A prisoner deep in a secret place receives a scrap of paper between the bars. The fingers that passed the paper pull back and the prisoner hears a whispered word, “believe.” In the dim light he unfolds the torn page. Barely legible, he makes out words scrawled by hand. Lines cramp and cascade down the margin, filling every space. He reads of an odd encounter between a man and a woman who discuss religion over a drink. The man makes some wild claims and backs them up by revealing the woman’s secrets to her. She hurries away to tell her friends what happened. She is filled with wonder and joy. And so, too, is the prisoner…
Ok, let’s use the story from the previous paragraph for a thought experiment. It does not matter if the story is true or nearly true or never happened, it is representative of a point. Consider: if this little scrap of scripture about Jesus and the Woman at the Well (John 4) is all the prisoner ever learns or hears about Jesus, could he be saved?
John, Jesus’ close friend and appointed Apostle, told us that “these signs were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Jesus did many other signs that John didn’t write down. (John 20:30) John communicates something important here: you don’t have to know everything about Jesus to be saved, you just need enough to believe that he is the anointed Son of God. So, I ask you again, if a prisoner in a remote holding only gets one story about Jesus on a scrap of paper and never reads a whole Gospel or receives an entire New Testament or carries a Bible in a leather zipper keeper with little tabs that abbreviate the names of the 66 books… can that prisoner be saved? Can an eternal, life changing encounter with Jesus occur in a single event, a single shared testimony about Jesus? It is among the most important Christian truths that we affirm this: yes, a person who only met Jesus one time, whether personally at a well or vicariously through the written story can and will be saved if they believe in Jesus.
They certainly don’t have to read Paul to be saved (although, I recommend you read your Paul). They certainly don’t have to understand Paul to be saved (although, I recommend you ruminate on your whole Bible for a lifetime and strive to absorb as much as you can). What is more, people may never understand (or be able to spell!) substitutionary atonement, incarnation, inaugurated eschatology, or any number of other important concepts. Yet, real people who never understood any of these concepts were saved by a single believing encounter with Jesus. It must be true for today as well.
I assume here that a saving belief is that of the Samaritan Woman at the Well in John 4, or the Man Born Blind in John 9, or any number of others who had an encounter with Jesus and spent maybe an hour or two with him, or at most a day or two. They didn’t have theological mastery, they simply learned enough to trust Jesus above all else. I assume that people who believe in him in this way think about him like I do, “He is the best and truest thing I have ever heard of.”
At Covenant, we are joining together over the coming weeks to read the Gospel of John. Over and over, you will encounter small stories that each have salvation power. Our hope is that you will become more encouraged by the gospel, surer that Jesus is the best and truest thing you have ever heard of, that you will put or recommit your faith in him, and that you will experience the warmth and joy that comes from knowing him.
We are supplying a few ideas to help you in your reading. I’ll roll out a couple of ideas here and maybe pad these with another tool or two in the weeks to come.