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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Contending with Sin—Redemptively

chainsReprinted with permission from Paraklesis, Summer 2011.

Some years ago, a young wife clinging to her husband hung her head in tears as she shared about her adulterous affair. She had confessed her sin to her husband and to the church some weeks prior. I gently raised her head and shared, “please do not lower your head in shame to anyone in this church—we have all been saved, are being saved, and one day will be saved by the blood of Jesus.” We then began to construct a redemptive solution for this couple.

Scripture portrays a believer’s relationship to sin in a multicolored fashion. We are portrayed as sinners who are completely forgiven and stand completely accepted and loved by God and, at the same time, we are portrayed as saints who continue to struggle with sin. A redemptive paradigm allows this sinning saint identity while avoiding a guilt-driven or grace-distorting double-mindedness.


To engender a redemptive environment, Pastors and counselors should emphasize the threefold sense of salvation: We have been saved (Acts 16:31; 2 Tim. 1:9) from the very penalty, and all penal guilt, of our sin. This past sense or tense of salvation is summed up as justification. Justification entails God pronouncing a judicial verdict and acquittal of all our sins so that each of us stand before Him in Christ’s imputed (not imparted) righteousness and not by our own works (Rom. 3:20-25, Gal. 2:16).

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"Whoever believes…that’s it. It’s not whoever turns, tries, seeks, surrenders, stops, starts or anything else!"

Terms That Abuse the Gospel

1. Let Jesus into your heart.
2. Invite Christ into your life.
3. Just say this prayer and you’ll be saved…
4. Make Jesus the Lord of your life (we don’t make him Lord. He IS Lord!)
5. Turn from all your sin (and, no, that’s not what “repent” means!)

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Atonement Wars, Part 3

Republished with permission. Originally appeared in Think on These Things, (Dec.-Jan 2010-2011). Read Part 1 and Part 2.

New Testament Support for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

As Our Substitute

We will begin by surveying some of the New Testament references that speak of Christ dying as our substitute. 2 Corinthians 5:21 heads the list: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Some have termed this “The Great Exchange” as the Sinless One took our sin upon Himself and gave us the righteousness of God. The implication is that this spiritual transaction is made possible only through the sacrifice of Christ. I Peter 2:24 adds detail, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” Christ then became sin on our behalf (i.e. in our place) at the Cross, for it is there that He bore our sin in His body. He did so to free us from sin and bring us righteousness, but our healing was made possible only because of His wounds. I Peter 3:18 reiterates the same thought by saying, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God…” In Roman 5:8 Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ death was “for us.” His death accomplished what nothing else could. Jesus Himself speaks of penal substitution when He states that He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And John the Baptist declared Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

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Atonement Wars, Part 2

Republished with permission. Originally appeared in Think on These Things, (Dec.-Jan 2010-2011)

In Part one of “The Atonement Wars” a number of atonement theories having found favor at various points in church history were explained. These included the moral influence theory, Christus Victor and the Ransom to Satan theory. While I reject the last of these theories, the other two have biblical backing and thus fill out our understanding of why Christ went to the cross. However, I believe the central teaching of Scripture in regard to Christ’s cross-work is best defined as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). It is PSA that is facing resistance from many who would be happy to embrace the cross as a moral example of love or a victory over the forces of evil. Yet the Bible teaches that while Christ’s death was a great example and resulted in the defeat of evil forces, more importantly His death was necessary in order that our sins might be forgiven and we be reconciled to God.

Definitions and Challenges:

Wayne Grudem provides this helpful definition,

Christ’s death was ‘penal’ in that he bore a penalty when he died. His death was also a “substitution” in that he was a substitute for us when he died. This has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement held by evangelical theologians, in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment for the penalty for sin.1

Millard Erickson says it plainly, “The idea that Christ’s death is a sacrifice offered in payment of the penalty for our sins sic. It is accepted by the Father as satisfaction in place of the penalty due to us.”2 Erickson further refines the doctrine, “By offering himself as a sacrifice, by substituting himself for us, actually bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus appeased the Father and effected a reconciliation between God and Man.”3

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Society of Evangelical Arminians: What is Arminianism?

The following is by Dan Chapa of the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA). Since theologically serious alternatives to Calvinism seem to be in short supply these days, SharperIron contacted SEA recently about the possibility of representing classical Arminianism for the SI audience. To learn more about the SEA, see their About Us page.

Arminianism is a summary of our understanding of the Scripture’s teaching on salvation. The name comes from Jacob Arminius, who led 17th century opposition to Calvinism, but the idea stems from Scripture and has deep roots in the early church fathers. Many non-Arminians have mistaken notions about Arminianism—as do many Arminians. This post will define and defend the essential aspects of Arminianism (total depravity, resistible grace, unlimited atonement and conditional election), without critiquing Calvinism.

Total Depravity

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe in total depravity—the idea that fallen man requires God’s grace through the beginning, middle and end of the salvation process. Adam’s fall left us unable, of our own strength, to repent and believe or live a life pleasing to God. But total depravity is not utter depravity; the lost don’t commit the worst sins possible on every occasion. Still without God’s grace, sin impacts every aspect of life and we cannot seek God on our own. Rather, He seeks us and enables us to believe.

Resistible Grace

Arminians may vary on exactly how God’s grace works; but all Arminians hold to the necessity of prevenient grace (grace that comes before conversion that enables us to believe). When God’s grace starts drawing us to conversion, we can choose to say no and reject Christ. God hasn’t predetermined repentance and faith; nothing causes these such that rejection is impossible and we cannot choose otherwise. But believing does not earn or cause salvation; God chooses to have mercy on believers.

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Atonement Wars, Part 1

Republished with permission. Originally appeared in Think on These Things, (Oct/Nov, 2010).

When Steve Chalk and Brian McLaren accused evangelicals who believed in the substitutionary death of Christ of embracing a form of Divine child abuse,1 Christians everywhere did a double-take. Having sung with gusto for years that great line penned by Charles Wesley, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me” Christians could not believe that they were being accused of promoting child abuse by men who claimed to be at least on the fringes of the evangelical community. What McLaren and Chalk had done was bring to the surface for all to see the long-standing debate by theologians about the meaning of the cross. Almost no one in Christian circles doubts the historicity of the crucifixion, but why Christ died has long been contested. Of late, due to the rising popularity of everything from the Emergent Church to the Ancient-Future Faith movement to the New Perspective on Paul, the significance of Christ’s cross-work, often called the atonement, has regained traction. In particular what has often been called “penal substitution,” that the Son, “suffer[ed] instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” has come under intense attack.2 It is the purpose of this study to identify the various views held by Christians on the atonement, analyze briefly the three major theories, and then develop a biblical defense for penal substitution as the central meaning and purpose behind the cross.

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