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Do you have to follow Jesus to be saved?


I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back. 

I remember singing those famous lyrics on repeat as a youth. The song is no longer fashionable, but it has a powerful message. A person who has decided to follow Jesus must count the cost knowing that they should never turn back. 

One of the things I didn't understand when I was younger, was the difference between following Jesus and believing in Jesus. A few years ago I released a book called Salvation and Discipleship. In it, I covered 33 different pairs of biblical ideas. Each pair had a verse that discussed salvation, and a verse that discussed discipleship. Though the comparison of following Jesus and believing in Jesus was not one of the topics covered by that book, it should have been. There is a difference. 

I was introduced to the difference in an unlikely way. When I was dating my wife-to-be, she once said, quite simply, “There is a difference between a believer and a follower." This incredible distinction matters a lot since many evangelists have used this statement or one like it to call people into salvation. 

You need to make a personal decision to follow Jesus.

I always thought that adding the word personal was a strange qualifier. Is it possible to make an impersonal decision to follow Jesus? Odd qualifiers aside, I found this call to follow Jesus quite compelling, since it is present in the biblical narrative. Jesus, Himself used the phrase on a number of occasions. However, when Jesus said, “Follow me." Was he giving an invitation into salvation or was he talking about something else entirely?

In this section, We're going discover what the outcome of believing in Jesus, and the outcomes of following Jesus are. If those two outcomes are different, it's safe to say that believing in Jesus for salvation is not the same thing as following Him. 

The Outcome of believing in Jesus is really quite simple. We’ve looked at it numerous times, but here it is once more. 

…whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

…he who believes in Me has everlasting life. (John 6:47)

He who believes in the Son has everlasting life…(John 3:36)

The outcome of believing in Jesus is simple and consistent. For those who believe in Jesus, eternal life is the outcome. Since the first thirty five thousand words of this book are devoted to proving that point, I won’t belabor it any longer. Just remember, believe in Jesus = have everlasting life. 

Now let’s take a look at what is the outcome of following Jesus. You may not be surprised to find that there is not one single, but many varied outcomes. Though there are more, here are a few:

“Come, follow me… and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

Jesus tells Peter, and by proxy, the other disciples that if they followed Him, he would teach them, and commission them to do evangelism. What's important to remember about this moment when Jesus invited these disciples to follow him was that a number of them, were already believers as can be seen by John chapter one. So Jesus is inviting a group of people who have already believed in Him and received eternal life, to take the next step which was to literally follow Him around and learn how to do evangelism from Him. That is quite a different outcome from believing in Jesus. Here's another example: 

…you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28)

The outcome of following Jesus for the disciples was a place of honor and responsibility. They will be given thrones in the Kingdom to come. Because they gave up so much and literally followed Jesus and learned from Him, they will be greatly rewarded. Their reward isn’t their salvation, but instead their responsibility and role in the Kingdom of Heaven. Here’s another:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)

Though a number of the previous outcomes apply only to the original apostles, this one applies to anyone who wishes to figuratively follow Jesus on a daily basis. The outcome is not salvation but instead, discipleship. Salvation is a one-time event; discipleship is a long term process. Believing in Jesus has to do with eternal salvation. Following Jesus has to do with obeying Him on a daily basis. 

Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Luke 18:22)

The outcome of following Him had to do with earning treasure in Heaven. Since you can’t earn salvation, following Jesus by definition must not be about salvation. For believers, however, you can gain treasure in heaven by following Jesus. Ultimately what this reveals is that following Jesus has to do with learning from Him and obeying Him in your daily life. 

Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38)

The outcome of following Jesus is that you will be considered worthy of Jesus. This is a unique phrase. We know that we do not receive salvation because we are worthy enough to receiveit.We know that because Paul said that salvation is a gift for which we will not be able to boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Thus, being worthy of Jesus has to do with acting honorably in our daily behavior, not receiving eternal life.

As you can see believing in Jesus and following Jesus, have two very different sets of outcomes. To believe in Jesus is to have salvation. For a believer to follow Jesus is to have treasure in heaven, to be honored by God, and to learn to do evangelism. Essentially following Jesus is not an issue of salvation, but one of discipleship.⁠1

What proves the point, even more, is that there were people who believed in Jesus in Chapter two of John. However, Jesus did not allow those people to follow Him in the way that He allowed his disciples:

…many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all men… (John 2:23-24)

They believed in Jesus, and thus received eternal life, but they weren’t allowed to follow Him, because Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to them. A second example that makes the point that there is a difference between a believer and a follower shows up in chapter twelve of the same Gospel:

Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. (John 12:42-43)

These people were believers, and thus received eternal life. However, they were afraid to come out and admit it in the open. This means that not only did they stay silent, but they didn’t follow Him. Nicodemus exemplifies this group since he could only venture a night-time visit, but was unwilling to follow Jesus publicly. (John 3:1-2) Later on, Nicodemus comes out publicly as a follower but others remain stubborn non-confessors. 

The most blatant problem with using the phrase follow Jesus to invite people into salvation is that it implies that continual good works are required. Imagine that an evangelist invites you to follow Jesus. You could follow the invitation with, “What do I have to do to follow Jesus?”

If the evangelist says, “To follow Jesus means to read your Bible, pray, go to church, and share the Gospel” Then we have a problem. In a modern world that is a pretty good description of what it means to follow Jesus. However, if following Jesus means you have to do those good works mentioned above, you’ve just made the requirement for salvation, good works. That’s a huge problem since Paul said: 

…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Eternal life is a gift. All you have to do is believe in Jesus, and you have it. If you have to do good works to get it, then it's not a gift. That’s why we must be clear that following Jesus is not a requirement for salvation; it has everything to do with living a life of obedient discipleship. 


1 If the distinction between salvation and discipleship is not clear to you, I suggest you get a copy of my book Salvation and Discipleship: Is There A Difference.



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