Youth director, Beau Floyd, in our church family sat down and wrote this yesterday:
All theological discussion necessarily comes to a crossroad with regards to how humanity relates to the divine. The question then becomes: Does humanity relate to God or the divine on humanity’s terms? Or, Does the divine, the Almighty, decide and determine how humanity is to relate to and approach Him? Because this study has already pre-supposed a Creator God, and His revelation to humanity through nature, His Word, and the incarnate Word Jesus, all of these will also be presupposed here. Returning to the opening question, how do people understand their place in the story? How do people know who God is, what He wants, and how to live?
To answer these questions, one must understand the current state of humanity. Many are familiar with the Genesis Creation story: God created the world. He made everything “very good” (Genesis 1.31). If everything were still very good, then this entire discussion would be irrelevant. However, sin and evil entered the scene and separated humanity from God (Genesis 3.6-7; 23). Sin and evil are basically a rebellion of humanity against God, who He is, what He said, and how He would like us to live. As Christian philosopher and poet N.D. Wilson said, sin and evil are “that which displease God” (Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl). Human sin displeases God and separates people from Him. This separation, if untreated, leads to death (Romans 6.23). Therefore, humanity, untreated from blatant disobedience, is doomed. This is not where God’s story ends though. Praise God, He saves! Soteriology is the theological study of how people are saved. This doctrine addresses such issues as: the reality of grace, and what it is, election, atonement, the call to follow Jesus, regeneration, conversion, justification before God, and the perseverance of God’s people.
All About Grace, “Common” and “Special”
People are sinners. The Apostle Paul, quoting Psalms, comments, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3.11) If God’s character, which was clearly violated in the fall of humanity, is the standard of measurement, and if sin and evil are that which displease Him and separate humanity from Him, then Paul’s statement means that people on their own do not even want to fix the problem. No person seeks God. Instead, in fear and shame, people hide from God in the same way that Adam and Eve did (Genesis 3.8). People hide from God. But, God does not hide from people. He loves them, and gives them grace! God desires none to perish, but that all would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2.4). Although no person seeks God, He does not intend to leave His story that way.
God’s nature is to be grace. He is merciful and gracious (2 Chronicles 30.9), compassionate (James 5.11), “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4.2) It is not in God’s nature to leave humanity in darkness and eternal separation from Him. For this reason, God has shown grace to all people. However, God’s grace in salvation is not applied to all people. The specific difference could be stated as such: God shows abundant grace to all people through His provision for them in nature. But, He shows and gives special grace to His people in the form of the free gift of salvation. The two kinds of grace are often referred to as common grace and special grace.
When a person thinks of God’s grace as common, often the connotation is that common grace is ordinary. It is expected, familiar, and usually taken for granted. Common grace within Scripture could be understood as the way that God, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5.45) If evil is that which displeases God, then God’s common grace is that which God blesses people with even though they do not deserve it. God displays this kind of grace all of the time. The sun rises on wicked and righteous people alike.
God’s providential care over nature is his common grace to mankind. However, how common is common grace? Does any person understand how God suspends the earth? Does anyone know what God’s purpose was in creating powerful elements such as wind and waves? Do people fully understand the miracle of life in spring? No! All creation is miraculous. God made everything to be miraculous. At one point it didn’t exist, and at the next it did. This is certainly not common, but rather extraordinary grace.
The difference between the ways God blesses all people, and the way He blesses His people must be something else. Common grace goes to all people, but not all people will be saved. When asked if those saved would be few, Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13.23-24). Those who are blatantly disobedient to God, without being saved by Jesus, will only receive common grace. The sun will rise on them every day that they live, and God will give them rain to water their plants. But at the end of their lives, they will not be saved from eternal separation from God.
Special grace is the way that God does save people. This is most clearly seen through Paul’s words, “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) If people are separated from God because of their sin, they are saved by grace through faith. This act of being transferred from a status of separation from God to unity with God is not the result of any work of any sinful person. It is attributed only to the grace of God. This kind of grace is only given to those with faith. Therefore, the grace of God, through His providential oversight of nature, affects all people. But, only those with faith receive the kind of grace that brings salvation.
Election, Chosen in Christ
To deny the Biblical doctrine of election would be to err because there is no way around it. The Bible speaks of election clearly. Election comes from and necessarily follows the doctrine that God is sovereign. Essentially, God has a plan and a purpose, and He is sovereign to affect the world with His plan and purpose. Simply put, God’s sovereignty works with both His knowledge of all things, and His all-powerful nature to result in the truth that God does as He pleases. “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1.11). God acts as His own wisdom and desires influence His will. God is never forced to react, because He is all knowing. Neither does He ever act contrary to His own desires. Everything He does is governed by who He is, and what He decides to do as the Sovereign. The result of God’s sovereignty with regard to salvation is the fact that He chooses to save people. This is called election.
Election is a difficult doctrine to understand and to believe. First, if some are elect, then others are must not be elect. The question is why? The answer is: God’s sovereignty. However, understanding God’s sovereignty does not help people to understand how a person could possibly be predestined for eternal separation from God. It would be as if God looked through time to a point in a person’s life and either chose to save them right then and there, and then did the opposite to another person but chose to damn them. Scripture provides the only help to understanding this doctrine.
First, the only reason that a person can be said to be predestined or foreknown, or elect is because Jesus was first foreknown “before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1.20) and loved by God “before the foundation of the world” (John 17.24). Jesus shares his being foreknown with others. It is they who are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8.29). Those ones who are foreknown by God, and predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, are also called, justified and glorified (Romans 8.30). These are the elect (Romans 8.33). Paul goes on to argue that nothing can separate the elect from the love of Christ, because they are chosen by God (Romans 8.35-37). The emphasis here is that God is sovereign, and nothing can thwart His purpose in saving people. Paul says that this election and choosing on God’s part took place “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1.4). This however also echoes the fact that it was originally Jesus who was known and chosen by God the Father “before the foundation of the world”. Finally, John, in his vision of the apocalypse, says that there are some people whose names were not written in the Lamb’s book of life “before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13.3). This would seem to indicate that those who are believers do have their names written in the book of life “before the foundation of the world” while others do not. Those who do have their name in the Lamb’s book are partakers of Jesus’ being foreknown and loved by God before creation.
Essentially, Scripture teaches that Christians are elect, foreknown, and predestined. All of this has to do with the truth that God is sovereign, and He acts to achieve His purpose in saving people. Nothing can thwart this desire and will of God to bring salvation to sinners. Christians are the beneficiaries of God’s sovereign choice to save people. Ultimately though, the sheer magnitude of God’s greatness and infiniteness also necessarily means that people with a finite mind will never fully understand why God does what He does. Neither ought anybody to question why He does what He does. Instead, those who receive and benefit from grace and election must, out of necessity, give praise, honor and glory to God for something that they entirely do not deserve.
Atonement of What for Whom
After understanding the problem of sin and evil, and grace and election, the careful theologians comes to the doctrine of atonement. Atonement is the means by which God has accomplished His purpose to save people. In order for atonement to be made, something has to be atoned for. Sin, then, is that which is atoned for. People sin, displease God, and therefore, separate themselves from His presence. God does not desire this separation from His creatures, and He has therefore made a way for redemption and reconciliation. God, through the life and death of Jesus, has atoned for all sin, and has thus provided the only way for people to be forgiven of that sin, and to subsequently become right with Him.
This is the part of the story where the Author writes the Hero in to save the day. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4.4) After all necessary preparations were made, God sent Jesus. He became man (John 1.14), sin (2 Corinthians 5.21), poor (2 Corinthians 8.9) and the source of salvation for sinners (Hebrews 5.9). All of this was done out of God’s love to save people and give them eternal life (John 3.16).
Jesus’ sacrifice was made for all people. God loved the world (John 3.16). Jesus is the substitute who takes the Father’s wrath on behalf of all people (1 John 2.2), and is the “savior of the world” (1 John 4.14). John the Baptist said that Jesus is, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29) Finally, Jesus said that, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12.32). Jesus paid it all. However, as seen above, not all will be saved. The paradox here is: How can Jesus have died for all sin, and be the “once for all” sacrificial Lamb of God (Romans 6.10; Hebrews 7.27) if not all people will be saved? This is not an easy question to answer.
The answer can be found in the One who has been given all authority. After Jesus atoned for sin, he earned all authority. God the Father gave all authority to Jesus (Matthew 28.18). Paul asks who can condemn any of God’s elect, and then answers that it was Jesus who died (Romans 8.34).
Here can be seen the truth that God the Father poured His wrath on Jesus. Jesus bore the sin of the whole world. Therefore, Jesus now has authority to judge sin. Whoever is found with faith in Jesus is spared from the wrath of the Father and of Jesus, and is saved. Whoever is not found with faith in Jesus is not spared from the wrath of the Father and of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for the sin of the world does not necessarily earn salvation for all people. In order to receive the gift, one must believe. And, now Jesus has the authority to execute wrath on the unbeliever for his or her unforgiven sin.
The Call to Follow Jesus
The call to follow Jesus comes from his commission to his disciples. What would their message be though? Salvation is dependent upon believing in the power and sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus (Acts 16.31; Romans 10.9). For this reason, people need to know about Jesus and his sacrifice for sin. Paul illustrates this idea well. He says, quoting Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10.13) Paul’s argument for preaching the gospel, then, becomes, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10.14-15) This list of questions ends with Paul’s summary that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10.17) Therefore, Jesus’ answer to Paul’s questions was to send his disciples to the far reaches of the world preaching, teaching, and making disciples (Matthew 28.18-20; Acts 1.8) In this way, the gospel call is God’s appeal to His people to spread the good news about salvation in Jesus to all people from every nation. Through the atonement of Jesus, and the preaching and evangelism of the church, God is saving sinners. This is the gospel call.
Born Again by the Holy Spirit
Salvation, as the means by which God makes sinners to be right with Him, is characterized by a new birth. When Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night, he was told, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3.3) This second birth is not a natural physical birth, but is rather the result of a work of the Spirit of God (John 3.5, 8). Paul in his letter to Titus says that salvation includes the work of the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3.5). Further, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6.63). God, through the prophet Ezekiel said, “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11.19). All of this inward work of the Holy Spirit makes a believer a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5.17).
The new birth of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life is characterized by a rejuvenating washing and regenerating of the believer’s spirit. The Holy Spirit brings new life. He makes the believer into a new creation. He gives a new heart of flesh, and enables the believer to enter God’s kingdom and to receive eternal life. Overall, this new birth is all about receiving life from God through His Spirit. If the believer was supposed to inherit death because of sin, then in the Spirit the believer is to inherit life. This new life is given when the Holy Spirit comes upon the believer. It can therefore be associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which happens at the point of belief (Ephesians 1.13).
Converted to Follow Jesus
Conversion is that beautiful point in a person’s life when they recognize their sin and potential for condemnation without Christ. When that person chooses to turn from their sin, and turn to Jesus, they become a born again, saved Christian. John the Baptist effectively began the New Covenant ministry of preaching repentance of sins (Mark 1.4). When Jesus went to John to be baptized, thus beginning Jesus’ formal ministry, John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29) This was the decisive shift in John’s ministry, and the point at which people could effectively see the One they were to turn to in their repentance. After Jesus was baptized, he then took up the message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1.15) Conversion incorporates many works of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit on behalf of the believer. Some of these works have already been discussed, such as regeneration. However, conversion is also the starting point for the process of sanctification by which the believer is continually made into the image of Christ (Romans 6.22).
Justified by Faith
This point in the discussion presents a decisive shift in the believer’s life. All people are sinners, and are in desperate need of the Savior and of forgiveness. However, forgiveness does not complete the saving work of Jesus on behalf of the believer. Justification is that which not only brings forgiveness, but also brings a righteousness not previously known to the believer. Paul, in his letter to the Romans gives several indications of what justification is. First, Paul thoroughly explains that the law does not justify, but instead, faith does (Romans 3.21-24, 28). Faith, then, is the requirement for justification. If the sins of people would be counted against them, and they would perish because of those sins, then justification is their release from the guilt of their sins. This justification is applied to the believer when they believe that Jesus paid for their sin. Again, sin is that which displeases God. But, Paul also describes sin as something that falls drastically short of His requirement for righteousness (Romans 3.23). This aspect of justification, then, makes the repentant sinner guilt free before God.
Justification though also provides a positive aspect of giving the believer Jesus’ righteousness. Paul illustrated this point when he said, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5.21) How could Jesus have made sinners into the righteousness of God? Jesus accomplished this through obedience to the Father. “For as by the one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s (Jesus’) obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5.19) The work of Jesus Christ, on behalf of sinful people, once applied to the sinner through their faith, not only washes away their sin and guilt, but also clothes them with his righteousness before God the Father. Righteous, then, is the current status for all those who are in Christ. They are cleansed from sin, and clothed in righteousness.
Kept Until That Day
By the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit of God, on behalf of repentant and believing sinners, Christians have an entirely new life. They are new creatures. What, then, are believers to say about their subsequent failures and sins? Paul was no stranger to the struggle against the desires of the flesh for sin. He illustrated the tension when he said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7.15) Christians will always be subject to this tension while in the flesh of this life. But, God’s once sin dominated people are not wholly abandoned when they stumble. Jesus gave the firm promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.20) Likewise, Paul encourages,
We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.37-39)
Because Christians are called by God, and chosen to be His, there is absolutely nothing that can separate them from God. Jesus also affirmed this when he said,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will 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. (John 10.27-29)
God is sovereign. He calls believers to Himself, and then places His spirit within them. After conversion, God holds these believers. He will not let them go. This does not mean that Christians will not sin, but rather that when they sin, there will be no condemnation (Romans 8.1). Sin will not control Christians, and no Christian will be lost from Jesus. All who are truly saved will in fact persevere by the strength, sovereignty, and grace of God.
The single most important, best, most powerful, most life giving news ever is that God saves. Soteriology is the study of God’s saving work, as well as the means and product, the people, of salvation. Soteriology covers such doctrines as: the reality of grace, and what it is, election, atonement, the call to follow Jesus, regeneration, conversion, justification before God, and the perseverance of God’s people. Sinful humanity, through the saving work of Jesus Christ, has an opportunity to be cleansed, made righteous, and to enter into relationship with God. This though, is not the end of the story, in the same way that the sinful, depraved and doomed status of the sinner was not the end of the story. This is actually just the beginning. The future is the fun part. People, through the saving work of Jesus, will forever enjoy God, serve Him, and always give him all honor and glory and thanksgiving because of His abundant, amazing, and certainly uncommon, and astonishing Grace!