Phaedrus, In response to your questions, I am going to copy and paste from different sources that I feel best express the Christian belief, as they say it better than I can.
We believe that the Godhead eternally exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and that these three are one God, having precisely the same nature, attributes, and perfections, and worthy of precisely the same homage, confidence, and obedience. (Matt. 28:18-19; Mark 12:29; John 1:14; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 1:4-6)
A person is saved by God's grace (unmerited favor) alone. What Jesus did when He died on the cross was give you a free gift. Yes, Free! (Romans 3:24; 5:15 -17; 6:23; 2 Corinthians 9:15; Ephesians 2:8). A gift that is based on His finished work alone. All that God asks you to do in order to receive this free gift of salvation is to believe it. It is that simple.
Who or What is the object of your faith? Is it your own performance and works? Is it a church? Is it a religion? Is it anything other than Jesus Christ? All God asks in order for you to receive eternal life is make Jesus Christ the object of your faith. All God asks is that you believe that Jesus died and resurrected for your sins. God is not asking you to believe in your own works, or in what you do or don't do, or whether you are good or bad, or if you are a member of the right church or religion. God is asking you to simply believe in the finished work of His Son, Jesus Christ! It is that simple! (John 3:16; John 3:36; John 6:47; Acts 16:31).
God does not make it hard for us! He has made it so simple that a small child can understand it. Faith is simple - in fact, it is so simple millions miss it! What must you do to be saved? Do you need to give your life to God first? Do you need to make a commitment to God first? Do you need to turn over the controls of your life and submit to God's mastery and Lordship first? Do you need to clean up your life and start keeping God's laws and commandments first? Do you need to start doing good works first? Do you need to pray first? Do you need to confess, repent or overcome a sin first? Do you need to join the right church first? No! No! No! God says, believe! (John 3:16; John 3:36; John 6:47; Acts 16:31). Simply believe, only believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation and you will be saved.
The faith does not need to be great. Jesus Christ said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 17:20; Luke 13:18-19). But Jesus Christ must be the object of that faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed grain will save you if it is in Christ alone. But even if your faith is the size of Mount Everest it will not save you if it is in your own attempts to earn your way into heaven or in anything other than Christ - alone.
The Good News is that Jesus paid the complete price for our eternal salvation (2 Corinthians 8:9; Colossians 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). There is nothing left for us to pay. No cost to count. Just a free gift to receive by placing our faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. God accepts only what Christ has done, not what we do. Jesus' act was the only perfect act of contrition. Jesus alone had the purity of God, for He was Himself divine. Therefore He did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Now that is good news.
You agree with what God says concerning you -that you are a sinner. You realize that you are completely powerless to love God and man the way that God requires for entrance into heaven. You recognize your real, sinful condition. You realize that you are unable to do anything to remove the guilt of your sins. Now all that is left for you to do is believe that Jesus Christ pardoned and removed from His sight all of your past, present and future sins when He willingly died on that Roman cross for you. Believe that it is only because of Him that you are freely receiving this gift of salvation and that there are no other requirements. It is based entirely on His grace and His finished work! And if you simply believe you will be saved and you will receive His gift of eternal life.
I hope these help to answer your questions. Of course, the best place to examine these is in the Bible.
Jenni, yes, I agree that the Reformation brought to light the long obscured truth of salvation "by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone." I don't see though that today it is a moot point, unfortunately. Christendom on a large scale seems to be slowly sinking backwards toward the theology of the Middle Ages in as much as they mix man's efforts, submission, obedience, etc. with faith. Grace has to remain unmixed or it is no longer grace, not only for salvation but for living the Christian life ("The just shall live by faith"). The mind of man just seems to have a real struggle with that. How can God be so gracious?!
Brad, you don't have to struggle to reconcile any of man's shortcomings, failings, or blind spots with my real life example. Sanctification is an ongoing lifelong process as the believer yields his thoughts, opinions, etc. to God. It's something that is never finished in this lifetime and once God has delivered us from one thing, we discover another area that needs to be placed under His light. In my example I asked which life situations did you think had the better chance of fostering good-will and love and producing "right living". There is a reason why God's love has to be unconditional -because we're not perfect and won't be this side of heaven.
Also, I don't think that we have a greater understanding of Christianity than did the earliest Christians. They had it right. But it was soon corrupted toward the late 1st Century, early 2nd Century, shortly after the death of the Apostles, as I understand it, and the truths of God's free gift to undeserving sinners through faith in Christ did not reemerge with large scale benefit to mankind until the Reformation, although I am sure there were people in all ages that understood it and believed it.
Thanks for your participation, everyone!
Jamie, I didn't know the answers were in the back of the book either! Geesh, all that studying for nothing?!