Soteriology: The Doctrine of Salvation – Part 1
by Jonathan Hamilton
The doctrine of salvation is closely tied to the doctrine of sin for obvious reasons. Recently, we completed a four-part series on that topic (called “Hamartiology”), which you can find here. I recommend reading that series prior to starting this one.
By way of reminder, these thoughts are taken nearly word-for-word from my seminary class back in November. I cannot take credit for any of this material. Dr. Kevin Bauder is the systematic theology professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Plymouth, MN, which I attend as a modular student. He also has an incredible mustache, even better now than when pictured.
Any mistakes or misrepresentations are entirely the result of my poor typing, slow processing, and/or paralyzing light bulb moments that prevented further motor functions. The text below represents material from the class, except for an occasional thought I might add for clarification. I italicize these so you know when I am interjecting. Let’s get started…
Recap of the definition of total depravity: We are not saying people are as bad as they possibly could be. We are saying that every aspect of human beings is depraved (mind, heart, will), and humans are totally incapable of offering anything acceptable to God.
Adam was not created merely innocent, he was created holy. It was creaturely holiness (not complete, like God’s), and it was not confirmed (he could lose it). He could choose to sin, just like we can. By the way, one day in Heaven our creaturely holiness will be restored and confirmed. God’s purpose is not merely to write us a ticket out of hell. God’s purpose is to restore us to righteousness and true holiness, to restore us to His moral image.
Salvation by Grace Alone
We really mean two things here, because salvation has two sides. On one side of the coin is provision of salvation, what God has to do in order to make salvation possible. The other side of the coin is the application of salvation (God securing the actual salvation of specific people). This distinction is very important. There seems to be an assumption on the part of some people that for salvation to be provided means that it must be applied already (eternal justification view). In other words, faith isn’t what saves us, it’s what reveals that we’ve always been saved because salvation has always been provided for us; a believer was never unsaved and under God’s condemnation. This is false. This might seem obvious, but it becomes very important later in our discussion on limited atonement.
Provision: Titus 2:11 (Gracious): salvation is provided for all men; there is no logical step that requires us to move from provision to application, you would have to make a biblical case for it, and I don’t think you can (this is why we can say salvation is provided for all men, and yet we are not universalists; provision is not the same thing as application)
Application: Eph. 2:1-3 (Gracious): salvation is provided for all but is only applied to some; there was a time when these now-saved people walked according to world, flesh, and Devil; application had to occur at some point (we would say at the moment of justification)
What is freedom, and how does it relate to God’s sovereignty?
DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY: Can God do what God wants to do (phrasing it this way prevents us from asking dumb questions that are immoral or absurd)? Of course God can: Rom. 9:15-21.
If this is true, how can God find fault with humans who don’t accept Him? Verse 19 is the natural human response. Notice it is not phrased as a true question, but a protest. God’s not fair. This is the classic human response. This is why people are Arminians.
Paul’s response is clear: Who are you, human, who talks back to God? God is absolutely free and sovereign. He is the Creator, you are the creature. Paul often uses a similar type of argument to set up an imaginary conversant who asks a question and then Paul shows how their logic breaks down. He doesn’t do that here. He doesn’t even bother addressing their logic. He overrules it and points to God’s right. A similar thing happens to Job when he goes on and on questioning God and finally he gets his wish: God shows up. But before Job can ask His questions, God says, “Let me ask you a few questions, Job.” Effectively God says, “Job, you’re raising a protest of how I manage My world. How many worlds have you made? How good a job would you do if I handed this one over to you?” And we all know Job’s response: “I abhor myself. I repent in dust and ashes. I lay my hand upon my mouth” (a.k.a. “I’m shutting up now!”).
The bottom line is: do you trust God? You don’t have a right to make the judgment to adopt the position that makes God seem most fair to you. You start with God and let Him define your notions of justice and love. God doesn’t play by our rules, God makes the rules. But if God makes a rule He always plays by it. He always plays by His own rules. Because God is free, God can choose to make promises. And then He is bound by His own moral nature to keep them. The question in relation to salvation is: What has God promised to do? In no case are we permitted to indict God over issues of fairness, justice, and love. This is basically how Arminians argue: “We couldn’t worship a God who acted like that!”
HUMAN FREEDOM: There is no such thing as a free will because wills don’t make decisions. How many decisions has your will made for you today? How many decisions have you made today? Wills don’t make decisions, people make decisions. It is the person (the agent) who is free. The will is the capacity of the agent to make a choice. Freedom, or lack thereof, is a property not of wills, but of agents. The question is not if wills are free, but if you are free. What I’m suggesting is that you may be perfectly free even if the choice you make is already 100% certain.
(This is a position known as compatibilism. An example of compatibilism might be, though God already knows whether or not a person is elect and will be saved, that person is still in some sense free. These two things are compatible. Think about Heaven. Will we be free in Heaven? Of course. How could we possibly be any more free than we will be in Heaven? But will we be able to sin in Heaven? Of course not. So there is some sense in which real freedom is compatible with already determined certainties.)
What determines the will? By definition, the will is not random. It does not go off on tangents of its own separately from you, it is integrated in your entire personal makeup. So what does determine the will? The decisions of the will always arrive from some combination of two things: what you know (or think you know) and what you love or hate.
Problem #1: Imperfect knowledge
What you know, or think you know, may not actually be true. What you think is knowledge may not be actual knowledge at all. We don’t make our decisions based on reality, but what we perceive as reality. Mistakes in knowledge may result in mistaken decisions.
Problem #2: Divisions between the intellect and the sensibilities (feelings)
What we know may not correspond with what we love. Example: the drunkard who knows it’s killing him but still drinks.
So do you make your decisions based on what you know or what you feel? In a conflict of the will and the feelings, you will always go with what you feel, regardless of what you know. Nevertheless, what you feel is shaped by what you know. Out of your knowledge and your love, you choose, or will.
What this means is that if someone can control your knowledge and your feelings, they can control your choices. Who can control these things? Steven Spielberg can. Hollywood can. Madison Avenue can. They know that if they can get your knowledge and your love, they can get your choices. Thankfully they aren’t perfectly efficient at doing this.
The point is this: the unsaved person cannot choose what both his mind and his heart reject (which ultimately is God; Romans 1).
Freedom: a person is free when he is able to do what he chooses to do, that is he is neither restrained (prevented from doing) or constrained (forced to do)
The unsaved person is not restrained from coming to God, nor is he constrained to sin (natural ability). On the other hand, he is not free to act independently of what he knows (or thinks he knows) and what he loves. This means that in an important sense he is not free (moral ability). These are compatibilistic definitions. They differ from libertarian definitions, and represent part of what the debate is over. In libertarianism, there is an element of pure contingency. The will generates its own choices. It goes off on its own tangents. It is not governed by knowledge or love (thinking or feeling). The will is perfectly balanced between knowing and feeling, and “you” are left to push the will one way or the other. The problem is when you factor out all the thinking and feeling, there’s not much “you” left! It’s pure contingency. They can’t explain it. They run into problems with sanity. How can they hold anyone accountable for anything? “Your honor, it wasn’t me that shot my wife, it was my will!” This is Arminian thinking on freedom (Charles Finney; Roger Olson).
When it comes to soteriology, the individual is commanded on the one hand to choose Christ. If he is in some sense not free, does that make him culpable when he says no? They hate what God says. They can’t understand what God says. Does God get the blame?
The Bible nowhere teaches that man is prevented from coming to God, other than in the sense that man is unable to choose that which he hates within himself. We’re going to circle back and discuss this issue of freedom from a text of Scripture later, so far we’ve been having a metaphysical discussion.
Hang in there. These are tough concepts to grasp at first exposure, but they are worth mulling over and wrestling with. If you do so, things will make more sense as we go along.