Ch. 3: Believe in the Lord Jesus (excerpt)

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Chapter 3

Believe in the Lord Jesus

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Acts 16:25–34

LUKE’S ACCOUNT OF THE ASTONISHING GROWTH of the Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles is, at heart, a story about the unfettered progress of the good news. It sets before us the great theme of Acts, the unstoppable dynamism of the gospel about Jesus. At a number of points in Luke’s story, the progress of the gospel is, quite literally “unfettered”—there are no less than three dramatic escapes from prison, of which our passage records the last. This particular episode comes in the course of Luke’s narrative of the ministry of Paul and Silas in Philippi, which culminates in their deliverance and the conversion of the jailer. As in the other stories, so here: the apostles are imprisoned in a willful and wicked attempt to suppress the preaching of the gospel; they’re liberated by spectacular divine intervention; those who witness the liberation are brought to faith, and the word of the good news once again triumphs.

Each of the stories gives a condensed version of how Luke understands the ministry of the apostles—as the progress of God’s word of salvation through the world, overwhelming all opposition in the power of the Holy Spirit. And each of the stories offers us a little vignette of how Luke understands the gospel—above all, each story gives us in dramatic form the essence of Luke’s understanding of the gospel as concerned with salvation, with that passage from death and ****ation to life and liberty which is God’s accomplishment in Jesus Christ. Salvation, indeed, has been one of Luke’s most basic themes in his two–part work, from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in which the coming of the savior is heralded as the coming of God’s deliverance, through the ministry of Jesus, his dying and rising to new life, and on in the Acts of the Apostles to the apostolic activity as the living Jesus makes his saving power known through his chosen witnesses. And so here in Philippi, once again, we have the enactment of the same theme.

What Word of God do we hear in this story, and especially in the story of the conversion of the jailer?

Notice, first, how this story of salvation has at its heart a question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). Questions come in all shapes and sizes. What kind of question is this? It’s an absolute question. It’s not one of those questions which already contains within itself the germ of an answer. It’s not a question which knows what to ask, and expects a certain kind of reply. Nor is it a question which as it were knows what it’s after, but needs some help in discovering where to find what it’s looking for. On the contrary: It is a question which gives voice to absolute need: it expresses absolute emptiness. It’s a question asked by someone with no resources, no clues, no hopes. Above all, it’s a question in which, we might say, the one who is asking the question is himself absolutely called into question. In fact, we might say, it’s not so much a question as a desperate cry for help. In effect, as Luke presents the story, it’s the question of a ruined man. The jailer who throws himself on his knees and begs the apostles for an answer to his question is a ruined man, not only because he fears that he’s lost his prisoners, his job and his life, but for an even deeper reason. He has witnessed the ruination of all human opposition to God. He has seen with his eyes the shaking of the foundations which comes about when the Word of the apostles’ testimony to Jesus runs free in the world. He has found himself face to face with the extraordinary liberty of the Word of God which breaks apart all barriers. And so, he is ruined: called into question, judged, caught up in the conflict between God and sin, between the acceptance and the rejection of the message of salvation in Jesus. Hence, Luke tells us, he trembles with fear (v. 29), and asks, What must I do to be saved? It’s to that question—born of perplexity, born of the most profound sense of being dismembered by the events in which he is trapped, and not knowing where to turn—that the apostles’ answer comes: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (v. 31).

What is it that the jailer is told to do in answer to his question? Where does escape from ruin lie? It lies in a “name,” and the name is the name of Jesus. Salvation—escape from ruination and destruction, and restoration to life and flourishing—is identical with the name of Jesus, with this one, the man from Nazareth, once crucified but now uncontrollably alive. Salvation, that is, is not some general idea, some generic religious reality. It’s not something which comes in all sorts of shapes and forms, including a specifically Christian form. Nor is the name of Jesus a sort of label which Christians paste onto salvation, to give it a bit of Christian coloring. Salvation for Luke and for the New Testament as a whole is Jesus. He constitutes and embodies God’s salvation.

Why? Because, the apostles tell the jailer, this Jesus in whom salvation is to be found is “Lord.” He’s the one in whom and as whom all God’s purposes are brought about. He’s the one in whom and as whom God rules all things. He is therefore the reality of God’s saving rule. He’s not some partial or incidental figure, some character on the margins of history, some territorial divinity. He is comprehensively Lord, Lord of all things. This Jesus—the one who has been glorified at his resurrection and ascension and now rules over all things at the right hand of the Father—this Jesus is the great factor. He is the reality of all human life; he alone is the reality of salvation. And so when the jailer turns to the apostles in the deepest distress and cries for help, what’s offered to him is nothing other than a repetition of his name, a naming of this one, Jesus, as the one place where God’s salvation is to be found. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.

Face to face with this Jesus, the jailer is called to “believe.” What is this belief to which he’s summoned? Believing can mean something a good deal less than certainty. I believe the bus will come in five minutes, but I can’t be sure. Or sometimes it can mean the kind of knowledge which is acquired after scrupulous review of evidence to build up a cumulative case for some conviction. But believing here is not half–certainty, nor the fruit of mental effort. It’s belief in the deep, strong sense of giving allegiance to something which overwhelms us. To believe in the Lord Jesus in Luke’s sense is to do far more than simply give him a passing nod with the mind or even to honor him with our religious devotion. It’s the astonished business of being so overthrown by his reality, so mastered by his sheer presence, so judged by him, that we can do nothing other than acknowledge that he is supremely real, supremely true. To believe in him is to confess him: to affirm with mind and will and heart that he fills all things, that our only hope lies in his name.

Belief in this sense concerns the entire shape of a personal life. It embraces the whole of us. It’s not one department of our life, something in which we engage alongside all the other things we do—working, loving, hoping, creating, worrying, and so on. Believing is about the way in which we dispose the whole of our existence. We believe when we’re totally shaped by something outside of us, acknowledging that it has put a decisive stamp on all that we are and all that we do. This is why belief in this deep, strong sense defines us completely: we’re “believers,” doing all that we do out of the inescapable conviction that the Lord Jesus is the persistent factor in the whole of our life. Believing in him, confessing him, involves no less than everything.

And the issue of this confession of Jesus is salvation. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (v. 31). It’s very important that we get the connection right at this point. The apostles aren’t saying, If you believe in Jesus, then as a sort of reward for your belief you will be offered something called salvation. They aren’t telling us that certain beliefs are a kind of precondition, something we need to do in order to merit a divine gift: belief first, salvation second. No, they’re telling us something incomparably more gracious than this. They’re telling us that as we believe in Jesus, as we confess his sheer reality, we will discover that we are in the sphere of salvation. To confess him is to know that we are embraced by his salvation, taken up into that salvation and made new by it.

Our believing has no power of itself; we certainly aren’t saved by belief. We’re saved by the grace and goodness and majesty of him in whom we believe—by the one whom we confess as we believe. In a real sense, our belief is nothing in and of itself. It’s simply a looking to him, a listening to him, in which we are wholly absorbed by that which we see and hear. To be absorbed in this way is salvation. Salvation is nothing other than the good order of human life as it is created and redeemed by God. To experience salvation is to be rescued from the unholiness of sin and to have our life reshaped, put into order, made new, so that we can be truly human. Being truly human in this way means being truly human in fellowship with God—not living in the darkness and ignorance and willfulness of life without God, but living out of a center in him, acknowledging him as Lord, and therefore finding in him truth, light, peace, goodness, order, and hope. [...]

[...] All Christian life—however quiet, however restrained in its style—is born of crisis. It’s born of a sense that there’s something deeply wrong with human life; it issues from an awareness that our natural lives untouched by the grace of God in Jesus Christ are little short of a disaster. All Christian discipleship takes its rise from the jailer’s question: What must I do to be saved?

Christian faith which does not have that as its constant preoccupation is quite far from the witness of the New Testament. There is, of course, considerable pressure to think of Christian faith in other terms. Perhaps we may like to think of it as concerned with morals, as a set of commands or imperatives which excite our best efforts at living the right kind of life. Or again, we may think of Christian discipleship as the cultivation of certain kinds of experiences, aesthetic or spiritual, or as the elaboration of certain ideas. Of course, morals and experiences and ideas are all very important. But we must also grasp that even good things can be used in such a way that they become evasions—they can so preoccupy us that they keep us from the heart of the matter. And for the New Testament, the heart of the matter, the heart of the Christian message, is constituted by a fearful question and a merciful answer: What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.

There’s a simple and definite challenge to us here. If we’re not preoccupied by this question and anwer, then we may be missing something of great importance to our souls’ welfare. Yet there’s also infinite and gracious consolation here: the consolation of the gospel which declares that Jesus Christ has died and is risen from the dead, and now stands in our presence, speaking his word of mercy, and summoning us to share in his salvation. To him be glory, now and for ever.

John Webster, The Grace of Truth

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The Grace of Truth (hardcover)

John Webster

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