29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – you and your household" (Acts 16:31).
This was the instruction given to the jailer in the Greek city of Philippi who had just witnessed how God opened the prison doors and broke the chains of the apostles as they praised God. This man was shaken because he had just witnessed a frightening miracle which threatened his own life. A few seconds beforehand he was actually about to kill himself on account of the fact that he fully expected cruel punishment and certain death for failing to keep the prison. So imagine his relief when he heard that Paul and all the others were still there.
This was a man who was ready to receive what God was offering because he knew that Paul and Silas were servants of the living God and he knew that God was with them. This had just been proven by the miraculous incident with the earthquake in response to the praises of God's men. You see him coming in, falling at the feet of Paul and Silas, trembling with fear, and respectfully asking what he had to do to be saved.
I believe the first thing then if you want to be saved is that you need to realise that God – though He be mighty, fearful and powerful – is not against YOU. See if God was against this jailer he could have killed him in the earthquake, or allowed the prisoners to run away. Or God could have allowed the jailer to kill himself as he was planning to do. The fact that none of this happened helped the jailer to realise that even as a fallen sinful man, God was not against Him.
You need to realise that God is a God of mercy as much as He is a God of power.
The next thing that is necessary is to have an enquiring heart. This man asked "What must I do to be saved?"
You and I all actually NEED to be saved. We are in trouble in our natural state. We really are. If you don't realise your need, if you don't realise that you are in trouble, if you don't really care about the issue because you are sleeping, blinded or whatever, then you are unlikely to ask for or receive Salvation.
We need a desire to be saved. This is what prompted the question from the trembling jailer.
Paul and Silas gave the basic and essential answer to the question.
"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved … you and your house".
We are to look to the Lord Jesus, we are to hope in Lord Jesus, we are to trust in Lord Jesus, we are to put our confidence in Jesus, we are to cling to Jesus, we are to rely on Jesus, we are to recognise Jesus as Lord. All this is really part of what it means to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ".
Paul didn't just leave it at that. This is where some people make an error. It is not believing in some vague notion of Jesus that saves us. We need to know something about this Jesus who is the Savior. We need a revelation of Jesus as Savior. This is why in the very next verse it says: "Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house." (vs 32)
"Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Romans 10:17). Real faith, saving faith, only comes as the word of God, the message about Jesus Christ, is preached. Whatever it was that Paul and Silas preached to this man AND HIS HOUSEHOLD, it was a message relevant to their spiritual needs and it was no doubt a message about the Lord Jesus Christ Himself whom they were enjoined to "believe on".
The reason Paul could be so sure that the man's household was to be saved was, I believe, because God had revealed it to him that they would all hear the Word of the Lord and believe. And this is exactly what happened as we see in the passage.
Some people have received this verse as like a special promise from God to them that their entire family will be saved, and so they pray accordingly. I do not want to discourage this kind of praying and believing, if God has quickened the verse out of context in what amounts to a special revelation to a person, then so be it. But every effort must be made to help family members to hear and receive the Word of the Lord. We know that God wants ALL men to be saved and COME TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH (1 Timothy 2:4,5) and this is the issue here – people come to the knowledge of the truth by the preaching of the Word of God.
The result of the preaching of the Word of the Lord is described in verse 34:
Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
The reason his whole household was saved was because they all believed in response to the Word of the Lord preached to them. Interestingly, part of this message also mentioned baptism becuase it says in verse 33: "And immediately he and all his family were baptized."
Without taking away from the sense of God's grace and mercy that can be seen in this passage, I believe we should take note that the KIND of FAITH which the Philippian jailer exhibited was a faith accompanied by ACTION.
It should be noted: "And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized."
We see here PRACTICAL action accompanying genuine faith and a genuine change of heart. The jailer, who once could not have cared about the sufferings of Paul and Silas, washed their wounds. He also consecrated his life to God in baptism, as did his family. Incidentally, this passage is not proof text for the concept of infant baptism – since the Scripture clearly says that his whole household BELIEVED. No infants incapable of believing happened to be present at that baptism.
I say this because in understanding how to be saved we have to guard against two different kinds of errors. One is to think that we just have to somehow "only believe" without knowing the first thing about the One in whom we are believing, or what "believing" from the heart really entails. The other error is to think that somehow the outward action of baptism has the saving power, and that this act of baptism will have saving power if performed on person whether they believe or not, whether they are even CAPABLE of believing or not. We must neither go beyond God's word nor take away from it.
What About Repentance, Holiness and all that?
Repentance is a change of heart, a change of life, a returning to God. Holiness is to consecrate oneself or set oneself apart to God, and then to progressively manifest the beauty of God's life in you. These things begin at the point of salvation but the unfolding revelation of what it means and how we need to respond to the Lord keeps going. It IS possible to lose one's salvation and not be finally saved IF one departs from hearing the Word of the Lord, if one hardens one's heart and refuses to recognise the authority of the Lord in one's life and if after being given time to repent, one refuses and simply goes on in blatant disregard for the authority of Jesus Christ.
But the truth is this: if we keep responding in faith and belief to the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be directed in our way and the Lord will reform us and teach us a new way of living. So repentance comes from a continued attention to the Word of the Lord – it actually flows out of living faith. Holiness and the character of God also flows our of our faith relationship with the Lord. It is by faith that we receive the working of the Spirit in our life which is actually part of our salvation.