John Piper recently told a group of college students that “salvation is not a decision.”
Reactions here at SI were, shall we say, mixed. Some understood Piper to be saying something horrible for the worst of reasons; others took him to be saying something great for the best of reasons, and a few in between suggested that while the statement itself was likely to cause confusion, it is not hard to imagine good reasons for saying it.
In all of the flying feathers, the most important question seemed to get lost: is “salvation” properly characterized as “a decision”? Let’s table the “What did Piper mean?” question and consider the bigger one.
How we answer that question depends on two vital factors: (1) how we define the terms (“salvation” and “decision”) and (2) what we believe about salvation. Sadly, a third factor seems to drive most of the discussion: (3) how much pent up hostility we have toward Reformed or non-Reformed views of the human and divine in the saving of children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Intense passion against “Calvinism” or “Arminianism,” or “monergism” or “synergism” (quotes intentional, since understandings of these terms vary widely) results in haste to blame one “ism” or the other for every point of disagreement in the doctrine of salvation.
In reality, most who care at all about a question like “Is salvation a decision?” believe nearly all of the same things about “salvation,” but have strong opinions about which features ought to be emphasized and how they ought to be expressed. But because we’re so passionate about them, these relatively small differences lead us to misconstrue what others are saying—and, too often, lead to conflict over what words mean rather than about the substance of our differences.
Depending on how we define the terms, “salvation” both is and is not “a decision.” Since both “salvation” and “decision” are ambiguous terms (they may be defined in more than one way), many combinations of meaning are possible in the statement “salvation is not a decision.”1
Some ways salvation is not a decision
What is salvation? It’s hard to improve on J. I. Packer’s introductory definition in Concise Theology:
The master theme of the Christian gospel is salvation. Salvation is a picture-word of wide application that expresses the idea of rescue from jeopardy and misery into a state of safety. The gospel proclaims that the God who saved Israel from Egypt, Jonah from the fish’s belly, the psalmist from death, and the soldiers from drowning (Exod. 15:2; Jon. 2:9; Ps. 116:6; Acts 27:31), saves all who trust Christ from sin and sin’s consequences.
Though Packer’s theology is Reformed, nothing in this description of salvation is contrary to non-Reformed views. Regardless of how a sinner comes to be a saved person, all Christians believe God does the actual saving.
So if we define “salvation” as a delivering act of God, how do we define “decision”? We can easily group the possible understandings of “decision” under two headings: decisions of God and decisions of man.
If we start with the latter, we arrive at this:
In the sense that God is the one who saves and man does not decide for Him, salvation is not a decision.
Some non-Calvinists may object at first to the phrase “man does not decide for Him,” but there is really no objection to this in Arminian theology or even Pelagian. Though views of salvation vary regarding the sequence of events and what conditions trigger God’s decision to save, no serious student of Scripture teaches that God’s will is replaced by man’s in the saving moment and God saves like some sort of puppet.
God decides to save and then saves. Salvation is certainly not a decision if we mean that God’s deliverance is a decision of man.
Here, even the definition of “is” becomes important.2 If we’re being sloppy, we might say “is a decision” when we mean “results from a decision.” A whole lot of doctrinal confusion would be cleared up if we’d say what we mean (and then if people would read and listen precisely!).
But even if we change “is” to “results from,” there is a sense in which salvation is not (does not result from) a decision (of man).
Suppose one of my kids leaves a toy (or, more likely, a book) in a poorly lit place where I tend to walk early in the morning, and I stub my toe. What caused me to stub my toe? Under those conditions, I’m likely to identify the child who left the book “where it doesn’t belong” as the cause of my pain. But is that entirely true? Someone might say the cause was the impact of my toe on the object, or the laws of physics, or the firing of neurons in my body—or even my own decision to put my foot in that particular spot.
You could accurately deny that any one of these things was “the cause” of my pain. It depends on what you want to emphasize.3
What’s certain is that there is no reasonable way to construe God’s deliverance of a sinner as being fully caused by the sinner, and to the extent that this is what’s being denied, even a Pelagian could say “salvation is not a decision.”
If we define “decision” a bit more narrowly, the truth that “salvation is not a decision” in this sense becomes even more clear.
Suppose that by “decision,” we mean what sinners do on their own as they wisely see the truth of the gospel and the reality of their need. Most (though too few!) would say such decisions do not exist. Most would deny that salvation is that kind of decision. And suppose we use “decision” to mean something impulsive and superficial a person does only in response to a series of sad or scary stories or dramatic appeals (or long, pleading invitations) and later gives little thought to. Who would say “salvation is a decision” in that sense?
One way salvation is a decision
It’s important to see how “salvation” and “decision” (and “is”) can be defined in ways that accurately deny that salvation is a decision. It’s also important to see some ways in which it’s true that salvation is a decision.
What if, by “salvation,” we mean “conversion”? Depending on how far back you go into the history of theology, “conversion” refers either to the same thing as regeneration, or specifically to the human element in regeneration. I imagine some shouting at their screens right now: “Human element? There is no human element!” But consider the observations of a couple of respected authorities.
The first is from the glossary of William G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology. Though added by editors, the entry accurately summarizes some important distinctions from a Reformed point of view.
conversion Latin converse, viewed by the older theologians as either passive or active. Passive conversion (conversio passiva) refers to the habit or disposition, implanted by God, to repent and believe in Christ as Savior. Active conversion (conversio activa) is the actual turning of the sinner in repentance and faith in Christ. Passive conversion is also termed “regeneration” because it involves the renewal of the sinner’s will. Active conversion, or the actual turning of the sinner to Christ, is often termed simply “conversion” without any additional qualifications. Shedd himself adopts the distinct terms regeneration and conversion in his own discussion of the matter, believing that the separate designations are less prone to confusion.4
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones seems to agree.
What do we mean by conversion? It is the first exercise of the new nature in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new life. It is the first action of the regenerate soul in moving from something to something. The very term suggests that: conversion means a turning from one thing to another. The term is not used very frequently in the Scriptures but the truth which the word connotes and represents appears constantly.5
Earlier, Lloyd-Jones observes,
So as we consider what we mean by regeneration, the one important thing, it seems to me, is that we must differentiate it from conversion. And yet how frequently they are confused. But regeneration is not conversion and for this reason: conversion is something that we do whereas regeneration, as I shall show you, is something that is done to us by God.6
Charles Hodge’s discussion is lengthy and fascinating. A small sample will have to do here. After quoting a portion from Turretin, Hodge observes,
Here as was common with the writers of that age, Turrettin includes under “conversion,” what is now more frequently distinguished under the two heads of regeneration and conversion. The former including what the Spirit does in the soul, and the latter what the sinner, under his influence, is induced to do. With his usual clearness he refers what is now meant by regeneration to the physical operation of the Spirit; and all that belongs to conversion or the voluntary turning of the soul to God, to the mediate influence of the Holy Ghost through the truth.7
How exactly conversion relates to repentance is another discussion. My point is that even in genuinely Reformed soteriology, there is a moment when a sinner does something, and it would be absurd to argue that he does it without making a choice to do so. Regardless of how “free” or “not free” we see that choice, it remains a choice. In the Reformed understanding, God ensures the decision, but the sinner is still the subject who performs the action of some verbs. The sinner repents. The sinner believes.
In the sense that “salvation” is a sinner’s turning to God in repentant faith, salvation is a decision.
Arguably, this is the only sense in which Scripture allows us to affirm that “salvation is a decision.” But let’s not neglect the point or qualify it to death.
Though the Augustinian/Calvinistic view of what happens in the moment one passes from death to life (John 5:24) is often caricatured as a sequence of events in which an automaton is remote-controlled from the broad road of destruction onto the narrow way (and those who hold that view often beg for the caricature by overstating their own position), we can’t reasonably understand the NT to teach that the sinner coming to Christ never actually does anything.
Clearly, he does not “work” (Eph. 2:8, Rom. 4:5), but he does repent. He does believe. He does “decide” in that sense.
My plea to all of us who have an interest in salvation doctrine (and there ought to be many more than there are) is that we reflect thoughtfully on these questions and seek accurate understanding, not only of Scripture, but also of what the people we disagree with really believe.
1 Even if we suppose each of these terms can only be understood in only two ways, that produces four possible meanings of when the two are combined (S1 and D1, S1 and D2, S2 and D1, S2 and D2).
2 Seems Clintonian, I know, but he was not entirely wrong to suggest that people mean different things by “is.”
3 Aristotle would divide the possibilities into formal cause, material cause, efficient cause and final cause. These are well worth reading up on for thinking clearly about causes and results.
4 Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. (2003). Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.) (953). Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.
5 Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1997). God the Holy Spirit (117–118). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways Books.
6 Lloyd-Jones, 77.
7 Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic Theology (686). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. Hodge continues with a discussion of Owen on this point also.