INTRODUCTION TO THE DOCTRINE OF SALVATION
The issue of one’s future security, if not eternal destiny, is uppermost in the hearts and minds of most right-thinking people. The heart cry of unsaved people who are sensitive to their deepest spiritual needs can only be that posed to Paul and Silas by the Philippian jailor: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). It is obvious even to the casual reader that the central message of the Bible concerns the spiritual recovery or salvation of lost men and women. From the Protoevangelium of Gen 3:15 to Rev 22:21, Scripture relates the grand story of how God has acted in grace to save his wayward image-bearers.
The OT deals with salvation in a promissory and provisional way. The Hebrew words for salvation shed valuable light on the meaning of this important theological concept. The root ys’ means to “be broad” or “spacious,” suggesting freedom from powers that restrict holistic personal development. The Hebrew verb yasa’ and its derivatives appear 353 times in the OT. In the Niphal it bears the meaning “be saved” or “be delivered,” whereas in the Hiphil it means to “deliver,” “give victory,” or “save.” The nouns yesu’ah (sixty-four times), yesa’ (thirty-one times), and tesu’ah (nineteen times) signify “help,” “deliverance,” “salvation.” The preceding verb and nouns are most frequently used in the general sense of deliverance from various forms of distress, danger, or bondage. Thus the word group describes deliverance from Egypt via the Exodus (Exod 14:13, 30; 15:2; Deut 33:29), victory over Israel’s enemies (Num 10:9; Judg 6:14-16; Neh 9:27; Ps 44:7), release from exile (Ps 106:47; Isa 46:13; Ezek 34:22), and preservation in times of national peril (Jer 14:8). But given the close connection in the OT between the material and the spiritual, the word group occasionally denotes deliverance from sin and its consequences (cf. Jer 17:14; Ezek 37:23), especially in the Psalms (51:12, 14) and Isaiah (30:15; 52:7; 59:1; 61:10). The literature makes clear that the Lord God, not any human warrior or king, is the only Savior. “I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Isa 43:11; cf. 43:3; 45:15, 21; Hos 13:4). In Isaiah’s prophecy “God” and “savior” are synonymous (Isa 45:21; cf. 25:9). All strictly human attempts to confer salvation are futile (Ps 60:11; 146:3). Marshall correctly concludes that in the OT the word salvation is “used in a very broad sense of the sum total of the effects of God’s goodness on his people (Ps 53:6).”
In the NT the verb sozo (more than 100 times) means to “rescue,” “deliver,” “save;” the noun soteria (forty-nine times) denotes “salvation”; and the personal noun soter (twenty-four times) signifies “redeemer,” “deliverer,” “savior.” The word group generally connotes rescue or deliverance from danger, disease, enemies, or bondage (Matt 8:25; 14:30; Mark 5:34; Luke 1:71; Heb 11:7; Jas 5:15). But in the NT the personal, spiritual, and ethical dimension of salvation, implicit in the OT, comes to full light. Thus the Greek word group commonly bears the theological meaning of deliverance from sin, death, and the Devil and the gift of eternal life (Luke 1:69, 77; 18:26; Acts 4:12; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Thess 5:9; Heb 9:28). In the NT God is the Savior (Luke 1:47; 1 Tim 1:1; 2:3; Tit 1:3; 2:10; 3:4), in that the divine Father planned the gift of salvation and sent his only Son into the world on a saving mission. But specifically Jesus is the Savior (Luke 2:11; Acts 13:23; Eph 5:23; Tit 1:4; 2 Pet 1:1, 11; 3:2, 18), because the purpose of his life and death was to recover sinners from their lost condition (Matt 1:21; John 3:17; 12:47). The salvation Jesus brought is primarily personal and spiritual. It is instructive that the Greek name for Jesus, Iesous, is a transliteration of the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means, “Yahweh is salvation.” Christians (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16), at a minimum, are those who believe in and commit themselves to Jesus as Savior.
The centrality of salvation in the NT is further evidenced by the fact that the burden of the disciples’ message, both orally and in writing, was salvation from sin. Thus Peter, used of God to launch the Christian movement, boldly proclaimed salvation through the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12; 5:31; 1 Pet 1:3-5). God in eternity past chose his people for salvation (1 Pet 1:1; 2:9), and in time he gave them new life (1 Pet 1:3, 23; 2 Pet 1:4) through their response of faith (1 Pet 1:9, 21). Peter enjoined believers to purify themselves (1 Pet 1:15-16; 2:1, 11; 2 Pet 3:11) through God’s enablement (2 Pet 1:3) and so to persevere in God’s grace (1 Pet 5:12). John taught that the Father sent his only Son to bring the world salvation (John 3:17; 1 John 2:2). Thus Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). According to John, the Father gave to the Son the “sheep” he purposed to save (John 6:37, 39). For their part the “sheep” believe on the Son and obey him (John 10:27, 42). They receive forgiveness and cleansing of sins (1 John 1:7, 9; 2:12) and the gift of eternal life (John 3:16-17, 36; 1 John 2:25; 5:11, 13). The Father and the Son vouchsafe to preserve the “sheep” safe to the end (John 6:39; 10:29). Paul declared that in grace (Rom 5:15; 1 Cor 1:4; 15:10; 2 Cor 9:14) God sent his Son into the world to bestow on sinful Jews and Gentiles (Acts 13:26, 46; 28:28) the gift of salvation, viewed as forgiveness of sins (Eph 4:32; Col 2:13), right standing with God (Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 5:17; Phil 3:9), reconciliation with the Father (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-19), and new birth (2 Cor 5:17; Tit 3:5). Luke viewed the universal salvation (Luke 1:69, 71, 77; 3:6; 19:9) as redemption from oppression and sin (1:68, 74), particularly the recovery of that which was lost (15:3-32; 19:10). Salvation is predicated upon a spirit of true repentance (13:3, 5). The writer to the Hebrews used the word “salvation” seven times, more than in any other NT document. The letter envisages Jesus’ saving work as the perfect fulfillment of the OT sacrificial system (Heb 2:3; 5:8-9; 9:28). Via the single self-offering of his body, Christ destroyed Satan (2:14), put away sin (9:26, 28; 10:18), freed those who were in spiritual bondage (2:15), and so brought “many sons to glory” (2:10). The saints are urged to persevere in faith that they may receive all that God has promised (6:12; 10:36). Jude upheld the true salvation that came through Jesus Christ against the distorted views of proto-Gnostic false teachers (Jude 4) who will perish in their unbelief (v. 7). To gain salvation Jude stressed the need for correct beliefs (v. 3), prayer (v. 20), and perseverance (v. 21a). Yet he assured believers that God is fully able to preserve them safely to the end (vv. 24-25).
In sum, the word salvation in its theological sense denotes, negatively, deliverance from sin, death, and divine wrath and, positively, the bestowal of far-ranging spiritual blessings both temporal and eternal. God freely conveys these benefits on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Mediator. Soteriology (from the Greek words soter and logos) is the theological term denoting the doctrine of salvation, the aspects of which will be discussed in logical order in the subsequent chapters of this volume.
Because of the problem of human sin, the salvation described above is absolutely necessary if one would experience new life in fellowship with God. Scripture is clear in asserting that every last person in the world succumbs to sin (Ps 53:1, 3; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:10, 23; 5:12) and consequently experiences moral corruption, estrangement from God, forfeiture of eternal life, and everlasting punishment.
Consider, first, what Scripture teaches concerning the present condition of the lost. The Lord Jesus spoke candidly about the present spiritual condition of unconverted men and women. In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus implied that those who have not been born again are perishing (apollymi, John 3:16). Furthermore, in his encounter with Zacchaeus Jesus said, “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” (to apololos, Luke 19:10). The figurative notions of perishing and lostness connote the forfeiture of everything good and utter spiritual ruin. The parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) graphically highlights the spiritual bankruptcy and moral degradation of unconverted rebels against the loving Father. In addition, Jesus described the present condition of the unconverted in the language of judgment or condemnation. The Lord said, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already [ede kekritai] because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). The true believer in Jesus experiences no judgment or condemnation; but the unbeliever has been judged already (perfect tense), and thus stands under the condemnation of the holy God.
The apostle Paul wrote extensively about the present condition of the lost. Paul explained (1) that the unsaved are spiritually depraved. To the Ephesian Christians he wrote that formerly “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph 2:1-2). The unsaved, Paul continued, live “in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (4:17-19). (2) They are alienated from the life of God. Paul added, “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God [atheoi] in the world” (2:12; cf. Col 1:21). Cut off from the fellowship and privileges of God’s people, the Ephesians prior to their conversion had no life in God, no hope in the present, and no hope beyond the grave. (3) The unconverted are guilty and condemned. Unable to keep the law in its entirety, the unsaved dwell under the curse of the law (Gal 3:10). So Paul wrote that “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation” (katakrima, Rom 5:16), and “the result of one trespass was condemnation [katakrima] for all men” (v. 18). And so “we were by nature objects of wrath” (Eph 2:3b). And (4) the unsaved are hopelessly enslaved by sin, death, and the Devil. Paul described the unconverted as “controlled by the sinful nature” (Rom 7:5), taken captive and dominated by Satan (2 Tim 2:26; 1 John 5:19), and so as a practical manner of living, “slaves to sin” (Rom 6:16-17, 20). The writer of Hebrews recognized that the unregenerate live in bondage to the fear of death (Heb 2:15).
From careful observation of human behavior the secular Roman orator and politician Cicero boldly asserted that “Man is a disaster!” The French apologist Pascal recognized the pathetic paradox that is man, at one and the same time image of God yet grossly corrupted by sin. “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!” In the same vein the Puritan Joseph Alleine wrote, “O miserable man, what a deformed monster has sin made you! God made you ‘little lower than the angels;’ sin has made you little better than the devils.”
We can say that the merely once-born are “sub-human,”in the sense that they have allowed sin to deform and deface their authentic personhood as image of God. While imprisoned by the Germans, Dietrich Bonhoeffer acutely recognized the descent into barbarism brought about by sin. The Lutheran theologian and martyr wrote, “Only the man who is taken up in Christ is the real man.” We must acknowledge the truth that the unsaved are radically fallen and stand under the wrath and condemnation of God Almighty. This situation is true of primitive pagans who practice the devilish rites of heathen religion. (As an aside, the following chapter will deal with the issue of God’s kindness and mercy directed to pagan people.) But just condemnation is also true of so-called enlightened and sophisticated western people in their unconverted state.
Consider also Scripture’s depiction of the future condition of the lost. Certain OT poetic and wisdom texts speak about the wicked perishing or being destroyed (Ps 1:6; 37:20; 49:10; 73:27; Prov 11:10; 28:28). The Kal form of the verb ’abad in the preceding verses sometimes denotes physical death, but on other occasions it signifies utter spiritual loss or ruin—albeit never extinction of being. The prophet Daniel under inspiration of the Spirit wrote that “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2).
Moreover, the altogether lovely and compassionate Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees who rejected him, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24; cf. 5:28-29). It is significant that Jesus spoke more about the sorrows of hell than of the joys of heaven. The Lord taught that the unrepentant or unsaved would be consigned to gehenna, the place of eschatological punishment (Matt 10:28; 23:33; Luke 12:5). He affirmed that hell is a place of conscious torment (Matt 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43) and of everlasting duration (Matt 25:41, 46; Mark 9:48). Jesus’ saying in Matt 25:46 (cf. 18:8) clearly confirms that “The damned shall live as long in hell as God Himself shall live in heaven.” The compassionate Lord candidly described hell as a place of “darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13), a fiery furnace (Matt 13:42, 50; cf. 5:22; 13:30; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:43, 48), and a place where the worm never dies (Mark 9:48).
Paul, in strong and harsh language, wrote that “the Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people” (2 Thess 1:7b-10a). The apostle firmly believed that those who refuse God’s offer of grace will be consigned to perdition, forever beyond the reach of God’s love and care.
The apostle John, in a foreboding vision of the future, saw the dead in resurrected bodies standing before the Great White Throne. The books containing the record of human deeds were opened, and each person was judged according to what was written therein. John’s concluding words are hauntingly sober: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15). John explained that “The lake of fire is the second death” (v. 14)—i.e., the state of agonizing exclusion from the presence of God (Matt 22:13). Jesus told us that the second death is an event more fearful than the death of the body (Matt 10:28). John then added that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev 21:8). This punishment in hell, or the lake of fire, according to John, will be everlasting (Rev 14:11).
Several Greek words metaphorically connote ultimate spiritual ruin, the loss of everything good, and perdition in hell. One word group consists of the verb apollymi (active, to “destroy,” “ruin”; passive, “irretrievably perish,” “be lost in hell”) and the noun apoleia (“loss,” “ruin”). Jesus said, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matt 7:13). Both apollymi (John 3:16; 10:28; 17:12a; Rom 2:12; 1 Cor 15:17-18; 2 Thess 2:10) and apoleia (John 17:12b; Rom 9:22; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 2:1; 3:7) figuratively describe absolute spiritual ruin—namely, eternal perdition in hell, which is the polar opposite of salvation and eternal life. The NT writers also employed the verbs ptheiro (to “defile,” “corrupt,” “spoil,” “ruin”) in 1 Cor 3:17 and Jude 10, and diaptheiro (to “corrupt,” “destroy”) in Rev 11:18 figuratively of ultimate spiritual ruin in hell. They also described the future ruin of the unsaved by the nouns pthora (“decay,” “corruption,” “ruin”) in Gal 6:8, Col 2:22, and 2 Pet 2:12 and olethros (“ruin,” “destruction”) in 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9; and 1 Tim 6:9.
The Puritan Thomas Watson struggled to describe in human words the future state of the lost in hell.
Thus it is in Hell; they would die, but they cannot. The wicked shall be always dying but never dead; the smoke of the furnace ascends for ever and ever. Oh! who can endure thus to be ever upon the rack? This word “ever” breaks the heart. Wicked men now think the Sabbaths long, and think a prayer long; but oh! how long will it be to lie in hell for ever and ever?
Faithful to revealed truth, the Scottish professor James Denney wrote, “If there is any truth in Scripture at all, this is true—that those who stubbornly refuse to submit to the Gospel, and to love and obey Jesus Christ incur at the Last Advent an infinite and irreparable loss. They pass into a night on which no morning dawns.” Such is the horrendous future of sinners who do not experience in life God’s gracious salvation.
The nature of salvation has been variously interpreted by the different traditions within Christendom. Consider first the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of salvation. Rome argues that the visible church, which was founded on Peter (Matt 16:18-19) and transmitted to his successors, the bishops, mediates salvation to its adherents. Catholicism insists that the supernatural benefits of Christ’s sacrifice are conveyed physically through the church’s sacraments. Assuming the recipient imposes no obstacle to their working, the sacraments mediate saving grace simply because performed in an approved way (ex opere operato). The sacrament of baptism is said to remit original sin, impart sanctifying grace, and unite the soul to Christ. The baptized person is justified not legally by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but as he or she cooperates with the sacramentally infused grace and performs meritorious works. Thus justification, in Catholic thought, merges into what Protestants understand as sanctification. Viewed as personal transformation, salvation is progressively realized throughout the lifetime of the baptized. Apart from a private revelation, assurance of final salvation is not possible, since the perpetration of a single mortal sin would separate the soul from Christ and incur the judgment of final damnation. Catholicism traditionally holds that at the end of one’s life residual sin is burned away by the purifying fire of purgatory. On balance Roman Catholic theology is synergistic, stressing the synthesis of divine and human actions; salvation is by grace and by works. The Second Vatican Council redefined salvation existentially and broadened its scope to include all non-Christian religionists and even atheists. Contemporary Catholicism thus is quite universalistic in its outlook.
Theological liberalism assumes a number of forms, but a typical liberal understanding of salvation in the American context could be represented as follows. Stimulated by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, liberalism denies supernaturalism, miracles, biblical authority, and other classical doctrines of the faith. The tradition commonly rejects the fall of the race, human depravity, divine wrath, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and the need for definitive, individual conversion. Positing an optimistic, evolutionary view of persons and history, liberals view salvation as the process of perfecting an infantile, but inherently noble, race rather than redeeming a fallen, and inherently sinful, one. On the individual level, salvation amounts to the moral transformation of persons by right conduct and good works stimulated by the teachings and example of Jesus. In this respect theological liberalism simply stated is “a religion of ethical culture.” The so-called “social gospel” liberals of the first half of the twentieth century envisaged salvation as a collective reality. They defined salvation as the transformation of human society by education, social change, and political action motivated by the ideals and ethics of Jesus of Nazareth.
Although Christian existentialism also embraces a range of opinion, it is united by several common themes. Its focus is anthropocentric rather than theocentric, and it centers on the individual rather than on the group or community. It believes that human existence is estranged from reality by preoccupation with the world of objects, requiring no decision or risk (the ‘I-it’ relation), rather than the fulfilling world of personal relationships (the ‘I-Thou’ relation). According to Christian existentialism, persons are estranged from their authentic mode of being and hence suffer alienation, anxiety, and despair. Assent to rational truths, formal creeds, or theological systems does not save; rather it constitutes a cheap faith, even the faith of demons. The faith that saves, Christian existentialists assert, is the act of believing with deep inner passion and radical engagement; it is the faith that gives itself to a life of costly discipleship. Faith commits to the ultimate paradox that Jesus Christ bridged the chasm between the infinite God and sinners. It makes a courageous commitment, in defiance of all reason, to the One who demands that a choice be made between living according to God’s demands or one’s own pleasure. The result of this costly decision is Christ’s presence in the heart and the personal realization of authentic existence—namely, the elimination of anxiety (Angst), the forgiveness of sins, the realization of one’s full potential, and the transformation of life.
Liberation theology, viewing itself as a faith contextualized for developing societies, is a theology of praxis that relies heavily on the Marxist analysis of culture. The movement advocates a retreat from personal, inward, and spiritual realities to collective, outward, and structural concerns. It generally assumes that all persons are in Christ, but that they have become radically dehumanized by social, economic, and political oppression, which in turn have spawned poverty, illiteracy, violence, and untold human suffering. Liberationists view salvation collectively as the overthrow of unjust and corrupting social structures by revolution and violence, if necessary. They extol the Exodus from Egypt as the primary biblical paradigm of God’s liberating action from structural oppression. Liberationists allege that the release of the oppressed Israelites by severe plagues made them whole again and freed them to serve God and others. The agenda of liberation theology thus is congruent with the cry of the black activist Angela Davis, who in the 1960s exclaimed, when handcuffed by the police: “Break these chains and I will be free!” Liberation theology usually makes little place for Christ’s atoning work on the cross, faith as belief in the truth and trust in the Savior, and the lostness of those who do not trust Christ. Indeed, it commonly subscribes to the doctrine of universalism, which means that God is saving all people everywhere. As expressed by the Indian theologian M.M. Thomas, liberationists uphold a salvation “not in any pietistic or individualistic isolation, but related to and expressed within the material, social and cultural revolution of our time.”
Against Bultmann and the existentialists, Barthian neoorthodoxy regards salvation as an objective event and only secondarily as a subjective process. Barth held that Christ objectively wrought salvation for all people by his victory on the cross (the “classic” theory of the Atonement). He argued that Christ at his coming united to himself humanum—the entire human race. Thus in Christ’s death on the cross the world’s sin was judged and in his resurrection the race was vindicated. The justification and sanctification (or conversion) of every person through Christ’s death and victorious resurrection represent the outworking of the covenant God instituted in eternity past to bring humankind into fellowship with himself. Salvation thus is something God decisively accomplished at Calvary; people have little to contribute to its achievement. Indeed, Barth envisaged faith, repentance, and obedience as manifestations of a finished salvation rather than as the means by which that salvation is personally realized. Barth minimized the human responses of faith, repentance, and obedience to avoid introducing into the scheme of salvation by grace what he perceived to be a dangerous works doctrine. Herein Barth’s strong reaction against theological liberalism is evident; not man but God is the chief actor in the drama of salvation. Given the triumph of grace in the Cross, Barth’s formulation of salvation brings us to the vestibule of universalism. All persons are in Christ, Barth held, even though Christ is not in all persons. Formally the unrepentant are justified and sanctified, but existentially they need to awake from their spiritual slumber and experience the salvation Christ accomplished as their Representative.
Evangelical Arminians claim that in love God sent Christ into the world for the purpose of saving humankind from the ruin of sin (universal Atonement) and that God desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). They insist that universal, prevenient grace flowing from Christ’s cross (“preparing grace”) transforms sinners in the first moment of moral light, thereby nullifying the debilitating effects of depravity, restoring moral free agency, and convicting of sin. Thus blessed by prevenient grace and when confronted with the general call to salvation, the unsaved cooperate with God, repent of sins, and trust Christ as Savior. Arminians emphasize that the grace and calling of God are resistible, hence sinners may choose to reject Christ and continue in their sins. Arminians understand the doctrine of election conditionally as God’s decision to save those he foresaw would respond to grace and accept Christ. Corporately, the class of people who believe the Gospel and persevere to the end are designated “the elect.” Many Arminians view regeneration synergistically; the new birth occurs as a result of human willing and divine working. Furthermore, some affirm that God wills that sanctification be perfected in this life by a second work of grace that is said to eradicate the sinful nature and its desires, fill the heart with perfect love for God, and enable Christians to live without willful sin. This decisive post-conversion experience is designated “entire sanctification,” “sinless perfection,” and “full salvation.” In addition, many Arminians deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. They insist that by deliberate sin Christians can renounce their prior faith commitment and thereby fall from the state of grace, forfeit eternal salvation, and be doomed to perdition. The Arminian understanding of salvation thus is synergistic (a “working together”); divine grace and the liberated human will cooperate to bring about salvation. From inception to consummation the unsaved via free will make significant contributions to the outworking of their salvation.
Evangelicals in the Reformed tradition believe Scripture to teach that by willful spiritual defection the highest of God’s creatures are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). As noted above, Scripture portrays the unconverted as possessing minds darkened to spiritual truth, wills arrayed in enmity against God, affections disordered by sundry lusts, consciences defiled by faithless responses, and hands devoted to every evil work. Holistically depraved sinners have neither the inclination nor the ability to seek God and spiritual life. Hence the initiative in salvation must reside with the sovereign God. God’s grace plans, precedes, undergirds, and executes the process of salvation from beginning to end. Reformed Evangelicals thus extol the confession of Jonah after experiencing God’s wisdom and goodness: “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jon 2:9).
The reformational tradition asserts that in eternity past God sovereignly purposed to bestow saving grace upon whom he would, independent of foreseen works. The rest of humanity he left in their self-chosen sin to suffer the just penalty thereof. Those whom God in eternity past graciously chose by the Spirit in time he effectually draws to Christ. One strand of Reformed thinking holds that, subjectively, the Spirit enables the chosen and called to believe the truth in Christ, turn from all known sins, and trust Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. God creates in the converted a new spiritual nature—in the sense not of another ontological constitution but as a new set of godly inclinations, desires, and habits. Objectively, the Spirit incorporates regenerated believers into Christ in a vital, spiritual, and indissoluble union, attested by the common “in Christ” motif. The Father then forgives their sins, accepts them as righteous in his sight, and bestows the gift of eternal life. Furthermore, in the lifelong work of sanctification the Spirit progressively mortifies believers’ old nature and fortifies the new nature such that they become like Jesus in thought, word, and deed. Thus God not only declares believing sinners righteous; he effectively makes them so by the Spirit. We are saved not merely to gain heaven but also to live in holiness, truth, and love. Moreover, those whom God has regenerated, united to Christ, and justified he preserves by the Spirit to the end. Twice-born people at times disobey God and grieve his Spirit; but the Lord’s sure grip prevents them from falling away finally and completely. Lastly, God will bring salvation to completion at the return of Christ when pilgrim saints behold the Savior’s face and are fully transformed into his likeness. Biblical salvation thus has past, present, and future dimensions. The born-again person can say with confidence, “I have been saved, I am being saved, and at Christ’s return I finally will be saved.”
Scripture reveals that God applies Christ’s objective work on the cross progressively by the Spirit through a series of movements. This has led theologians to suggest that God purposefully established a definable order of salvation. The Lutheran theologians Franz Buddeus and Jacob Carpov in the first half of the eighteenth century were the first to coin the phrase “ordo salutis” to denote such a sequence. Formulations of the ordo attempt to express the way by which God through Christ imparts salvation to sinners from inception to consummation or from eternity past to eternity future. Such an ordering scheme may be logical, chronological, or both. It may involve what God purposes and what he actually accomplishes. It may equally include what God does and what humans do. It may contain aspects that are declarative and instantaneous as well as those that are experiential and progressive. According to John Murray, “God is not the author of confusion and therefore he is the author of order. There are good and conclusive reasons for thinking that the various actions of the application of redemption . . . take place in a certain order, and that that order has been established by divine appointment, wisdom, and grace.” We proceed to summarize the ways in which leading Christian traditions have represented the order of salvation. Thereafter we will examine relevant NT passages to make a decision concerning the legitimacy of such an ordering schema and to propose our own arrangement of the elements of salvation.
The order of salvation in Roman Catholic theology is usually expressed in terms of the grace mediated by the church’s sacraments. Thus (1) the sacrament of baptism (Tit 3:5) imparts supernatural life by regenerating the soul and uniting it with Christ. Water baptism, in addition, is said to remove the guilt and penalty of original sin. Through the sacrament of baptism “Man is made white as a sheet, brighter than snow.”
(2) The sacrament of confirmation (Acts 8:15-17) strengthens the baptized through a Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. By this endowment the confirmed are enabled to witness to Christ and to stand firm in the midst of life’s struggles.
(3) The sacrament of the Eucharist (Matt 26:26-28) imparts spiritual nourishment as the worshiper feeds on the body and blood of Christ in the transubstantiated wafer. “This sacrament is nourishment. It is for the divine life of the soul what food and drink are for the life of the body. This life, the state of grace, is maintained by it, preserved from ruin, strengthened and augmented.”
(4) The sacrament of penance, or the “second pardon,” remits the guilt and punishment of post-baptismal, mortal sins (apostasy, murder, adultery). The sacrament requires of the penitent contrition for sins, confession, and works of satisfaction (almsgiving, fasting, etc.).
Finally (5) the sacrament of extreme unction or last anointing (Jas 5:14-16) equips the soul for the final conflict with death and prepares the recipient for the beatific vision of God. This sacrament “gives the grace of a good death, consolation in that depression which comes to so many because of the memory of their sins, and pardon for all sins not yet forgiven in confession.”
The order of salvation in Lutheran theology seeks to define and distinguish the Spirit’s multiple acts of grace without creating an artificial separation one from the other. Elements of the order more or less overlap one another. The following order generally prevails.
Arminian theology typically represents the order of salvation as follows.
Covenant Reformed theology insists that every aspect of salvation is grounded in the covenant of grace, occurs in union with Christ, and is brought forth by the Holy Spirit.
Evangelicals in the broadly Reformed tradition insist that the whole of salvation, from eternity past to eternity future, proceeds from the grace of God, centers on Christ, and is wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We now turn to the NT documents to determine if an order or arrangement of the doctrines of salvation can be substantiated. We examine first those texts that deal most comprehensively with the plan of salvation. Consider the following major Scripture passages.
Paul presents a broad outline of the plan of salvation in Rom 8:28-30, popularly known as the “golden circle of salvation.” God’s foreknowledge and predestination undergird other aspects of salvation, given here as calling, justification, and glorification. Verses 31-39 affirm the certainty of God’s preservation of elect believers.
In 1 Cor 1:26-30 Paul gives the order of salvation as God’s choosing or election, calling, union with Christ (“in Christ Jesus”), justification, and sanctification.
Paul’s order in Eph 1:11-14 is election through Christ the Redeemer, faith defined as “hope in Christ,” union with Christ, sealing with the Spirit, and glorification, viewed as the final “redemption.”
In 2 Thess 2:13-15 the following order is evident: election as the act of God’s choosing, belief in “the truth,” calling through the Gospel, and glorification. Verse 15 upholds the need for perseverance in the faith.
In 2 Tim 1:8-10 Paul writes of grace that undergirds election viewed as God’s saving “purpose,” calling, sanctification as a “holy life,” and future glorification, here designated as “life and immortality.”
In language drawn from the OT, 1 Pet 1:1-2 delineates the order of salvation as foreknowledge, election, effectual calling expressed as “the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” faith identified as “obedience to Jesus Christ,” and justification and sanctification, both perhaps implied by the phrase “sprinkling by his blood.”
Finally, 2 Pet 1:9-11 discusses election, calling, justification, perseverance, and glorification.
Many biblical texts, though less comprehensive than the preceding, are nevertheless helpful in the search for a possible ordering of soteriological doctrines. Consider the following scriptural passages.
Tit 2:11-14 refers to saving grace, sanctification of life, and glorification.
Acts 13:48 gives the order election (“appointed for eternal life”) and faith.
Eph 1:4 refers to election through Christ and sanctification (“be holy and blameless”).
Eph 1:5 cites sovereign election through Christ and adoption as sons and daughters of God.
Acts 16:14 specifies effectual calling (opening the heart) and faith (response to the Gospel message).
Acts 26:18 sets forth the order of effectual calling (“open their eyes”), conversion (including “faith”), and positional sanctification or justification.
John 6:44, 65 gives the order effectual calling and coming to Christ in faith.
2 Pet 1:2-4 cites the doctrines of grace, effectual calling, faith, union with Christ (“participate in the divine nature”), and sanctification (“escape the corruption in the world”), although the precise order is less intentional in this text.
1 Thess 5:23-24 presents the sequence as effectual calling, sanctification, and preservation (“kept blameless”).
Many NT texts—e.g., John 5:24; Rom 1:17; 3:22, 26, 28, 30; 4:3, 5, 11, 13; Gal 2:16; 3:6, 8, 11, 24; Phil 3:9—refer to the faith that results in justification.
John 1:12-13 highlights faith, regeneration (“born of God”), and adoption (“become children of God”). In this text regeneration precedes adoption into the family of God.
2 Pet 1:5-6, 9 affirms faith, justification (“cleansed from past sins”), and perseverance.
Rom 5:1-2 (cf. Gal 5:5) presents the sequence as faith, justification, reconciliation (“peace with God”), and glorification (“the hope of the glory of God”).
Gal 3:26-27 depicts faith, union with Christ (“baptized into Christ”), and adoption.
First John 5:1-5 sets forth the order of faith, regeneration (“born of God”), and sanctification (“overcomes the world”).
First John 2:5-6 (cf. Gal 2:20) describes faith (“obeys his word”), union with Christ (“we are in him”), and sanctification (“walk as Jesus did”).
First Pet 1:22-23 affirms faith (“obeying the truth”), sanctification, and regeneration. Faith results in both regeneration and sanctification, although the order of the last two is not explicitly stated here.
First Pet 1:5, 9 identifies faith, preservation, and glorification (“the salvation . . . to be revealed in the last time”).
First John 3:5-6 refers to justification (“take away our sins”) followed by sanctification (does not “keep on sinning”).
Rom 8:1-2 speaks of union with Christ (“in Christ Jesus”), justification (“no condemnation”), and sanctification (“set me free from the law of sin and death”).
First John 3:9-10 describes regeneration (“born of God”), adoption, and sanctification (“cannot go on sinning”).
Heb 12:1-11 indicates that adoption precedes sanctification and perseverance.
Rom 8:13-17 gives the order as adoption (“sons of God”), sanctification (“put to death the deeds of the body”), and glorification (“share in his glory”).
John 3:3, 5 identifies the particular order of regeneration and the attainment of eternal life (“enter the kingdom of God”).
First Pet 1:3-4 cites regeneration (“new birth”) and glorification (“an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade”).
Second Cor 5:17-18 describes union with Christ through faith, regeneration (“a new creation”), and reconciliation, although the ordering relation is not clearly given.
First Cor 6:17-20 describes union with Christ and sanctification of life.
Finally, Eph 5:23, 26-27 delineates the order of union with Christ (the “body” of Christ image), sanctification, and possibly glorification.
What shall we conclude about attempts to construct an order of salvation for purposes of systematization and study? In recent years the notion of an ordering of the doctrines of salvation has come under criticism by theologians such as Karl Barth, G.C. Berkouwer, H.N. Ridderbos, and O. Weber. Admittedly, it is difficult to schematize temporally the boundless riches of God’s saving grace exercised from eternity past to eternity future. Moreover, it is possible that the ordo as a rigid structure may direct our focus away from Christ to an unhealthy psychologizing of salvation (subjectivism). Nevertheless, it remains true that our God is a God of order rather than disorder or confusion. Indeed, the many Scripture texts cited above appear to provide a warrant for conceptualizing the process of salvation in an orderly manner. Within the unity of the plan of salvation it is legitimate to consider various aspects of God’s gracious salvation in relation to one another. One’s conversion may be sudden and dramatic or so gradual that the person may not know when he or she came to Christ. But a genuine salvation experience will share common doctrinal aspects as certified by the Scriptures.
Granting the legitimacy of the order of salvation, certain qualifications regarding such a formulation must be made. (1) The order of salvation includes things that God does (election, calling, justification, regeneration, etc.) as well as things that humans do (belief, repentance, trust, perseverance). (2) The ordo must be viewed as a logical as well as a chronological relation. Conversion, regeneration, union with Christ, and justification occur simultaneously in the moment of decision for Christ, and not successively. (3) Certain aspects of the scheme of salvation are not discrete events but realities that pervade the entire Christian life: e.g., belief, repentance, trust, sanctification, divine preservation, and human perseverance. (4) As Berkouwer and Hoekema point out, aspects of the salvation experience are interactive. Thus faith is active in justification, in sanctification, and in perseverance. Moreover, union with Christ (abiding in him) is essential for sanctification and perseverance. Hence the order of salvation must not be viewed simplistically as a linear sequence of chronological occurrences. And finally (5) every aspect of salvation profoundly focuses on Christ. Thus Christ apportions grace (Eph 4:7). Moreover, saints are elected in Christ (Eph 1:4); they are called to Christ (1 Cor 1:9); they believe the truth about Christ (Rom 10:9; 1 John 5:1, 5); they turn to Christ in repentance (1 Pet 2:25); they are justified by the blood of Christ (Heb 13:12); regeneration takes place in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Tit 3:5-6); they are united with Christ (Gal 2:20); they are transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18); they are kept and preserved by Christ (1 John 5:18); and they will receive the glory of Christ (2 Thess 2:14). Given these significant observations and qualifications, we suggest the following ordering of the various aspects of the salvation wrought by Christ on the cross (Atonement), which constitutes the structure of this volume.
The Plan and Provision of Salvation from beginning to end is rooted in God’s grace and originates with God’s sovereign elective decision for life made in eternity past.
The Application of Salvation in its subjective aspects commences with the Spirit’s effectual calling and continues in the movements of conversion and regeneration. In its objective aspects the fruit of Christ’s work applied to believers includes union with Christ, justification, and adoption into the family of God.
The Progress of Salvation is manifested through the Holy Spirit’s sanctification or purification of believers’ lives and the divine preservation that enables human perseverance to the end.
Finally, the Perfecting of Salvation will be realized in the glorification of true believers at Christ’s second advent. In this consummation of the entire movement of salvation, Christians will be perfectly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
The rich biblical data indicate that salvation is a work of the triune God involving an authentic response on the part of the individual person. On God’s side, Scripture depicts the Father as the ultimate source, planner, and initiator of salvation. Thus the apostle Paul wrote in Eph 1:3-6: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” James confirmed this initiating role of the Father in salvation, as follows: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. . . . He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:17-18). Other texts affirming the Father’s role as planner and initiator of salvation include 2 Tim 1:9 and 1 John 4:14.
Second, Christ the Son provided complete redemption through his obedient life and atoning death. After citing the Father’s role in salvation Paul explained the Son’s unique contribution in Eph 1:7-12. There he wrote, “In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding” (vv. 7-8). We recall, in addition, the words of an angel of the Lord who said to Joseph, the husband of Mary, “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The Father effects redemption through Christ, the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5). He is the mediator of the new covenant, whereby the called receive the promised eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15; cf. 8:6; 12:24).
Finally, the Holy Spirit applies, makes effective, and preserves the redemption Christ bought to those who believe. Eph 1:13-14 specifies an important work the third person of the Trinity performs in the economy of salvation: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” Lloyd-Jones expressed the saving work of the three persons according to Eph 1:3-14 thusly: “The Father has His purpose, the Son says He is going to carry it out, and He came and did it, and the Holy Spirit said He was ready to apply it.” Summing up the diverse functions of the Spirit in salvation, we note that the latter effectually calls (Heb 3:7-8; Rev 22:17), justifies (1 Cor 6:11), regenerates (John 3:5-8; 6:63; Tit 3:5), unites with Christ (1 Cor 12:13), seals (Eph 1:13; 4:30), sanctifies (Rom 15:16; 2 Thess 2:13; Gal 5:16, 25), and provides assurance by his own invincible testimony (Rom 8:16). In addition to Eph 1:3-14, Paul summarized the saving functions of the three persons in Tit 3:4-6. There the apostle wrote, “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
On the human side no person can come savingly to God by the power of their own initiative or on the basis of their own merits, as the Titus text just cited indicates. But men and women, enabled by the Spirit’s gracious working, perform their own necessary work. To receive salvation the chosen must believe the Gospel (John 20:30-31), repent of sins (Acts 2:38; Rev 3:3, 19), trust or commit themselves to Christ (Rom 10:9; 2 Tim 1:12), pursue holiness and sanctification of life (2 Tim 2:21; Heb 12:14), and persevere in the way of Christ (Matt 24:13; John 8:31; 1 Cor 16:13-14). Salvation thus is both a work of God and of the individual, where the latter’s effort and cooperation is graciously enabled by God. Paul made this point perfectly clear in his exhortation to the Philippian Christians: “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13).
Given the organic and inherently coherent nature of biblical theology, we are not surprised to find significant interrelationship between the doctrine of salvation and other Christian doctrines. Consider first the doctrine of theology proper. A high estimate of God’s sovereignty, love, and grace leads the faithful student of Scripture to ascribe the initiative in salvation to God himself. God in freedom works to bring about his own eternal purpose for the human race. On the other hand, a liberal or deistic understanding of God envisages the Creator as relatively uninvolved in the process of bringing salvation to sinners. According to the latter perspective, the unconverted forge their future by their own moral decisions and actions independently of God.
Reflect also on the doctrine of divine providence. The postulate that God is the efficient cause of all occurrences (hyper-Calvinism) leads to the conclusion that the Lord in eternity past sovereignly planned both the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate. On the other hand, the insistence that God merely extends to the unconverted the promise of rewards and the threat of punishment (Arminianism) places the salvation of the unconverted squarely with themselves. The view that God works by supernatural means to draw some sinners to Christ and for his own good reasons leaves others in their self-chosen state of sin leads to an altogether different outcome (moderately Reformed).
Consider also the doctrines of anthropology and harmartiology. Acceptance of the Bible’s realistic view of the effects of depravity upon the mind, will, and affections (Augustinianism) leads to the conclusion that God himself provides the spiritual dynamic that effectively brings moral aliens to Christ. On the other hand, the view that human nature is not fallen in sin (Pelagianism) eliminates the need for spiritual redemption altogether. According to Pelagians old and new, whatever persons need to do for salvation, they are capable of accomplishing by their own strength. The mediating position that human nature was merely wounded by the Fall (Semi-Pelagianism) envisages salvation as the outcome of a synergistic process of cooperation between God and the unconverted.
Thoroughly pertinent is the doctrine of Christology, which deals with the person of Jesus Christ and the work he accomplished. The commonly held modern view that Jesus was a mere man indwelt by divine power and thus our moral example obviates the need for justification and reconciliation predicated on his atoning death at Calvary. Contrariwise, the conviction that Jesus Christ, the God-man, bore the punishment due our sins and so satisfied the demands of a righteous God leads to the classical understanding of the new birth, justification, and reconciliation. Moreover, whether or not Jesus bodily rose from the grave profoundly affects the future resurrection of those who trust him. Likewise his ascension to heaven, session at the Father’s right hand, and continuing intercession on our behalf significantly impacts the quality and permanence of the spiritual life we profess to have received.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit likewise impinges upon the quest for salvation. Understood merely as an impersonal power or influence, the Spirit could not convict hardened souls of sin, impart a new nature with heavenly qualities, sanctify the life in the path of holiness, or fortify believers to persevere in the faith. But the Spirit who truly is an intelligent, divine person—even the third person of the Trinity—possesses the infinite wisdom, power, and grace to save, sanctify, and sustain born-again believers to the very end.
The doctrine of ecclesiology impinges upon our understanding of Christian salvation. The liberal view that equates the church with the world undercuts the need for supernatural salvation. Evangelical theology, however, envisages the church as the chosen people called out of the godless world and transformed by divine grace. Moreover, our view of the efficacy of the church’s sacraments will impact our understanding of how God applies salvation to sinners and causes it to be perfected. The Roman church, for example, claims that the sacraments accomplish their saving work simply because performed by legitimate authority (the ex opere operato concept).
Finally, soteriology is relevant to the doctrine of eschatology. Personal eschatology deals with the resurrection body, the disposition of persons at the final judgment, and their final state in heaven or hell. A humanistic worldview that denies life beyond the grave takes no account of the glorious future of God’s people. Soteriology treats this latter issue under the head of the glorification of the saints. General eschatology considers the grand truths of Christ’s return to earth, the inauguration of his kingdom, and the new heaven and new earth. These great realities represent the future blessings of soteriology considered from a corporate point of view. In sum, the close nexus between soteriology and other major doctrines confirms the fact that Christianity is more than a noble ethical system. The way of Christ, in its warp and woof, is the path of salvation itself.