Getting Saved: The Decision
“Winning souls" or “making a decision for Christ.” “I’ve been saved" or "reborn.” Depending on the tradition you grew up in, what you’ve experienced, where you've attended worship, one of these phrases might be more familiar than the others. For some of us it’s not just familiarity, though. We would admit we’re comfortable with one set and not the other.
In my experience all of these are trying to say something similar, which is, “I’ve been forgiven by God and believe that I am going to spend eternity with him after this life.” If we go to the heart of the gospel message and the core teachings that have been carried throughout the history of the church, all Christians believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” If you’re reading this and call yourself a believer, but there’s nothing about salvation, redemption, forgiveness, or the future in your faith, we’ve got some issues to work through. I’ll assume we're on the same page, though.
Why might someone be uncomfortable with how another Christian talks about their salvation, though? It's the emphasis on who is doing the saving. In the first set, the final words “for Christ” do appear to tell the story that Christ is in charge, and we can assume these people are finding their salvation in what Jesus did on the cross. However, the concepts of “winning souls” and “making a decision” seem to place at least some of a burden on us. “Christ did a lot. He did his part, but if you don’t do your part, then you can’t be saved.”
Maybe that seems petty, but this has caused significant division among Christians. Where Reformed people in the tradition of John Calvin and the Synod of Dort believe that true faith isn't a work we do, especially not a salvation-earning work. Yes, ”works” are necessary, but they’re also things that those chosen by God are going to do because they've been given a new desire to do them.
What's this "Synod of Dort" stuff? In 1618 and 1619, a synod (large church meeting) was held in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. The meeting was called to deal with particular beliefs regarding salvation and a group of believers who saw things differently. To be clear, John Calvin was long dead by this point—he passed away in 1564, but the work he did, the things he wrote during his lifetime, greatly impacted the positions that the leaders at this synod put forth. Among the main ideas that came out of Dort in a document called the Canons of Dort was a trio of doctrines summed up in the early 1900s as “unconditional election,” “limited atonement,” and “irresistible grace.”
Unconditional election recognizes that God mercifully chooses people for salvation, and he does so regardless of what he knew we would do in our lives. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:3-6). We want to affirm that any person could be saved. Yet looking at a passage like this, there’s really no clearer way to state that the grace of God isn’t an open offer, first-come first-served. No, Scripture says, God knows, he has chosen, who’s going to be saved.
That connects into a second doctrine limited atonement. If God has chosen people and he has decided to not choose all, then who is going to be saved is limited. Another way to say this that’s become more popular in recent years is “particular atonement.” This stresses that God himself isn’t limited in what he can do, but he did a particular work with all this. He knows not just a number of people who heaven has been prepared to hold, but he knows exactly who they are.
The third doctrine, irresistible grace, brings us back to where we started. All people are not just born in sin, but conceived in sin--we're not innocent and waiting to commit our first sin with the potential of being perfect; no, our natural identity is that we're sinners. How does someone come to faith? As I noted earlier, it's not about the work they've done that they should be praised for. This doctrine also has been recognized with a more fitting name recently, "effectual grace." Again, irresistible grace puts the emphasis on us not being able to resist what God is doing, and that's fine, but because the Reformed tradition appropriately highlights the sovereignty of God, his grace being effectual means he will fully accomplish every purpose and person he sets out to redeem.
God choosing who’s going to be saved does not give us reason in ourselves for pride. We’re as wretched as anyone else! God fulfilling his predestining for adoption by gifting us with faith will take place at some point in our lives, whether it seems quite sudden or gradual. We will become aware of his grace and believe because of what he has done and continues to do. God, by his Holy Spirit, will accomplish our regeneration and conversion. You and I will believe, but we owe that act not to ourselves, but to our loving God.