The title, of course, is an allusion to the Philippian jailer’s question to Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30. A rather important question.
A pressing need of Christians is to understand their faith as a system that makes sense. A rational system, as it were. A system that makes sense of all aspects of reality, from the mundane to the cosmic. A system that brings order and meaning to all we observe and do.
Of course, man’s rationality by itself is not sufficient to validate Christianity. Man cannot begin with sense perception, empirical knowledge, and logic, and then derive all of Christianity from these premises. Man must also submit to what he receives via God’s Word, the Bible.
But rationality has its role to play. Martin Luther referred to the magisterial versus the ministerial use of reason. For the Christian, human reason (that is, human intellectual power and humanly-derived knowledge) can never be a magistrate over Christianity, standing over it and judging it. In that case, we get liberal pseudo-Christianity.
But reason can be a minister of Christianity to the Christian, helping him to understand how the facts revealed in the Bible are organized into an intellectually coherent system and are consistent with humanly-derived knowledge. Human reason cannot generate the most important truths of the Bible such as the Trinity of God, the Atonement, or divine Providence. Nor can human reason by itself generate the faith in Christ that saves, or the obedience that gives glory to God. But our powers of reason must be deployed to understand these truths as more than just religious clichés, and to organize them into an intellectually coherent and satisfying system. Call it “faith seeking understanding.”
As I am Protestant, this post will present Protestant teaching, specifically Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) teaching. But note that about 98 percent of Calvinism agrees with the rest of Protestantism, and at least 90 percent of it agrees with Catholic and (capital O) Orthodox teaching. The differences matter, of course. But the different Christian traditions have much in common, and we can learn from our differences.
In the Reformed churches, there is a tradition of the catechetical sermon, generally delivered at the Sunday night service. In contrast to the Sunday morning sermon, the catechetical sermon focuses on an article of one of the Reformed confessions or catechisms such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (for Presbyterians), the Heidelberg Catechism (for Reformed Churches) or the London Baptist Confession (for Reformed Baptists.) The catechetical sermon primarily seeks to explain how Christianity is a rationally articulable and understandable system, based on premises found in the Bible.
How then is a man saved from God’s wrath? Confessional Protestantism—that small branch of Protestantism that formally adheres to one or more of the Protestant creeds and confessions that spell out the actual content of what Christians [OK, Protestants] ought to believe—is often criticized for its emphasis on salvation from God’s wrath by faith alone.
(Technically, it’s justification by faith alone, with justification meaning God regarding the sinner as being sinless, and therefore worthy of Heaven instead of Hell. But justification is the engine of salvation, as it were.)
The critics include non-Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and even sloppy Protestants, and their complaint is generally simple: Salvation by faith alone appears to say that how you behave is irrelevant to God’s calculation. Faith is (allegedly) just a small set of intellectual beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, man and salvation, and other than that, the Christian allegedly has a get-out-of-Hell-free card that he can display after he dies when he stands before God’s judgment seat.
We must point out here that Catholic and Orthodox Christians also believe in the necessity of an individual having faith in the God of the Bible in order to be saved. Catholic and Orthodox doctrines also teach what might be called salvation by faith; the Protestant distinctive here is salvation by faith alone. But Catholics and Orthodox must also answer the question “What’s faith got to do with salvation?”
With all that as introduction, here is an excellent 47-minute sermon by Reformed pastor Movses [pronounced “Moses”] Janbazian laying out what the Bible says about how individuals are saved from the wrath of God. It explains the “mechanism” of salvation, as it were. The recording also includes a Q&A session. [Around the 18:30 mark, the pastor offers a brief prayer, and then continues to the second part of his lesson.]
Here are some of Pastor Janbazian’s main points:
Man needs a Savior because he sins. Sinners must be punished, although the penalty can be paid by a substitute. Jesus is the substitute for some, but not for all, because not all are saved.
How does a man have his sins paid for by the blood (i.e., death) of his substitute, Jesus? By having faith in Christ.
Faith is not what you do to earn salvation. It is the evidence of God’s favor and the instrument through which He connects you to Jesus your Savior.
Faith manifests itself in knowledge (of the things of God), assent to these truths (for one can know a doctrine without assenting to it) and trust that you are saved (for even the demons know and assent to the things of God.)
What is the knowledge that is necessary (but not sufficient!) for salvation? The elements of the (lower case c) catholic faith, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Of course, this summary needs to be “unpacked,” but it is there in condensed form in the Creed.
True faith always leads to a desire to obey God’s Law, and therefore faith leads to good works. Faith is not opposed to works; it leads to them. But justification (having a right standing before God) is by faith, not works.
One could say this is the bottom line of Christianity: Why should I be a Christian? Because it is the only way to avoid the wrath of God against your sins. And how exactly do Christians avoid this wrath? This sermon gives a very clear and accurate answer. And it does so by reference to Scripture, the highest (earthly) Christian authority.