Rev. Laning is pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
With this article we begin the fourth section of Reformed dogmatics, known as soteriology. Soteriology is the study of how God saves each individual whom He has chosen. Whereas the next section, known as ecclesiology, deals with how God saves the church as a whole, this section deals specifically with the individual child of God and considers how God delivers him from death and raises him to a heavenly life in Christ. Although Christ saved us almost two thousand years ago when He died for us, the blessings of salvation have to get to us, for us to be able to benefit from them. It is the section on soteriology that explains how Christ causes this to happen.
We could sum it up by saying that soteriology deals with how God realizes His covenant within us. The covenant is the bond of friendship between God and His people in Christ. When Christ died for us He established this covenant, by paying for our sins and earning for us the right to enter into this covenant. But we do not actually enter this covenant friendship until Christ sends into our heart His Spirit, who quickens us and causes us to enter into fellowship with Him. How the Spirit of Christ takes a dead sinner, quickens him, and efficaciously brings him into the covenant friendship of God is the subject of soteriology.
It is of utmost importance that, when speaking of these glorious truths, we set them forth distinctively. To set forth a doctrine distinctively is to set it forth in such a way that only those who truly believe this doctrine will confess it. For example, many who claim to be Reformed refuse to believe the biblical doctrine of creation, and instead hold to the lie of evolution. Some of these will admit that God created all things out of nothing. They will say that God started the evolutionary process by creating all things out of nothing. Therefore, we must confess the doctrine of creation in such a way that we distinguish ourselves from these people. We can do this by saying that God created all things out of nothing in six literal days. This is a simple example of what it means to set forth a biblical doctrine distinctively, and thus to distinguish us from those who are not truly Reformed. This is the way we must set forth all the doctrines of the Reformed faith, and this is the way we intend to set forth the glorious truths of soteriology.
The Widespread Denial of Salvation by Grace Alone
The churches that have departed from the truth all teach, in one way or another, that a man’s salvation is based upon something that he must do. Some say it is based upon good works that he must perform; others say it is based upon a decision that he must make. In either case, they teach that salvation is not by God’s grace alone. Even if they teach that God helps each person to do what he must do, they are still saying that whether or not a person is saved depends upon some activity that he must perform.
The Romish church obviously teaches this. For centuries they have taught that a man earns at least part of his salvation by his good works. But this lie is also being taught by all those who maintain that God offers to save and desires to save each and every individual who hears the preaching of the gospel, and promises to save them, on the condition that they accept His offer. Many refuse to admit that this is a denial of the truth that God saves His people by His grace alone. But that it is so can be easily demonstrated. If God wants to save each person, then why are some people not saved? The only reason that could be given for this is that these people refuse to do their part and cooperate with God in this work of salvation. In other words, there is a work that man must perform, on the basis of which God will reward him by saving him.
Although there are many people who teach this while claiming to be Reformed, the fact is that they are denying all five points of Calvinism. This can be illustrated as follows:
Total Depravity: They teach that the natural man still has enough good in him to cooperate with God and embrace the offered salvation.
Unconditional Election: They teach that man’s salvation is conditional, and therefore that God’s election is conditional.
Limited Atonement: If this grace, which they call “common grace,” is given to each individual, then this grace must have been earned for each individual by Christ on the cross.
Irresistible Grace: They teach that this grace of God not only can be resisted, but is resisted.
Perseverance of the Saint: They teach that many who receive this grace nevertheless perish everlastingly.
Because there are many who claim to be Reformed who nevertheless deny the truth of the Reformed faith, it is especially important today that we express the truth of these doctrines distinctively, so that God’s people may clearly understand them.
Reformed Soteriology Set Forth Distinctively
To say, “Man by nature is dead in sin,” is to state the truth, but it is not enough to distinguish us from those who deny this truth. Since the Scriptures explicitly say this (Eph. 2:1), those who deny total depravity will grant that this is true. Nor is it sufficient to say that everything that man does by nature is sinful. Many Arminians will say the same. Rather, we must say that man by nature is dead in sin, so that he is unable to do anything that is the least bit good, and everything that he does do is sin. This latter statement sets forth the truth of total depravity distinctively.
That this latter statement is true is evident fromRomans 14:23, where we read that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Since an unbeliever does not have faith, it follows that there is nothing good in anything he does.
Many explain this truth by saying merely that God chose certain people before the foundation of the world. But this statement does not sharply distinguish us from those who deny the biblical doctrine of predestination. Most Arminians will grant that the above statement is true. Therefore, to set forth this truth distinctively, we must say something like this: In eternity, God unconditionally chose certain persons and reprobated others, and His decision was not based upon anything that these persons would do in time.
Most Arminians say that although God did choose only certain people, and did this before the foundation of the world, He chose those whom He knew would believe on Him. But this would mean that God made His decision on the basis of what man would do in time. Such a doctrine teaches that God’s will is dependent upon man’s will. Therefore, to distinguish ourselves from this error, we must clearly state that God’s decision was not based upon anything that God saw that man would do in time.
To set forth this point distinctively, one merely needs to include the word “alone.” One who says that Christ died for His people is making a statement with which many will agree. But one makes a distinctively Reformed statement when he says that Christ died for His people alone, and that He did not die for those whom God had reprobated.
To be distinctive it is not enough to say that Christ draws and saves all of His people, or thatno one can come to God unless Christ draws him. Rather, we must maintain that God draws only His people, and that He draws them irresistibly. Many maintain that God is drawing everyone who hears the preaching, but that most people resist this drawing operation of God. But Christ teaches differently when He says, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” Christ says that everyone He draws He will also raise up and save on the last day. He does not draw the reprobate. He draws only His people, and He does so irresistibly, yet in such a way that He causes them willingly to come to Him.
Perseverance of the Saints:
It is not possible for one whom God has regenerated to fall away from the truth and perish everlastingly. Many who deny the truth of salvation by grace alone will admit this. But if we say more, and confess that everyone to whom God gives grace will be preserved by this grace, so that he will live forever with God, we make a statement that those who hold to the error of common grace will not make. They will say that what we say is true of saving grace, but not of common grace. This, however, is a distinction that they have invented. The fact remains that they teach that God gives His grace to all who hear the preaching with the desire that they be saved, and that this grace fails to accomplish its purpose, for many who receive this grace nevertheless perish everlasting. But the comforting truth of the gospel is that all those to whom God shows His love and grace will forever be preserved by Him.
We have briefly gone through the five points of Calvinism to show what we mean by setting forth the truth of Reformed soteriology distinctively. It is the calling of God’s people to do this. This is the confession that glorifies God and is a blessing to God’s people. Those who do not love the truth flee from this proclamation, but those who do love it are irresistibly drawn by it.
These are the kind of statements we must make in our preaching, in our articles, in our pamphlets, and in our personal witnessing to others. Therefore, in these articles we will be making an effort to point out how the various truths we are discussing are to be set forth, so that they are distinctively Reformed confessions of the truth of Scripture.