Many Americans Believe Salvation Can Be Earned—But Can It?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted August 11, 2020

“How do I get to heaven?”

That question hits almost all of us at one time or another in life. Eventually, we each have to confront the reality of death—in our families, among friends—and the matter of what happens next. Even those who believe there is nothing after this earthly existence have tacitly decided what happens following a person’s life.

A new survey, however, reveals some startling differences in how Americans—even those who say they are members of Christian churches—view this most important question. Some 48 percent of Americans believe it’s possible to earn one’s salvation—yes, that’s despite Jesus’ declaration: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

The just-released survey from Arizona Christian University states that only 35 percent of American adults “continue to embrace the traditional biblical view that salvation comes through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” The survey also revealed “that huge proportions of people who attend churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as savior nonetheless believe that a person can qualify” for eternal life on their good works.

According to the report, “That includes close to half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46%), mainline Protestant (44%), and evangelical (41%) churches. A much larger share of Catholics (70%) embraces that point of view.”

Regarding this find, ACU President Len Munsil said, “This lack of understanding of basic Christian theology is stunning, with potentially devastating consequences for individual souls and really for all aspects of American life and culture.”

So what should be done? “It’s a wakeup call for the church, and for leaders in all areas of influence, to speak, teach, and work to restore biblical truth,” the article quoted Munsil as saying. “Many souls will be lost if people are misled by the false notion that we can earn our way to heaven, rather than recognizing the truth that Christ alone and His righteousness are the basis for our salvation.”


A Great Debate

The question of eternal life—how to get it and how to keep it—has been a great debate literally since the creation of the world. Our first parents were made to live forever, but sin entered the picture and they were doomed to death: As God told Adam, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

Since that time, humanity has attempted to earn their way to God. They tried building “a tower whose top is in the heavens” (11:4), better known as the Tower of Babel. Even those who claimed to follow God, the children of Israel, rushed to imitate their unbelieving neighbors, placing “their sons and their daughters in the fire” (Jeremiah 7:31) to appease their false idols. 

By the time of Jesus’ ministry on the earth, reverence for God and His law was encrusted with 613 specific rules concerning food, the punishment of offenders, and how God should be worshiped. Instead of serving God out of love, many were reduced to a dutiful compliance that left little room for the joyful, abundant life the Lord wanted for all His children (John 10:10).

Even after Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection—the very point at which our salvation was achieved—some insisted on obeying ceremonial requirements, rituals that were never meant to be a means of earning eternal life and were only supposed to point to the One who would give eternal life.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Galatia, “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).

Yet worship systems have arisen, even bearing the name of Christ, that today insist on strict compliance with a series of rituals in order to be saved. These attitudes are reflected clearly in the survey results.


God’s Wonderful News

The great news for anyone is that God, through Jesus, offers liberation from rote and ritual observance. There isn’t a prescribed number of prayers that must be said or actions to perform to gain eternal life.

The inspired answer of Paul to the Philippian jailer still holds today. The jailer, seeing Paul and Silas supernaturally freed from their chains, asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). 

Their reply was simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 31).

Belief does not, however, do away with God’s law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17). The saved believer has no license to commit murder or adultery, no permission to steal or lie, no right to covet that which isn’t his. 

If anything, the person who trusts in Jesus’ sacrifice for their salvation is even more anxious to do what God commands. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Romans 6:15) affirmed Paul. Christ saves the believer from his sin, not in his sin.

“Do we have to keep the Bible’s law?” That’s a question answered on the redesigned Most Important Questions website. Although this article was written for a young adult audience, readers of all ages can benefit from the insights published there.

And our free online Bible study lesson “Written in Stone!” tells you all about the Ten Commandments and why they are still important today!


Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.
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