How Can I Be Saved?
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How Can I Be Saved?

Ephesians 2:1–10  (ID: 0516)

Conditions of entry are important, Alistair Begg reminds us—especially concerning the kingdom of heaven. The Bible is clear about the problem of humanity in our natural state: we are dead, blind, and enslaved due to sin. The solution God offers is salvation through Jesus Christ. But how can we be saved? The Bible teaches that salvation comes from turning away from sin toward Christ as Savior. What’s stopping you from repenting and believing in Jesus?

Series Containing This Sermon

The Basics of the Christian Faith

A 13-Lesson Survey Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28701

Sermon Transcript: Print

I’d like to read two verses to set a context for our study this afternoon. They come from Isaiah 55:6. And God speaks through his prophet, and this is what he says:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
 call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
 and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,
 and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

And then the prophet goes on to speak and says,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 neither are your ways my ways,”
 declares the Lord.

So, we ought never to be surprised if the thinking of God runs counter to the thinking of man, especially when it impacts upon the most crucial areas of our lives.

The story came out of the Seoul Olympics in ’88 that there were three men who had hoped to get into the stadium in order to be spectators: a Scotsman and an Englishman and an Irishman. They found themselves in South Korea without any ability to access the place. And so, they were standing around outside the stadium, and as a result of some of the construction that had been going on, there were areas of unfinished building adjacent to the stadium.

And so the Englishman, a man by the name of Neville Atkinson, he looked across and saw a piece of piping which had been part of scaffolding of some nature. And he took this piece of piping, and he walked up to the front gate, and he said to the man, “Neville Atkinson, United Kingdom, pole vault.” And so the guy said, “That’s lovely.” He said, “Just come right in and go over there.”

So the Irishman, Sean O’Leary, was intrigued by this, and began to scratch his head, and looked around, and found a manhole cover, and grabbed that under his arms, and walked up and said, “Sean O’Leary, Ireland, discus.” And the guy said, “That’s fine.” He said, “Come right in.”

So there was only the Scotsman left, Jack McTavish. And he looked around, and he grabbed up some big rolls of barbed wire—went up to the place and said, “Jack McTavish, Scotland, fencing.”

The place and conditions of entry to anywhere are really quite important, and nowhere more so than entry into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was exceptionally clear when he spoke concerning these things, pointing out, as Matthew records in 7:13, that we should “enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” The place and conditions of entry to most places are very important, and, says the New Testament, to the kingdom of God they are vitally important.

We ought never to be surprised if the thinking of God runs counter to the thinking of man.

I’ve sought through these months to be not only proactive in sharing in these biblical studies but also in some measure to be reactive to the group that has been coming and in listening carefully to the kind of things that people have been saying in response to the lunchtimes that we’ve shared together. Somebody said most recently, when asked how they thought these luncheons were going, they said, “I think I understand the problem, but I’m not sure that I understand the solution.” In other words, that they felt that in our studies most recently in Ephesians 2:1–10, that the Word of God had been very, very clear as concerning the condition of men and women in their natural state, but, according to this individual, I had not been sufficiently clear in explaining how an individual might enter into the benefits of genuine Christian faith. Because you will recall—those of you who’ve been with us over a period of months—that we set out some time ago to ask the question: What does the Bible teach concerning the nature of genuine Christian faith?

In the course of that, we discovered that the Bible teaches that by nature, we are dead and cannot make ourselves alive; that by nature, we are enslaved and cannot get the handcuffs off; that by nature, we are blind and have no remedy within ourselves to become spiritually sighted. Two weeks ago, we discovered at the end of our studies there in Ephesians 2 that salvation is not by works, but it is for works. And in the course of it all, we’ve sought to lay out a biblical basis for this genuine Christian experience.

And so today, I’d like to try and answer two questions, and they’re these. Question number one: If this is the nature of genuine Christian experience—question one—how does this become personal to me? And question number two: What prevents me from taking this step today? If I have come to an understanding of what genuine Christian experience is, then how does that become my experience, and what prevents it from becoming my experience?

Now, I need to say that there’s a measure of risk involved in this. The only real negative comments that I have received out of the luncheon have been comments that had to do with any time that I have suggested that there is a need for personal response—suggesting to me that men and women are largely happy to apply their minds to spiritual truths, to think about possibilities relating to faith, so long as nobody tries to close the deal for them. And as soon as anybody suggests that there is closure here, it is offensive. I recognize that, and so there is risk in doing what I have done and what I’m about to do.

There is also risk involved for those who are first-time visitors today, because you have walked in largely in a vacuum, and what I am now doing is kind of the end of the line that has a number of presuppositions built into it, which you are not privileged to, and therefore, you may assume that this is a rather vapid and inconsequential event. I apologize up front for that, and hopefully somebody will be able to exercise disclaimers in your journey back to the office.

There is risk also involved insofar as every time that anyone in the New Testament, whether it was Jesus Christ or Paul the apostle, brought things to this eventuality, men and women also shied away from it. It is clear from the Gospels that they were interested and intrigued by the miracles of Christ; they were glad to be involved in some form of mass movement; they were prepared to swell the ranks of the crowd that was moving along the Palestinian hillsides. But when Jesus of Nazareth turned around and looked people clear in the eyes and said, “Unless you do this, you cannot be my disciple,” suddenly, the crowd was rapidly diminished.

When Paul, on the hill there in Athens, confronted men and women with the claims of Christ, staggered them by his ability to quote the lyricists and poets and prophets of the age, they said, “Let’s go and hear what this babbler has to say”[1]—the kind of thing that some of you have said in coming to the Tabletalk luncheons. You may not have used the word babbler, but “he talks, and he has an accent, so let’s go and hear what he has to say.” Because you’re intrigued! And it is an indication of the fact that God has set eternity in your hearts.[2] It is an indication of the fact that Pascal was right when he said that there is within the nature of man a God-shaped void that neither material things nor sensual indulgence nor intellectual achievement can ever fulfill.[3] And so that is why, even intrigued by your own continual journey, you find yourself here month after month. But there’s been no change. There is just more to intrigue, more to stimulate, more to challenge.

And when it comes to the crunch, what we discover in the twentieth century is what Paul discovered in the first century: that as soon as he turned to the people there on the Areopagus and he said to them, “Now, listen: God has appointed a day when he will judge the world, and therefore, he commands all men everywhere to repent, to do something about what they’ve just been hearing,”[4] then their response was threefold. Number one, some immediately rejected his message. Number two, some delayed in their response. And number three, some believed and became followers of Jesus Christ.

In my anticipation of this day, I anticipate each of those responses. It has been my personal prayer that some, having listened to what the Bible has said over these weeks, will be ready today to believe in Jesus Christ. I know that there will be some who flat-out reject all that is said, and there will be others who walk back to their place of daily employment saying, “I would like a rain check on that decision, if at all possible.” Only one decision guarantees your eternal destiny.

Now, with that in mind, I want to ask, then, this question: if the New Testament has stressed—and Ephesians 2 especially—has stressed this notion of the need, the problem of man and the solution of God; if you like, the need to be saved… I mean, we’ve used pictures from the Potomac River, you will remember, with the 737 or the DC-9 that crashed some years ago there, and we talked about people in the river and how they were in need of salvation. They weren’t interested in dialogue; they wanted out. And we’ve said that is exactly what Ephesians 2 is saying: when a man or a woman understands their predicament, then they know they want out. They know they need saved. Well then, here’s the question: How can I be saved?

Now, somebody immediately objects to that, and they say, “You know, I think it’s really abhorrent for you to suggest that anybody needs to be saved. Because after all, wouldn’t you say that it’s true that having been brought up in the land of the brave and the home of the free, with all this Puritan background and all the many blessings of Little House on the Prairie and everything else, that somehow or another, we have just been swept into the kingdom of God as a result of what a phenomenal race we truly are?” And that notion is abroad—the notion that really, nobody needs to be saved; they just need to realize that they are saved. You see? So, you don’t need to do anything to get saved. You are saved. It’s just that some didn’t know they were, and others found out that they were. It seems plausible enough, and that’s largely what comes from pulpits every Sunday in the nation. “Wise up,” they say. “Don’t you realize what you are?” And people go home saying, “If I am what he says I am, why am I in the devil of a mess that I’m in?”

And so the answer which the Bible gives is very, very clear. To the individual who says, “You know, this notion of being saved, I want to object to that, because surely it’s a bit off. Isn’t everybody in?” This is what John says, the apostle John, the apostle of love—1 John 5:12: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Now, I don’t think you need anything more than a sixth-grade education to understand that statement. By very definition, we are not all in the same situation. Those who have the Son have life. Those who do not do not have life.

Now, he’s clearly not talking about physical life, because in physical terms, somebody could shout back and say, “Why are you saying that? Of course I have life! I’m shouting at you, aren’t I?” And John had to make clear what he had had to discover, which was that what Bible was speaking about was a dimension of life which was eternal in its significance and spiritual in its origins.

Somebody says—in answer to the question, you know, “How can I be saved?”—“Won’t I be accepted by God if I simply try my best and clean up my act? I mean, isn’t that really what you’re saying here, Alistair? ‘Try your best, and clean up a bit, and come to the Tabletalk, and make sure you take the garbage out for your wife, and don’t be a nuisance when you get home’? Is that not the message that you’re trying to bring? ‘Try your best and clean up and you’re in’?” No! If you heard that, I’m sorry. We’re going to have to start Ephesians 2:1–10 all over again. And you know how much you’re looking forward to that.

The prophet Isaiah says that even when we bring all the best things that we’ve been able to do, they are, in God’s sight, like dirty old rags.[5] When we put on our best togs, our best cleanup act, and we present ourselves before God, the radiance and purity of God is so great that even when we are at our cleanest, we still look dirty. So therefore, the message “How can I be saved?” is not answered in terms of “Clean up and do your best.”

Nor may we answer it by saying, “If I promise simply to do better, won’t God save me?” The answer is no. If that’d been the case, then Jesus Christ would never need to have died upon the cross. He could simply have come along and said, “You know, here’s the message: clean up, do your best, and try and do a little better.” That’s what humanism said in the nineteenth century in Britain. That was the great cry of those folks: “If only we had better education, if only we had better housing, if only we had social welfare, if only we had the benefits of a socialized medicine system, then everybody would be a fine, outstanding young chap, and this would be a fabulous place to live.” And so we got medicine, and we got education, and we got things cleaned up in a number of places—and you turn on your TV, and you look at London, and there’s all these kids stealing cars and driving them at a hundred miles an hour, banging into one another all around the streets of Liverpool. You say, “Hey Mr. Humanist, let’s reevaluate your thesis, can we? ’Cause we just did what you said. Doesn’t seem to be working!”

What, then, does the Bible say? This is what the Bible says. There is only one way to be saved, and that is by doing two things: by turning from my sin and turning to Christ as the Savior of the sin that I admit. When Paul writes in Acts chapter 26—or when Luke writes concerning Paul in Acts chapter 26—he says that Paul came to the cities, and “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”[6] In other words, he preached a crossroads, crisis decision for the lives of men and women. He called them to face the distinction of Matthew 7:13–14. He called them to realize that there is a narrow road that leads to life, and there are few people on it, and there is a broad road that leads to destruction, and it is phenomenally populated. And he wanted nobody to be in any doubt that somehow or another, by dint of our background, we were standing in no-man’s-land, and we had the opportunity to choose the narrow or the broad. That’s not the message. The message is “You are on the broad. There is a way to come off. Here is the call. Now, get off and look towards heaven, or stay on and you’re bound for hell.”

Now, that comes across very badly in our modern, twentieth-century thinking. People say, “Goodness’ sake, what is this, fundamentalism or something?” Well, in one sense, yes. It is a fundamental of Jesus Christ that there was a heaven for those who repented and turned to him and there was a hell for those who turned their back on him.

What is this repentance, then? If that’s something I have to do, I need to know what it is. What is repentance? Well, the word in Greek is metanoéō, which simply means “to do an about turn.” “To do an about turn.” It’s the word that would be used of a commander with his forces as he marched them down the esplanade, and they were heading in one direction, and he called them, “About turn!” And as a result of that command, they turned, and they began to go in the exact opposite direction.

Not only do we turn from sin, but we turn to Christ.

What the New Testament says is this—what we’ve been discovering in Ephesians 2—is that by our very nature, we’re going in the wrong direction. In our thinking and in our doing, we understand why God would be justified in being angry with sin. Those of us who are honest for more than five minutes know that we are not in good shape. We are not the husbands we ought to be. We are not the kids to our parents we should be. We are neither the employers nor the employees that we might be. We know what it is to think bad thoughts. We know what it is to be vicious concerning others. We know what it is to resent people. We know what it is to be spiteful. We know what it is to lie. We know what it is to cheat. Oh yes, we are able to do it in a very bourgeois way, but when we peel all the layers off, it’s just a downright lie. And despite the fact that all these years have come and gone, and all these January 1s, we’re no better today than we were before, and indeed, we’ve a sneaking suspicion we may be getting a little bit worse.

And so the command comes out: “Would you not turn away from that? Would you not do an about turn? Turn from sin. Turn from it and say, ‘I don’t want to live that way anymore. I detest those controls upon my life. I don’t want to be held bound by these things. And the Bible says I should repent. I understand it means to turn around. I’m going to turn around.’”

Can I ask you: Have you ever repented? Have you ever reached a day in your life where the claims of Christ came to you with such clarity that you said, “This is something I must do; I’m on the wrong road”? The question is not “Are you a member of a church?” The question is not “Do you sing in a choir?” The question is not “Are you a philanthropist?” The question is “Have you ever repented?”

You see, the notion is abroad that everybody may run in the race of the Christian life. That’s as ridiculous as believing that all of us are going to be in the Summer Olympics. We’re all going to show up at the Olympics like old Jack McTavish and say, “Hey, fencing”? The guy’s going to say, “Hey, wait a minute—McTavish. Let me just check something here.” And he’s going to look down through the list of those who have qualified to run the race. And he’s going to turn to us, and he’s going to say, “McTavish, your name’s not even on the list, son. What makes you think you’re in the race?”

Can I ask you today: What makes you think you’re in the race of the Christian life? What makes you think you’re in it? Because you’ve been trying to be a better person? Because you go to church? Because you’ve come to Tabletalk luncheons and you’re getting a little bit spiritual? That’s all good. That’s great! But have you ever repented? Are you going a different direction in your life now because of something that happened then? Or has it never happened?

Now, the flip side of this, with which I close, is that not only do we turn from sin, but we turn to Christ, so that on the one hand, we turn away from that which represents all that is displeasing to God, and we turn to Christ to receive all that God has given to us.

Let’s say that this hand represents your life, and my book here represents sin. And so the sin comes in between my life and God. And the message that we discovered in Ephesians 2 was that Jesus Christ died on the cross to take this problem that I have—namely, my sin—to bear it himself on the cross so that I might be forgiven not on the basis of anything I’ve done but on the basis of what he did for me on Calvary. There is two places that sin is punished: sin is punished in hell, and sin is punished at Calvary. And the message of the gospel is “Believe in Jesus Christ today as your Lord and Savior, or face him then as your rightful Judge.” Turning from sin, turning to Christ.

Somebody says, “This seems awful simple. This actually seems too simple. Isn’t there any cost involved?” Yeah, there is, actually. The entry fee’s been paid, though. That’s the good news. You can’t pay the entry fee yourself. Jesus paid that. But the annual subscription is all of your life.

When Jesus Christ comes to rule in a life, he comes to rule in a life. He comes not to join us in the back seat of the car; he comes to take the driving seat, as we’ve said before. He comes to rule. There will be friendships that will inevitably go. There will be lifestyle events that will inevitably go. There will be new things that will come as a result of the life which he puts into us. Because the growth which comes in Christian experience is a growth as a result of life. The picture in the New Testament is not of a Christmas tree with ornaments that are attached from the outside, but it is of a vine with life which comes from the inside, producing the beauty and the fragrance of all that foliage.

And there are some people here today, and I know that inside of you, you’re saying, “I’m not ready for that kind of cost. I hate it when people laugh at me. I mean, I don’t mind going to the luncheon, provided you don’t tell me that I have to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. I’m happy to go down there and tell people, ‘That’s a kind of thing, you know, the guy talks, and there’s not much to it. You know, it’s a good kind of lift in the middle of the week. It’s entertaining. It’s whatever it is.’ But now if what you’re telling me, Al, is that this is a major crossroads in my life, I’m ticked. I mean, I’m really offended by this.” Well, I’d rather you be offended than bored.

So, I don’t really care. Because I’m on a divine commission. I’m on a divine commission. Three and a half thousand miles from my home, in a city that I didn’t even know where it was ten years ago, I stand today, bemused by the immense privilege of it all and the awesome responsibility of it all—that I would have to stand and take my Bible before a group of intelligent people in a major city in the continental United States. And God forgive me if I ever give them the impression that they’re all in the race just because they’re interested in religion. Because the Bible says we must repent and we must turn to Christ.

Nobody believes unless God does something in your heart. And what he does within our hearts transforms our lives.

Somebody says, “Do I have to do anything before I can ask him to save me?” The answer is no. What were you planning on doing? “Is it necessary to feel his presence in a certain way before I can ask him to save me?” No. “Al, you don’t really know me. If you found out what I’m really like, you wouldn’t be doing this, because I’m too sinful to be saved.” Oh yeah? Jesus said, “[Whoever] calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[7]

Somebody else says, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to do this, because I’ve never finished anything in my life. I never finished my homework, and I never finished my vegetables, and I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to finish this.” I’m going to tell you something: you can’t finish this, because you can’t start it. See, only God can start it. Nobody believes unless God does something in your heart. And what he does within our hearts transforms our lives.

It’s a choice you have to make. Can I ask you: What stops you today from making that choice? What stops you this very moment? If you have understood the claims of Christ, if you have understood the message, what prevents you, right now, today, from bowing your head and, in your own silent prayer to Christ, acknowledging that you need him, turning your life over to him, and walking out in friendship with him?

Christianity is a very personal thing, but it’s not a private thing. And so, for those who would be prepared to make that kind of commitment, the responsibility would be to go on from here, to tell another, to get a Bible, to get a church—’cause you just got a life.

I invite you to bow with me in a moment of prayer.

We said at the beginning that when Paul preached this kind of message in Athens, the result was that some sneered and rejected his message, some delayed and said, “I’m not ready for this, I need to get out of here,” and some believed and followed Christ. And probably the breakup of this group this afternoon will be very similar.

There will be those who find this absolutely obnoxious, bearing testimony to Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind: that we’ve opened our minds to the notion that everything is true and therefore closed our minds to the possibility of any absolute truth. So we’re at sea. And so we reject any claims that Christ would be the Savior. Well then, may God be merciful to us as we continue to think the issues out.

Some of us are about to walk out the door and say, “I’m not going to deal with this today.” Without any sense of alarm—only because it’s true—let us remember that there have been those who have sat and listened to these talks in the last twelve months who are now, presently, in eternity. And they would never have known, in an opportunity like this, that they had no tomorrow.

For every one of us, there is a crossroads decision concerning the claims of Jesus Christ.

And for those of us who God has worked within our hearts and we want to believe, then simply, in your own heart, pray a prayer. God’s not interested in our fancy words nor in speeches. He knows our hearts, in any case. We simply need to admit that we are sinful, to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior that we need. And since we’ve never, ever repented and believed in him—never had a day in our lives where we were married, if you like, to Christ—we’ve determined that today would just be a fine day for that to take place. And so, where you sit, turn away from your sin, turn to Christ as your Savior, and with the faith of a little child, trust in him.

Father, I ask that your Word may come as a light into our lives today, that the only offense that there may have been in all that has been said is the offense of the cross of Jesus Christ. And if anything in my demeanor or in my phraseology is harmful, I pray that in your mercy it might be forgotten. But I pray that none of us will be able to walk out into the remainder of this day and the remainder of our days without the crucial awareness that for every one of us, there is a crossroads decision concerning the claims of Jesus Christ.

Hear our prayers, the silent cries of our heart, as we offer them up to you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Acts 17:18 (paraphrased).

[2] See Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670).

[4] Acts 17:30–31 (paraphrased).

[5] See Isaiah 64:6.

[6] Acts 26:20 (NIV 1984).

[7] Joel 2:32 (NIV 1984). See also Romans 10:13.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.