Evangelical Questions: What Must I Do To Be Saved?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
John 3:16-18 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about what it means to be saved. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Well, if there ever was a topic where Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals get confused over language it’s this one…What is salvation? Our agenda for today is this: First we’ll talk about how Evangelicals understand salvation and why they think the way they do, next we’ll answer their questions hopefully in a way they can hear, and then we’ll talk about the unique contributions our faith makes to this part of the conversation.
What Does it Mean to be Saved?
In our church when we talk about life after death we have a conceptualization that pretty much everybody is “saved.” We get anxious about what exactly that will look like, and especially anxious over what the relationships will be there, but the actual question of salvation isn’t really all that interesting to us. But it is huge to Evangelicals and I want to help you understand why. First I’m going to talk about Evangelicals broadly, and then about the two subsets of Evangeliclas who view these issues slightly differently.
First, in general Evangelicals believe that after this life is over each person will face judgment where there really is only one question God asks, “What did you believe about my son, Jesus Christ?” Those who can answer that question by saying they believe Jesus is Lord receive a reward of eternal happiness in Heaven, and those who either can’t say that Jesus is Lord, or who have never heard of Jesus are condemned to eternal suffering in Hell. While historically Catholics have believed that there is some wiggle room with their conceptualization of Purgatory, Evangelicals believe it is a one-time judgment that can never be changed, even if the reason for the person’s lack of belief is that they lived in a time and place where no one had heard of Jesus.
And if you remember from an earlier video you know that Evangelicals as we know them today are really a post-WW2 invention. One of the original goals of the Evangelical movement was to take down all barriers that churches had put up for people coming to Christ. And as their name – Evangelical – implies they are very interested in sharing the message of salvation with everyone. But they had a problem which was churches who put up, in their opinion, too many barriers to faith. And by this they meant requiring people to be baptized. Now, many Evangelical churches still practice baptism, it has not gone away. Instead what has happened is that they’ve changed the process from, as the New Testament puts it, “Believe and be baptized” to “Believe, say the sinner’s prayer, and later show evidence that you have done these things already through your act of baptism.” Baptism itself is not efficacious, it’s the sinner’s prayer that actually does the heavy lifting, and the baptism is for show. So for them, to be saved means that you pray a prayer of repentance, inviting Jesus “into your heart,” and then you are saved. When judgment day arrives for you the issue will be already settled since you have made some declaration that Jesus is Lord and will be placed in Heaven. That’s what salvation is for them in a general sense.
I don’t want to get too far off track here but there are two important distinctions to talk about here. “Evangelical” is a broad term. It’s not a denomination. It’s a descriptor that applies to many different types of churches. You can be a Baptist, and be an Evangelical. You can be a non-denominational church and be an Evangelical. And there is another descriptor that it’s important to talk about here: Calvinist. Evangelicals come in 3 varieties: Calvinists, Non-Calvinists, and Blind-To-Theology. The Bling-to-Theology category simply means this: members at a specific church are not taught using theological terms or categories. This is your, “We just love talking about Jesus” kind of church. Now, the leadership of that church, and the denomination they belong to (if they belong to one) absolutely has a stance as Calvinist or Non-Calvinist, but the pew-sitting people in those churches couldn’t tell you who Calvin was or how he is influencing their lives if you paid them. Their leaders simply side-step the issue by using other language to talk about the same things. So, really, we only have 2 categories.
100 years ago it would be easy to spot a Cavlinist church because they were mostly called either “Presbyterian” or “Reformed.” That hasn’t been the case for a long time. The hipster church on the corner that is called something like, “Engage! Church” could be Calvinist, or they could be Non-Calvinist, you’d have to dig to find out. So what is a Calvinist anyway and why is it important?
John Calvin was born during the Renaissance in France. He’s educated at the University of Paris but right after his University studies he breaks away from the Catholic Church and becomes a Protestant (French Protestants are called Huguenots) but eventually he has to flee to Switzerland because there is a great deal of violence against Protestants in France during that era. Calvin was trained as a lawyer, but he becomes a theologian and you can see the lawyer in him when you read his theology. And Calvin’s biggest theological contribution is the idea that because God is so Supreme, so sufficient, so all-knowing, he already knows who will and won’t be saved (at this time in history that’s the “believe and be baptized” version of being saved, not the “pray the sinner’s prayer version.) And in fact, this knowledge in God is so certain it must only be because he chose who would be saved and who wouldn’t. And, even further, it is entirely possible for a person to want to be saved, but if God has decided they will not be saved, there is no hope for them. The opposite is true too – if God has decided you are to be saved, that will be “irresistible” to you in a way that requires no agency from you. Today, there are various versions of Calvinism, some softer than others, but the basic idea is the same: God chooses who will be saved and who won’t. A person can’t really know for sure that they’re saved until the judgment.
Calvinism still has a huge influence on Christianity today, especially in America. Roughly 60% of Evangelical churches believe some form of Calvinism, and this is part of what fuels the grace-vs-works debate. But it’s not a clear-cut distinction for which Evangelical church follows it and which ones don’t. The opposite position, Armeniniasm believes every person has the possibility of being saved and that the church should work hard to reach as many people as possible. But most churches have some mix in them. I grew up in an Evangelical church where we were jokingly told, “You should spend your waking hours as an Armeniest (meaning you should work hard to spread the gospel) but you sleep like a Calvinist (meaning you should leave it all in God’s hands and be content with whatever he decides.)”
You can see, in these two subsets there are two very different views on what it means to be saved. In one version God pre-decides it for a person, and no agency of theirs is required. In the other version the person has to use their will to decide to follow God, and that creates salvation for them. (I know this doesn’t make any sense, I didn’t make the rules, I’m just telling you.)
So, you can see, even within Evangelicalism there is disagreement about what it means regarding how to get saved. But they all agree on the fact that not being saved means eternity in Hell. How will that time be spent? Opinions vary from, “eternal conscious torment” to “obliteration,” and obliteration is about the best you can hope for. About 15 years ago there was a movement in the Evangelical world to reconsider what Hell is, who goes there, and how that time will be spent, and the “obliteration” option largely became more popular because of that movement. Which means that in their view, if we’re considering a person who has never heard of Jesus Christ, the very best thing we can hope happens after they die is that they simply no longer exist. The alternative is that they are consciously tormented forever.
Talking About Salvation
Normally in these videos I’ve tried to explain the Evangelical position in a way that hopefully makes you say, “yeah, I can see where they’re coming from even if I disagree.” But I gotta be honest, it’s really hard to do that here. The best I can do is to point out to you that their belief system (whether they’re Calvinists or not) is highly self-reinforcing. When I was an Evangelical I completely bought into this system because of the ways it’s self-reinforcing. There is the threat of eternal damnation hanging in the balance after all. But I’ll tell you how it started to crack for me.
I grew up in a family where my mom took us to church and my dad only attended if us kids were having some kind of special event (a special choir performance, etc.) I was taught as a girl that someone like my dad would go immediately to Hell if he died in his unbelief. They softened that for people like me by saying, “life is long and you have no idea when someone’s heart might turn to God.” But it turned out that my dad’s life was not long. He died in a car crash at 44 years old. I was 12, which doesn’t sound very old, but I was a weird kid and interested in theology straight out of the womb. So I had to figure out how to understand that my church said my father was going to be consciously tormented forever without letting it break my faith. And in my little 12-year-old mind I kept a secret thought, “I think my church is wrong about that.” It would take me decades to gain enough theological sophistication to think all the way through that, of course, but that’s where it started. And I can tell you exactly where I was standing when I had it (12th and M street, Modesto CA), because it shook my world. The fruition of that thought wouldn’t come for decades, but I don’t know that I would be here today without it.
I tell you all of that to say this: There are Evangelicals out there who question this system they’re in, even if it is very quietly. And frankly, our church’s conceptualization of the afterlife is far kinder, far more in line with the character of God. In this series we’re talking about the gifts our church has to offer to the larger Christian world, and this is certainly one of those areas. When you talk with Evangelicals about, “what it means to be saved” you will have to fight past a lot of anxiety about the threat of Hell, and worries about getting things wrong, and an entire self-reinforcing system. But you have something to offer here that your friends or family members might end up wanting.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.