Salvation Principles and Relevant Commands
We can learn much in Scripture about how to please the Creator. God has not left man to wonder aimlessly through life, never knowing what he must do to be saved. Instead, Scripture repeatedly records how different people at different times in history were saved from their sins. From these accounts one can glean important principles of salvation. What’s more, the Bible includes specific commands so that sinners can know precisely what to do to be saved. It is the Bible student’s responsibility, however, to distinguish between the application of salvation principles and the necessary obedience to specific, relevant commands, which must be followed in order to receive salvation.
Essential to the salvation of all men is God’s grace. Without it, we would have “no hope” of being saved (Ephesians 2:12). Jesus taught this principle in parables (cf. Matthew 18:27; Luke 15:20-23), while Paul specifically reminded Christians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His [God’s] mercy” (Titus 3:5).
Another scriptural salvation principle is that God saves only those who understand they are lost. The Lord did not “put away” King David’s sin until he confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the tax collector, rather than the self-righteous Pharisee, ultimately “went down to his house justified” (vs. 14), because he “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (vs. 13). The tax collector recognized his lost state and humbly appealed to the only One Who could save Him—God. The penitent thief on the cross provides another noble example of one who owned up to his sinful ways and turned to God for help (Luke 23:40-43). The thief admitted that the brutal crucifixion was his just and “due reward,” while professing that “this Man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong” (vs. 41). He then appealed to Christ for salvation, saying, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” (vs. 42).
Can Bible students learn principles of salvation from King David’s repentance, the tax collector’s humility, and the thief’s sincere appeal to Christ? Most certainly. However, one must be careful not to confuse learning principles of salvation with learning the specific things non-Christians must do today in order to receive the gift of salvation.
An immigrant who aspires to become a law-abiding, American citizen can learn a great deal by studying the lives of 19th century immigrants. Understanding the obstacles they went through to get to America and eventually become legal U.S. citizens can inspire 21st century immigrants to do the same. One can learn about the need for patience, persistence, and perseverance. Yet, for a 21st century immigrant to become a U.S. citizen, he must familiarize himself with the current laws of naturalization, and then obey those laws. Knowledge of 19th century citizenship laws may help in the naturalization process, but ultimately, a person living today must abide by 21st century rules and regulations.
Similarly, Bible students can learn a great deal from the humble, contrite, determined individuals who lived prior to Jesus’ death on the cross. Christians do themselves a disservice if they fail to consider David’s contrite heart (read Psalm 51), the rich young ruler’s proper question (“What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”—Mark 10:17), and the thief’s sincere plea to Christ for salvation (Luke 23:42; cf. Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). Throughout Scripture we can glean godly principles relating to man’s salvation. Bible students, however, must not confuse the application of biblical principles with the obedience to relevant commands. All people living this side of the cross of Christ are saved under a different law than that under which David, the thief on the cross, the rich young ruler, and even Jesus lived. God’s New Testament came into effect after Christ’s death, and this testament reveals the explicit instructions that non-Christians must obey in order to become Christians. “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Hebrews 9:16-17, emp. added).
After Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, He and His apostles taught that non-Christians come into a right relationship with God only after they confess faith in Christ (Mark 16:16; Romans 10:9-10), repent of their sins (Acts 2:38; 3:18), and are immersed in water for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). These are specific prerequisites for receiving salvation. They must be followed by all of those who live on this side of the cross of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
Appealing to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), the paralytic of Galilee (Matthew 9:1-7), or the sinful woman whom Jesus forgave (Luke 7:36-50) in order to learn specifically what God wants non-Christians today to do to be saved, is to wrongly divide the word of truth. A person is “rightly dividing” (NKJV) or “handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB) when he understands that the relevant commands for salvation are found after Jesus’ death. Making the distinction between learning from the righteous ways of those before the cross (cf. Romans 15:4) and obeying the specific commands given after the cross, is vital to a proper understanding of God’s will and a right relationship with Him.