A Problem in Calvinism’s Order of Salvation

by J. Matthew Pinson

 In Calvinism, Regeneration comes before faith, whereas in Arminianism regeneration comes after faith. In other words, the “timing” of what Scripture describes as the “new birth” is decisive in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. In Calvinism, God gives His elect a new birth. This is the result of their effectual calling (sometimes called “irresistible grace”). They cannot and will not resist it, because they see with new eyes. Their new birth creates in them a desire to repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ.

In Reformed Arminianism, the order of salvation is different. God convicts and calls and draws people to himself, yet gives them the freedom to resist his grace. If they do not resist, and they receive God’s gift of salvation with the empty hands of faith, then God regenerates them. They experience a new birth only after receiving Christ through faith.

Leroy Forlines says that there is a problem for the coherence of Calvinism when it places regeneration before faith, because, as the great Calvinist theologian Louis Berkhof states, “Regeneration is the beginning of sanctification” [1]. It is a problem, logically, to place regeneration prior to faith in the ordo salutis (order of salvation) because, if regeneration is the beginning of sanctification, and if justification results from faith, then logically Calvinism is placing sanctification prior to justification.

The Calvinist Lorraine Boettner argues, “A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved” [2]. This really is what the Calvinist view of regeneration preceding faith amounts to. Yet, as Steve Lemke says, this seems to be getting the cart before the horse. Lemke provides another way of looking at this conundrum: “When does the Spirit come into a believer’s life? . . . What do the Scriptures say about the order of believing and receiving the Spirit?” [3].

This is particularly poignant, Lemke argues, in view of Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (NASB) [4].

Forlines hones in on why this is a logical difficulty for the Calvinist system: “Calvinists have, by and large, adhered to the satisfaction view of atonement and justification. If a person is consistent in developing the implications of the satisfaction view of atonement, it is clear that God cannot perform the act of regeneration (an act of sanctification) in a person before he or she is justified. God can move in with His sanctifying grace only after the guilt problem is satisfied by justification. To think otherwise is to violate the law of non-contradiction. I realize that when we talk about the ordo salutis (order of salvation) we are talking about logical order instead of chronological order. But that logical order is inviolable!” [5].

If Berkhof and Boettner are correct that regeneration is the beginning of salvation and sanctification (and I think they are), then the Calvinist ordo salutis, which places regeneration prior to saving faith, and thus prior to justification and the gift of the Spirit, is highly problematic.

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[1] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 262.

[2] Loraine Boettner. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia, PA: P&R, 1965), 101.

[3] Steve W. Lemke and David Allen, eds., Whosoever Will (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 137.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Forlines, 86.

16 thoughts on “A Problem in Calvinism’s Order of Salvation”

  1. There is a problem in the article:

    Pinson quotes Berkhof and Boettner, one time each one. The quote from Boettner says:

    A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved”

    In the last paragraph, Pinson argues, “If Berkhof and Boettner are correct” and after says, “(and I think they are)”.

    It seems to me that Pinson agree with quotation take from Boettner, so that the text sounds many contradictory.

    1. Samuel,

      Thanks for your comment. As you can see if you look at the post again, I’ve revised that phrase to make it clearer. I’ve changed “If Berkhof and Boettner are correct (and I think they are), and regeneration is the beginning of salvation and sanctification . . .” to “If Berkhof and Boettner are correct that regeneration is the beginning of salvation and sanctification (and I think they are). . . .” I think this will make it plainer for the reader what I mean.

      Thanks for an excellent suggestion!

      MP

      1. MATTHEW PINSON,

        You said that agree with Berkhof and Boettner about regeneration to be the beginning of salvation and sanctification. I understand that regeneration is the beginning of santification.

        But, about salvation, wouldn’t be the justification (which ocurres by faith) the beginning of salvation? Wouldn’d be the regeneration a second step (after justification)?

        1. Samuel,

          I think we’re both right. Regeneration is the beginning of salvation but is not possible without justification. So I guess it would actually be accurate to push it back further and say that faith would be the beginning of salvation, or even further back to say that divine calling or drawing or prevenient grace would be. But I still think it would be accurate to say that regeneration is the “beginning” of salvation since salvation comes only after regeneration.

          Thanks so much for your interaction!

          Matt Pinson

      2. MATTHEW PINSON,

        You said that agree with Berkhof and Boettner about regeneration to be the beginning of salvation and sanctification. I understand that regeneration is the beginning of santification.

        But, about salvation, wouldn’t be the justification (which occurs by faith) the beginning of salvation? Wouldn’d be the regeneration a second step (after justification)?

  2. Technically Calvinists believe in “definitive sanctification”. See article by the same name in Collected Works of John Murray. That does not make your thesis wrong but it explains Berkhof’s remark. There is also “progressive sanctification.” Calvinists believe in both. That is what you are thinking of, no doubt.

    1. Lacie,

      Thank you for your comment. I’ve always thought that Murray’s “definitive sanctification” was the same thing as what Leroy Forlines sometimes calls “positional sanctification.” Both terms are meant to distinguish the believer’s “set-apartness” to Christ, his kingdom, his holiness, etc., and are to be distinguished from progressive sanctification.

      The trouble is that Murray, in the essay you cite, has the same dilemma Berkhof and Boettner do. Because he is trying to root his doctrine of sanctification in the Bible, he cites passages like Romans 6 as evidence for definitive sanctification. This is just what Forlines does in his Romans commentary. The problem with that is that Romans 6 grounds our sanctification in Christ and his work, not in some sort of regeneration which takes place prior to, and without reference to, the work of Christ.

      Yet Murray and others are forced by their ordo salutis to say that regeneration occurs prior to faith, and hence prior to justification (the application of the atoning work of Christ to us in imputation). This seems to be a real conundrum.

      Just under the heading “The Fact of Definitive Sanctification” in the essay to which you referred, Murray says, “When Paul, for example, addresses the believers at Corinth as the church of God ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’ (I Cor. 1:2) and later in the same epistle reminds them that they were washed, sanctified, and justified (I Cor. 6:11), it is apparent that he coordinated their sanctification with effectual calling, with their identity as saints, with regeneration, and with justification.”

      Murray here, with St. Paul, is rooting definitive sanctification in Christ, which the doctrine of regeneration-prior-to-faith cannot do. So you’re right when you say that, if we agree we’re talking about definitive sanctification as opposed to progressive sanctification, “that does not make [my] thesis wrong.”

      Thanks again.

      MP

  3. I brought this problem up in my Sys3 class at Southern a few weeks ago. My prof referred to an article that brought up the concept of two phases of justification. The idea is that since God’s election of those in Christ has been since the foundation of the world, then there is an anticipatory justification that happens prior to faith.

    I did not find the argument convincing.

    1. Thanks, Jacob. You’re right not to find it convincing. This is why a few Calvinists throughout the years have taught the doctrine of “eternal justification.” But most Calvinists have not accepted that view because it has such obvious lack of biblical support. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Calvinists have sought to reconcile that which the Bibles says on the issue of salvation. They concluded that man is Totally Depraved and has no desire for God and has no faith with which to please God. Absent some influence (regeneration) on man, no one would ever express faith in Christ and be saved.

    They see this expressed in the following:

    “…when we were dead in sins, [God] quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2)

    “…[God] made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: [and] delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:” (Colossians 1)

    “…the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ…should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord;…For God…has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4)

    “And I said, Who art you, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus…I have appeared unto you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness [unto the gentiles to] whom now I send you, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” (Acts 26)

    We see the difficulty that all of us deal with expressed in Acts 26. People are sanctified by faith, but this faith is possible only after the person’s eyes are opened and they are turned from darkness to light.

    So, the Calvinists conclude that God must initiate the work of salvation in depraved man and that God’s actions then make possible the responses of man to Christ (e.g., faith). That work initiated by God in man is called regeneration. The problem is how to enable a depraved person to express faith without first regenerating them.

    One solution, offered by the Pelagians, was to deny that man was so depraved as not to be able to express faith in Christ. This solution was rejected by Calvinists and Arminians. The Arminians then said that God imparts faith to all on their birth. This means that God essentially regenerates all at birth enabling all to express faith in Christ with that faith expressed later when the person hears the gospel. The problem here is explaining why any would then reject the gospel.

    So, its a difficulty that God has left us. It is one thing to reject the Calvinist solution to the problem. It is another to offer a viable alternative.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. Arminianism doesn’t hold that all people are regenerated at birth. They believe that regeneration occurs only when one repents and believes in Christ. For an excellent treatment of this, please see chapter 7 of F. Leroy Forlines’s Classical Arminianism.

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