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Category: Systematics

Soteriology: The Doctrine of Salvation – Part 8

See Part 1 for an explanation of this series. See what we covered last time here.



There’s a technical meaning of “atonement” related to the OT sacrificial system, and the “covering” of sin until that sin could be taken away by the sacrifice of the Messiah. In that sense, it would be wrong to speak of the death of Christ as the atonement, because His death doesn’t just cover our sins.

Nevertheless, there is a more general sense. We are using it in the broader sense.

There has been significant historical debate on what the atonement of Christ actually accomplishes. None of these is necessarily true to the exclusion of the others, there may be elements of truth in each of them.

RECAPITULATION THEORY: shows up very early in church history (Irenaeus). Christ is the second Adam, He assumes the role of the first Adam. But He succeeds where the first Adam failed. Recently revived and called Christus Victor. (N.T. Wright; Brian McLaren; Rob Bell; Dallas Willard)

RANSOM THEORY: Origen and others. The death of Christ is a ransom payment. In the Fall, Adam sold himself to Satan, who gained ownership of the human race. Christ had to pay a ransom price to get the human race back from Satan.

SATISFACTION THEORY: Anselm expressed this in his work, Why the God Man? The death of Christ is a satisfaction, or propitiation, rendered to God’s justice (though this is not the way Anselm phrased it). This is very similar to Calvin’s later theory, though they didn’t do the same thing with it. (Anselm viewed God as a medieval monarch and sin as an insult to his honor. We tweak this to deal with God’s justice instead.)

MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY: Abelard held this position. Christ’s sacrificial death functions primarily as an exhibition of the love of God. Christ dies on the cross so we can see how overwhelmingly God loves us. As we perceive this, it awakens within us an answering love. The whole point of the atonement is to get us to love God, because loving God is what ultimately brings us to Him. (Picked up by Protestant liberals and became dominant theory of atonement within liberalism; denies total depravity)

EXAMPLE THEORY: Socinus (post-Reformation heretic in Europe; rationalist trying to re-cast Christianity in his contemporary terms). The teachings and death of Jesus provide us with a pattern or example. Following his pattern will bring us to redemption. Sometimes combined with the moral influence theory. Also becomes wildly popular with theological liberals. Best exemplified in modern times by Charles Sheldon (a theological liberal) in the little work, In His Steps, from whence we get the “WWJD” craze.

GOVERNMENTAL THEORY: Hugo Grotius, in the wake of The Remonstrans: The death of Christ is an exhibition of divine justice and displeasure with sin. In principle, God could just overlook sin. He doesn’t have to have a sacrifice in order to forgive sin. But if God had simply overlooked sin people wouldn’t understand what a bad thing sin was. So God did want some kind of example, and the death of Christ served that purpose. After Edwards (not because of Edwards), this view begins to creep into New England theology.

PENAL SUBSTITUTION THEORY: God as a moral lawgiver and judge cannot simply overlook the transgression of His justice. Guilt produces effects. A just person recoils form guilt. Guilt produces pollution, it alters the moral balance of the universe, and the only way it can be corrected (fixing what guilt breaks) is through retribution. God has an obligation to visit guilt with retribution. He can by no means clear the guilty. He cannot simply overlook guilt. Even as humans, we expect that a judge is going to deliver justice, and justice means retribution. Reformation is not justice. Reparation is not justice. Retribution is justice. Our guilt called for retribution. Christ became our substitute and absorbed the penalty that we deserved.

How do we evaluate these theories? There are two theological issues that help bring these theories into focus. We can ask two questions here.

1: Upon whom does the atonement terminate? In other words, who changes because of the atonement, or who is the focus of the atonement? Toward whom is it directed? Uncertain? The devil? Humanity? God? If it is God, this puts penal substitution in an entirely different class than all the others. It is the only one that can really speak of God being propitiated.

2: What does this theory assume about human nature and the nature of sin? Any view of the atonement that leaves out propitiation has to assume that sin is a mere imperfection that’s either excusable or reformable. In other words, they all assume that either the atonement doesn’t really have anything to do with our sins, or God is capable of overlooking our sins, because sin really doesn’t get dealt with (except in the governmental theory, where it is death with as an object lesson….but that’s still not really dealing with it). Only in penal substitution do you see human beings as genuinely lost and under condemnation because of their sin. Though each theory contains some kernel of truth, if you don’t have penal substitution, satisfaction, propitiation, then you really don’t have atonement. If you stop with any of them, or all of them together, you don’t have a complete, correct view of the atonement. It’s the same as asking “What is marriage?” and replying, “Marriage is a joint banking account.” That may be part of it, but it’s not near the complete picture.

Isaiah 53:4-6 is as clear a statement of penal substitution as could possibly be formulated. (Please look these passages up, and do so slowly and reverently. These are precious and sobering words. After reading them, it would be entirely appropriate to pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God for our great salvation.)

Mark 10:45 states substitution in two different ways. Christ gave the ransom standing in our place.

2 Cor. 5:15           Rom. 5:6-8          1 Cor. 15:3           Matt. 20:28         1 Pet. 2:21-24

At this point let’s drop the “theory” and simply state that penal substitution is the atonement.

Penal substitution does not mean that Christ had to suffer the exact penalty that we would have had to pay. Christ did not have to spend eternity in hell to pay for our sins (or our sins would have never been paid for!). He had to pay an equivalent penalty, and that depends on the sin-bearer.

Why does God get so upset about even my little sins? What’s the big deal? Can’t He let us off for the little stuff? The reason sin is so heinous is because it is judged not by the value of the sin, but by the value of the one whom it was committed against. Even our pagan society recognizes the differences between someone stomping on a mosquito versus a yippy dog versus a baby. The object (or person) sinned against is increasingly greater.

The least offense committed against God is of infinitely greater consequence than the worst thing you can do to another human being. This is why David, who committed adultery and murdered Uriah, could pray Psalm 51:4 to God. It’s not that he didn’t sin at all against anyone else, but David’s offense against God was so great that his offenses against these others paled in comparison.

This is why God is justly outraged by even what we perceive as the smallest violations of His moral law. Incidentally, even in human courts, when a human is convicted, do we leave it up to the criminal to decide how serious the offense is and what the penalty should be? Of course not! We want the person who judges the offense to be someone who has never done it. This person sees it in a very different light from the person who has. We’re the offenders! We’re the sinners! We don’t get to sit back and accuse God of being a celestial grump, or killjoy, because He gets upset about the “littlest” stuff.

The only way we, as finite persons, could pay an infinite penalty would be to suffer it over an infinite period of time. But an infinite person can suffer an infinite penalty over a limited period of time. Which is why it’s so important that our sin be paid for by an infinite person. That’s why the deity of Christ is so important. And to bear our guilt, He has to be one of us. That’s why His humanity is so important. What we would be required to suffer extensively, Christ suffered intensively. It was not infinite in duration but in degree. So we speak of Christ suffering an equivalent penalty, not an identical penalty.


Soteriology: The Doctrine of Salvation – Part 7

See Part 1 for an explanation of this series. See what we covered last time here.


Lordship Salvation
This has been a hotly debated area in North American evangelicalism. It has been very unhealthy sometimes. It’s common for individuals in this debate to be placed in either the “lordship” camp or the “free grace” camp. This is an oversimplification that doesn’t represent the various positions. Here are some of the positions:

DECISIONISM: not a formally articulated position, but the way that many churches and preachers operate. Decisionism maintains that assurance of conversion comes from whatever act you did at the time of conversion. It’s particularly prevalent with childhood conversions, but not exclusively so.

FREE GRACE (Zane Hodges): probably the most extreme of the positions that someone is willing to publicly defend. Repentance is believing on Christ. When you believe, you are repenting. “Lord” refers only to the deity of Jesus. Salvation is distinct from discipleship, and you can be a committedly carnal Christian with no distinguishment from the world, never experience divine chastening, and still go to Heaven when you die.

PERFECTIONISM: the other extreme from Free Grace. This position views salvation as the outcome of a process which may include sinless perfection in this life. In many versions, entire sanctification is tied to some second work of grace, such as some subsequent baptism of the Holy Spirit separate from conversion. Some believe you can lose your salvation. You cannot claim that Jesus is your Lord if you are walking in disobedience. For Jesus to be your Lord entails perfect obedience. If you are not perfect, or on your way, there is reason to question your profession of faith. Charles Finney was the most extreme example of this. You were either perfect or lost, there really was no middle ground. You could lose and regain your salvation. It’s like a switch you can flip up and down your whole life, and maybe even in eternity, because you have a free will and how can you be any less free in eternity?

CHARLES RYRIE: (depending on when you read Ryrie) repentance is a change of mind with regard to Jesus Christ. The word “Lord,” when referring to Jesus, is a reference to Jesus’ deity (like Hodges). In principle at least, a distinction needs to be made between salvation and discipleship. Ryrie believes in a second step, which is not the same as a “second blessing” we discussed earlier. Yieldedness is not explicitly part of saving faith. He does concede that works will follow a legitimate conversion, which is something that Hodges denies, who says saving faith may not produce good works. Ryrie’s “works” may not be evident to others at all times. Something is happening if you’ve been saved, but it may take a while for it to show up externally, and there may be periods of relapse where it doesn’t show up externally.

DARRELL BOCK: Lordship means that Christ has the authority to save. He’s the only one with authority to bring salvation. When you exercise saving faith, you aren’t necessarily consciously submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord. Nevertheless, it is implicitly acknowledged. If He has the authority to save you, He must have all authority. Discipleship and salvation are overlapping but distinguishable categories (totally separate for Hodges and Ryrie; one and the same for MacArthur).

LORDSHIP SALVATION: held by John MacArthur, Jr. MacArthur is going to argue that salvation comes through faith alone (like all positions from Hodges to MacArthur). But MacArthur would argue that repentance is necessary for salvation, and repentance is a turning from sin to God. I would say MacArthur is front-loading the concept of repentance here. For MacArthur, salvation and discipleship are virtually indistinguishable. Works must be present with genuine faith. He allows for no category of carnal Christianity (Hodges allows for it as normal; Ryrie as abnormal). Lordship means accepting Christ as master, deliberately and consciously submitting to Him. In principle, you are acknowledging Christ as master (explicitly) when you are converted. He will admit that believers can backslide, and there’s no sin that believers can’t commit, but he doesn’t want to go there.

As a result of the Lordship salvation debate in the 1980’s, some interesting things have developed. Hodges, while he was alive, became more extreme as time went on. MacArthur got more extreme (probably to push back against Hodges) for a while, but moderated over time. Ryrie grew further apart from Hodges’ position. There are lordship advocates today that are far more extreme than MacArthur. The more you move away from Dispensational theology and into Reformed, you will find this popping up. Paul Washer, who preaches and does some great things in other areas, paints this extremely black and white.

Decisionism and Perfectionism are travesties. Of the positions that remain, the only one I think is seriously damaging is Hodges. There are parts of Ryrie, MacArthur, and Bock that I agree with. Having said that, I’m still not quite sure how to fit all the pieces together. I think all three of the positions try to force certain pieces at the expense of good exegesis. On the one hand I’m not willing to give up James 2 or reinterpret it. James is really clear: the kind of faith that saves you produces works. But I’m not willing to give up 1 Corinthians 3. Both sides read their theology into the others’ proof texts. How do I hold these two texts together? I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure that out.

One of the problems here is the problem of personal context. We all tend to read our experiences into the Scriptures. Think of Zane Hodges. He was the Greek guy at Dallas Seminary for many years. Hodges had his early ministry pastoring in strongly Roman Catholic communities prior to the 2nd Vatican Council. The people around him were getting their salvation the old-fashioned way (tongue in cheek), by earning it! So Hodges found it necessary to emphasize the freeness of grace without qualification. MacArthur, on the other hand, ministers in southern California. What are the moral standards there? A little looser than Greenville, South Carolina, you might say? MacArthur has found it necessary to emphasize that when you believe on Jesus Christ something changes. You can’t keep living the life you used to live.

These debates got nasty and polarized many in the evangelical world. We often need to tone it down a little bit and try to understand instead of blasting away.

Soteriology: The Doctrine of Salvation – Part 6

See Part 1 for an explanation of this series. See what we covered last time here.


Puzzle Pieces on the Table So Far

  1. All human beings are totally depraved.
  2. Christ in grace has provided a free salvation for all human beings. And He extends an invitation to all who will believe it. The problem is, in their natural state they never will. God has to restore our moral ability to choose Him.
  3. Does God restore this moral ability to all men as part of common grace, or only to the elect as part of saving grace?
  4. If God restores this moral ability to everybody, then election is conditioned upon God’s foresight of who will receive it (rather than His foresight being equivalent to His active choosing).
  5. The distinction between conditional and unconditional election hangs upon the definition of foreknowledge (Is it active or passive?).
  6. Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:20 clearly class God’s foreknowledge as active and causative. It makes things happen. It’s not mere passive foresight, but it somehow involves God in the execution of His plan. Therefore, election is unconditional. And therefore, moral ability is restored only to the elect as part of saving grace.
  7. Given unconditional election, the salvation of the elect is certain. Everyone who has chosen will freely choose to trust Christ for salvation.

Discussion of John 6:14-45

John 6:37 is a bare statement of irresistible grace. The salvation of the elect is whose choice? It is the Father’s choice. The elect are given. The given will come. The given will be raised (39). The believers will be raised (40). No one comes except the ones who are drawn (44). All who come are those who are raised at the last day (44). All who are drawn are those who are raised at the last day (44).

Jesus is not making a statement on their natural ability, but on their moral ability. They can’t come because they won’t come. Only if the Father draws them will they come. The Father’s drawing always works. This passage has irresistible grace all over it.


REPENTANCE: the relevant term for this discussion (the Bible uses several for this word) is the Greek word metanoia or metanoeo. The idea is a change of mind.

Repentance is an attitude, not necessarily an emotion or an action. It’s not just feeling sorry for our sins. Repentance doesn’t mean that we stop sinning (or none of us have ever repented). It doesn’t even mean that we purpose to stop sinning (that would be a silly purpose). It means we change our minds.

A big question today: Is repentance necessary for salvation?
Matthew 3:2 (John), 4:17 (Jesus)
Acts 2:38 (Peter)
Acts 17:30 (Paul)
Luke 13:3-5 (Jesus links repentance with salvation)

What is the repentance that is a necessary condition of salvation? Different answers have been given:
1: Feel sorry for your sin
2: Turn your back on your sin
3: Charles Finney said you had to stop sinning!
4: None of the above or you risk a works salvation

At minimum, biblical repentance involves a change in mind about whether sin is worthwhile and about whether Christ is trustworthy. On the larger scale, it involves a change in mind about God, whether God is desirable. At minimum, it involves turning from sin to God although the turn, properly speaking, isn’t the repentance.

Faith and repentance are related. They are two sides of the same coin. Repentance is the mirror image of faith. Traditionally, faith has been defined as having three components: knowledge (in truth), assent (to truth), and trust (relying on truth). Saving faith includes the element of trust. This is the distinction that James has in mind in Chapter 2 verse 14. It’s not that you are saved through your works, but you are saved through a faith that produces works. If your faith produces no works you have no reason to believe you have saving faith.

How much do people actually have to believe in order to be saved?
Acts 16:31
Romans 10:9-10

Saving faith has as its object Christ, in view of His finished work. Exactly how much about His finished work does someone have to grasp in order to be saved? I don’t know. But what God expects is trust in Christ and His finished work.

What about faith and the sacraments?

We tend to avoid the term “sacrament” in Baptist circles because it has been so badly defined. The problem is most people understand a sacrament as some conveyance of divine grace and that’s where we don’t want to go.

SACRAMENTALISTS: the sacraments actually communicate some kind of spiritual power; more than a teaching tool; in and of themselves they nourish you spiritually, they build your faith, they impart grace to you

SACRAMENTARIANS: the sacraments are only symbols; participation in the sacraments may create subjective impressions that may be good for you, but there is no actual conveyance of grace

I believe that sacramentalism runs the risk of violating sola fide, whereas sacramentarianism does not run that risk. It’s not as if nothing happens at the Lord’s Table for sacramentarians, but what happens is at the subjective level not the objective level. It’s not that the sacraments themselves impart grace, but through the communion service, you may be strengthened and nourished as you meditate on the meaning of the elements.

Faith and Salvation

Faith is the sole condition of salvation. Wait a minute, isn’t repentance a part of this? My understanding is that you cannot have saving faith without repentance. Having said that, you can’t add anything to faith in salvation, otherwise you eviscerate faith. Remember, you’ve got airtight compartments.

This logically also excludes trusting in the faith, rather than in Christ, for your salvation. If your trust is in your faith you are on hazardous ground. I encounter this somewhat frequently, in one of two ways:

1: “Experience in Time” salvation
“I remember when I prayed the prayer so I know I’m saved.” Faith is in the symbol, or the act, rather than in Christ.

2: “I Don’t Believe Enough” salvation
This person is placing his confidence in his faith rather than in Christ. It’s legitimate to say “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” But it is Christ that saves you, not your belief or your faith. It’s not about believing harder or better.

What is “Conversion” in Scripture?
Acts 9:34-5, 14:15, 15:9, 26:18
1 Thess. 1:9

Mere rejection of sin does not constitute conversion. Conversion requires turning to Christ in faith. So when you’re repenting, you’re turning from sin, when you’re believing you’re turning to God. When you’re doing both, you’re being converted. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. The coin is conversion.

In Part 7, we will discuss the debate regarding “Lordship Salvation.”

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