The most frequently quoted verse of scripture is John 3:16 which read "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The reason why this is quoted so often is because Protestant Christians believe that this is a clear and concise statement of their belief that the only requirement needed to gain salvation is simply to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior.
Yet, despite this common belief, there are more different Protestant denominations in the world today than any other religious faith. Even within major denominations there are different sects. For example, the largest Protestant faith in America is the Baptist church yet they are divided into such sects as the American Baptist, the Southern Baptist, the Freewill Baptist, the Seventh-day Baptists, the Fundamentalist Baptist, the Reformed Baptist, the Missionary Baptist, the Evangelical Baptist, and many others. And what makes each of them different from one another as well as from all other Christian churches is their doctrinal beliefs.
What is strange about all these differences in doctrine is that the great majority of Protestant churches nonetheless believe that the only requirement for going to heaven is simply to believe in Christ. And, indeed, many of them believe that to go to heaven it doesn't really matter if a person is a Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentacostal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or are members of thousands of other different Christian denominations. But if that is true then there's no point to arguing over doctrine if doctrine isn't important for our salvation.
On the other hand, traditional Christians say that Mormons will not go to heaven, precisely because of their doctrines. As they see it, Mormons believe in a different Jesus than they do and therefore conclude that they really don't believe in Christ, which therefore excludes them from being saved. However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus is the Son of God, just as Protestants do, that He came to earth from heaven and died on the cross to atone for our sins just as Protestants believe, that He rose again the third day and sits on the right hand of God the Father, which is what nearly all other mainstream Protestant churches likewise believe, and that salvation comes only in and through a belief in Jesus, which is what Protestants say is all that is necessary to inherit the kingdom of God.
Yet, even so, many critics of the LDS church still claim that Mormons believe in a different Jesus. They contend that this is because we don't believe in the Trinity as traditional Christians do or that we build temples to do work for the dead or claim to have living prophets. However, these are merely differences in doctrines. Since it is doctrine that separates all Christian churches from one another and most Christians believe that doctrines are not what save us, then there is no reason for Protestants to believe that Latter-day Saints should be excluded from going to heaven.
Yet, they still contend that Mormons are not Christians mainly because the LDS Churches teaches that works are important to our salvation. According to Protestant Christianity, we are saved, not because of anything we do to earn or deserve it but simply because Christ, out of the goodness and mercy of His heart, as an underserved free gift, has decided, according to His own pleasure, to let sinners into heaven. This is what they understand God's grace is all about. They believe that Christ justifies and sanctifies us by forgiving all of our sins like a judge dismissing all charges against a guilty criminal. In this sense, they picture God as being a magician who, with a wave of His magic wand, can transform a sinner who is worthy of hell into a saint who is holier than the angles.
On the other hand, when the LDS Church teaches that "we are saved by grace after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23) many Christians interpreted that as saying God saves us because we've earned the right to be saved. That is to say, they think we believe that Christ is obligated to save us because of what we've done. Therefore the critics claim we are doing away with the need for God's grace by believing that we save ourselves. This is why they claim we believe in a different kind of Jesus than what they say the Bible teaches.
At the heart of this argument is the definition of what it means to "believe" in Christ. The Protestant definition comes from the words of Paul when he wrote "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:9-10). As they understand this scripture, Protestants believe that all a person has to do to be saved is merely utter the words that they believe in Christ and mean it with their heart. However, that is not what Jesus said to Nicodemus as recorded in John 3:16.
In verse seventeen Jesus went on to elaborate what He meant in the previous verse. He said, "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God" (John 3:17-21).
There are a number of things we learn from this. The first is that God didn't send His Son to earth for the purpose of condemning the world because all of us are already in a condemned state. Instead, Jesus came to save us from our fallen condition so He could bring us back to God.
The second thing we learn is that unless we believe on Him whom God sent we will remain in our condemned condition. Or, stated differently, to be saved from the condemned state we are already in, we must believe in Christ. So far traditional Christians and the LDS Church are in complete agreement on this point. But then Jesus went on to explained why we are condemned. He said, "This is the reason why men are under condemnation because that light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light."
In the first chapter of his gospel, John explained who "that light" is. In speaking about Jesus he said, "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:4-5). Jesus is "that light [which] is come into the world," or, in other words, He has come to enlighten us on how to be saved from our condemned state.
The reason why men are under condemnation is because they will not come to the "light" and the reason why is because they "love darkness" and "hateth the light." Rather than forsaking their evil ways, they flee from the light because they don't want to be reproved or condemned for the evil "deeds" they are unwilling to give up. Therefore, what Jesus said condemns us is our deeds.
But Jesus said that those who love truth are drawn to Him like a moth is drawn to a flame. They are the ones who willing seek to have His light illuminate their darkened mind so "that [their] deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." The New International Version translates verse 21 thusly: "But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." Thus, what we learn from this scripture is that our deeds not only condemn us but it is also our deeds that shows we have come unto the light. And when we come unto the light we are saved.
But this is not what most Christians believe. What they teach is that our deeds can only condemn us but have no ability to save us. That is to say, they believe there is nothing we can do that will affect our salvation. According to them, salvation is granted to us strictly as an undeserved gift that God bestows upon us for no other reason than out of the goodness of His heart. This is what they say Paul meant when he wrote, "Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Timothy 1:9). "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9). "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16).
But if God is going to save us just as we are with no effort on our part then why do we need to believe in Jesus? The fact that belief in Christ on our part is a necessary step to becoming saved indicates there is something we must do in order to qualify for salvation.
Many Christians try to get around this troubling fact by claiming that believing in Christ is not a "work." But saying that doesn't make it so. Believing in Christ is something we have to do . If we don't do that then God will not save us. Furthermore, most Christians believe that once we have accepted Christ as our Savior it's important for us to live our life as though we really do believe in Him. That is to say, we should expect to see a change in the behavior of those who say they believe in Christ. It's hard to imagine that a confession of faith is sincere if a person's lifestyle doesn't change for the better. What this tells us is that if salvation is dependant on our belief in Christ, then, at a minimum, good deeds are necessary to at least indicate a person does truly believe in Him. Thus, even by Protestant standards, good deeds are necessary if salvation is to be effective.
If that is so, then God's "grace" is dependant on us doing certain things. In that case, God is not saving us for no reason at all but because we have met certain necessary requirements that then permits Him to save us.
However, there are those who quote the words of Paul when he said, "that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (1 Corinthians 12:3; see also 1 Cor. 2:11) and say this tells us that even our belief in Christ is something that God has to do for us. In other words, we can't even believe in Christ unless God's Spirit first touches our heart and causes us to believe in Him. Therefore, they say that since even believing in Christ is not something we can do on our own then it can't be considered a "deed."
But this argument posses a serious problem because it clearly implies that it is God who decides who will believe in Christ and be saved and who will remain ignorant of Him and suffer in hell. Such a doctrine means we have no choice in the matter because our salvation or condemnation is all determined according to the capricious whim of God. And if that is true then life has no real meaning because from the moment of our birth, God has already decided who will go to hell and who He wants to go to heaven.
While there are some Christians who teach such a doctrine, the vast majority of Protestants believe that God does give us the choice of whether to believe in Him or not. But if that is true then it is just as true that our salvation is dependant on us doing something. In that case, it becomes critically important that we properly understand what it means to believe in Jesus.
During His last meal the night before He was crucified, "as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins"(Matthew 26:26-28, emphasis added). And then He told them, "Do this in remembrance of me." (Luke 22:19).
To most Christians, the bread and wine are symbols of God's grace and when we take them "in remembrance of" the body and blood of Jesus, we are reaffirming our belief in Him as our Savior. However, Jesus referred to these symbols as being the "new testament" and since it is His blood which He shed for the remission of our sins that makes salvation possible, then it's obvious that the "new testament" is all about our salvation.
Most modern translations use the word "covenant" instead of "testament" because the Greek word here is "diatheke" which means "a compact or covenant." Thus when we speak about the "new testament" what we are really talking about is a new covenant that God has made with us. But a covenant is not a one-way agreement. Each person who enters into a covenant has certain obligations they are required to fulfill under the terms of the agreement. Even when God enters into a covenant with us He is obligating Himself to do certain things for us and, in like manner, when we enter into a covenant with God, we are also obligating ourselves to do certain things for Him.
Jesus explained the terms of our covenant with Him when He said, "If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it. If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:14-15). Notice the two way agreement. Jesus agrees to do anything we ask of Him but, in return, He expects us to do what He asks of us, which is to keep His commandments. This is what both we and God are obligating ourselves to do under the terms of the "new testament." And it is when we honor our part of this agreement that God knows we love Him.
A little later that same night Jesus told His disciples, "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (John 15:10). Notice that Jesus said this to those who already believed on Him. Since we can only be saved by believing in Christ and the definition of being saved is to abide with God forever and we can only abide in God's love if we keep His commandments, then it becomes clear that believing in Christ means keeping His commandments.
Furthermore, when we accept Christ into our life, He accepts us into His family. The scriptures refer to believers as being "the sons of God" whereby we have the right to call God our Father (Romans 8:15). But, family members have certain obligations that are expected of them. The Bible tells us that one obligation is that children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). If someone says they believe in Christ but doesn't want to obey their Father in heaven then it calls into question whether they truly believe in God.
In many of His parables, Jesus likened heaven to a wedding where He is the groom and the members of His church are the bride. During a wedding ceremony the wife pledges to honor and obey her husband and the Bible indicates that members of the church are likewise to honor and obey their head, who is Jesus. A wife who either refuses to obey her husband or who pits her will against his cannot say she truly loves him. In the same way, those who claim to believe in Christ but who don't do as He asks cannot say they truly love Him.
Again we see that to believe in Christ means more than just giving lip service. It requires giving actual service to God. And if that doesn't happen then a person's belief in Christ cannot be genuine, in which case, they are not entitled to salvation.
Then what did Paul mean when he said that we are saved because of God's gift of grace and not because of anything we've done to deserve it?
There are two ways this is true. When John 3:16 tells us that "God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son," we understand this to mean that because of God's tremendous love for us He offered up His only begotten Son as a blood sacrifice for our sins. That great atoning sacrifice was a gift of pure love that we did nothing to deserve. Christ was not obligated to die for our sins. It was an act of service He performed for our benefit without asking anything in return. And because of that free gift of grace, just "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all (i.e., everyone, both saint and sinner alike) be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:20, emphasis added).
But there is a second way that salvation is gift of grace. As we have already seen, if we say we believe in Christ then we will show it by keeping His commandments. However, no matter how much we love the Lord, all of us fail to perfectly keep all the commandments all the time despite our best intentions. And since each of us, at one time or another, have not lived up to our obligations as contained in the terms of the new covenant then none of us can honestly claim that we deserve to inherit the kingdom of God. If we were to be judged strictly by our deeds alone, all of us would fall short of the glory of God because none of us would be able to measure up to the full stature of Christ, no matter how much we might try.
Since we haven't fulfilled our promise to Him then Christ is under no obligation to fulfill His promises to us. But, because of His great love and out of the kindness of His heart, God is willing to be merciful to us despite our shortcomings and failures by nonetheless saving us into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, when He shows us mercy by granting us salvation despite our shortcomings, it's not because He has to, or because we deserve it. He does it because He wants to. And it is that act of mercy on His part why we call God's grace a free gift. All He asks in return is that we make the effort to serve Him with all of our heart, mind, and soul. And when we fail to do even that, then He allows us the opportunity to repent and try again.
While it is true that in order to be saved a person has to express a heartfelt belief in Jesus, those who say this is the only requirement necessary for salvation have no grounds for condemning those who believe that works are needed to receive salvation since they too have a heartfelt belief in Christ. On the other hand, if keeping the commandments is a necessary part of salvation, then those who teach that works aren't important are putting their salvation at risk. That's why it is so important that we properly understand what it means to believe in Christ.
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