What Must I Do to Be Saved?

I mentioned in the opening sentence in my last blog that one of my favorite texts as an evangelical was Acts 16. It was a text I used in evangelizing. At that stage of my journey I had some very simplistic notions of salvation.

When the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” he wasn’t asking, as I thought then, how to go to heaven. He was asking, “What must I do to be made whole, to be healed, to be put right.” The word “saved” could be translated “to be made well, to be made whole, to be made complete.”

When Paul says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” what he is saying is: Trust in and be faithful to the Lord Jesus. Transfer your trust and allegiance from the Empire of Rome to the kingdom of God as embodied and lived by Jesus, whom God has made Lord. Paul is telling this Roman citizen to transfer his allegiance. He wasn’t saying, “Here’s this doctrine about Jesus you have to believe in order to go to heaven.” He was saying, “Rome is no longer your lord. Caesar is no longer your lord. Jesus is your Lord. Be faithful to Christ and you will experience true healing, you will be made whole, you will discover what it means to be fully human.”  

I think it is instructional to note how the slave-girl in the passage prior to the incident in the jail describes the message Paul and Silas were proclaiming: “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Salvation is a “way” of life.

No one is made whole in an instant, no one is completely healed or restored to completeness in a moment, no one is totally converted or transformed through a single experience. It may well be a dramatic encounter with God that shifts our worldview and changes the direction of our lives. Certainly Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ set him on a new course that turned this persecutor of Christians into a propagator of the gospel of Christ. But that one experience didn’t completely transform him.

The interworking of divine grace and human responsibility may forever be a mystery, but there is no question that conversion requires effort, faith, discipline and the pursuit of love on our part. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells them:  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” – fear and trembling may mean something like “in awe and wonder,” or even “in trust and humility” (Phil. 2:12). In his correspondence with the church at Corinth, Paul says that the message of the cross is the power and wisdom of God “to those being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18). It’s not those who have been saved, but those being saved. It is a process.

The message of Christian salvation may be simple, but it is not simplistic, and I hope more Christians indoctrinated into simplistic explanations the way I was will recognize how such descriptions can breed real misunderstanding, false confidence, and arrogance.

Too many Christians think they are God’s chosen because they believe the right things. It’s hard to imagine why God would make belief the key to being saved. 

What we believe is important to the extent that it leads us to trust in God and be faithful to God’s loving will. God is not after correct beliefs—God can’t be that petty and small. God wants people who can experience and respond to God’s love and, in turn, love others. That’s pretty simple, but “working it out” requires the best of our humanity.


  1. Thank you so much for elucidating what Paul is saying when he says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” I thoroughly agree with the whole paragraph. I wish more Christians knew the difference between the Empire of Rome (or of the U.S.) and the Kingdom of God.


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