Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation – how does one get reconciled to God? It is my desire to show you how essential it is to grasp this doctrine rightly and how humbling and wonderful it is to comprehend what the Lord God has done in redeeming people.
While there are many religions in this world, with myriad differences, they all have a few things in common and many differences. But no matter the religion, no matter the salvation, no matter the god, all systems of religion, including biblical Christianity, are based on salvation by works. All systems of religion are based on salvation by works. The differences lie beneath that truth. All but one system bases salvation on the works of those who need to be saved. The sole exception is based on men being saved by the finished work of another, a particular man who had no sin of His own to pay for. A man who is God and paid the price for others. The Lawgiver became the Law keeper for Law breakers. This exception, as I’m sure you already know, is our faith – biblical Christianity, based on the work of the God-man, Jesus.
Among professing Christian groups, many variants and shades exist, with most falling into self-saving works of the creature. These views are known as Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, Universalism, etc. All of these are variations of synergistic modes of salvation – systems in which creator God is at best a co-pilot in redeeming people. The Scriptures, which are our only rule for truth and faith and godliness, depict God as the One Who created and sustains all things, directing the paths of kings and storm clouds, saints and Satan. Properly understood, the Word of God reveals a monergistic mode of salvation – children of God are born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God alone (John 1:13). Since Scripture cannot be broken, monergistic salvation and synergistic salvation cannot both be true. The passages that appear to contradict each other do not. Our understanding and comprehension are limited and twisted by sin – the Word of God is perfect and by it the Lord searches out our intentions and thoughts. To rightly understand this doctrine of how sinners are made right with holy God, we must humbly submit to the Word of God and cry out for wisdom from the Spirit of God.
This dispute over how a sinner is reconciled to Holy God has been raging among men since Cain’s offering was refused. In the early 17th century a protest was filed with the ruling church court in the Netherlands by activist disciples of Jacob Arminius. Here are the five articles contained in the protest presented to the Council of Dort:
- God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
- Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved.
- Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.
- This grace may be resisted.
- Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation.
Only the third point reflects biblical truth and was later denied by many of this view. The bedrock of the Arminian objection to monergistic salvation is the notion that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom and that ability limits obligation. This is complementary to the Pelagian view that God would never command man to do that which man was incapable of doing. However, the Scriptures are replete with commands from God to the creature to do that which nobody but God can do, such as be ye perfect, and love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. These commands are meant to drive self-righteousness from us and draw us to Christ. The Arminians claim God gives every human the ability to believe on Jesus, and that God will never refuse anyone who exercises that ability and comes to Him in the faith that God gives to everyone; but only some exercise it and are saved. If this is the case, who gets the credit for the sinner’s salvation? And what do we do with 2 Thess 3:2 which tells us not all men have this faith?
Most professing Christians hold to Arminianism, having never heard anything else because most churches do not teach the whole counsel of God’s Word. I personally believe that all Christians are born spiritually as Arminians because we are only accustomed to what our natural senses can discern. And when one is born again, the first thing he is aware of is that he chose Christ; without yet knowing that Christ first chose and first loved him. The Arminian system makes sense to the natural mind, confirmed by natural senses. It shows up in our language: when we say someone “accepted Christ” we imply the person needing salvation decided to get saved. But Scripture denies this. This is why it is of utmost importance that evangelism be firmly connected to and rooted in discipleship. A new-born child of God must be shown and taught the Bible – what he was before he was raised from the dead and what soil preparation the gardener performed to make the seed take root.
In understanding what it means for anyone to be redeemed, to have been reconciled to Holy God, to be made into a new creature, we must grab hold of the biblical reality of our union with Christ. Ephesians 1:3 tells us we were blessed with every spiritual blessing by God the Father – that these spiritual blessings are in the heavenly places and they are in Christ. We mortal sinners get no heavenly, spiritual blessings apart from being in union with Christ, in communion with Christ.
There are several terms that describe what happens when a person is raised from spiritual death, referred to as the order of salvation:
- Predestination: Rom. 8:29 & 30; Eph. 1:3-6 & 11-14
- Effectual Calling (Regeneration): John 1:12 & 13; 6:44, 63-65; Eph. 2:1-5
(Faith) – Eph. 2:8,9; Acts 13:48, 16:14
(Repentance) – 2 Cor. 7:9 & 10
- Justification (Legal Declaration): Rom. 5:1 & 2; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:16
- Adoption: Rom. 8:15-17, 23-25; Gal. 4:4-7
- Definitive Sanctification: Rom. 6:1 & 2; I Cor. 1:2; 6:9-11
- Progressive Sanctification: Eph. 4:11-16; Phil 2:1-4, 13-15
(Preservation of the Saints) – John 6:37-40; 10:27-30; Phil. 1:6
- Glorification: Matt 25:31-34; 2 Cor. 5:1-8; Phil. 1:21-23; 3:20 & 21
The first of these, predestination, took place before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:3-4 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. Predestination is not a reaction to The Fall. God has no “Plan B”. Predestination is “Plan A”. The balance of the steps in this process take place in time, although regeneration, faith, repentance, and justification cannot be separated; we know that they happen in this order but are unable to plot them out, they are so tightly connected. But notice – regeneration comes before faith and repentance. That which is dead cannot develop root nor produce fruit. The soil must be prepared before the seed can sprout. If we do not properly understand this, we are vulnerable of being drawn aside into the Arminian camp, who claim that the spiritually dead sinner exercising faith in Christ causes regeneration. It is this level of attention that is required to discern between good and evil, as we are told in Hebrews 5:14 – But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. We have the same fine degree of difference with the Roman Catholic doctrine of “salvation”, wherein the sinner is infused with grace and thereby enabled to be holy and pleasing to God, but never arriving at any assurance of having been saved. The Scriptures teach that sinners are imputed the righteousness of Christ and are thereby justified by grace that is apprehended by the faith that was itself a gift to us – lest anyone boast in anything other than the cross of Christ! Nothing in my hand I bring, only to the cross I cling – this is how we all come to saving faith, no matter what our senses or churches tell us.
Kevin DeYoung, in Chap 7 of his book, The Hole in Our Holiness exhorts us: “… it’s appropriate … to talk about an “order of salvation”, whereby we are called by the Spirit of God, born again, moved to faith and repentance. Justified, adopted, sanctified, preserved, and glorified, we must never separate these benefits from the Benefactor. Every blessing in the order of salvation flows from our union with Christ.” John Murray is quoted as saying, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation, not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ.” We often talk about gifts we get from God – provision in things of this world, for the most part – and need to remind ourselves to not confuse the gift with the Giver. So it is with this greatest gift of all; while we will not truly understand the depth and richness of God’s saving grace towards elect sinners, we must not get so fixed on that spiritual blessing that we lose sight of the One in Whom we have that blessing. If we be not in Christ, we are not His and we vainly imagine that the blessings of redemption and reconciliation are ours. Contrary to what the pope said, sincere belief in whatever god you have chosen is not going to reconcile any sinner to holy God. Responding to a list of questions published in a newspaper, Pope Francis wrote: “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.”
Sin is not the failure of a creature to obey his conscience! Sin is not a bad habit, a hurtful hangup, or “something less than God’s best” – as a couple of well-known preachers have called it (referring specifically to homosexuality). An inadequate understanding of sin necessarily results in an inadequate understanding of grace, redemption, reconciliation, and a number of other orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith. Sin is a moral act, word, or thought that contradicts the expressed will of God for human beings. In other words, it is a covenantal breach with the Divine covenant maker. It is not limited to the will, the intellect, or the emotion. Sin involves the whole person.
What is the practical aspect of getting this doctrine – how is one saved? – correct? There are many examples from church history, but this one is my favorite. If you have read any history of the church, you should be aware that the Church of England went through an extended period (after their separation from Rome) wherein they had difficulty finding regenerate pastors. Wesley and Whitefield and Spurgeon all rubbed up against this. In fact, both Wesley and Whitefield came to saving faith in college, after they each had spent themselves in trying to make themselves pleasing to God; following the doctrine of salvation of the Church of England. One pastor in the Church of England discovered this in a rather unique way.
William Haslam was an English country parson who was a hireling of the state, a warm body to fill the pulpit in small country church. One Sunday in 1851 following a period of deep conviction of sin, Haslam ascended into the pulpit with the intention of telling his congregation that he would not preach again to them until he was saved and to ask them to pray for his conversion.
He began to preach on the text ‘What think ye of Christ’ (Matt 22:42), taken from gospel passage handed down from the mother church. As he read about the Jewish leaders who did not see Christ as the Messiah, he saw himself as one of them – a Pharisee who did not recognize that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Haslam said, “I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit breathed new life into him and the effect was so obvious and marked that a local preacher who was present stood up and shouted ‘the Parson is converted, the parson is converted! Hallelujah!’ and the people rejoiced loudly and with much commotion.
If one fails to see the dire consequences of sin, the hideous nature thereof; if he fails to see Holy God as the judge who weighs the universe in His hands; if he doesn’t see rightly the King of glory Who paid the price for sin that man could never pay – he will die in his sin and be lost forever.
The doctrine of soteriology is not a dry theological construct that has no relation to how we live. It is the very core of the identity we as Christians have – that of being found in Christ. The jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” So they (Paul and Silas) said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” It is simple in one aspect – believe on the Lord Jesus. But oh how deep and rich is the salvation we have in Christ Jesus! We are found by Him, secured in Him, preserved in Him, saved and sanctified in Him. We walk in Christ, labor in Christ, obey in Christ. We live and die in Christ; and we conquer and overcome death and hell in Christ!
The Apostle Paul fought against false doctrines that taught justification by any other means. It is an essential doctrine upon which our faith rests. All other systems of salvation rest on self-worth and deny the depth of man’s sin and the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pete 1:3-5)
If Pelagius was right, Christ died for no purpose. If Scripture is right, and we were dead in our sins and trespasses, our life and worth depends on the death of Christ – in our place, to placate the wrath of God the Father.
Soteriology? It’s a matter of life and death.