The old joke goes like this:
Once there was a guy on a bridge about to jump. Another man saw him and cried out, "Don't do it!" The first man said, "Nobody loves me." The other man said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" The conversation then went proceeded like this:
"Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
"Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
"Me, too! What franchise?"
"Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist."
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
There was then a slight pause, after which the second man shouted out, "Die, heretic!" and then pushed the first man over.
Maybe it's Pre-millennialism vs. Amillennialism. Or Arminianism vs. Calvinism. Or young earth vs. old earth. Or ransom theory of the atonement vs. penal-substitution.
Take your pick, debates and divisions occur all the time in Christianity over matters of doctrinal study and belief. But when it comes to true saving faith, is there a must-have set of things a person must believe and embrace to be saved?
The Bedrock of Belief
I'm asked this question a lot, and most recently it came from a very thoughtful person in the Reformed theology camp. How could a person be really saved, he asked, if they held strongly to the doctrines of Arminianism? Wouldn't a truly saved person be led by the Spirit to abandon incorrect beliefs such as those and instead acknowledge as true the teachings of Reformed theology?
Again, you could substitute almost any set of teachings or doctrine and pose the same question. Wouldn't a person possessing the Holy Spirit believe "A" and not "B"?
But, for now, let's return to the primary and ultimate question: what does a person have to believe to be saved? The answer?
A person must believe the gospel to be saved.
Young earth vs. old earth? That doesn't matter for salvation.
Pre-mill vs. post-mill vs. a-mill? That doesn't matter for salvation.
A person is saved by God when they believe the gospel. Period.
"Ah," you say, "but what beliefs constitute the gospel?"
My Favorite Story
When we look at the question of what beliefs make up the gospel, we open a number of other cans that are filled with worms. What did the people before Christ have to believe to be saved? Do you have to specifically know about Jesus to be saved today? And so on
Let's take one thing at a time and first look at my favorite New Testament story that answers a lot of questions such as these:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)
If you ever wondered what makes up the gospel, as well as how people before the cross were saved, here you go. Notice some very key points in the story:
The one Jesus points out as being saved makes three important acknowledgements: God, his own sin, and faith in God to have mercy on someone who lacks the ability to make things right.
The word Jesus uses for "justified" (dikaioo
) is the exact same term used throughout the New Testament to describe a Christian's salvation (e.g. "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" — Rom. 3:28). If you are not aware, justification is a forensic or legal term and means the act of God whereby He declares the sinner righteous before Him while the sinner is still in their sinning state. It is the legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the new believer.
On this last point, you might ask, "But the man didn't know about Jesus — how was Christ's righteousness then given to him?"
Theologian Dr. Charles Ryrie answers this important question in the following way: "The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations [ages or times]." 
The salvific work of Jesus is the basis
of everyone's salvation, regardless of when they lived. Christ's sacrifice was foreshadowed through animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament we hear Paul say, "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:3031).
Faith has always been the requirement
for everyone's salvation, regardless of when they lived. Those in the Old Testament heard, "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Joel 2:32) and "the righteous will live by faith" (Hab. 2:4). Those after the cross hear, "For by grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph. 2:8).
God has always been the object
of faith for everyone's salvation, regardless of when they lived. The writers of Hebrews tells us, "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).
Depicting these truths graphically ends up looking something like the following:
Believe the Gospel
What does a person have to believe to be saved? They need to believe the gospel. That God exists, that the wrongs they have committed are beyond their ability to make amends to their Creator, and that they need a Savior (Jesus) to deliver them from those wrongs and help them live a life that is infinitely better than the one they have now.
You may not be a Protestant Christian from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, but the good news is you don't have to be to stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
You just need to believe that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, one of which is you.
 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism
(Chicago: Moody, 2007), pg. 115.