I was a philosophy and theology undergrad student when I was 18-21. One of the assignments given to me during this time was for an evangelism class, and the assignment was to read a book written by an Arminian regarding salvation; I basically agreed with everything in the book. The other side of the coin for this particular assignment was that I needed to read “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” by J.I. Packer, a Calvinist. I read the book, marked it up with tons of red ink, and proceeded to write a paper absolutely blasting Packer’s reformed view of soteriology. Soteriology is the combination of two Greek words, the first being “soteria” which means “salvation,” the other being “ology” which means “study of.” Therefore, soteriology is “the study of salvation.” In my personal soteriology back in my more impressionable student days I had become an Arminian not because of biblical convictions, but because of philosophical convictions. Essentially, I was trying to protect my view of “libertarian free-will” for humans (for reasons I can’t get into in such a short blog post). There was a season of my life following graduation from college when I realized the error I was making in elevating a preconceived philosophy over God’s Word, and this was leading me to eis-egesis of the biblical text, which means I was throwing meaning into the texts I was reading in order to conclude that each unique story of salvation in the Bible must have been supporting my view of libertarian free-will. Over a period of time I began to realize my error, and so I trusted God to allow the text of the Bible to speak for itself, so that I could develop an exegetical (“from the text”) view of how a person is saved rather than the philosophical conclusion I had previously held so tightly to.
My studies in Scripture began to change my heart and mind about the character of God, the depraved nature of humans, and our inability to choose God for ourselves until God takes the initiative in transforming us. I began to realize the role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s salvation, because when an individual is indwelled by the Spirit they do truly choose God and believe the Gospel, however not prior to the transforming work of God, but actually proceeding from the work of God the Holy Spirit. As my heart and mind changed in this way I gradually realized I was shifting away from libertarian free-will and Arminian understandings of how a person is saved towards a reformed view of Soteriology. How did this shift occur? What was going on in my study of the Bible? Well, I want to take a look at a few conversions in the book of Acts and take note of the circumstances revealed in Scripture about these conversions to allow the Bible to shape our views of how God saves individuals. As we look at these passages they give a small taste of why I (now) hold to reformed soteriology.
Just so we are clear on definitions, below is a good quote from John Piper which helps with an understanding of the main difference between reformed soteriology and Arminian soteriology…
“So here is what I would say to my 13-year-old. I would say the key difference is how we get saved. The key difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian is how they understand how we get saved; that is, how we move from a condition of spiritual unbelief to a condition of heartfelt belief or faith in Christ. And the key difference is this: Calvinists believe that God has to produce in us the decisive desire for Christ. Arminians believe we must produce in ourselves the decisive desire for Christ. The Arminians say that God helps us. He helps all people, but we provide the last, decisive impetus and desire for that belief.”
The way this comes out in everyday language is with the simple, and yet profoundly different phrases of “I found God,” or “God found me.” So, in Acts do people find God or does God find them? Does God produce in saved individuals the decisive desire for Christ, or do we receive prevenient grace that grants us the free-will necessary to provide the desire to choose Jesus?
The first place in Acts that people are converted to Christ is when Peter preaches his amazing sermon at Pentecost. The Bible says that in God’s sovereignty, He had many gathered from different nations, and the Holy Spirit filled the saints, and they spoke in a way that each person could understand their native language. What an amazing moment this must have been to witness! Then, Peter stood up and preached the Gospel! Peter magnificently exclaimed how Christ fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament, and verse 23 says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…” Peter exclaimed that Jesus was killed and raised from the dead by God’s foreknowledge and definite plan, and we are told in verse 37 that the preaching of the gospel cut the people to the heart, which is the work of God convicting an individual. So, the people asked Peter what they should do, and Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” So, God is already working in the hearts of those being convicted of their personal sins against God, and then they are called to turn away from sin and trust in Christ, and if they do so they will receive the Holy Spirit. Then, we are told, “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Notice how the faith was not produced, but it was “received,” and then they were empowered by the Holy Spirit that they had received upon their faith to then go and be baptized in obedience to their Lord. They did not make the godly choice, or any godly choice, until after God had done a work in their heart, and then they were enabled by the Spirit to do as the Lord had commanded them to do. What is so striking in the conversion of thousands at Pentecost is how little the biblical text focuses on the individuals and instead focuses on the Sovereignty of God in salvation.
We would do well to read Acts 2 and then remember the words of Ephesians 2:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind…” That was us, and that was everyone of the original Pentecost converts before God worked in our hearts.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved.” Notice how the text says it is God who made us alive together, because we were helpless. We were in need of God’s grace because we were unable to choose any good; we were dead in our trespasses.
“And raised ups up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Again notice the wonderful emphasis placed on God- not humans.
“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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God’s love and grace were not only the jumper cables necessary for our conversions to faith in Christ, but indeed His sovereign grace guides the entire process of salvation. God Himself works behind the scenes, He saves us, He is saving us, and He will save us. It’s all His work, and none of it is ours. It’s all His gift, and we provide nothing to it at all; we respond in obedience stemming from faith.
Okay, but that’s just one passage of Acts and one epistle explanation that seems to support a view of reformed soteriology, so what about the rest of Acts? Well, let’s keep going then. Let’s look at the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.
Philip is commanded to go preach in gaza, and by God’s sovereign guidance Philip was appointed to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. God even told Philip directly to go and speak to the eunuch, so we see God has clearly called this man out and appointed him to have the gospel proclaimed to him. God does not arbitrarily act, but He elects those whom He has predestined, and He effectively calls them to Himself by His sovereign grace! It just so happened, that the Eunuch was even reading his Bible the exact moment Philip went to speak to him, and so Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading (v. 38)?” So, the eunuch responded “How can I, unless someone guides me?” God predestined, ordained, and sovereignly worked out the situation for the eunuch to be where the messenger of the Lord would be (and the Lord did this with Philip as well), so that the eunuch could ask Philip the meaning of the prophet Isaiah. The Bible says that Philip then explained the prophecy points to Jesus, and verse 26 says, “he told him the good news about Jesus.” The very next thing we are told is that the eunuch saw water and asked to be baptized. We are left with the overt impression that God did convict the eunuch of sin, and give Him the gift of faith, and then in obedience to God the eunuch was baptized. The emphasis on the individual is so minuscule that we don’t even know hardly anything about the eunuch! What is clear from this Scripture passage is that God sovereignly saved the man by grace.
I do apologize for skipping the conversion of Paul, but I don’t have time to get into that in this context. Suffice it to say that Paul was literally converted during the time when he was actively persecuting Christ, and God in His sovereign grace completely changed Paul’s life by a miraculous act. We see a very similar thing in the conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 10. Beginning in verse 34, Peter preaches the Gospel to the Gentiles (which is incredible in and of itself!). In the sermon, Peter makes mention of God’s action at least 9 times by my count! We would be wise to learn from such writing in Scripture and realize the point being made is that God is the one that acts towards us and moves towards us; we are not the ones who act and move towards Him. In verse 44, the Bible says the Holy Spirit fell on all the Gentiles who heard the Gospel preached by Peter. The Gentiles had believed the Gospel, received the Holy Spirit as evidenced by their speaking in tongues (verse 46) and their “extolling God,” and then the people obeyed God by being baptized. Again, notice the emphasis in this passage is on God doing His Work through His Word by His Spirit. What is remarkably absent from each of these passages in Acts is any talk of a “choice” from humans to choose Christ. What is remarkably present in these passages is the sovereignty of God, and the call for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Since people are unable to repent and believe in their own power and on their own accord, how in the world are they able to do this? Well, how else other than God doing His work by His word through His Spirit? God is the one who works out salvation in the lives of individual saints.
If time would allow then I could keep going and take a look at every single conversion story in the book of Acts, but there’s a reason this blog post is titled, “A SMALL taste of why I hold to reformed soteriology,” because I just want to explore a small bit of the vast conversation. I challenge readers to read through Acts for yourself and see the emphasis placed on God’s work in the salvation of individuals to draw your own conclusion. I then would recommend readers go outside of Acts and explore other passages of Scripture to determine whether individuals must produce a desire for Christ in and of ourselves or whether that desire actually comes from God.
I would like to make mention of the fact that reformed soteriology doesn’t only begin in the New Testament, but you can find “Big God” theology in salvation all the way back in Genesis and all the way until the end of Revelation. One Old Testament prophet who was clear as day on this understanding was Jonah. You’ll recall how Jonah’s disobedience to God literally cast him into the chaos of the sea. God “appointed” a great fish to swallow up Jonah. Then, Jonah prayed a wonderful prayer to God with the conclusion “salvation belongs to the Lord!” We need to know and understand that all of salvation belongs to the Lord not just part of it. This is indeed the reason why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh; it’s because he knew God was going to have mercy on who God wanted to have mercy on and Jonah could do nothing to stop it. Jonah truly knew that salvation was a work of God, and man had no say in the mysterious ways of God’s work in saving people from sin and redeeming them to Himself. This was upsetting for Jonah, but it should be beautiful to us! God’s sovereignty in our salvation is meant to make us marvel at all that God has done for us, is doing for us and will do for us; it isn’t supposed to make us upset that we did or didn’t have the final say in our eternal destiny.
OK, fine but why does it matter?
Let me get us started with a few reasons why our view of soteriology matters…
- A high view of God means a high view of evangelism, missions, discipleship. If we believe “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” and we know He has saved us and has called us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” then it means we know we are the means by which others might hear the gospel, repent, and believe. The apostolic era ended with the death of the final eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection, but the apostolic mission is never going to end until the second advent of Jesus Christ, and for this reason we must preach the Gospel as written in Scripture. When we proclaim the good news of Jesus to people who are dead in their trespasses and sins well then God does the work of convicting them, granting them faith, giving them the Holy Spirit, and sanctifying them until their glorification.
- Our view of soteriology will inform how we view ourselves as humans. “To choose or not to choose” is not actually the question for Christians. The question is really “To be God or not to be God?” What I mean is when we look in the mirror and we see our reflection what do we see? Do we see an individual who is by nature totally depraved and corrupt because of the fall and apart from God? Or, do we see ourselves as naturally being able to make a choice for heaven or hell? A choice, I might add, that actually belongs to God. It’s not that we don’t choose God-it’s that we don’t choose Him until after He chooses us.
- Our view of soteriology will impact how we view the cross. To put this one simply… Did Jesus’ bloodshed on the cross perfectly purchase and redeem the elect? Or, was Jesus’ atonement only partially effective?
- Our view of soteriology determines whether we believe something in us can or cannot secure our eternal destiny. The fact of the matter is that your eternal destiny is not dependent on you, but it is dependent on God. this is why a Christian who has been redeemed by the blood of Christ cannot lose their salvation, because salvation belongs to God and not us. We can’t un-choose God after conversion just as much as we can’t choose Him prior to our conversion.
- A reformed understanding of soteriology guides us after conversion to a deeper understanding of how unworthy we are naturally to be loved, but how amazing it is that “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This teaches us more and more over time to see God’s majestic love and grace as totally and completely undeserved, and this leads to a magnification of God and a reduction of ourselves because we know we contributed absolutely nothing to our salvation.
These were merely 5 of the many reasons why I think our view of soteriology matters, but I want to end by noting that the other largest way of thinking about soteriology is Arminianism, and Arminians are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Obviously I believe the differences among Reformed and Arminian understandings of soteriology are significant, but even more significant is the commonality we have on the person and work of Jesus Christ. For a reminder of this very important truth allow me to finish off this blog with a conversation between Calvinist Charles Simeon and Arminian John Wesley…
[Simeon] Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
[Wesley] Yes, I do indeed.
[Simeon] And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
[Wesley] Yes, solely through Christ.
[Simeon] But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
[Wesley] No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
[Simeon] Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
[Simeon] What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
[Wesley] Yes, altogether.
[Simeon] And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
[Wesley] Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
[Simeon] Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.
Cited in Handley Carr Glyn Moule’s 1892 biography, Charles Simeon, p. 79f.