What are the essentials for salvation? Here is one person’s take:
1. Belief in the existence of God: Duh, right? In short, as relativised as the term “Christian” has become, there is really no such thing as an atheistic Christian.
2. Belief in the deity of Christ: I believe that Christ is the center of the Christian message. Who He is is as important as what He did. I don’t necessarily believe that people must be presented with a Nicene or Chalcedonian understanding of who Christ is, but I don’t think that anyone can be a Christian and simply believe that Christ was a man who died on the cross. They may not understand that Christ is homoousios with the father, but knowing that He is God’s Son is an ontological claim, not just a relational one. In other words, when we claim that God sent His Son, we are saying that God sent one of His own nature, not simply some man that He was particularly fond of.
3. Belief in the personal sin: This means that a person must realize their need for forgiveness before they can receive forgiveness. Once again, I believe that this happens at the time of regeneration as God restores our relationship with Him and we suffer a deep conviction of our own unrighteousness. No one can be saved unless they experience such a subjective conviction.
4. Belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ: Both number 2 and 4 are unique to this list because they are the only two that provide content that cannot be acquired outside of special revelation. In other words, people will not be able to acquire this information outside of the Gospel. Without the unique message of the Gospel that comes to us through Christ and the Apostles, people can, on their own, come to the conclusion that God exists (Romans 1) and be convicted of personal sin (Romans 2), but they cannot know about who Christ is and what He did. Since I believe that the Gospel message is essential to salvation, this puts me in the rare camp of “restrictivism” with regards to the destiny of the unevangelized. Again, being a Calvinist makes this easy and complicated at the same time. Nevertheless, I don’t think that Heaven will be inhabited by any (outside of those who are mentally unable) who did not hear and believe the Gospel while on earth. One may not know how Christ’s death satisfies our need (i.e. vicarious penal substituation), but one does have to know that Christ died for them and that He rose from the grave and that this somehow saves them.
5. Faith alone: Notice here I have cheated. I did not put “Belief in faith alone.” While I am firmly convicted that justification is by faith alone, I am not persuaded that one must believe in the doctrine of sola fide to be saved. My reasoning for this is twofold. 1) It is very difficult to know what to do with those who preceded the Reformation. While I appreciate what Thomas Oden’s Justification Reader has done to show how prevalent an unarticulated doctrine of sola fide was prior to the Reformation, I still am convicted that the majority of the Church believed that their works contributed to some degree to their ultimate justification. 2) The mass amount of people today who profess belief in the Reformed doctrine of sola fide often fall back, doctrinally speaking, into some sort of works based belief system. Like the Galatians, many Christians today receive the gift of God and then begin to attempt to pay Him for it. Whether it is through a righteous life, fear that they might lose their salvation, or the simple addition of the work of baptism to their faith, this is an adoption of a works based belief system that, while wrong and damaging to their walk, does not disqualify them from their inheritance or evidence that they never really received the gift. In the end, it is my belief that these people will realize that it was their faith alone that saved them, even though they may have believed that their works were a necessary contribution. In this sense, these people lack the fullness of the Gospel and need to understand just how radical and scandalous the grace of God truly is.