One Question, Three Different Answers
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Three times in the book of Acts, Luke the physician recorded non-Christians asking what they needed to do to be saved, and three times a different answer was given. The heathen jailor from Philippi asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?,” and was told: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (16:30-31). The Jews on Pentecost asked the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?,” and were instructed to “repent and be baptized” (2:37-38). A few years later, Saul (later called Paul—Acts 13:9) asked Jesus, Who appeared to Saul on his way to Damascus, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” (9:6; 22:10). After being told to go into Damascus to find out what he “must do” to be saved, Ananias, the Lord’s servant, commanded Saul to “[a]rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16). The question that many ask is: “Why are three different answers given to the same question?” Are these answers contradictory, or is there a logical explanation for their differences?
The reason that three different answers were given to the question of salvation is because on each occasion the questioners were at different “locations” on the road to salvation. The rationality of such answers can be illustrated by considering what a person is told in reference to his physical distance from a certain city. If a friend calls me to ask how far it is from his house in Jackson, Tennessee to my parents’ house in Neosho, Missouri, I would inform him that he is 475 miles from Neosho. If he calls me back the next day, notifying me that he is now in Little Rock, Arkansas, and asks about the distance to Neosho, I would give him a different answer. He now would be 260 miles from Neosho. If, later that evening, he called me one last time and asked how far Fort Smith is from Neosho, again I would give him a different answer—130 miles. No rational person would accuse me of contradicting myself, since each question was asked from a different reference point. Three different answers were given, but all three were correct. Likewise, the New Testament records three different answers given to the question, “What must I do to be saved,” because the sinners who asked these questions were at different places of understanding on the road to salvation.
The Philippian jailor was commanded to believe in Christ, because he had not yet heard and believed the saving message of Jesus (Acts 16:31-32; Romans 10:17). It would have been pointless for Paul and Silas to command the jailor to repent and/or be baptized when he had not yet even heard the Gospel. If today, a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, asked a Christian the same question the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas, the same answer would need to be given. Before ever teaching a Muslim about the essentiality of repentance and baptism, he first must express belief in Jesus as the Son of God. If this step (i.e., believing) is never taken on the road to salvation, the other steps are meaningless. [NOTE: The Bible reveals that after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord” to the jailor and his household, they believed and “immediately” were baptized (Acts 16:33). By implication, Paul and Silas must have taught the jailor and his family about the essentiality of baptism after stressing the need to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Acts 8:35-36,38). Question: If water baptism has nothing to do with salvation, then why were the jailor and his household immersed in water not long after midnight (cf. Acts 16:25,33)?]
The Jews on Pentecost had already heard Peter’s sermon when they asked their question about salvation (Acts 2:37). Peter knew that they already believed, and that such belief came from hearing the message he preached (cf. Romans 10:17). The Jews had passed the point of belief (being “pricked in their heart”), and were told to “repent and be baptized” in order to obtain salvation (cf. Mark 16:16).
Still, someone might wonder why Ananias told Saul neither to believe nor repent when he informed him about how to have his sins washed away. The reason: Saul already was a penitent believer in Christ by the time he came in contact with Ananias. Saul did not need to be told to believe or repent, since he had already done so. He knew the Lord existed, having spoken directly with Him on the road to Damascus, and he expressed a penitent attitude by praying to God and fasting for three days (Acts 9:9,11). At this point, Saul lacked only one thing: he needed to be baptized (Acts 22:16).
The reason these sinners were told three different things regarding salvation was because they were at different starting points when given the various answers. It is as if the jailor were in Jackson, Tennessee, the Jews on Pentecost in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Saul in Fort Smith. All wanted to go to the same place, but were at different starting points when they asked the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The unbeliever was told to believe. The believers were told to repent. And the penitent believer was told to be baptized. The three statements may be different, but they are not contradictory. For a person to become a child of God, he or she must do all three (see John 8:24; Luke 13:3,5; Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16).