Ray asks: ” “So… what is it one must believe or trust [to be saved]? And how does it lead to works?”
I don’t think a person has to have any beliefs to be saved. Severely mentally handicapped people, fetuses and infants have no beliefs and yet they can be (I’d say are) saved. Okay fine, but what about a person who has beliefs? Which beliefs must they have to be saved? And which beliefs must they not have?
Let’s begin with the inadequacy of conceiving of salvation in terms of belief by thinking of Mephistopheles himself enrolling in seminary. Could he pass? That depends on the program, I suppose. But one thing is clear: he’d have no trouble getting a 4.0 GPA on most programs. According to standard demonology the devil is a malevolent spirit who is much more intelligent than any human being. No doubt the devil could write a paper on the Apostles’ Creed or Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians or Karl Barth’s view of the image of God which would be far superior to the best human seminarians. And yet, he’s a perfect rotter and certainly not a good ministerial candidate. (Though give the devil a white suit and he could probably be a pretty convincing televangelist.) So just holding a certain set of beliefs is no where in the ballpark in terms of what it means to be saved.
Let’s set aside both babies and Satan for the moment. What about your average, properly functioning, twenty something human being. What must that individual believe to be saved?
Already that’s a very difficult question. To begin with we need to index it to particular times and places. Assuming there are some beliefs that must be believed to be saved, they will probably be different at different points in history given the nature of progressive revelation. The earliest Hebrews were very likely polytheists (a fact for which one finds abundant evidence in the Old Testament). Only in the later writings of the prophets (Isaiah particularly) does monotheism begin to emerge as a unique mark of Hebrew belief. As for the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement, needless to say those don’t become relevant until centuries later. And the Christian’s understandings of these doctrines have changed over time. John the Apostle, John Chrysostom, and John Shelby Spong have all had very different understandings of atonement. So which one is THE understanding we have to have? (Probably not Spong’s, but that hardly settles the issue.)
There is also the complication of personal cognitive development. The average ten year old understands more than the average five year old, and the average twenty year old knows a bit more. So presumably the beliefs required of a twenty year old Hebrew living in Babylon twenty five hundred years ago are significantly different than those required of a ten year old Baptist kid raised in suburban Dallas in the late eighties. And what about that forty year old Buddhist monk raised in fourteen century northern India?