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

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