Ever since the fall in paradise, guilt-burdened sinners have asked in deep despair: “What must I do to be saved?
To that ever-recurring question there is always and can be but one answer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” And those who heed that word receive the assurance: “Thou shalt be saved!”
This immediately calls to mind the well-known account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer as recorded inActs 16:25-34.
As we read this interesting account we are impressed, first of all, by the wonderful hand of providence that brings the jailer under the ministry of the Word to work his conversion. There was the Macedonian call that came to Paul at Troas and brought him to Philippi. Little did the apostle realize at that moment that a prison-keeper was one of those represented by the Macedonian man in the vision. Then there was the preaching of Paul and Silas that soon became a common topic of discussion, to a great extent through the antics of a demon possessed girl. For even the devil, in spite of himself, helped to arouse curiosity in the preaching of Paul by causing the girl to trail behind him day after day with the ever-repeated chant: “These men are servants of the Most High God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.” Even the city jailer became interested in these strange happenings. Maybe in his time off he went to hear what Paul had to say. Surely there lingered in his thoughts that persistent: “Servants of the Most High God,” “Shew us the way of salvation . . . salvation.” God had not left himself without witness in Philippi. Many heard the preaching of the Gospel, even if out of curiosity. Many rejected it, some were deeply moved by it. How wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown!
And then it so happened that the jailer was brought into personal contact with God’s ministers of the Gospel. These men were put under arrest for the good they had done to this wretched damsel by releasing her from the power of the demon. After having been cruelly beaten, they were placed under the special surveillance of the jailer. He understood his duty well, for he brought Paul and Silas into the inner prison, chained them to the wall, bound their feet in stocks, and securely locked the doors. He made sure that they would not escape. Strange prisoners these, for they offered no resistance to their arrest, although they were guilty of no crime. They submitted to the cruelest whippings, although Paul as a Roman citizen could have had special protection against such an unjust treatment. They allowed themselves to be cast into prison and bound in chains without as much as being shown the courtesy of having their bloody wounds washed and bound. While the jailer tossed about in what may well have been a troubled sleep, these men filled the prison with beautiful strains of songs in the night, giving thanks to God that they were counted worthy to preach the Gospel of Christ and to suffer for His sake.
Then two wonders happened in rapid succession.
The first wonder was the earthquake. Not as if an earthquake is an unusual thing, possibly even in that area. But an earthquake is always a forceful reminder of the power of God who with the mere touch of His finger shakes the earth down to its very foundations. No one but God can do that, and even wicked unbelief cannot escape His testimony that He is God. And now at the stroke of midnight, on the very night when these notable prisoners are so securely bound within their prison cell, the divine hand reaches out and touches that very spot. The jailer, rudely awakened, soon realizes that the prison itself is undamaged, but the prison doors are torn from their locks and stand open. Still more amazing, the chains that held the prisoners are torn, from the walls, the stocks are shattered. A power beyond his control has reached in and released his prisoners.
His first reaction was only a deep concern for his personal safety. He saw himself called to account for the escape of his prisoners, especially these two notable ones. How could he ever explain these mysterious happenings and expect anyone to believe him? He would be disgraced, discharged from his position, possibly even severely punished, maybe with death, In his utter despair suicide seemed the only honorable way out of a bad situation. And so with drawn sword in his hand, ready to plunge it into his heart, he intended, as he hoped, to end it all. But even then he found himself hovering as it were, over the very brink of hell. He found himself face to face with the Most High God, the righteous Judge of all the earth. In mere seconds his whole sinful life must have passed in review before his troubled mind.
Already a second wonder was taking place, although the jailer himself did not yet realize it.
He was aroused out of his bitter ruminations by the voice of Paul, assuring him, strange as it might seem, that not one of his prisoners had escaped. The Most High God, Whose presence was so keenly felt within that prison, prevented His servants from leaving, even though the way of escape had been opened for them. What a relief to know that he need not concern himself about that any more.
But now his spiritual problem loomed bigger than ever. He realized that before the face of the living God he was nothing but a wretched, lost sinner that deserved everlasting condemnation. He trembled in holy fear and guilty shame. And that brought to mind anew the familiar chant of the strange damsel, “These men are servants of the Most High God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.” Calling for a light he rushes into the dark, dank prison hole, falls down at the feet of Paul and Silas in deepest reverence, and asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Actually, without realizing it, he was saved already. God is always first. He does not wait for the sinner to take the initial step, for then no one would be saved. But already the Spirit of God had wrought regeneration in this wretched sinner’s heart. Already the life of the Spirit convicted him of sin and guilt under the righteous judgment of the true and living God. Already godly sorrow was working repentance unto the knowledge of salvation. Eagerly he turned to Paul and Silas in the conviction that these men must be servants of the Most High God who were able to show him the way of salvation.
All he could ask was: “What must I do?” The question arouses our curiosity. Did he in pagan ignorance think that some great sacrifice would have to be made to appease this God? Did he still in the pride of his flesh hope to contribute something toward his salvation? If so, the apostle brushes aside any notion of the sort by answering in essence, “There is absolutely nothing that you yourself can add toward your salvation. For salvation is by faith. And that is never of man, but the work of God.” Thereby the apostle also assures him that nothing of ourselves is necessary toward our salvation. God asks, wants nothing of us. It is all of Him that no flesh may ever glory in His presence.
In a few simple words Paul sums up the entire glorious gospel of salvation: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
Glorious gospel? Not for the proud sinner to whom salvation means nothing more than an escape from a bad situation in which he finds himself. Jesus is no help to him. Nor is this a glorious gospel for the individual who wants to save face, retain his dignity, or have something to boast about in the future. Believing in Jesus is a deeply humiliating experience for the flesh, because Jesus is either our only and complete Savior, or He is no Savior at all. It is none of self, and all of Him. Nor is this a glorious gospel to him who lacks that gift of faith. The man who knows only a temporary remorse for the wrong he has done will find no comfort in the call to faith in Christ. There is a sorrow for sin that wants to continue in the same evil way but escape the consequences. That person discovers that Jesus is for him a stone of stumbling and a Rock of offence. He scorns in bitter disgust the only possible way of salvation. No, to any one who lacks the grace of God in his heart this saying is hard; he cannot receive it. Faith is the humanly impossible way out. To ask it is to ask too much. The sinner steeped in sin turns a deaf ear to any message like that.
And yet that Word of God makes the way of salvation so very simple. Believe! It is as simple as that. Believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to bear the sins of His people and to bear them all away. Believe that He arose to give unto His own eternal life. Believe that He is mighty to save, so that anyone who comes to Him in true sorrow for sin is being drawn by His almighty power. Believe that though our sins be as scarlet, they are made as white as snow by His atoning blood. Believe that in Him alone is life, eternal life, salvation full and free.
It is as easy as that. For that same Word that calls us to believe is the power of God wrought by the Spirit drawing Christ’s sheep unto salvation. The Spirit Works through that Word. We hear the voice of Jesus say: “Come unto Me, and I will give you rest for your soul.” And we experience the wonder of God within us that we are able to respond: “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”
I realize that this description of faith is far more inclusive than a mere decision for Christ. But I am convinced that when the Holy Spirit works in the heart of the lost, yet elect sinner, He works far more than some mere vague decision. I also know that the Spirit does not begin by telling the sinner: “God loves you.” For that sinner realizes very well that a righteous God cannot love him as he stands condemned in all his sin and guilt. But the Holy Spirit does convict us of sin and condemnation so completely that we despair of ourselves, and are ready to be led to the cross of Jesus. At the foot of the cross He opens our eyes to a love so great, that it spared not God’s only begotten Son, but offered Him up as a sacrifice for our sins. There we realize that Christ who died was also raised again. He lives, and the proof of His life is His work of grace in our hearts. For we now love Him even as He loved us, and confess in holy wonder: “My Lord and my God!” Faith is the living bond that unites us to Christ, whereby we become partakers of Christ and of all His benefits.
That is what the jailer experienced. Quietly he listened as Paul spent the fleeting hours of the night instructing him in these wonderful truths of Scripture. Greedily he absorbed in his soul the blessed gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our Lord. It all took on meaning, new meaning, personal meaning for him. God clearing up his doubts, assuring him of that wonder that salvation is of the Lord, solely by grace. And as he listened, his soul responded in growing conviction: I believe! I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.
Readily he even bowed before that truth revealed to him that God gathers His Church in the line of the generations of believers. He saw that he had been called out of a world of sin and death to be engrafted into Christ and into the church of the living God. And there he would experience that God’s covenant runs in the line of continued generations of those who believe. Ever richer grew the assurance: “Thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
Yes, faith is the way of salvation. But it is not man’s way, it is the power of God that creates in us a spiritual knowledge and a sure confidence that we are saved. Therefore the preacher of the gospel never hesitates to include in his glad tidings the blessed refrain: “By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”