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The question which serves as the topic of this paper was first recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 16. Shortly after the apostles Paul and Silas had been arrested in Philippi for preaching the gospel there, as well as disempowering a possessed slave-girl who was helping provide the merchants with some commercial traffic associated with her divination, they were beaten and thrown in the local prison.
While abiding their time later that evening, bound in the stocks, and "praying and singing hymns of praise to God," a violent earthquake struck the city. The destructive force of the quake managed to not only unfasten the prisoner's chains, but threw the whole jail open. When the jailer discovered what had happened, he assumed that all the prisoners had escaped, and was about to commit suicide. Since he was likely going to be executed if the Roman governors found out, he considered self-termination as his only alternative.
Yet, just before the Philippian jailer was about to plunge his sword into his belly Luke (the author of Acts) records that "Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!'" The jailer grabbed a torch, entered Paul's and Silas' cell, brought them out of the rubble and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
Although many who are now reading this article have never been a Roman jailer, much less been in a severe earthquake or contemplated suicide, the question that he asked is one that has been repeated probably thousands, if not millions, of times since the days Jesus and the apostles walked the earth. "What must I do to be saved?"
Although the answer Paul provided seems quite simplistic—"Believe in the Lord Jesus"—if we skip past the details of the immediate context, then will we end up with a complete misunderstanding of just what Paul is talking about. Also, if we fail to observe the context, then we will miss a pattern found throughout the Bible when it comes the subject of salvation. So, let's compile some observations of what is going on with the Philippian jailer and Paul, so as to arrive at a more solid answer to the overall question "What must I do to be saved?"
The first observation to be noted in this scene is that prior to the entire calamity leading to the salvation of the jailer, he was asleep (v. 27), which was perfectly normal. It was late at night (verse 25 tells us it "about midnight"), nothing too out of the ordinary was going on, apart from Paul and Silas singing in the darkened Philippian jail.
The scene describes perfectly the condition, though, of all sinners just prior to redemption: unaware, uncaring, and asleep. The jailer probably had a long hard day guarding other prisoners before Paul and Silas came into his charge (v. 25). To be asleep is sometimes synonymous with death and dying as is seen in Acts 7:60 and 13:36 (see also Jn. 11:11ff; Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:18, 20; 1 Thess. 4:13-15). Paul would later write to the Ephesians that before God graciously redeemed them, they were "dead in trespasses and sins."
But then an earthquake "aroused" the jailer out of his sleep. The details of his awakened state tell us that the first thing he noticed was that he saw the prison doors opened. How he managed to notice this immediately, given that it was dark, is not revealed. We do know that prior to entering the prison he had to call for a light. Whatever the case, before anyone is saved, one must be awakened and able to see what he could not otherwise notice in his slumbering and blinded condition. Again, Paul would note how God opens eyes later when relaying his testimony before King Agrippa (Acts 26:18 cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). In this case it took an earthquake to wake up the jailer, and the open prison doors to see his need of salvation, but, not until our next observation occurred.
Our second observation is found in verse 28 where Paul cries out loudly for the jailer to halt! "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!" How did Paul know that the jailer was about to kill himself? Did he see him? How could he? He was still in the prison. It was pitch black. Certainly there is no indication that someone ran in and told Paul. Paul probably could not have gotten to him in time to stop him anyway. Yet, Paul knew the jailer was about to make a very bad decision.
Paul could have only known through divine revelation. Then when Paul found out, he acted as God does when He is about to redeem the sinner. He called out! And because Paul called out loudly, he captured the jailer's attention where he grabbed a torchlight and then was drawn to where Paul and Silas were held captive. While in a state of "trembling with fear," the jailer bows before Paul and Silas, probably in humble gratitude, and then brings them out of the prison. He proceeds to call them "Sirs" (Gr. kurioi, or literally "lords") and then follows up his adoration with "What must I do to be saved?"
In like fashion, when God calls a sinner to redemption, he draws the sinner to Himself (Jn. 6:44, 65). It is the only way a sinner will come. 1 Left to himself the sinner, like the jailer, will self-destruct, if that only means he will live out his entire life in abject rebellion against God. Of course, not all sinners look at life as terrifying or intimidating, but the Bible makes it clear that without the direct intervention of God in the sinner's behalf to lead him to redemption, the sinner will not seek God (Rom. 3:11). He has no spiritual inclination to have any kind of communion with God, since as was already pointed out, the sinner is "dead in trespasses and sins." Now, he may be "religious," and possibly adopt some kind of self-satisfying form of "spirituality," but that does not mean that he is spiritually regenerate or in an actual relationship with God personally.
Of course some will insist that their "free will" was instrumental in deciding to be redeemed, but such thinking is misguided, since it falsely assumes that God needs the sinner's approval to do with His creation what He wishes. Moreover, the whole idea of "free will" seems to be more of a humanistic derivation than a biblical one. For no one since Adam and Eve have ever had an absolute, pure "free will." It has been tainted ever since the Fall of Man into sin, and manages to affect everything man does, thinks, and says. It is also the reason why God had to go looking for Adam and Eve when they discovered that they were naked and had sinned against God (Gen. 3:8-9). Mankind has been on the run away from God ever since, and if it was not for God actively seeking and regenerating man of God's own accord, then no one would ever be saved.
Commensurate with God's awakening and God's drawing is the preaching of God's word. Verse 32 tells us that right after Paul addresses the subject of belief with the jailer "they spoke the word of the Lord to him…." No one has ever been saved apart from the declaration of God's word. In fact, as Paul pointed out to the Romans, "So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17).
Three things make the proclamation of God's word an imperative when salvation is the topic. First, God's word provides knowledge. The prophet Hosea once remarked concerning the plight of a rebellious Israel, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hos. 4:6). The same is true for the individual sinner. Knowledge provides not only a rational understanding from God's perspective of what salvation is all about, but ultimately explains why the sinner must be saved, the impossibility of the sinner saving himself, and then who ultimately performs the saving act.
Second, God's word is the basis of faith. Faith in other words is not something purely subjective, concocted out of thin air. It is something with objectivity that connects it to the real world. God is real, Jesus is real, and hence the faith they provide is real. Moreover, faith implies the presence of repentance, which is seen in verse 31 of our current passage when Paul and Silas tell the jailer to "Believe in," or more literally "Believe upon Jesus." The reason for this is that because the Greek word epi or "upon," although when used in the accusative case frequently denotes both spatial and temporal meanings, 2 it can also denote direction or movement towards something depending on the context. 3 In other words, believing on Jesus is not merely some intellectual ascent, but moral and spiritual movement in the direction of Jesus, as opposed to the direction the jailer was moving just prior to this whole encounter with God. Hence faith and repentance goes hand-in-hand, as the untrusting sinner becomes a trusting saint, and the rebellious sinner turns away from his current course of rebellion against God to following in the footsteps of Jesus as a regenerate saint. 4
Third, God's word is the ultimate expression of truth by which all other propositions are measured as either true or false. The Psalmist tells us in 119:160, "The sum of Thy word is truth, And every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting." In John's gospel Jesus would not only be declared as the Word of God (Jn. 1:1), but that he was the truth as well (Jn. 14:6). Later in John Jesus would echo the Psalmist declaration by stating, "Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth" (Jn. 17:17). 5 It is because God's word is true that those who subscribe to it are set free (Jn. 8:32), not only from the penalty associated with sin, but unto a salvation where the saint can now freely acknowledge and choose the things of God.
Although the immediate context in Acts 16 does not mention the actual moment of regeneration, the implication is clear: God saved the jailer. The evidence of his salvation will be seen in his works. Yet, even though the there is no explicit commentary to the effect that it was God bearing the jailer into His heavenly family, Jesus spoke of the very need for all sinners needing to be "born from above" (Gr. gennāthā anōthen) in his discourse with the Pharisee, Nicodemas, found in John's gospel. 6 Jesus told him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3:3). The Greek word gennāthā (lit. "to be begotten" or "born") is passive, meaning that the subject is being acted upon apart from anything he does. Since Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth, then it will take a spiritual intervention in man's behalf for that to occur, and that is only possible with miraculous act of God.
Since Jesus was speaking of rebirth, perhaps the best way to understand what he was driving at is to picture what transpires from beginning to end, the creation of a human being. The father and mother get together to conceive the child, apart from any input from the child. In fact, the soon-to-be son or daughter of the father and mother has no idea what is transpiring, because he or she does not even exist yet. After nine months, however, and still without any input from the child, the child is born into the world. Jesus described spiritual rebirth as taking place in the same way, of course minus all the procreative activity of two human parents. The sinner is acted upon by God apart from any input from him. All the newborn saint does is acknowledge what God has done, when his eyes are opened and his mouth confesses, since salvation is like the wind blowing. One hears it, but one cannot ascertain where it came from or where it is going. "So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3:8). He acknowledges that it has happened, but cannot discern with absolute precision when or how the event took place. J. Dwight Pentecost spells this out quite clearly when he wrote,
Human beings, apart from Adam, came into this world only one way, by a process of birth. This is the result of conception where the parents gave to the child the nature, the life, which they themselves possessed. If we are to be born into God's family, it must be through a miracle of a new birth, of a new Father who can give a new nature to us, so that we may be called the sons, or the children, of God. 7
In Acts 16:33-34 we see the evidence of what God did in the Philippian jailer's life. For no sooner had the jailer been saved that, "he took them [Paul and Silas] that hour of the night [midnight - v. 25] and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household." The pattern here is exactly the same as explained elsewhere in terms of works following salvation (Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-26), not preceding it.
The effect of the jailer's conversion had such a tremendous impact that everyone in his immediate household was also converted, which is not unusual if God is at work in the midst of the gathering. This same kind of mass conversion is seen elsewhere in the Book of Acts at Pentecost (2:41, 47), during Peter and John's preaching excursion (4:4), after the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (5:14), at the appointment of the first deacons (6:1, 7), after the dispersion of the Jews (11:21), at the start of Paul and Silas' Second Missionary Journey (16:5), and in Thessalonica among the "God-fearing Greeks" (17:4, 12). Also it should be noted that the jailer's demeanor had completely changed from one of suicidal fear to rejoicing exceedingly. He was now a child of God's, through no effort of his own, and he praised God for it.
In our contemporary culture so many people seem to think that the most valuable things in life are not worth having unless they are earned (even though that attitude is quickly shifting to one of entitlement). While in many instances the reward for meritorious effort is apropos, it falls woefully short when discussing what amounts to the most important decision to be made in life, which is salvation of the soul. For salvation is not what a person does, per se, but what a person acknowledges, and then demonstrates through one's works.
Although there could have been other illustrations in Scripture showing the same pattern found in Acts 16, the salvation of the Philippian jailer seemed the most appropriate given the nature of the question constantly asked: "What must I do to be saved?" From the events which surrounded his salvation it was seen that God was completely instrumental in orchestrating everything from waking him up to calling and drawing him to finally regenerating him, apart from any effort or input of his. All he had to do was believe, and even that was a gift of God.
From this we may conclude that the same principles apply to salvation today as well. God moves, mysteriously, in the lives of those whom He chooses to redeem. It is so mysterious that it is comparable to not knowing from where the wind blows or to where it is going. If you are wondering what you must do to be saved, then in all likelihood you already are saved. It is now simply a matter of acknowledging what God has done, and then living out that recognition.
To put the question to rest simply ask yourself if you have acknowledged that Jesus Christ is your Lord and savior, that your acknowledgement is based solely on your trust of what he has done for you at the cross, and do your works reflect that acknowledgement? If you are honestly able to say "yes," then remember that "no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). Therefore, rejoice in your acknowledgement and confession, and "do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men; knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve" (Col. 2:23-24).
1 "The thought of the divine initiative in salvation is one of the great doctrines of this Gospel, and indeed of the Christian faith. People like to feel independent. They think that they come or that they can come to Jesus entirely of their own volition. Jesus assures us that this is an utter impossibility. No one, no one at all, can come unless the Father draws him." Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 328-29.
2 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 376.
3 H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 106. Robertson gives the example of motion as found in the wise man who is willing to build his house "upon the rock" (Mt. 7:24). A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 602.
4 "Faith in the theological sense contains two elements recognized in the Scriptures: there is an element that is intellectual and also an element, of even deeper importance, that is moral. Faith is not simply the assent of the intellect to revealed truth; it is the practical submission of the entire man to the guidance and control of such truth. 'The demons also believe, and shudder.'" Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 396.
5 "In the present passage [John 17:17], however, when He [Jesus] is not speaking of Himself, but of the Word of God, He characterizes that Word as true. Christ is Himself the Truth, and when He speaks of Himself, there is need for Him to employ the definite article. In the prayer, however, He merely intends to characterize the Word of God as truth…The Word of which He speaks is the message of God; it ins that which God has spoken. The Word of God, which Jesus Christ Himself has spoken, is truth." Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 1965), 268.
6 "The word a;nwqen is rendered anew, and its implication is that it is not only an actual birth, but it is new in the sense that it is no part of that first birth which is after the flesh. It is new in the sense that it is complete in itself and no product of the flesh. Of this distinction Christ said, 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit' (John 3:6)." Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols in 4 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993), 3:241.
7 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), 31.