In my continuing discussion of salvation, which accompanies a sermon series, I thought I might raise the question that appears in the Pentecost story. On the Day of Pentecost, after the people hear Peter preach, they ask what they need to do be saved (Acts 2:37). Peter's response has become part of Disciples life: Repent, be baptized, so that your sins might be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). . Of course, repentance and baptism assumed belief (the Disciples five-fingered exercise that was developed by Walter Scott was laid out thusly: believe, repent, be baptized, you receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit).
When we talk about salvation the question centers around what it is we must do. That is: does our salvation depend on God or on us?
In a response to the question of what Disciples of Christ (my denomination) taught about salvation (remember that we're really skittish when it comes to official teachings about anything), a group of scholars (theologians, historians, and biblical scholars) at Brite Divinity School (Texas Christian University) offered up an answer. My friend and fellow Disciple historian sent me a copy of that document in PDF form (it once was posted on the Disciples web site and dates from the late 1990s).
I found these two paragraphs, which comes under the heading: What does God require? The first point is "nothing and everything," and I share it with you:
There is a sense in which the answer to "What must I do to be saved" is "Nothing. Nothing at all. God is the Savior. We are saved by God's grace, not by our own efforts." This was classically expressed in a brief sermon by Paul Tillich, "You Are Accepted."5
There is another sense in which the answer to "What does God require of me?" is "Everything--your whole self--love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 12:29). We strive to live and die in ways befitting those fully aware of and grateful to the gospel-giving God. This is dramatically portrayed in the story of Jesus' encounter with the "Rich Young Ruler" (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-23). The young man was already a good person with numerous achievements. He realized he still lacked something, but apparently supposed he only needed to add on a few more accomplishments to those he had already attained. Jesus' response did not ask him to do a few more good things, but to become a disciple: "Follow me" (Mark 10:21). This story preserves the paradox of the impossibility of salvation by human achievement and the divine possibility of salvation freely given--which then calls to discipleship.
Note that the first point is that salvation is a gift of God. We don't earn it. At the same time, salvation requires everything of us: We are to love God with our entire being. This goes well with Bonhoeffer's reflections on the difference between cheap and costly grace. Too often we live as if God's grace is something you can obtain for a less than a dollar at the discount store. We put it in drawer and forget about it. But God's grace is very different. It is transformative. Grace leads to discipleship.
As we consider the relationship between what God has done and what we are expected to do (become), this word of warning should be heard. The writers state: "In later Disciples history, the "plan of salvation" developed into several different forms, tending to neglect what God had already done and to emphasize human responsibility." Keeping these two in tension seems to be the desired place.