While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” [Luke 11:27-28]
Jesus has just finished casting out a demon and explaining to the amazed crowd the principle behind spiritual possession [more or less!], when a woman in the crowd pronounces the above blessing on Jesus. Taken by itself, it is a fairly kind, even nice thing to say to him after he offered such a profound display of spiritual power and insight. Indeed, it is a recognition of his blessed mother and even of his divine status. Jesus does not reject the woman or her blessing, but he "proceeds to something more significant" according to New Testament scholar Leon Morris. The important thing, according to Jesus, is not simply the recognition of Jesus as blessed or divine; but rather hearing and keeping the Word of God.
Of course, Christians argue passionately about the nature of salvation all the time, especially in denominational circles and primarily because scripture seems to offer a variety of different positions on the subject. We want salvation to be an act of God without consequence; nevertheless, there must be a consequence: a changed life that acts in obedience to God rather than self - To name a few examples:
John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."
It would seem that "belief" - understood simply as cognitive recognition of Jesus' divine claim would be saved.
But look at John 3:21 - “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
It seems as though John qualifies this belief in the crucified Christ as manifest in 'deeds' or 'practices' of truth.
Or what about Matthew 25:34-40?
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Here it would seem that Matthew's Jesus tells us we can merit eternal life through a works based righteousness...
Or how about Romans 10:9-13? A passage that most Baptists would say is the cornerstone passage in regards to the process of salvation - the end of the "Romans Road" as it were.
that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”
In this passage Paul would seem to affirm that salvation results from cognitive recognition (belief) and confession (a verbalized, vocalized public statement)
Let's end with James 2:14-17...
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
Ultimately, our salvation is a gift from God, manifested "by grace, through faith/belief", resulting in a changed life, which is obedient to God. The two are inseparable. One who claims to be a Christian yet does not exhibit a life reflective of Christ then is not a Christian at all. So the scriptures would suggest...
So what gives?
Generally speaking, Christianity in America and specifically, Christianity in the Bible Belt, has become mired in the secular idea of toleration, or more specifically, "nice." If we say the 'right' things and attend gatherins at the 'right' times and don't say anything other than "nice" things to others, then we are evidencing a 'saved' life. Interestingly, as I read Luke 11:27-28, I am struck by Jesus response. The woman was amazed, even worshipful, but was just trying to be "nice." Please don't misunderstand me. I am all for being "nice" - which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means, "pleasing, agreeable, appropriate, fitting, virtuous or respectable." But in regards to theological usage, "nice" is misleading and this would seem to be Jesus point. The more important issue for Jesus, isn't simply acknowledging God, but doing what God says. It is not enough to be nice. Mean people can be 'nice'. Lost people can be nice. Nice doesn't necessarily reflect God's saving grace. Hearing and keeping (read: understanding and living/doing) the Word of God does.
Nevertheless, many American Christians will do anything not to offend another person, ever. Because if that happens, his or her own self worth will be affected. The other person, will not "like" me, or my value in the community will drop or in the future this person will not help me with my projects. Thus, we have a paradigm problem.
As believers in Jesus Christ, Jesus says our self-worth is defined not simply by believing in him, but acting according to God's Word and will. Nevertheless, as American Christians, we still want to be defined by our own actions and motives; and thus garner the praise and appreciation of others. The problem with this tactic is that it relegates God to a secondary status in our lives. Our life in Christ then becomes stunted. It's like trying to be a marathon runner, while still smoking, drinking and staying out late at night. You'll never make it, you will never be competitive as a runner. You can't have it both ways. Either Christ is Lord or He is not.
Life is short. Be kind, gentle, loving, merciful, gracious, respectable and manifest all of the other fruits of the Spirit. But be real. Be honest with God, yourself and an accountability partner about your own issues, problems, 'sins' and inadequacies. Then, be dedicated to being a living testimony to Jesus, God's living Word. Be loving, yet honest and real with others. Don't sacrifice faithfulness to the gospel on the altar of cultural toleration or being "nice." Live your faith - Love others, be genuine; but don't gratify your fleshly desires. Encourage those who need encouragement; exhort those who need exhortation - but do not "be nice" to someone, only to criticize them later... Jesus called that hypocrisy and the road of hypocrisy is paved with "nice".
If want to live the life that God has given to us in Jesus, we can't simply claim the name, we must walk as He walked and do as He did.