Recently I received a letter from a reader (GS) in Hibbing Minnesota who asked a number of excellent questions regarding saving faith. They included the following: Was Peter saved without seeing the need for Jesus Christ to die on the Cross (Matt 16:21-23)? Were the disciples saved without believing in the resurrection of Christ? Has the content of saving faith changed from before Christ to after Christ?
The GES doctrinal statement does not address these questions. Thus GES has no official position on them. What follows are my thoughts on these issues.
The Death of Christ
John 2:11 indicates Peter and the other disciples believed in Jesus Christ at the very beginning of His ministry. Thus when Peter rebuked the Lord for predicting His death on the Cross (Matt 16:21-23), he was already a believer.
How can this be? The Scriptures nowhere indicate that one must understand all aspects of the atonement to exercise saving faith. A person can place his or her trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone without understanding precisely how He takes away his sins. This was the case with Peter and the disciples. They trusted Him completely for eternal life. Yet it probably wasn’t until after His resurrection that they understood the need for and purpose of His death on the Cross.
The Resurrection of Christ
It is clear from the Gospel of John that it is possible to believe savingly in Christ without understanding the reality of His resurrection. A number of verses clearly show that when Jesus died the disciples—who were already believers as noted above—had not yet come to believe that He would rise from the dead (e.g., Luke 24:10-11; John 20:9). They thought that all hope was lost. Only after His post-resurrection appearances did they come to believe in His resurrection.
As could also be said about the death of Christ, unless a person questions the relevancy of the many Johannine statements calling people to faith in Christ before His death and resurrection had occurred and had been understood, they must admit that an understanding of His resurrection is not strictly necessary to saving faith.
While the Gospel of John deals with people prior to the Cross and resurrection, it was written after those events for post-Cross and post-resurrection people. There is therefore no reason to suggest that the terms of salvation have changed. The Gospel of John is not a mere historical record of how people were saved prior to the Cross. It also tells how people are saved now, in the church age. To put it another way: the gospel Jesus preached is still the gospel!
Obviously the resurrection is preached in the New Testament and an understanding of it encourages faith in the person of Christ. That is different than saying, however, that it is essential to believe in the resurrection to be saved.
A person can trust in the Lord Jesus to take away all of his sins and yet not understand or know about His resurrection from the dead.
Many would point, however, to 1 Cor 15:1-11 and say that it teaches that belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is a condition of salvation. Others would point to Rom 10:9 where Paul gives a shorthand version of the content of saving faith as believing in one’s heart that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
The term gospel may be used to describe the plan of salvation in its fullest form. We could in proclaiming the gospel mention Jesus’ eternality, His leaving His heavenly throne, being born of a virgin, performing miracles which authenticated His message, living a sinless life, dying on the Cross, rising again, and our need to place our trust in Him alone.
The term gospel may also be used to describe the plan of salvation in its barest form. It is possible to present only the core truth of the gospel: namely, that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life. That too is the gospel—albeit the gospel in a nutshell.
If, for example, in sharing the gospel we were to fail to mention Jesus’ virgin birth, we would not necessarily be failing to explain it clearly. We would, however, necessarily be sharing it less fully.
The problem with concluding that 1 Cor 15:1-11 is the only way the gospel can be presented is that it leaves no flexibility in the way the gospel can be shared—a view not born out by Scripture or experience.
I have sometimes shared the gospel with people in just a few minutes. On other occasions I have taken thirty or more minutes to share it. It goes without saying that I could not share the gospel as fully in a few minutes as I could in thirty. Yet in both cases I could clearly proclaim the gospel.
I realize that not all GES News readers and GES members will necessarily agree with me on these questions. That’s fine. As I said, GES has no official position on these questions. However, I hope that you will think about what I have suggested. As I see it, part of the ministry of GES is to help us all think more deeply and clearly about tough gospel questions such as these.
Bob Wilkin is the Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.