Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

What must I believe to be saved? And what truth, if I deny, will prove that I am unsaved? Theology and personal salvation is a hot topic in the inbox, based on your questions to us over the years. And it’s a broad category too, one that encompasses a lot of related questions, as we will see today.

This time the email comes from a twenty-year-old woman who writes this: “Pastor John, hello! I have been to many funerals in my young life — far too many, actually. The running theme of them all is that the person in the casket was nice and therefore is now in a better place. It’s all very thin cliché. Such a setting confronts me again and again with a massive question. And I think I know the answer intuitively, but I would like for you to put words to this.

“What role do personal theological convictions play in personal salvation? That’s what I never hear in these funerals. A text like Romans 10:9–10 has always come to my mind. What are some others? And how would you suggest a normal person like me, who doesn’t preach or write books, document my own theological heart convictions, the confessions of my mouth, in a way that can be recalled and remembered at my funeral, ‘when this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent’?”

This is a multilayered question. And every one of the layers — I see three, at least — is very important. And here they are (as I hear them) in the order that moves from the least to the most important, even though they’re all important.

Number one, the first layer relates to the kind of things that get said at a funeral that seem so disconnected from what really matters in a person’s life, especially in regard to the theological convictions that a person had.

Number two, another layer is how to live your life in such a way that you document your heart convictions so that they can be recalled at your funeral.

And the third layer of the question (to use her very words) is this: “What role do personal theological convictions play in personal salvation?” Now, that’s really big. So, let me take these one at a time. I think they are moving increasingly important in order.

Live Your Convictions

Two things have to happen if you want the truth to be told about your spiritual life and your heart convictions at your own funeral. One is that you live that life (that’s the most important) and that you hold those convictions. The other is that spiritually discerning people need to speak at your funeral, because, if they’re not spiritually discerning, you know what they’re going to say. “She had a nice sense of humor.” “She made really good desserts.” “She made people really feel at home.”

“There needs to be a heart embrace of Jesus and a life of love that confirms the reality of our faith.”

Now, those are good things. It is good to be remembered for those things. But honestly, when we’re standing on the brink of eternity at a funeral, looking over the edge into heaven and hell, and a person has lived a life of devotion to Jesus and obedience to his word and worship of his glory and advancement of his mission — that person ought to have somebody who is able to articulate what they believed and how they lived it out, delicious desserts and all. All of it.

Active and Verbal

Second, she asks, “How do I live my life in such a way that I document my heart conviction so that they can be recalled at my funeral?” And I think the answer is this: Be active in your obedience to Jesus, and be verbal about your foundational biblical convictions. The Bible teaches both of these: active in your obedience, verbal in articulating what you believe biblically.

Jesus said that we should “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16), which is what you’d like people to do at your funeral: give glory to God because of your good deeds (1 Peter 2:12). And in Peter’s first epistle, he said that we Christians have been shown mercy so that we might “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). So, our lives are supposed to be visible in their good deeds and audible as we declare the truth of our biblical convictions about God, which are the foundation of those visible good deeds.

Lots of people think that all Christians need to do is live a life of good deeds, and that will be sufficient for blessing the world. That’s absolutely not true. It’s not sufficient. Nobody can read a saving message from our good deeds alone. A life of loving good deeds is essential, but it is not sufficient to lead anyone to saving faith in Jesus. There must be a verbal message about the truth of God and Christ and the way of salvation.

Paul said that saving “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). “The word.” “The word” means statements, propositions that carry clear meaning about the reality of God and his work in the world, his work in Christ, and the necessity of faith.

What Must I Believe?

Which brings me now to the third and hardest question. What role do personal theological convictions play in personal salvation? There are two (I think) crucial things to say in answer to that question.

First, there are true statements about God’s saving work that, if a person denies, shows by that denial that they’re not a Christian. The second thing to say is that the Bible teaches that believing that those statements are true in the Bible is not sufficient to show that you are a Christian.

The biblical support for the first statement is 1 John 4:2–3: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” In other words, there are doctrines like the incarnation (Christ come in the flesh) that are essential. If a person denies that the Son of God has become a human, he cannot be a Christian.

The biblical support for the second statement is James 2:26: “Faith apart from works is dead.” Demons have faith in that sense — that things are true; we believe things are true. So, it’s not enough if you want to be saved just to believe that things about God are true. There are some doctrinal statements that are necessary to affirm by a Christian, but that affirmation is not sufficient to prove that saving faith in Jesus is genuine. There needs to be a heart embrace of Jesus and a life of love that confirms the reality of our faith.

In the Hands of God

There’s one other related issue we just might have time to say a word about. People will ask at this point, “How much biblical truth do you need to believe to be a Christian? And how much error can you believe until you’re not a Christian?” Now, I have two responses to those two questions.

First, let’s not focus on minimums, but on maximums. In other words, let’s take as many people into as much biblical truth as we possibly can, rather than dwelling on the question, How little can people believe and still be saved?

And my second response is this: I think only God can answer the question, How much error can you believe until it shows you’re not saved? Now, I’m not contradicting 1 John 4:2–3 when I say that. There are some doctrines so essential that to deny them is not to be a Christian. What I’m saying is that there are hundreds of statements and commands in the Bible — ethical, theological, historical — and they are more or less essential for preserving the saving gospel. How many of those can a person deny until they show that their heart is not right with God, that they’re in rebellion? And I think only God, in the end, can answer that question.

We have to make decisions. Yes, we do. Practically speaking, we all have to make decisions on how we will define doctrinally our church membership, belonging to our organization or ministry. But when it comes to final salvation and the judgment of who’s finally saved and who’s not, after we have taken 1 John 4 into account, I think we better leave to God the call as to how much denial of biblical truth a person can make until it shows that his heart is really in rebellion against God.