured safe and abundant maritime transit. The Roman roads and famous postal service allowed an ease of travel and communication unheard of in antiquity, a feat not surpassed until the coming of the railroad and telegraph in the early 19th century. The Pax Romana enforced laws in the empire and safeguarded the frontiers against outside peoples. Rome recruited soldiers from all over the Empire and sent them to parts far from their homes, lest they rebel. These soldiers spread the Gospel. Peace, communication, and transportation allowed Rome’s economy to flourish.

Simultaneously, the variety of religious faiths was evidence that none of them was compelling. Greek was the lingua franca, spoken all over the Empire. Rome had adopted the Greek pantheon, found it wanting, and a widespread search for a novel spirituality ensued. The Father certainly sent the Son in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4-5).

Early Church fathers summarized the Christian faith in two famous creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicen Creed.

The Apostle’s Creed (fourth century AD)

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.


The Nicene Creed (AD 325, amended 381)

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, God
of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father,
through Whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was
incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man: Who for us, too, was crucified under
Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried: the third day He rose according to the Scriptures, ascended into
heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father: He shall come again with glory to judge the living
and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son: Who
together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified: Who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.

These creeds reveal what ancient Christians believed were the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Believers in Christ had to have a particular understanding about God. Not just any belief set would do. People have many different opinions about God. Most people have a combination of the beliefs noted below, and these combinations are rarely, if ever, consistent.

  1. Atheist – There is no God.
  2. Polytheist including ancient mythology (Greek, Norse, German, African, Latin American, Asian, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism) – many gods and spirits.
  3. Monotheist (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, a scattering of people in other religions) – one God.
  4. New Age – God is an impersonal force. Since he has no personality, he makes no demands and has no will.
  5. Deist – A person, but uninvolved with man
  6. Theist – A person, transcendent and immanent
  7. Various – God is weak and changing.
  8. Polytheist – Gods are great, but also are as fallible and immoral as men.
  9. Materialist – The universe is eternal (multiverse) and needs no creator. Nothing exists outside the material world.
  10. Plato – Powerful and unchanging Creator of the Universe

To be a Christian, however, only one set of beliefs about God is acceptable. God is an eternal, almighty Person. He is the creator and sustainer, both transcendent and immanent, and He is omniscient. God is beyond full comprehension, but can be known, at least in part, through His creation and His incarnation. God is morally perfect, and His nature is characterized by love. God is triune (three persons in one God) and is both temporal (Son) and Eternal (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)

Christianity differs from all other religions in the matter of Jesus Christ. One’s beliefs about Jesus constitute the breakwater between being a Christian and being anything else. The Apostle’s and the Nicene creeds agree upon;

  1. Jesus Christ is the only Son of God.
  2. Jesus is Lord.
  3. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary.
  4. Jesus is the Creator.
  5. Jesus became man.
  6. He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
  7. He was crucified, died, and was buried.
  8. On the third day he rose again from the dead.
  9. Jesus ascended into heaven,
  10. He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
  11. Jesus will come and judge the living and the dead.
  12. The Holy Spirit exists.
  13. The universal Church exists and is the work of God. Universal includes all Christians in all places and all times in human history.
  14. Baptism unites the Church into one communion.
  15. Jesus Christ’s work forgives sins and makes possible the resurrection of the dead.
  16. The followers of Jesus Christ will live forever.

Being longer, the Nicene Creed adds elements either implied or simply absent in the Apostle’s Creed

  1. Jesus was begotten (not created) and is of the same substance as the Father.
  2. Jesus descended from heaven.
  3. His kingdom will have no end.
  4. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son and is glorified.
  5. The Holy Spirit speaks through the prophets.
  6. The Church is holy (set apart to God)
  7. The Church is apostolic, governed by the teachings of the Apostles and by the authority of the successors of the Apostles. This includes the Pope, Patriarchs (Bulgarian, Georgian, Serbian, Russian, Romanian, Assyrian Church of the East).

The Apostle’s not the Nicene Creed, states that Jesus descended into hell. It specifies the resurrection of the body.

One can object to the idea that a certain fund of knowledge is required for salvation. After all, one might say, the thief on the cross was clearly saved and yet understood little. There are flaws in this reasoning:

  1. We do not know if the thief had a history with Jesus. He could have been a distant follower or an observer of Jesus for some of His ministry.
  2. We do not know if the thief learned about Jesus through others in his circle.
  3. As He has done throughout time, God miraculously gave the thief enough insight on the cross to follow Jesus. We do not know what that insight included.
  4. The Father judges people based on what they do with what they are given. The thief was in a unique circumstance, with limited time to learn about Jesus. Most people are not in his circumstance but have the opportunity to know more. They will be held accountable for their greater knowledge.

The goal, of course, is to believe what the Bible says in all its fulness and reject everything that Scripture rejects. Even a lifetime of study, however, will not accomplish this feat. Creeds like the Apostolic and the Nicene distill the core of the work of God in Jesus communicated through the Bible into something that everyone can memorize and believe. Honest Christians will disagree on whether some points in the Creeds, such as Jesus descending to hell, is required for faith. They will differ on the legitimacy of Pope and Patriarch. But people must agree with the vast majority of the points written here…or they are not Christians. People who claim to follow Jesus but do not hold these key views do not belong in the Church.


What must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. What does that mean? Have a relationship with Him, including knowing about Him, feeling for Him, spending time with Him, and being committed to Him. What do I need to know about Jesus? Know the whole Bible, but begin with learning, understanding, and even memorizing the historic creeds of the Church. Knowing the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds opens the door to a deeper understanding of God and of the Christian faith. Knowing them helps churchgoers know who is trustworthy and who is not. Believers will act accordingly.

[1] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (London: Granta, 2006).

[2] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (London: Granta, 2006).

[3] R C Zaehner, Hinduism (Oxford Paperbacks, 1966).

[4] Patrick Olivelle, The Law Code of Manu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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