In a day when the accusation is leveled that one is adding to the Gospel if there is anything attached to the statement Believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved (Acts 16:31), it is necessary for us to honestly face the question of whether that statement accurately reflects the Gospel in terms of laying a sufficient foundation for a person to be justified by God. It is my firm conviction that the answer is an unambiguous yes-and-no!
Words have a context. Acts 16:31 was not spoken, or written, in isolation from everything else that is true. Therefore, if a proper grasp of the context is taken into account, the statement accurately reflects a sufficient content of Truth for a person to be justified by God. But, if the context is not taken into account, the words of Acts 16:31 can easily be forced into just about any theological system that a person happens to hold. Thus, if Paul's words to the Philippian jailer are understood as the jailer understood them, they hold out the hope of eternal life, for he was, by them, saved. But, if Paul's words are not understood as the jailer understood them, the probability is that the hearer will not be justified by God.
This inescapably means that the Gospel is founded upon what I have called theological pre-conditions. Therefore, one is not adding to the Gospel if he is simply drawing out the true nature of the pre-conditions that truly exist. He is, however, adding to the Gospel if he misconstrues those pre-conditions.
The intent of this article is not so much to identify the pre-conditions of the Gospel as it is to establish the fact that there are pre-conditions to the Gospel.
So, let us begin with the promise in the words you shall be saved. What did Paul mean by those words and how did the jailer understand them? The answer is in the words of 16:27 where we read he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped (NASB). These words tell us that the jailer was about to die by his own hand because he was liable for the escape of the prisoners from his jail. So, what was the promise of salvation? Was it deliverance from physical death? No, for the prisoners had not escaped and he found that out by Paul's loud cry, Do yourself no harm, for we are all here! (NASB). Thus, he had no need to kill himself. So, once he discovered this fact, his intention was dismissed. But, his desire to be saved was not. In fact, the text tells us that his question about what he had to do to be saved came after he was delivered from the necessity of physical death.
So, what was he asking?
On the face of it, he had just been delivered from the experience of departing from this present physical life. His brush with death had left him trembling with fear (16:29). But Paul's words had delivered him from the problem of physical death, so it was not physical death he feared; it was something that was to come after it. In other words, his brush with death had brought him face to face with the issue of his status of being under the judgment of God.
How do we know this?
By several facts. First, he asked about how to be saved with respect to the problem of entering into the afterlife, not in respect to the problem of physical death. That he considered what goes on in the afterlife to be highly threatening is wrapped up in the notion that there is something there that is so bad a person needs to be saved from it. What could be so bad about what happens to a person once his body stops functioning? The question What must I do to be saved? makes no sense whatsoever if the person asking it doesn't believe that there is some really bad stuff coming to those who die.
Second, when Paul said Believe on the Lord Jesus and he responded by believing in God, we know that his response meant he understood Paul's statement. But Paul's statement about the Lord Jesus raises the entire issue of just Who this Lord Jesus is and what He has done that warrants the faith of those who would be saved from whatever it is that comes after death claims the body. Obviously, if faith in the Lord Jesus will deliver us from that whatever it is that comes, He must be capable of providing such a deliverance. So, what is it that the Gospel says Jesus did that warrants our faith? Without dispute, the Gospel is that He died for our sins. This means that the jailer understood somewhat of the problem of leaving this world as a sinner. This also means that the jailer understood somewhat of the reality of a God in the afterlife Who is angry with those who have sinned. If he did not understand these things, he could not have been concerned in such a way as to be trembling with fear and asking what he needed to do to escape those consequences.
So, what's the point? This: no matter whether a person agrees or disagrees with my analysis to this point, the fact that such an analysis is necessary to the text is irrefutable proof that there are pre-conditions to the Gospel. If there is no God, there is no need for a Gospel. Thus, God becomes a pre-condition to the Gospel. If God is not antagonized by humanity's present course, there is no need for the Gospel. Thus, the particular issue of God's antagonism is a pre-condition to the Gospel. If there is nothing to fear from what happens after death, there is no need for a Gospel. Thus, the issue of just what it is that happens after death is a pre-condition to the Gospel. Etc. The point is that the accusation that one is adding to the Gospel is not necessarily true just because someone insists that there are pre-conditions to faith in the offer of eternal life.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon any who would understand the Gospel in such a way as to be saved to be aware that no single sentence will fill the bill for that understanding. We must be willing to consider the various sentences in the Bible that hold out the promise of eternal life or that warn of the danger of eternal condemnation. It will be those sentences in their contexts that give us a proper understanding of the Gospel as those sentences in their context establish the content of the Gospel. If we misconstrue their contextually established meaning, we will misconstrue the Gospel and be guilty of adding to it. But, if we properly understand their contextually established meaning, we will be able to respond to the Gospel unto salvation if, in fact, we really wish to be delivered from what is to come.