The Philippian jailer had a unique experience. But his question is universal. What must we do to be saved? What does the Bible say about salvation?
From the Philippian jailer’s position, things were looking very bad. The city magistrates had commanded him to keep Paul and Silas securely confined. But suddenly there was an earthquake, and all the jail doors were open, and all the chains came loose!
The jailer assumed the prisoners had escaped. Knowing that under Roman law he would be held responsible and put to death, he decided to take his life himself.
“But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here’” (Acts 16:28).
Being spared from death can lead to some serious thinking. Perhaps his life, with all his sins, flashed before his eyes. Perhaps he was pondering Paul and Silas’ prayers and hymns, which he had overheard.
All this led him to ask a big question—a question that affects every human being. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (verse 30).
Saved from what?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul made a sobering statement: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). To the early Church, “death” did not mean unending torment in a blazing fire, but the total cessation of life. The death spoken of in this verse goes beyond the temporary “sleep” experienced by those who reach the end of their physical lives; it is permanent and irreversible.
Earlier, Paul said that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23; emphasis added throughout). The picture of humanity Paul paints is a bleak one. All have earned the penalty of death because of their sins.
Several different metaphors could be used to describe the state of mankind—spiritually in debt, on spiritual death row or even plagued by a fatal spiritual virus.
This is the situation from which we need to be saved. Without intervention, eternal death is unavoidable.
Fortunately, there is hope.
How salvation became possible
There is no changing the past. Nobody’s sinful record can be erased. Thousands or even millions of good deeds can be tacked onto a spiritual résumé over the course of time, but the penalty will remain. The penalty for sin (death) must be paid in full.
Enter Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If He had not become the sacrificial Lamb of God, all human beings would be required to pay the penalty of their sins with their own lives.
Our loving Savior was willing to intervene on humanity’s behalf. His incredibly precious life was able to fully satisfy the penalty of every human being’s sin once and for all (Hebrews 9:26).
And opening salvation to humanity was no simple feat. It first required that Jesus surrender His glory. Then He had to become a mere mortal, resist every temptation of Satan the devil, live a sinless life, practice love always, and voluntarily lay down His life as a sacrifice for sin.
Hebrews 2:9 summarizes how He made redemption possible: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
Jesus—the most innocent Person who ever lived—died so that others could have the opportunity to live.
It was this profound truth that led the apostle Peter to boldly declare regarding Jesus: “For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Belief, which includes recognition that redemption comes through the completed work of Jesus Christ and not our own human effort, is the first step in the salvation process. This is why Acts records this initial answer to the Philippian jailer’s question:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
From this starting point, Paul and Silas taught much more of “the word of the Lord” (verse 32) and the process of salvation.
The condition of repentance
If salvation depended solely on whether someone understood the above facts, then little more would need to be said. In reality, however, the Bible shows that Christ’s atoning sacrifice cannot be applied unless we come to repentance.
One of Jesus’ parables powerfully illustrates the kind of repentance that is required.
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. And the younger said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me’” (Luke 15:11-12). His father agreed, and the young man ran off and squandered his entire inheritance. Then a famine arose, and he wound up with a job feeding pigs. He was so hungry he wished he could eat what he was giving them, but “no one gave him anything” (verse 16).
Then came a turning point for the young man: “When he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (verses 17-19).
When he returned home to beg for forgiveness, his compassionate father eagerly welcomed him. The young man said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (verses 20-21).
The father told his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (verses 22-24).
Jesus wanted His followers to understand what is required for forgiveness and to be assured that God honors a repentant heart. Consider what the son said—both in his prepared speech and in the words he actually spoke to his father.
He owned up to his sins and held himself accountable. Nowhere is there any hint of an excuse or an attempt to sugarcoat his actions, but only an honest confession.
All the young man felt he could do was admit he was wrong and prostrate himself before his father, hoping for mercy he did not deserve.
This is the kind of repentance God wants us to experience. This is the kind of repentance necessary for salvation (Psalm 51:17).
The condition of baptism
When Peter gave his first sermon regarding the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, he left his audience with a thunderous call to action, outlining what repentance leads to: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Baptism and the laying on of hands are key ingredients for a person to be saved from his or her sins.It would be a mistake to dismiss baptism as a trivial rite and assume that God is less concerned about it than He truly is.
Baptism is a solemn ceremony representing the formal commitment a sinner makes to repent—to turn from his or her old ways and go the way of God.
While many Jews probably understood the symbolic cleansing associated with baptismal waters, the apostle Paul later gave more detail on its significance. “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” he wrote. “Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:3-4).
Paul compares baptism with being crucified and putting the old man to death with Christ.
Baptism pictures a burial. The sinful nature that characterized an individual’s life before repentance is buried in a watery grave through baptism.
Paul continues, “That just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (verse 4). After baptism, one is to live a new life—following a new path, a new direction, a new way of thinking. Just as a person acknowledges the symbolic death of the old self by being plunged into the water, so the person confirms his or her commitment to living differently by coming out of the water.
Baptism and the laying on of hands are key ingredients for a person to be saved from his or her sins.
Embracing God’s offer of salvation
What better news could there be than the message that you can be rescued from your sins and the sentence of eternal death? This has been part of the gospel message trumpeted by the Church since its founding. Salvation is available; death does not have to have the final word.
The only way an individual can escape the high-stakes spiritual reality confronting him or her is to conform to God’s conditions. He requires unwavering belief in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, the laying on of hands and a lifetime of faithfully working to develop God’s character.
If these terms are pursued, you can become the recipient of “the gift of God,” which is “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).