By Nathan A. Finn
While lecturing in Church History I last week, I was asked by a student if I thought you had to believe certain doctrines to be saved. My answer was an unequivocal “yes.” While I do not believe one has to have extensive theological knowledge to be converted, I do believe there are some beliefs that are necessary for salvation. The gospel is news, and all news includes specific content.
Specifically, I believe there are certain things one needs to believe about the nature and character of God, the nature and destiny of humanity, and the person and work of Christ in order to be saved. I summarize these essential doctrines this way: 1) God created the whole world and human beings perfectly good, but we sinned against him by not trusting him and obeying his commands; 2) Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became a man and lived the perfect life we ought to live, but do not and cannot because we are captive to sin; 3) Though he never sinned, Jesus died the death we deserve to die, but do not have to, because he is our perfect substitute; 4) Jesus was raised from the dead to conquer the terrible consequences our sin has earned; 5) any person who repents of his sin and trusts in this amazing work of God through Christ as his only hope for salvation will be forgiven of his sin, adopted into God’s family, and given eternal life.
Obviously, this is a bare-boned presentation of the good news, the bare minimum of the gospel. Furthermore, there is little doubt that not all new converts understand even these baseline truths with the same degree of depth. Nevertheless, I believe a basic affirmation of these concepts is inherent to saving faith, even if a new convert understands far more than these core doctrines.
I am not alone in arguing that certain beliefs are essential to salvation. In 1801, Andrew Fuller published the second edition of his famous treatise The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. In this important work, Fuller challenged what he believed to be aberrant views found in three theological movements: 1) hyper-Calvinists, who denied the universal proclamation of the gospel to all people; 2) Arminians, who denied the monergistic nature of salvation; 3) Sandemanians, who denied that repentance is an element inherent to saving faith. In countering these movements, Fuller argued that some beliefs are necessary for one to be saved.
He that cometh to Christ must believe the gospel testimony, that he is the Son of God, and the Saviour of sinners; the only name given under heaven, and among men, by which we must be saved: he must also believe the gospel promise, that he will bestow eternal salvation on all them that obey him; and under the influence of this persuasion, he comes to him, commits himself to him, or trusts the salvation of his soul in his hands (italics in original).
I’m with Fuller: You cannot be saved if you don’t have some understanding of who does the saving, what we need to be saved from and why, and how it is that he has saved us. To be sure, this is not all we need to know if we are to be fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ. But we must know at least these truths if we are to begin a life of discipleship.
See Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, vol. II, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Sprinkle Publications, 1988), pp. 340–41.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.