Acts 16:30-31 has the well known couplet “What must I do to be saved” Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”
I suppose many of us have heard these words wrenched out of their context, to lend support to a soterian sermon, that posits the utterance of a “sinners prayer” to secure the deliver of an eternal “get out of hell free – live forever in some Olympus-like afterlife with all your favourite relatives”.
I like Tom Wright’s jaunty paraphrase of the dialogue. He reminds us that the scene takes place at midnight in a jail. There has just been an earthquake so violent that doors flew open (cue Michael Caine exclamation from Italian Job), The jailer, seeing this draws his sword and is about to kill himself, when he hears Paul calling out from the dust and rubble that they were still there. Wright’s rendering of the next line went something like “Gentlemen, will you please tell me how to get out of this mess?”
We later learn that the jailer does not go through with his suicide and is therefore in one very practical sense saved. We also learn that the next day Paul and Silas stand before the magistrate, and the jailer probably thereby keeps his job – he and his family are saved the destitution and risk that would have followed his dismissal. We also learn that the jailer and his family are filled with joy when an impromptu night of prophecy, baptisms and feasting broke out between midnight and the small hours!
The Reformers took this verse as a starting point for a thoroughly sixteenth century answer to a really dreadful late- medieval question. What I would like to do is two things. Firstly, think about what Luke meant by the exchange and what his first audience would have heard by it, and secondly think what that means for a 21st century audience. So the questions might include – “saved from what?”, “why do we need to be saved?”, “do we all have identical needs for salvation?”. “to what are we being saved and for what purpose?”, “ is it about be saved (perfect punctiliar) or be being saved (present continuous)?”. And then we come to the kicker. “Believe on the Lord Jesus…” yes, of course Jesus is the answer. The answer’s always Jesus (cue cute Sunday School joke about the Zebra). But what does it mean?