What Must I Know to be Saved?

Quite frequently one finds online debates about what is going on in the salvation of sinners. These debates are not what it means to be saved, or how one is saved. Rather, they have to do with the mechanics of salvation, what is happening behind the scenes, an

d often, before someone’s conversion. Sometimes these things are cast as an ordo salutis—an “order of salvation.” Does regeneration precede faith? What is the nature of election?

What they sometimes have in common—across the divide—is the tendency for some to elevate this to a required belief in order to be saved. To cite one example, must one believe regeneration precedes faith? That is, if someone says that they see the New Testament teaching regeneration, being born again is the result of faith, is such a person unsaved because of this? The forcefulness of some of these discussions leads one to believe that, for some, these things are necessary truths one must believe.

But this is a category confusion. It conflates what we believe to be happening behind the scenes with what God has revealed as the gospel. Perhaps there is no more succinct expression of the revealed gospel than what we find in 1 Cor 15:3-4:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

It is a précis, a summary. We get other information from the preaching in Acts. It assumes at the outset a certain understanding of Christ as Messiah, as God’s Son, the sinless one who bore our sins on the cross. Then, too, the preaching of the gospel is never without an announcement of the resurrection as vital. The need to repent, to change one’s mind about your standing before God is also a perennial. One might summarize this as recognizing your need for pardon and forgiveness, that your sins—your guilt—separates you from a holy God.

What is absent, however, are just these sorts of questions around any order of salvation. Confessions have sometimes elevated these to a status of required beliefs, but as many have noted, even the Canons of Dort do not insist that one must hold to limited atonement. John Davenant, head of the English delegation to Dort, and a hypothetical universalist, signed the canons in the belief that his understanding was not excluded.

Why then bother with such questions? Because they have definite pastoral implications. Some, indeed, want to insist that unless a believer understands and accepts the questions around an ordo salutis, you can’t really have assurance, or you can’t properly live the Christian life. But this is an argument from experience, and the experience of some only. For the curious, The Freedom of God, by James Daane is an important book in chronicling what happens if these questions that are not the gospel become the gospel. Daane—who was Reformed—shows how in many churches, things like election became unpreachable. Daane notes that in those churches where election and reprobation are understood as two sides of one coin, then “reprobation is not something that can be preached at all. The content of Christian preaching is something in which men are summoned to believe and trust to the saving of their souls. Reprobation does not satisfy that criterion. Reprobation is ultimate judgment—and no man can hope, trust, and have faith in that.”[1] Those who hold to Calvinism usually preach a gospel message that does not mention these things at all. They often recognize that to bring them in would but confuse the hearers.

When we ask what are the significant doctrines for salvation, we find several things, but a meticulous description of what is happening behind the scenes, an ordo salutis, is not among them. This is not to say that such a thing is not an interesting aspect of theology, or that we should not ask such questions. On the contrary, we should ask such questions, but recognize they are not gospel questions. Just as it is not vital to understand how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car, so also is it not necessary to know these ancillary details to be saved—nor to preach the gospel. We do well in our gospel offers to remember this.

[1] James Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study in Election and Pulpit (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973) 20.

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