This is inspired, in part, by a sermon preached last Sunday at my church, but I’m hoping to expand it a bit and touch on a few different topics that I’ve been wanting to write on for awhile.
How you go about answering this question starts with your view of salvation. If you are an Arminian (see, semi-pelagian) then your answer to this must be unequivocally, yes. That is, if you are to be consistent to your own theological system. The reason for this, is because within the Arminian theological framework, the work of salvation is a cooperation between God and man. The ratio of this can differ depending on the person (at least in my experience) but the idea is still the same. Most will say that of course they cannot save themselves, that it is absolutely necessary that God be involved. The underlying premise, however, is that not only can they not save themselves without God, but that God cannot save anyone without them, either.
Within that system, there are a few different ways in which people get saved. Usually, this involves the so called “sinner’s prayer” which can take the form of repeating a prayer after a pastor or trusted friend, older in the faith. However, I have also seen this taking the form of simply a pastor praying and the person not praying anything. Basically, the idea here is that the pastor gives a sermon, and then follows that up with an “alter call” in which he will say something like “If you believe what I was just talking about, and you are reading to accept Jesus into your heart, just raise your hand. All heads bowed, all eyes closed, nobody looking around. This isn’t between you and your neighbor, this is between you and God. I see your hands, thank you. Now just repeat after me (or, pray along with me in your head as I pray aloud).” Sometimes this is accompanied with a walk down the isle as an act of faith and a public sort of profession, and so if you prayed the prayer or walked down the isle or raised your hand etc. then the pastor will likely say that he believes you are saved.
A lot of criticism against Christianity is linked to this sort of salvation because it is often dressed with various forms of emotionalism. What I mean by emotionalism is that certain things are used that are designed to bring out emotions within an audience. In logic, this is known as the fallacy of the appeal to emotion. This can take many forms: a charismatic (think trait, not theological position) preacher/evangelist, or perhaps some powerful music or a powerful video or a drama or a dance etc. Basically, anything which is added to the message being proclaimed in order to get and hold your attention, and make a connection with what is happening. For example, you watch a drama in which some of the characters are acting out various things like being addicted to alcohol or drugs or are experiencing depression and try and take their own life. Then, you see a figure depicted as Satan, and he is right there with them as they do these self-destructive actions. If you have done any of these things throughout your life, you are instantly drawn to it, because you have an emotional and experiential connection. Then there is a character that represents Christ, and he comes in and beats Satan and rescues the person from the addictive and self-destructive behavior. Great! That is a wonderful thing to watch, especially to people who have experienced some of the things depicted. So there you are, emotions on high and possibly some adrenaline going too and then someone gets up and says “Can you relate to this, friend? Have you experienced any of the things that was going on? Do you now that Christ can bring freedom from those things? Would you like to be free tonight?” and then proceeds to give an alter call and lead people in the “sinner’s prayer”.
Notice the truth being said; Christ can free people from addiction. So what’s the problem? It is largely based on emotion and doesn’t show the whole story (at least, none of the dramas that I’ve seen do). What happens when, a day/week/month down the line the person suddenly gets tempted into their old habit of sin, and falls into it? “But, that’s not what happened in the drama! The preacher said Jesus would free me!” The intense emotion they felt is gone, and they aren’t around Christians and friends who can encourage them, and they come to the conclusion that either they did something wrong when they were praying, or that everything that was said is not true.
At this point someone might say “Yeah, ok, but what if all that emotional stuff isn’t there?” Would the alter call and the sinner’s prayer be ok if all the emotionalism is removed? Unfortunately not, because it is still based on a false view of salvation. Interestingly, you still run into the same problem, even if you remove all the emotionalism. Someone hears a sermon and then prays the “sinner’s prayer” and then is told that they are saved and then goes out and something happens and they sin again or fall into habitual sin etc. They have the same questions running through their mind and when they go back to the church they are met with some very loaded statements. Things like “Everybody sins. You are just backsliding a bit. You need to re-dedicate your life to Christ.” The underlying assumption is this: you weren’t sincere enough, or you did it wrong, try again. The questions that the person had about their experience turns out to be right in the responses they are receiving! How awful! Alternatively, this could lead a person to not return to church at all, but just assume they are saved (since an authority figure said so) and go on living their lives however they want, since God forgives sin. How dangerous it is, to presume upon the grace of God!
There is an eerie similarity between this sort of system and the same system that Martin Luther was a part of prior to the reformation, that is, of Roman Catholicism. Luther was often troubled by the fact that he wouldn’t remember every sin that he had committed so that he could accurately atone for his sin in confession. Afterwards, he would be troubled by nagging doubt and questions on whether or not he was sincere in his confession or not, or whether his motivations were pure. After all, what could be worse than false repentance?
I think the Arminian comes to this conclusion based on a number of different reasons, whether that be because we all have an innate desire to control or because we all want self-worth or even from, say, Romans 10:9 “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” or a couple other passages. However, it is interesting to note that, even if you attempt to build your soteriology (doctrine of salvation) on the verse above, then how did the “sinner’s prayer” come into existence? If you are using this as your justification, why would you not just say “I confess that Jesus is Lord and I believe that God raised Him from the dead.”? How did that suddenly turn into “Dear Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I am sorry. I ask you to forgive me and come into my heart.” Those two statements, to me, seem to be worlds apart.
Also, this is simply an improper usage of the passage in Romans because it entirely divorces it from not only the chapter, but the entire book of Romans, the Pauline corpus, and indeed the Bible as a whole. In order to take that verse in the Arminian sense, you have to believe that there is some part of you that can, in fact, say “yes” to Christ or to profess faith and believe on your own. There needs to be some part of you, whether that be the will or the intellect or the emotions or whatever, that was untouched by the fall, so that you have the power to do this. For this, you need to go to Scripture and find where it talks about what people can do and what they cannot do. I discuss this in more depth here, but to list one text (among many) a very clear example is found in Romans 8:7-8 “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Now everybody can agree that before you become a Christian, you are considered “in the flesh” to use the Biblical terminology. The above passage says that the minds that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, and further that it does not submit to God’s law, and further still, that it cannot do so. What does this mean? Basically, it means that someone who is in the flesh, cannot profess faith in Christ, repent, and believe unto salvation. Humma wha? Someone has to become a Christian before they can become a Christian? Not exactly, what it means is that there has to be a supernatural act of God working in their heart, before they profess faith in Christ. Wayne Grudem has a handy list on page 670 of his excellent “Systematic Theology” (see the resources section) which will help to illustrate this.
“The Order of Salvation”
1. Election (God’s choice of people to be saved)
2. The gospel call (proclaiming the message of the gospel)
3. Regeneration (being born again)
4. Conversion (faith and repentance)
5. Justification (right legal standing)
6. Adoption (membership in God’s family)
7. Sanctification (right conduct of life)
8. Perseverance (remaining a Christian)
9. Death (going to be with the Lord)
10. Glorification (receiving a resurrection body)
“We should note here that items 2 – 6 and part of 7 are all involved in “becoming a Christian”. Numbers 7 and 8 are work themselves out in this life, number 9 occurs at the end of this life, and number 10 occurs when Christ returns.”
At this point it would make sense to talk about the Calvinistic concept of election and salvation, but, due to the fact that this is already a long post and I haven’t touched on the title topic yet, I would strongly encourage you to go here and read in quite exhaustive detail, that particular topic.
Of importance to this post is step 8 in Grudem’s list, that being Perseverance. In theological terms, this doctrine is called the Perseverance (or preservation) of the Saints, and comprises the letter “P” in the TULIP acronym for the 5 Points of Calvinism.
Within the Reformed theological tradition, we believe that salvation is the work of God throughout our entire life. What this does not mean, is that therefore we can do nothing or whatever we want. What it does mean, is that our salvation is not dependent upon anything that we do/are. Basically, if God is the One who saves us, then God is the One who keeps us. All of this revolves around the person and work of Christ. The questions that need be answered are: Who was Jesus? What was He sent to do? What did He do? Was He successful?
The first question should be a pretty straightforward one, especially while talking with fellow Christians. After all, I’ve never met an Arminian who would deny that Jesus is God, the eternal 2nd member of the Trinity. However, it is worth discussing because while they will hold to Christ’s divinity, their concept of salvation practically denies it. If you were to go up to a random churchgoer and ask “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” I would wager that upwards of 90% of the time, the answer will be “To save sinners”. This answer is partly true, in the sense that while the statement is true, it is also incomplete. Some could hear that response and think, “oh, well that’s good because the Bible says that everyone is a sinner, so therefore Jesus came to save everyone!” which leads to the heretical view of universalism. Interestingly, whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, you would say that universalism is false, because there are people who go to hell. So, if that was an incomplete answer, what is the complete answer?
An Arminian will say, look, John 3:16 is evidence for the fact that Christ came to make a way for salvation, but we have to chose it. After all, it does say “whomsoever”. In actuality, the word we translate “whomsoever” is a translation of a Greek phrase which means “all those believing” and not something like “anyone potentially believing”. For a more full discussion of this particular verse, I would direct you to a 45 minute YouTube video from James White here.
If that’s not the case, then what was Jesus sent for? We find the answer in John 6:38 – 40 where Jesus Himself gives us the answer, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that ever one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” and again, in 1 John 17: 6 – 10 where Jesus is praying, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they received them and have come to know the truth that I cam from you; and they believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” We see the common theme here, and it is the answer to the question. What was Jesus sent to do? To save all those whom the Father has given Him. This group of people whom the Father gave to the Son are called the Elect. This is not a term that John Calvin came up with, or Martin Luther, or Augustine, but it is a term the Bible uses.
There is the objection that when the Bible talks about the Elect, it doesn’t talk about specific individuals, but rather, of the Church. However, this is something the text does not show, and a sermon audio/transcript from John Piper addressing that exact topic, can be found here.
Every Christian I know will tell you that Christ was crucified, and that he died, was buried, and on the 3rd day rose again. Hallelujah! The next few questions are quite critical to this discussion in that we have to decide if Christ succeeded in the task that He was sent to do. If Christ died to save the Elect, we then need to ask if He succeeded, and if that work of salvation included the preservation of the Elect throughout time. This is where the discussion of who Jesus is comes into play, because if Jesus is God, then He is perfect. If He is perfect, then He had to have succeeded in the mission for which He came. Christ confirms this in John 10:27-29 when He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Again, if Jesus is God, and He is perfect, then He is incapable of lying. If He can’t lie, then what He says must be true!
Some might say that personal experience goes against this because they have known people who grew up with them in the church and professed the faith and attended Bible studies etc. but later in life turned away from Christianity entirely. This only works if you have a false view of salvation, and are willing to ignore the Biblical teaching on the topic. John specifically mentions this situation in 1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” This is a hard truth that John makes plain. He doesn’t refer to these people as backslidden, or simply in need of re-dedicating their life to Christ. He says that they “are all not of us.” which means that he says they are not Christians, and never had been. It’s easy to miss this because we see all these great, godly things, and think great! But salvation does not come from works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. Paul makes clear that salvation is not based on works, so that even if people are doing good works, this does not mean that they are Christian.
This is an incredibly freeing and relieving and assuring doctrine! Growing up in an Arminian church there were times where I would lay awake in bed at night wondering if I was actually saved, or whether or not I had done something that got me “unsaved”. How wonderful it is to think that I never really have to worry about that! This is not something that should make me, or anyone else, arrogant because it has nothing to do with me! I did not save myself, God did! Jesus promises that He will save the Elect, and do so perfectly, and that He will keep us.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1 – 2 (emphasis mine)
Finally, what is it that Jesus is doing at the right hand of the throne of God? He is praying. He is interceding for us before the Father. John 17 is a wonderful chapter which lays out what is called Jesus’s “High Priestly Prayer” in which He clearly describes who He is praying for, and what He is praying for. It also clearly discusses the unity of the Father and the Son, and then through the Son, the believers also. The prayers of the Son are always heard by the Father, and they are perfect and effectual.
Soli Deo Gloria