Considerations on Acts 16:30-31
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is a short email exchange between David J. Engelsma and David Hutchings, a friend from the United Kingdom. We are sharing this material with their permission.
Dear Prof. Engelsma,
If you are free and willing to share anything on following, I have two questions on Acts 16:30-31 that often come up in debates with Arminians and with those who propose the notion of a “general, conditional promise.”
In Acts 16:30, the Philippian jailer asked the apostles, “What must I do to be saved?” to which the apostles answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved...” (v. 31).
1) The jailer’s question is very specific: “What must I do ... to be saved?” Some read the jailer’s question as, “What condition must I fulfill, or what deed must I perform, in order to acquire or obtain salvation?” The apostles’ response is “Believe! ... Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ ... and thou shalt be saved.” Again, some read this statement as saying, “Fulfill the condition of faith and you will obtain salvation.” How is this passage not teaching that faith (or believing) is a “condition to obtaining” salvation?—something on our part that we must perform before God saves us—us doing our part in a “synergistic” work?) Perhaps these people are reading too much into the text...
2) Advocates of a “general conditional promise” use the passage to support how they address men with the gospel. They see it as saying, “God promises all of you here that if you believe you will be saved...” Or, “God promises salvation to all of you here if you first of all believe...”
Hope you are all keeping well!
Regarding Acts 16, the following.
The reply of Paul to the jailor has two important aspects. First, the way of salvation is not human works by which to merit or accomplish one’s salvation. Believing is the implicit rejection of human working. Believing is not working. Whereas in all other religions than the Christian religion the way of salvation is doing something—working!—in the genuine Christian religion the way of salvation is not doing, but believing, because all the doing is the working of God in Jesus Christ.
Do not miss this: the way of salvation is not working, but believing.
Second, with regard to the apostle’s reply in Acts 16, the God ordained and God worked way of salvation is the activity of believing by the elect, but born again, sinner. There is an activity of the sinner by which he receives salvation. This activity is believing, that is, knowing Christ as the Savior and trusting in Him. In Acts 16, Paul calls the jailor to put his trust in Jesus Christ. By this trust, he will be saved in the sense that he will receive Christ and His salvation and will have the experience of this salvation.
This knowing and trusting is not another human work, because it is the efficacious work of God the Holy Spirit in the jailor. It is a spiritual activity of the born again elect, but not a work, that is, an act by which he either merits salvation or accomplishes his own salvation.
This believing is not a condition because a condition is a work of the sinner himself, upon which his salvation depends. On the contrary, believing is the means of salvation and this means is the gift of God (see Ephesians 2:1-10, especially vv. 8-10). The “means” by which God accomplishes salvation in the sinner is essentially different from a work of the sinner himself upon which his salvation depends.
As for the notion of a general, conditional promise, the promise in Acts 16 is to one who believes, not to all humans generally. To every one who believes the promise is that he will be saved. It is one thing—false doctrine—to teach that God promises every one who hears the gospel that He will save him on condition that he believes. It is quite another thing to promise that every one who believes will be saved. The former is a general, inefficacious, conditional promise that depends for its fulfillment on the will of the sinner: Arminianism. The latter is a particular, efficacious, gracious promise that depends for its fulfillment on the election and will of God: the Reformed faith.
The former teaching makes the salvation of the sinner depend on the sinner. The latter makes the salvation of the sinner depend upon the grace of God. This is the difference between the gospel of grace and the false doctrine of salvation by the will of the sinner (see Romans 9:16).
Cordially in Christ,