Christian salvation is a two-sided coin.
On one side, it is an escape from the righteous wrath of God for the sins we have committed (cf. Rm. 1.18; 5.9; 1 Thess. 1.10; 5.9).
On the other, it is a restoration of spiritual communion with God (cf. Rm. 5.10-11; 2 Cor. 5.18-20; 1 Thess. 5.10).
With but few exceptions, most people are desirous to receive this salvation. The thought of enduring eternal wrath, together with the absence of communion with God, is simply unbearable.
But how is this salvation accomplished? Will God save everyone, so that other-worldly torment is not a genuine threat for anyone; or, will only a selected group of people be saved? Will he do this unconditionally, or must man assume a role in his own salvation?
There are a few basic biblical principles that will help to explain these considerations.
Saved By Grace
Divine grace has to do with God's willingness both to pardon sin and bring man back into his favor. It is by divine grace that man is saved (cf. Tit. 3.4-7).
To the church of Ephesus, Paul wrote: "For by grace you have been saved..." (Eph. 2.8). Peter spoke of "the grace of life" (1 Pt. 3.7). And Paul affirms that the "grace of God...brings salvation" (Tit. 2.11).
Indubitably, we are saved by God's grace (i.e., his pardon and favor).
Many religious groups argue that grace is made available only to a limited number of people (i.e., "Limited Atonement"). Rather than offering his grace systematically to the whole world, God supposedly purveys his grace randomly and arbitrarily to select individuals.
Hence, allegedly, no matter how much a sinner desires to be saved by God, if God has not made his grace available to that particular sinner, that sinner can never experience God's saving grace.
However, contrary to the doctrine of "Limited Atonement," the Bible teaches that the grace of God is universal in its availability. That is, everyone has been offered the grace of God.
In Luke 3.6, "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." In Titus 2.11, Paul suggests that the saving-grace of God "has appeared to all men." Jesus died that "the whole world" might have the opportunity to be saved (cf. 1 Jn. 2.2; Jn. 1.29). He commissioned his disciples to spread the invitation of salvation to "every creature" (Mk. 16.15). Indeed, God "desires all men to be saved..." (1 Tim. 2.4) — not some men, as "Limited Atonement" suggests. He has made his saving-grace available to believers and unbelievers alike (cf. 1 Tim. 4.10). Truly, "there is no partiality with God" (Rm. 2.11), despite the implications of "Limited Atonement."
Thus, the salvation of God is universally available. No sinner is left out of heaven's offer of pardon by grace. Truly, if a sinner is lost, it will not be God's fault (cf. Eze. 18.23, 25-32; Isa. 59.1-2), for he has offered his grace to save us all.
Yet, despite the universal availability of salvation, not everyone will actually be saved (cf. Mt. 7.21; 25.31-46). God's saving-grace may certainly be "seen" (Lk. 3.6) by everyone, for his grace has "appeared to all men" through gospel instruction (cf. Tit. 2.11-12, "teaching us…"). But not everyone will experience that saving-grace. Sadly, "many" will be lost (Mt. 7.13).
Though God offers his unmerited favor voluntarily to the whole world — irrespective of human conduct (cf. Rm. 4.4; 11.6) — yet only those who are willing to accept God's saving-grace will have the right to experience it (cf. Jn. 1.11-12).
God's universally offered grace must be "accessed by faith" (Rm. 5.2). It is the responsibility of the sinner to "receive the grace of God" (2 Cor. 6.1). If any individual refuses to access or receive God's freely given grace, he cannot participate in its redeeming benefits (cf. Acts 13.46; Heb. 12.25).
Jesus touched upon this principle in Matthew 23.37. He said:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings..."
— that is, God routinely made his saving-grace available to them all; God did his part, though they did nothing to deserve the offer; Jesus then says: —
"but you were not willing!"
God's grace was given freely to them time after time, though they did not merit it. Yet, they were not willing to accept it. Hence, rather than be saved, they chose destruction (v. 38).
Equally so, no sinner is deserving of God's offer of salvation (cf. Mt. 18.24-27). We have done nothing to provoke God to offer us his favor — he is not in our debt; we are in his.
However, man must be willing to receive God's grace in order to experience it (cf. Jn. 5.40; 7.17; Rev. 22.17). While the offer of grace is unconditional (requiring no human activity), the experience of grace, however, is contingent upon man's acceptance of it (cf. 1 Tim. 2.4; 2 Pt. 3.9).
Indeed, God will not save anyone who is not willing to be saved.
Given Only In Christ
How does the sinner "receive" God's grace?
He must be "in Christ."
There is repeated emphasis in the Scriptures that this saving-grace is receivable only "in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2.1, 10). Paul affirmed that the "promise of life...is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1.1). He further proclaimed, "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" is found "in Christ" (Eph. 1.3). Jesus himself asserted, "no man can come to the Father except by" him (Jn. 14.6).
If the sinner is to be saved, then, he must at least be "in Christ" (cf. Rm. 3.24; Eph. 2.13; Rm. 8.1; 2 Tim. 1.9; 3.15; Eph. 1.10; 1 Thess. 4.14, 16).
Hence, though God freely extends his grace to the whole world, only those who accept his grace "in Christ" will actually be saved.
Baptized Into Christ
Finally, how does the sinner get "into Christ?" Paul furnishes the answer:
"For you are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3.26-27).
It is by baptism, coupled with true faith, that a sinner is placed into Christ, receives the grace of God, and is thereby saved from his sins (see also Mk. 16.16).
Christian baptism (burial in water) represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ — the essence of the gospel message (cf. Rm. 6.1-6; 1 Cor. 15.1-4). The sinner dies to his sins when he repents of them, just as Christ died on the cross (cf. Lk. 13.3; Gal. 5.24; 6.14; Rm. 6.6). He is then buried into water, just as Christ was buried in the tomb (cf. Rm. 6.4a; Col. 2.12a).
Finally, the sinner is raised up out of the water, thereupon experiencing the "new life" of salvation, just as Christ was raised from the tomb to walk in newness of life (cf. Rm. 6.4b; Col. 2.12b).
Having submitted by faith to this God-given ordinance, the sinner receives "the remission of sins" (Acts 2.38). He is simultaneously placed "into Christ" and is equally added to his church (cf. 1 Cor. 12.13; Eph. 1.22-23; Acts 2.47). Indeed, without baptism, no sinner can gain access to God's saving-grace.
A believer's baptism, therefore, is absolutely essential to human salvation (cf. Mk. 16.15-16; Acts 8.12-13, 35-39; 9.17-18; 10.34-46; 16.13-15, 32-33; 1 Pet. 3.20-22).
God's grace saves.
This grace is universally available — no sinner is left out of heaven's offer of pardon.
Yet, his grace is conditionally experienced — only those who are willing to receive the gift of salvation (by following heaven's plan) will actually experience it.
Only those who are "in Christ" will be able to gain access to God's grace.
The penitent believer is placed "in Christ" when he humbly submits to God's grace at baptism.
Therefore, if you wish to avoid eternal condemnation and live with God eternally, you must believe his plan of salvation, and, through that faith, be baptized into Christ. Having thus obeyed God's grace, you will "then... — and only then —...be made free from sin" (Rm. 6.17-18).