My Ordo Salutis on the "N" Train

SubwayI was on the “N” train again today. I looked into the eyes of another Chinese man, asking myself this time, How does a sinner believe? How does one dead in trespasses and sin come to life? Does regeneration precede faith? Is it possible, as I look into the eyes of the Chinese man, that he has already been or will be made alive by the Spirit because he is one sovereignly chosen by God?

Or is it possible that his deadness means that no spiritual life is present and never can be possible because he may be one who is not part of God’s plan? Perhaps he is not one of God’s elect. Perhaps all of the prayer and preaching on his behalf can never have any influence in his coming to life.

Or does his deadness simply describe the absence of spiritual life and his alienation from God without erasing the possibility that he may live again? Is there a mystery, irresolvable to the human mind, regarding God’s knowledge and plan in relationship to human response?

Perhaps the answer to whether this Chinese man can believe or why I believed and my neighbor didn’t is not as clear-cut as “one was predestined to believe (Calvinism) or one chose on his own accord not to believe (Arminianism).”

I know that some may say, “Quit thinking so much about it and just share the gospel with him,” and that is an appropriate response. Regardless of what one believes about the ordo salutis (Latin for “the order of salvation”), sharing the gospel should be a matter of obedience and passion. I have observed that no necessary connection exists between one’s understanding of the ordo salutis and his sharing of the gospel. Some Calvinists and Arminians are both evangelistic and apathetic. It is more likely that biblical spirituality influences one’s evangelism more than theology. Nevertheless, my mind won’t rest as I continue to seek a scriptural understanding of what is happening when a sinner comes to Christ.

One of the fruits of the Reformation is the attention given to the ordo salutis. The Reformed site sets forth the following general distinction between the Calvinistic and Arminian ordo salutis:

In the Reformed camp, the ordo salutis is 1) election, 2) predestination, 3) gospel call, 4) inward call, 5) regeneration, 6) conversion (faith & repentance), 7) justification, eight) sanctification, and 9) glorification (see Rom. 8:29-30).

In the Arminian camp, the ordo salutis is 1) outward call, 2) faith/election, 3) repentance, 4) regeneration, 5) justification, 6) perseverance, 7) glorification.

Though these summaries are commonly held, if you’ve read enough of both Reformed and Arminian writers, you begin to realize that even among them you find differences in the ordo salutis. For example, Calvin himself placed faith before regeneration.

I am aware of the scriptural arguments of both systems, especially in answering the question “Why and how could a spiritually dead Chinese man believe?” Arminianism never really answers the question. Though Arminianism teaches the necessity of prevenient grace (a prior work of the Spirit before faith), it never resolves the question of how two people can experience prevenient grace, yet only one believes. On the other hand, Calvinism answers the question clearly. A dead man believes because he was elected, called, regenerated, then believed. Though some, like Calvin himself, would place regeneration after faith, one’s faith is ultimately grounded in God’s sovereign election.

On the other hand, Arminianism grounds God’s election on the foreseen faith. Faith is not a consequence of election and ultimately remains unexplained. So in Calvinism, faith is inevitable in some but not possible for many; in Arminianism, faith is possible for all but not inevitable for any.

So where does the truth lie? Which understanding of faith is undergirded by Scripture? I confess that I find here a mystery that is irresolvable to my finite mind. As I read Scripture, some appear to teach the inevitability of faith for some (Acts 13:48), and others appear to teach the possibility of faith for all (Rom. 10:13). I am not satisfied that either system fully answers, with complete scriptural coherence, the question of why one Chinese man believes and another does not when both have equal access to the gospel.

Must I seek a logical and chronological order of the various aspects of salvation, or is there something about the nature of salvation that any attempt to order them distorts the wonder and mystery of God’s plan of redemption? After all, is not all of salvation in Christ? Can anyone have election, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification, or saving faith without Christ? Is it not our calling to preach Christ and Him crucified? For if one has Christ, he has the whole ordo salutis.

Though I am aware that many are comforted by the purported ordo salutis in Romans 8:28-30, for me I choose the following text for an ordo salutis on the “N” train:

John 3:16-18 —”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Now I realize that some will read the above text differently. They may say that the world that God loved is the world of the elect, and from other texts they may conclude that those who believe are those who have first been elected, called externally and internally, regenerated, then brought to faith. However, the simple ordo salutis here appears to be the following: 1) unbelief, 2) condemned, 3) God’s love, 4) provision of Christ, 5) available content of belief, 6) belief, 7) not condemned.

This ordo salutis seems consistent with Romans 10 and even with the classic passage on election, Ephesians 1:3-14. In Ephesians 1, though verses 3-12 tell us of the benefits and blessings of God’s plan of redemption (read carefully the phrases that are objects of the verbs, i.e., chosen … that we may be holy and blameless; in love having predestinated … unto the adoption of sons; having been predestined … unto the praise of His glory), it lays out no ordo salutis of how those who are chosen in him (not, as some imply, chosen to be in him) actually come to be “in him.” The ordo salutis, how one comes to be “in him,” waits until verse 13:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,

The ordo salutis here is: 1) heard the Word, 2) believed, and 3) sealed. This order also seems consistent with Romans 10:13-17 (hear, believe or call, saved).

As I look at this Chinese man in the “N” train, I’m still not sure “how” and “why” he may believe or not believe, though I am confident that faith is possible and that the means God has chosen to encourage that belief is the preaching of the gospel. The tenor of Scripture is that saving faith and new life are inextricably dependent on the Word of God (Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23). So I will not just think about the Chinese man on the “N” train; I will somehow try to give him the Word of God.

Now you have it! You can choose between Calvinism, Arminianism, or Davisism.

John DavisDr. John P. Davis is currently planting a church in Sunnyside (Queens), New York. Grace Fellowship Church is a gospel-centered city church seeking to reach people of all nations. John received the Bachelor of Arts in Bible with a minor in Greek at Bob Jones University, a Master of Divinity from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Theology in Old Testament from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. His Th.M. thesis was on A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism. His D.Min. project/dissertation was on Common Factors in the Practice of Ongoing Personal Evangelism. In addition to Sunnyside, NY John has pastored churches in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, in Brooklyn, New York, and in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Two of the churches were new church-plants.