Rev. Martyn McGeown, pastor of Providence PRC in Hudsonville, MI

An introduction to soteriology

As I begin writing for a new rubric, I intend to treat Soteriology or the doctrine of salvation. Soteriology is the fourth of the six loci of dogmatics, where loci is the plural of locus, which means “place.” The Essentials of Reformed Doctrine students, usually tenth and eleventh graders, learn the six loci of dogmatics as Theology, Anthropology, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology, or the study of God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.

Salvation is that great work of God in which He, through Christ and by the Holy Spirit, delivers His elect people from the greatest misery of sin and death and brings them into the enjoyment of the greatest blessedness, namely fellowship with Himself in the everlasting covenant of grace. Salvation is a wonder of grace.

God’s work of salvation is treated in different loci. In Theology we learn about the God who is Savior and we study God’s decree to save His people, the decree of eternal, unchangeable, unconditional election. In Anthropology we learn about man who is in need of salvation because he is a fallen, guilty, and corrupt creature, and who is the object of God’s salvation. In Christology we learn about Christ the Mediator who by His lifelong obedience, sufferings, and death has purchased salvation for His people. In Ecclesiology we learn about the church to which God is pleased by His Word and Spirit to unite those whom He saves and where they are nourished in that salvation through the means of grace. And in Eschatology we learn about the perfection of that salvation, first in the soul in the intermediate state of glory, and then in the body and soul in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness shall dwell. The whole Bible, and every doctrine, is connected to our salvation.

Soteriology, though, is where salvation is treated at length. In Soteriology the decree to save is not treated. That belongs to Theology, as God’s work in eternity. In Soteriology the purchase of salvation is not treated. That belongs to Christology, as the work of the Mediator in time. In Soteriology the application of salvation, which is the saving work of the Holy Spirit, is treated.

Indeed, we understand salvation from three perspectives. First, God decreed salvation before the foundation of the world. Canons 1, 7 says about the elect, “God hath decreed to give [them] to Christ, to be saved by Him.” “Election,” says Canons 1, 9, “is thefountain of every saving good, from which proceed… gifts of salvation.” Second, Christ purchased and accomplished salvation at the cross. Third, the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of salvation decreed by God and purchased by Christ to the individual elect sinner. In a sense, then, we were saved in eternity (God decreed our salvation); we were saved at the cross (Christ purchased our salvation); we are being saved in time (the Spirit applies salvation to us); and we will be saved on the Last Day.

The main topic, then, in Soteriology is how the Spirit applies salvation to us. God decreed it. Jesus Christ purchased it. How does it become ours?

The answer of Arminianism is that God wills that everyone should have salvation, that Jesus Christ has made salvation possible for everyone by dying on the cross for everyone, and that it now depends on the sinner’s response whether he will have salvation or not. Or the Arminian will say that the Holy Spirit is working to apply salvation to everyone, but that the sinner must by the power of his freewill cooperate with, or at least not resist, the grace of God.

The answer of Reformed Soteriology, which is also the answer of the Bible and the Reformed confessions, is that the application of the benefits of salvation to the elect, for whom God has decreed salvation, and for whom Jesus Christ has purchased salvation, is entirely the work of God. Thus, there is perfect harmony in the work of God. God chose or elected a certain, definite number of people; the Spirit applies salvation to them, and only to them. Jesus Christ, the Mediator, purchased salvation for a certain, definite number of people (those only whom God elected); the Spirit applies salvation to them, and only to them.

The ordo salutis

Moreover, the Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ, applies the benefits of salvation in a certain order, which theologians call the ordo salutis, a Latin phrase meaning “the order of salvation.” That order includes eight steps: regeneration, calling, conversion, saving faith, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. It is my intention to explain and apply these eight steps, not merely so that we know what they are but so that we marvel at them, rejoice in them, and ascribe all glory to God for them, with the result that we live in holiness out of thankfulness for them. Then we will echo the song of heaven: “Salvation to our God, which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb…. Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 7:10, 12). “Alleluia: Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God” (Rev. 19:1).

The locus classicus, the classic place or classic passage, on the ordo salutis is Romans 8:29-30. Although the apostle lists only three of the steps in verse 30— calling, justification, and glorification—he does establish an order. Calling comes before justification; justification comes before glorification; and glorification follows both calling and justification. The other steps of salvation are implied: calling implies regeneration, conversion, and faith; justification implies faith; glorification implies both sanctification and preservation.

The apostle teaches that the steps of the ordo salutis are the works of God: “whom he [God] did predestinate, them he [God] also called: and whom he [God] called, them he [God] also justified: and whom he [God] justified, them he [God] also glorified” (v. 30). We did not predestinate ourselves—God did that. We did not call ourselves—God did that. We did not justify ourselves— God did that. We did not glorify ourselves— God did that (or God will do that, since glorification is a future blessing, one as certain as God’s decree to glorify us). We also did not regenerate ourselves, convert ourselves, work faith in ourselves, sanctify ourselves, or preserve ourselves. All glory to our gracious God!

The Canons call the ordo salutis “this golden chain of our salvation” (Canons I, Rejection of errors, 2). The chain is golden, for it reveals the glory of God. It is a chain because it is unbreakable. Notice the wording of Romans 8:30: “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” It is not this: “Of those whom He predestinated, He called only some; of those whom He called, He justified only some; and of those whom He justified, He glorified only some.” The chain is solid: If He foreknew you, He also predestinated you; if He predestinated you, He also called you; if He called you, He also justified you; and if He justified you, He also glorified you, and will glorify you. Thus, Paul triumphantly exclaims, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35).

Election: The fountain of every saving good

Behind the golden chain of salvation is God’s eternal decree. If salvation is a stream of God’s blessedness, election is the fountain from which that blessedness, which is salvation, flows to us. Election, as we noted earlier, is “the fountain of every saving good” (Canons 1, 9). Why do we possess salvation or any benefit of salvation? Because God decreed that we, in distinction from others, should have salvation and every benefit of salvation. God has, says Canons I, 6, a decree to save His people. “According to which decree” [God] takes certain steps in time, namely, “[He] softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe.” If He inclines them to believe (step #4 of the ordo salutis), He gives the other blessings of salvation also, all of which flow from the eternal decree of election.

Behind God’s electing choice according to Romans 8:29 is God’s foreknowledge: “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.” Many are confused by that term “foreknowledge” in the Bible. The Arminian teaching is that God foresaw that certain people would believe and persevere and based on that foreknowledge He chose them. The Canons oppose that idea: “Election was not founded upon foreseen faith…as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended” (Canons I, 9).

In the Bible, knowledge of persons is often the intimate knowledge of love. Foreknowledge of persons, therefore, is the intimate knowledge of prior love, of eternal love. We could paraphrase verse 29: “Whom he foreloved, he did predestinate.” God’s choice of His people is rooted in His eternal love of them. Election, then, is not a cold, hard, abstract decree, but it is a warm, loving choice. We must not fear, but delight in, God’s loving choice that we should be His people. “According as he hath chosen us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5). God’s choice—God’s predestination— of us to be His adopted children is in love.

We know that foreknowledge is not a reference to God’s prescience (His knowing or predicting beforehand what we will do) for two reasons. First, verse 29 does not say, “What he knew beforehand” or “Whose faith he foresaw,” but “Whom he did foreknow,” where the word “whom” is a reference to persons. God foreknew persons; He did not foresee actions. According to Canons I, 7 God has “chosen…a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ.” Arminianism, which the Canons oppose, teaches an election of conditions. “Election,” argued the Arminians, “does not consist in this, that God chose certain persons rather than others, but in this, that He chose out of all possible conditions… the act of faith.” Our fathers reject that error, calling it “injurious” (Canons I, Rejection of errors, 3). Second, God never simply knows an event beforehand. He foreordains that event. God’s foreknowledge is never merely information that He has in advance, but is causative. God ordains what He foreknows. God foreknows what He ordains. Therefore, if God knows that we will believe in Jesus, it is only because God has chosen to save us by giving us faith. We never believe independently of God’s decree to give us faith. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). “That some receive the gift of faith from God…proceeds from God’s eternal decree… according to which decree He…inclines [the elect] to believe” (Canons I, 6).

The goal: The glory of God in Jesus Christ

The goal of our salvation is not our everlasting happiness, although we will be everlastingly blessed, but it is the glory of God in the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Foreknowledge, which is God’s eternal love, is the reason for God’s eternal predestination of us: “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate” (v. 29). The goal of that predestination is not that we be something, but that Jesus Christ be something. The goal is that Jesus Christ be “the firstborn among many brethren” (v. 29). Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and God in His inscrutable wisdom, abundant mercy, and infinite love determined that Jesus Christ have many brethren. Of course, God does not need many children—or any children. Of course, Jesus Christ does not need many brethren—or any brethren. The triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is perfectly self-sufficient and infinitely glorious. God willed to have many brethren. God willed to make Jesus Christ the firstborn, the preeminent son, the Lord. The apostle calls him “the firstborn of every creature,” that is, exalted over every creature and “the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:15, 18).

If we are really Christ’s brethren, of whom He is firstborn, we must be like Him. That is the goal of our salvation: predestinated “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29). We lost the image of God in our fall in Adam into sin. That image is restored and perfected in us through God’s work of salvation. And it begins with the first step of the ordo salutis, regeneration, to which we turn our attention next time.