Over the past ten years of my life as a follower of Jesus, perhaps no theological category has caused me to spend hours reading, thinking, and processing as much as Soteriology. Soteriology is the study of salvation. More specifically, it is the study of what we might call the fine print of salvation. Basic soteriology is what unifies all born-again Christians as the universal church, because it simply states the simple gospel. It is the truth, that though all people are sinners, we can be saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Jesus Christ of the Bible alone.
But beyond the basic truths of the simple gospel, soteriology goes much deeper. It discusses the place of divine election and sovereignty, and their relationship to human responsibility in salvation. Does God choose us? Do we choose God? Is it both? Soteriology addresses the extensiveness and intensiveness of the effects of sin and the curse in the lives of human beings. Did man lose free-will in becoming a sinner, or does he retain free-will as God’s image-bearer? Soteriology addresses the extent of the atonement of the cross on behalf of human beings. Did Jesus die for every individual sinner, or only the elect? Soteriology addresses the application of redemption. Do we exercise faith through which we become born-again, or does God make us born-again so that we exercise faith? Soteriology addresses the security of the believer. If I am born-again, can I lose my salvation through habitual sinning, or does the Holy Spirit cause me to persevere faithfully until I see Jesus face-to-face?
My Early Soteriological Journey
Early in my Christian experience I was discipled in what would be considered a Reformed church. My first Bible study was through Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul’s book Chosen by God. Looking back that probably wasn’t the most helpful book I could’ve studied as a new Christian given the meaty nature of it’s theme. But that study, and subsequent reading on the subject, resulted in my becoming a militant Five Point Calvinist. A Five Point Calvinist is one who adheres to all Five Points of the acrostic TULIP, which describe what most today consider the finer points of Reformed Soteriology.
In short the Five Points teach as follows:
Total Depravity: Because of the curse on mankind which we experienced due to our rebellion against God in Adam, all humans are depraved (completely sinful). The effect of sin in our lives is not merely extensive but also intensive, and destroyed human free-will. Mankind is in a state of total inability and cannot exercise faith in the gospel, nor does he desire to do so. But, for the elect, God graciously softens their hearts and removes the barrier of total inability that they might see their need for Jesus, and trust in the gospel.
Unconditional Election: God chooses whom He will save and whom He won’t simply in accordance with His own pleasure and plans, without consideration of what man would or wouldn’t, could or couldn’t choose when presented with the gospel message.
Limited Atonement: Jesus did not die for every individual sinner in a saving way. Only those whom God unconditionally elected to salvation in eternity past had all their sins atoned for on the cross.
Irresistible Grace: All those whom God unconditionally elected and provided atonement for in the cross will be saved through the irresistible call of the Holy Spirit. God is able to overcome even the hardest heart, and bring the spiritually dead sinner to faith.
A sub-doctrine of Irresistible Grace is the Reformed doctrine of Monergistic Regeneration. R.C. Sproul summarizes it this way: “We do not believe in order to be born-again. We are born-again in order that we may believe.” (Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. Page 73)
This means that God makes people born-again before they exercise or express faith in the gospel. When someone responds to the gospel in faith it is because God has already done a secret work in their heart bringing them to spiritual life, and saved them.
Perseverance of the Saints: The Holy Spirit causes all the elect to persevere in faith in Christ till death, or the Second Coming. Of all who are found, none will be lost. It is argued that if we didn’t choose to be saved, then we cannot choose to be unsaved.
Soteriology in the Middle
Whereas in the past I would’ve been able to affirm whole-hearted agreement with the Calvinist position, today I’m in a different place. And while not a Calvinist, I’m also not what is often seen as the only alternative, an Arminian. Instead, I’m somewhere in the middle. In this post, and the next to follow, I’ll explain what I now see as a more biblical approach to Soteriology- Soteriology in the Middle. I’ll look forward to the discussions that ensue! But this is an area we need to remember to speak what we believe to be true in a spirit of unity and love, because all God’s people agree on the essentials.
The Middle on Regeneration
For the rest of this post I want to think with you about regeneration- the new birth. The Bible is clear that everyone who is truly a child of God (Romans 8:14-17), accepted and forgiven for their sins in light of the atonement of the cross of Christ being applied to them through faith, is born-again. The Holy Spirit has come to indwell them (1 Corinthians 6:19) and sealed them for the day of redemption (Ephesians 1:13). He has made them a new person spiritually (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But how does the new birth come about? That’s really the question that’s before us. Though fallen, do people have enough good left in them to simply make a decision to believe the gospel apart from any divine enablement, as Pelagians teach? Is a person born-again because, by exercise of their own free-will, they put their faith in Jesus’ work performed on their behalf on the cross, as Arminians would contend? Does God sovereignly make people born-again before they exercise or express faith in Jesus as Calvinists say? Or is there another way in the midst of these approaches to answer this question that gives the best account for the most biblical passages?
Arminianism and Calvinism on Depravity
Pelagianism is generally rejected by orthodox Christians. So we won’t specifically deal with that system of thought in this post, other than to say up front that what is often flippantly termed “Arminianism” today is truly Pelagianism when you consider primary manuscripts written by the architects and proponents of these systems. But let’s shift our focus to the Arminian and Calvinistic answers to our question. The Arminian position (or Remonstrance) was originally articulated by Jacobus Arminius (16th-17th Century). Arminius taught in regard to human depravity that "In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace."
In putting forth the Calvinistic view of the depravity of man (a view not drastically different from Arminius’ view described above) allow me to quote from a classic Calvinist confession on the subject- the London Baptist Confession of 1689: “As the consequence of his fall into a state of sin, man has lost all ability to will the performance of any of those works, spiritually good, that accompany salvation. As a natural (unspiritual) man he is dead in sin and altogether opposed to that which is good. Hence he is not able, by any strength of his own, to turn himself to God, or even to prepare himself to turn to God.” (A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689)
What both of the above views agree on is what we theologically call Total Inability. The idea is that due to the fall human beings cannot, will not, and do not desire to trust in Jesus for their salvation apart from God liberating them from their bondage to sin, and enabling them to do so.
Scriptural Affirmations of Total Inability
Both classic Arminianism and Calvinism affirm Total Inability because Scripture itself does so. Consider the following verses: John 6:44- “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Romans 8:7-9: “Because the carnal mind [is] enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.”
1 Corinthians 2:14: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know [them], because they are spiritually discerned.”
God Must do Something
Most orthodox believers agree in light of verses like these that there’s a spiritual blinding (2 Corinthians 4:4-6) and/or deadness (Ephesians 2:1-3) that must be illuminated (John 12:32; 16:7-11; Acts 16:14) or reversed through God’s provision which must take place to enable a sinner to trust in Christ. Again, the question is, what is that work that God does to bring about the ability of a person to believe the gospel? Arminians believe God has universally granted the ability to all individuals to choose Christ by restoring their originally God-given free-will through Prevenient Grace. The doctrine of Prevenient Grace is defined well by the Church of the Nazarene: “…through the fall of Adam they (Humans) became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.” (Nazarene Manual. 2005-2009)
Calvinists teach that the work God does to produce the possibility of faith in the elect is the work of new birth (regeneration). They contend that regeneration precedes faith. This is a logical inference they deem to be a logical necessity based on their view of Total Depravity. As noted above, R.C. Sproul states the Calvinist view this way: “We do not believe in order to be born-again. We are born-again in order to believe.” (Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. Page 73.)
Let us be clear that if a person is born-again before they exercise or express faith in Jesus that they are saved before they exercise or express faith in Jesus. In saying they are “saved” I do not mean they experience every dynamic of biblical salvation at the moment of regeneration. For example, I understand that glorification is part of the wider biblical theology of salvation and that no Calvinist would claim a person is glorified at the moment of regeneration. None-the-less, God Himself regards the work of regeneration as a work of salvation. Consider the following statement of God in Holy Scripture: “…He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5b Emphasis Added)
Some Calvinists understanding of the weight of stating that a person is “saved” before they exercise or express faith in Jesus because of God’s secret work of regeneration in their hearts causes them to prefer that their position not be characterized this way. But even committed Calvinist C.H. Surgeon acknowledged that when people are regenerated, they are saved. In his sermon Warrant of Faith he conceded, “…man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate.” (Spurgeon, C.H. Warrant of Faith) If advocates of the idea that regeneration precedes faith don’t like to be characterized as believing a person is saved before they exercise or express faith, it is their position that must be abandoned and not the characterization of their position by those who articulate it scripturally.
What Does God Do?
I am in the moderate middle on the exact work that God does to enable sinners to put their faith in Jesus for salvation. I am not Pelagian because I believe in Total Inability. I am not Classically Arminian because I do not believe that mankind is automatically and universally in a state of Prevenient Grace due to the merits of Christ on the cross. I am not a Five Point Calvinist because I don’t believe regeneration precedes faith. I am somewhere in the midst of these views.
Stated positively, I believe that all people are totally depraved and therefore in a state of Total Inability. I believe God sovereignly works in the hearts of people to illuminate them to their need to trust in Christ because of their sin. I believe that upon experiencing illumination, those who are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2 NKJV) are effectively brought to faith in the gospel and repentance through the convicting and enabling work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11). When the sinner enabled by God heeds the command of the gospel they are regenerated through faith as scripture declares, and born-again. (Acts 16:14)
Soteriological Moderates are able to affirm verses on Total Inability, while not twisting sequential verses which describe the order of events in salvation and demonstrate that faith is the vehicle that brings regeneration into a sinner’s life. A handful of verses that clearly demonstrate that faith precedes regeneration would include:
Ephesians 1:13-14: “In Him you also [trusted], after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” According to Paul the order of salvation goes like this: A person hears the gospel. Next, they believe the gospel. Lastly, having believed the gospel they heard they are sealed with the Holy Spirit. They hear, they believe, they receive the sealing of the Spirit. A Calvinist ordering of this might say they hear, they receive the Spirit, they believe. That is not what the verse states.
Galatians 3:2; 14c: “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?... we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Again, reception of the Spirit is through faith. Faith is not the result of involuntarily being born-again through a secret work of God in the heart.
John 20:30-31: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” The Apostle John, a teacher of Total Inability in John 6:44, found room in his understanding of Total Inability to believe that faith still precedes new life (regeneration). He compiled the massive account of Jesus’ life and miracles found in the Gospel of John so that his readers might believe that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of God,” and that “believing” they may have life in His name. Note that new life through Jesus comes to a person after or through believing according to John. Again, a Calvinist rendering of this would say something like, “I write of these works of Jesus that God might give you spiritual life so that you can believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Again, this is not what scripture says.
What I’ve chosen to call illumination must remove the hindrance of Total Inability so a person can believe the gospel and be born-again. Some kind of illumination must precede faith so that we can believe. But these sequential verses demonstrate clearly, and I believe irrefutably, that faith precedes regeneration. Such a picture is portrayed again in Acts 16:14: “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard [us]. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” At the moment of this woman’s conversion “the Lord opened her heart” to enable her to believe the gospel Paul was preaching. Implicitly, she then believed and became born-again.
A defining moment in my position on the order of salvation came when I began to think about how Old Testament saints were saved, or counted righteous before God. Most evangelicals believe that the gift of regeneration is a special work of God experienced by His people during the New Testament age alone. If the Calvinist is right and regeneration must occur before a person can exercise saving faith in the gospel, how is it that Abraham “believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness”?
To be clear, Scripture tells us that the thing Abraham “believed” so as to be accounted righteous before God is nothing less than the Gospel! This is clear from Galatians 3:8-9: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, [saying], "In you all the nations shall be blessed. So then those who [are] of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”
Indeed it is not only Abraham who was able to respond to God’s promises in faith apart from being regenerated, but Hebrews chapter eleven lists a mountain of Old Testament (and therefore unregenerate) saints who, somehow, were able to believe in the promises of God, looking forward to the cross in a saving way.
So here’s the issue: I believe that Abraham was in a state of Total Inability. I believe that I (in the New Testament age) am in a state of Total Inability. God did something in Abraham that effectively enabled him to have saving “faith” in the promises of God that was not regeneration! And yet, though I am no more dead in my sin than Abraham, the Calvinist would tell me that I must be regenerated or I cannot exercise or express faith in the gospel. Am I to conclude that Abraham was less bound by Total Inability than I am? Or am I to conclude that I am more spiritually dead than Abraham? This is inconsistent and devastating to the idea that regeneration precedes faith.
The Calvinist Conundrum
When I’ve asked the question of how Old Testament saints were able to exercise faith apart from regeneration to advocates of the doctrine that regeneration precedes faith, I have yet to see them answer how this can be. They end up affirming the moderate position by saying things like, “Well clearly God had to do something even though it wasn’t regeneration.” To which I say, ABSOLUTELY! And I would contend that it is the same thing He does to enable people to come to saving faith today. He works in us to enable the response of faith to the gospel. Upon our response of faith to the gospel we are born-again. Call that work of enablement what you will. I’ve chosen to call it illumination. What’s clear is that while a sovereign work of divine enablement must precede faith, faith most certainly precedes regeneration.
Please share your perspective honestly and graciously in the comments. And I hope you’ll pick up our discussion again in my next post, which will be on the hotly debated topic of Limited Atonement. Until next time…