Soteriology, from a component point of view, is large and complex. Jesus in the Great Commission expressed that the process of our salvation is encompassed in the making of disciples, baptizing them, and then teaching them all that has been commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). These component parts have been expanded and contemplated to such an extent that volumes have been written to encompass each minute detail. Therefore, one is more inclined for this essay to take a macroscopic approach rather than a microscopic. To that end, we will endeavor to examine a statement made by Lewis and Bruce in their work Integrative Theology:
A holistic soteriology cannot be expressed in either relational or legal categories alone. The richness of biblical teaching on salvation requires an integration of both the legal and relational categories supplemented by the experiential categories of conversion-regeneration and sanctification.[I]
This statement reflects an understanding about the holistic nature of soteriology that gives one an insight not only into the initial process of salvation but also the continuing nature of the Christian life.
The entire salvation process can neither be limited to an interpersonal relationship with Christ, nor the fulfillment of a ceremonial ordinance as commanded. Also, as the two sides of the “salvation coin,” the relational and the legal, are undertaken by the individual one’s conversion-regeneration process and continued Christian life reinforce the entire process. It is our conviction that a Christian is not singularly completed at a specific point in time, but that a combination of factors must work together to produce a fully functioning child of God. A holistic understanding of soteriology sees the component parts as the building blocks of a cumulative process. Indeed, the plan of God must be “studied as a whole”[ii] if one is to truly know the encompassing wonder of our common salvation.
Regarding the relational side of soteriology, the status of the relational gap is the result of the actions on the side of mankind – God has not moved, man has. Because of the fall, that original blissful state of being begun in the Garden has been lost and the posterity of Adam now suffer under the penal consequences which, unless remitted, result in eternal death.[iii] The scriptures remind us that man is the one with the spirit that is out of harmony with God (Rom. 8:5; Gal. 5:17). Paul also informs us that there are many enemies of Christ, those that are at odds with everything that is assured us via the sacrificial action of the Messiah, because they have set their mind on the things of the world (Phil. 5:18-19). The relationship remains severed because of the position that men have taken and therefore a restoration of that relationship is part of the overall program of soteriology, a program initiated by God out of love for his children (John 3:16).
Many have savored and exploited the fact that the exact phrase “personal relationship” does not appear in the Scriptures; yet, there must be some type of relationship with Jesus, specifically, at the beginning of the holistic process of salvation. As expressed in the Great Commission, the development of a relationship must come first and is founded in the human capacity “to make a real decision” (as noted by Brunner against the universalism of Barth’s early writings)[iv] to become a disciple of Christ. Many of the greatest passages in the Scripture crouch our interaction with God and Jesus in the language of family: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), that Jesus instructs us to pray to “our Father” (Matt. 6:9-13), and Christ calls all those that do the will of the Father his mother, brother, and sister (Matt. 12:46-50). Relational language is ubiquitous in the pages of the New Testament pointing to the desire of God to “introduce adopted sons and daughters (e.g., John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:4-6) into the divine life and family.”[v]
The legal side of the process of salvation also has a prominent place in the pages of Scripture. The Scriptures make one point very clear from both the Old Testament and the New: without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). This requirement was taken upon the shoulders of the Messiah on our behalf, and for that fact alone, one is certainly beholding to the Christ for our salvation. Therefore, when Jesus makes the statement that we prove our love for him by keeping his commandments, sentiments echoed in the Johannine letters (cf. John 14:15, 21; 15:14; 1 John 2:3; 5:3; 2 John 1:6), it is for promoting obedience leading to “personal transformation in character.”[vi] The obvious import of these Scriptures conclusively informs us there are commands to be kept, and when there are commands to be kept there is a legal requirement. The legal requirements placed upon the Christian may not be of the same structure as the Old Testament Jew, but defaulting again to the Great Commission we find imperatives that are direct commands: make, baptize, and teach.
Typically, at this point the discussion deteriorates into partisan argumentation regarding the roles of faith and baptism. The truth of the matter resides in the fact that no one condition of salvation can be seized upon as the sole criterion of salvation if other conditions have been indicated in the Scriptures. Dungan notes that “faith” is often used as a synecdoche since without it “nothing else could follow.”[vii] All men everywhere have the responsibility to follow what has been laid out in the Scriptures: men must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31); they must repent of their sins (Acts 17:30); and they must be baptized in the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).
The final piece of the holistic soteriology puzzle is found in the experiential confirmation of one’s conversion-regeneration and sanctification. The conversion experience of a Christian encompasses the “behavioral reversal in all its components,” with an emphasis on the early decisive events.[viii] Along with conversion is the regeneration of the Christian, seen as a onetime event that occurs when the sinner “passes from his lost state into the saved state.”[ix] The conversion-regeneration experience may include a feeling of newness and security, but there is also a concrete event in the form of baptism. The conversion-regeneration occurrence gives one an experiential point of reference from which the salvific process may continue to develop.
Hodge describes the reinforcing experiential side of sanctification as consisting of two parts: the progressive removal of the principles of evil that infects one’s nature, and the concurrent growth of a spiritual life bringing the soul into conformity with the image of Christ.[x] As the Christian continues to grow in sanctification, a process that is “not automatic but must be attended to, practiced, and habituated,”[xi] changes begin to appear that becomes a type of feedback loop. As one does the right thing positive feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment occur that in turn increases the desire for positive feelings so one again does the right thing. Changes that appear are noted to be the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), all of which describe a change in the individual that mirror the attributes of God. That one can produce evidence of a change after conversion-regeneration legitimizes and supports the relational and legal aspects of one’s salvific process.
[i] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 3:153.
[ii] Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 201.
[iii] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2003), 436.
[iv] Richard Paul Cumming, “The Problem of Universal Salvation in the Theology of Emil Brunner,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 65, no. 1-2, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 29, 2017), 87.
[v] Gerald O’Collins. Christology, 2nd ed. (Oxford: University Press, 2009), 301
[vi] Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, “Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life,” Journal Of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 6, no. 2 (September 2013), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 29, 2017), 296.
[vii] D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (1888; repr., Delight: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n.d.), 305.
[viii] Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 562.
[ix] Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (United States of America: College Press Publishing Company, 2002), 333.
[x] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III Soteriology (1845: repr., United States: Hendrickson Publishing, 2003), 221.
[xi] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, “The Means and End in 2 Peter 1:3-11: The Theological and Moral Significance of Theōsis,” Journal Of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 2 (September 2014), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 29, 2017), 284.