Is Salvation a Decision?

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.

Notes

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.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 98 Comments

Larry's picture

Quote:
Thus my continuing question, what is the purpose, ours or Piper's or whoever, in separating salvation from a point of decision with phrases such as "salvation is not a decision" when we all seem to agree that the end game is a point of decision?
I am a bit confused. You just said, "I don't think that anyone has espoused a salvific scenario that didn't conclude in a decision--repent, believe, trust, convert, commit, call, or whatever." And then you ask what is the purpose of separating salvation from a point of decision?

So you seem to be asking what the purpose is of something that no one is doing. Am I missing something here?

Quote:
Yet there has been a lot of bandwidth used to espouse that salvation and a decision must be separated or else.
This too is a strange statement in that it follows directly on your statement that no is doing this.

Is it possible, as I suggested above, that you have created a strawman in of your attempt to cast it as "Calvinism vs. decisionalism" when, as you say, no one is espousing that?

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Lee wrote:
A couple of questions on the pragmatic line:
(2) For those who still give invitations, are you not inviting/confronting one with a point of decision?

Lee,

This is a very astute question. It is the very reason many Calvinists do not give invitations, and why most others make the invitation a challenge more than some sort of "alter call." Spurgeon is an prime example of this fact.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Aaron Blumer's picture

Hitting all the hot ones I guess.
But it is definitely related... salvation, decisions, invitations.

Anyway, as with so many other parts of this set of issues, getting clear what people mean by their terms is half the battle... or maybe 4/5 of the battle.

Invitation...
1. An event that follows a sermon and includes these features: several verses of a "moving" song. Repeated urging of people to "come forward and..." Often going on for some time until the preacher is satisfied that he either has gotten the response he wanted or is not going to get the response he wanted.
2. What happens when you urge hearers to believe the gospel.

Of course, we could spin off a few other definitions. But I'll start with two. Should be obvious right away that def.1 normally incudes def.2 but the second kind of "invitation" is...
* Common in Scripture
* Can be included in the sermon itself more than once
But def.1 "invitations" are not found in Scripture and are distinct from preaching.

Do "Calvinists" do invitations? Well, quite a few I know of do... in the second sense rather than the first.

What does any of this have to do with "is salvation a decision" or with "decisionism"?
Well, the def.1 type of invitation more often than not has a particular theology behind it that includes the stated or unstated conviction that it's human persuasiveness that moves a rebellious sinner to become a sincere seeker... and/or the idea that if I preach and don't push hard enough for a response, then the lack of response could be my fault for not pressing enough (this is really an offshoot of the theological pt. already mentioned).

Gotta run, but just want to point out that it's quite possible to be a hard line five pointer and still do invitations in the def.1 style (after all the Westminster Confession acknowledges that God uses secondary causes and the WC is as Reformed as you can get).
It just hasn't been a tradition among those of Reformed soteriology... and there is definitely less inclination to see the need for that if you believe the gospel (vs. our rhetorical prowess or invitational expertise) is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1.16).

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron,

Thank you for distinguishing between an invitation and an altar call. Are "invitations" in the Bible? Yes. For example, Jesus said, "Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." As you pointed out, this kind of invitation is really part of the sermon.

Are altar call style invitations in the Bible? No. Not once, not anywhere. Neither Jesus, nor the Apostles, nor anyone is recorded asking someone to raise a hand, walk an aisle, come forward, kneel at an altar, go to an inquiry room, talk to a personal wokrer, or to repeat a prayer after me.

All the Calvinists that I know give invitations. Some with unusual ferver. Few of the Calvinists I know give altar calls. As Aaron pointed out, the disposition to give or not give altar calls lies largely with one's theological perspective. One's understanding of the gospel, and how men are saved colors how you evaluate the need or desirability for altar calls. Since you can't find one in the Bible anywhere, what does that suggest about the theological understanding of Christ and the Apostles? Just wondering. Smile

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

I'll switch sides a little just for fun Wink
I don't think the absence of the walk-the-aisle type invitation in the NT argues either way. I mean, if we saw a lot of them in Acts or a command to use them in the epistles, that would settle the question, but the absence of reference doesn't say a whole lot one way or the other, seems to me.
"Do you do altar calls?" is a less important question than "If you do have them, why?" (And if not, why not?)

(I don't do them... I have two reasons, one of which is not very noble: I just really stink at that--and a really pathetic altar call is just, well, really pathetic. The other is that I generally aim to do clear "inviting" in the message itself in reference to the text. I don't fault anybody for being really "urgent" in their invitations, but I think "really clear" is the more important quality... often enough, I'm up to my own standards on that scale either, though.
The upside: when somebody does make a decision, I never wonder if it's just because I dazzled them into it!)

G. N. Barkman's picture

But...if your comment earlier was correct, that the need for them is driven by a more Arminian understanding of the Gospel, their absence in Scripture must be considered significant.

In other words, if they are viewed as an important, even necessary extension to a successful presentation of the Gospel, that has huge implications for the way we understand the Gospel.

Not everything that is absent from Scripture has such major implications. Sunday Schools are absent from Scripture, but their addition to the life of the church does not impact the way we view the Gospel. But altar calls do. They reflect a Gospel perspective on the part of the evangelist that is weak at best, especially when they are considered essential, as is so often the case. And, they frequently confuse the sinner about what it means to receive Christ. "I came to Christ in 1997 at a 'Revival' meeting. I came forward to receive Christ. Therefore, I must have received Christ." Maybe. Maybe not. What does it mean to receive Christ?

G. N. Barkman

Jay's picture

Quote:
Not everything that is absent from Scripture has such major implications. Sunday Schools are absent from Scripture, but their addition to the life of the church does not impact the way we view the Gospel. But altar calls do. They reflect a Gospel perspective on the part of the evangelist that is weak at best, especially when they are considered essential, as is so often the case.

Wait - how do we quantify this statement? That's a pretty sweeping generalization.

For the record, I have no interest in altar calls myself.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

G. N. Barkman's picture

Jay,

If I understood what you mean by that comment, I would endeavor to respond to it. However, it does cause me to reconsider and add another reason many give altar calls, namely human tradition. If one ministers in a context where altar calls are considered standard fare, it may be difficult to stop giving them, even if the preacher has personal reservations. In that case, he may work hard at making them as "Scriptural" as possible, no small task for something that is not found in Scripture.

But if the preacher's gospel understanding is sound, he may do more to explain the gospel clearly (as opposed to merely making emotional appeals), and be clear that coming forward does not equate to coming to Christ. In this case, he will doubtless reduce the numbers of those who respond, but will assure his conscience that he has not mislead people who need Christ. What they do not need is a decision they can rest upon in the future as their assurance of salvation. "I know I'm saved because I walked the aisle at Community Baptist Church in 2007."

The preacher may be between a rock and a hard place. He doesn't want to create an uproar in his church by dropping a tradition many consider essential, nor does he want to mislead people regarding the gospel. Its a balancing act that some feel pressured to maintain.

The problem is in equating the sinner's doing something physical (raise a hand, walk an aisle, etc.) with what is totally a spiritual activity, the soul's repentant act of casting itself upon Christ alone. Just listen to the testimonies that flow from many raised in "altar call" churches. "I was saved when I was seven when I went forward in VBS, etc." Many times, there is not even a mention of sin or Christ. What we need to hear is, "As I listened to God's Word, I realized that I was a sinner deserving of God's condemnation. The Gospel became good news to me, and I cast myself upon Christ and His finished work upon the cross as my only hope of salvation."

Why is this so rare? At least in part, because we have for so long equated coming to Christ with some physical activity. The testimonies we hear are a reflection of what people have understood us to say. "Walk this aisle, and you will be saved."

G. N. Barkman

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