The word essential means absolutely necessary, indispensable.
I grew up hearing the phrase “Essential to Salvation” in the church that I attended. When people spoke of this they were referencing “The plan of salvation” as it was presented from their perspective based upon a particular passage in the Acts of the Apostles. The passage is found in Acts 2:38 “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” While I am grateful for the heritage that ‘turned me on’ to the profundity and truth of Holy Scripture, I am even more grateful for the truth Scripture continues to reveal. A truth that is counterintuitive to our notions of reward and punishment, merit and demerit.
“It is clear that the gospel of Christ presents only one essential element of salvation and that is the finished work of Jesus on the cross.”
It is clear that the gospel of Christ presents only one essential element of salvation and that is the finished work of Jesus on the cross. As one Pastor observes “…we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifice we make for Jesus rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us; our performance for him rather than his performance for us; our obedience for him rather than his obedience for us. The hub of Christianity is not ‘do something for Jesus.’ The hub of Christianity is ‘Jesus has done everything for you.’”
So how does salvation work in our lives? If Christ secured salvation for us on the cross, what then does salvation look like as it is lived out in our experience? I think returning to Acts two is helpful here. In Acts two, the physician Luke is continuing his historical narrative of the events surrounding the early church. Understanding Scripture begins with understanding the genre; The Acts of the Apostles is a description of what happened in the first century after the resurrection of Christ. Notice that Peter proclaims the first gospel message, what does he preach?
Peter begins by confirming that what the crowds gathered had witnessed was indeed the fulfillment of prophecy, recorded in the Old Testament book of Joel. He then points them to Jesus beginning in verse 22, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know, -this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up…” and continuing through verse 36, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The point of Peter’s message was to proclaim the essentiality of Christ’s death on the cross.
A point which moved the men of the crowd to respond in verse 37, listen to how Luke describes it, “Now when they heard this (heard the preaching of Peter concerning Jesus and his death) they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” The preaching of Peter about Jesus and what he came to accomplish was instrumental in the hands of the Holy Spirit to convict and turn the hearts of those listening.
“In order for our hearts to respond to the gospel requires an intervention of God’s Spirit.”
It was then and only then that the listeners to Peter’s message could respond to the good news he proclaimed. What was true for those in Peter’s audience is true for us as well, the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) In order for our hearts to respond to the gospel requires an intervention of God’s Spirit.
This is why Christ told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:3). Jesus was communicating to Nicodemus the necessity of a change of heart before someone can see and enter the Kingdom of God. This analogy wasn’t lost on Nicodemus, he answered Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4) It was then that Jesus responded, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) Some have supposed that Jesus was speaking about water baptism here, but I don’t think so. Remember that this is prior to Pentecost, and Christ was speaking to Nicodemus specifically. What would Nicodemus have understood to be the meaning of Christ’s words? The Pharisees baptized people, as did other Jewish sects of the day, groups that Jesus often condemned for their hypocrisy and unrighteousness. John the Baptist use of baptism was central to his ministry, but when Jesus came, John pointed followers to Him. So it is unlikely that neither Jesus nor Nicodemus would have had these forms of baptism in mind, but what about Christian baptism, a baptism that had not yet been introduced and would not be introduced until Pentecost.
Why wouldn’t Christ specifically instruct Nicodemus to be baptized, seeing it was not a word foreign to him? I believe the weight of the biblical evidence points to a consistency in the employment of the metaphor Jesus used here in John chapter three.
Look at what Jesus says in John 3:6 “That which is born of flesh is flesh, that which is born of Spirit is Spirit.” Jesus is extending His illustration that just as Nicodemus had no control over the timing and place of his natural birth, those born again have no timing or control over their new birth, and it is a work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus points out in verse 8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So when Jesus says be born again of “…the water and the Spirit…” I believe the mind of Nicodemus would have quickly gone to the words of the Prophet Ezekiel “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all of your uncleaness and from all your idols. I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statues and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Isaiah 44:3 also uses the water/Spirit symbol. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your decedents.” In fact the Old Testament frequently depicts the Holy Spirit being poured out like water, some examples are Proverbs 1:23; Joel 2:28-29; and Zachariah 12:10. A Jewish ruler steeped in the Old Testament, like Nicodemus would clearly have understood Jesus to be speaking of a birth by the Spirit.
This symbolism would be consistent with Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit elsewhere in John’s gospel, in John 8:38, Jesus declared, “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John then provides this commentary, “Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 8:39).
“When the Spirit of God was poured out on Pentecost, the Spirit empowered Peter to proclaim Jesus, His death and resurrection, resulting in the changed hearts that were enabled to respond to the Peter’s proclamation.”
When the Spirit of God was poured out on Pentecost, the Spirit empowered Peter to proclaim Jesus, His death and resurrection, resulting in the changed hearts that were enabled to respond to the Peter’s proclamation. Resulting in them receiving the gift of faith and salvation, gifts given by God alone, by grace alone, on the account of Christ alone. So that salvation is by faith alone, but not a faith that remains alone. The faith that was ignited at Pentecost resulted in works of obedience, such as the symbolic act of baptism, which was an outward demonstration of the inward work of God’s grace, and the good works of giving, fellowship, worship, and “…having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:47) This description of what happened in Acts is consistent with the prescription of what continues to happen as recorded by Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
So what was the one essential that is needed for this ‘new birth’ to take place? The vicarious death of Jesus on the cross! By Christ’s death on the cross, the wrath of God that we deserved was satisfied, God then intervenes in the hearts of those He calls, turning their hearts by the power of His Spirit, empowering them to do good works and walk in obedience.
It is in this salvation that we rejoice, as Paul described in Galatians 6:14 “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”