Part 2: A History of the “5-Step Plan of Salvation” [read the intro here]
While the Gospel has been around for about 2,000 years, the “5 Steps of Salvation” list is much younger. We can trace it back to Walter Scott, a Restoration preacher associated with the growth of the American Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ of the 1800’s.
During this time in American church history, there was a great focus on logic and systematic religion, as a number of genuine, disillusioned preachers (like Martin Luther in his time) sought to strip away denominational creeds and recover primitive Gospel. When it came to describing salvation Biblically, different preachers had their own presentation. Alexander Campbell pitched it as belief, repentance, and baptism, occasionally including confession and continued faithfulness. David Lipscomb maintained faith, repentance, and baptism. Some debates developed as to how confession played a role, but they all considered each other brothers, and believed they were teaching the truth about salvation.
At first, Walter Scott began preaching salvation as a mirror of three things man does and three things God does:
Man should—believe, repent, be baptized
God will—forgive, give Spirit, give eternal life
On the one hand, the list is a little complicated. On the other hand, it includes the work of God in salvation, what He gives.
Scott also used an expanded version that elaborated on what was involved:
Faith in Messiah
Repentance toward God
Baptism in Jesus
Remission of Sins (God’s gift)
Gift of the Holy Spirit (God’s gift)
Eternal Life (God’s gift)
Later, Scott “simplified” his formula for the sake of convenience, consolidating the elements and focusing on how man should respond to God’s gift. He’d realized that he could create a mnemonic device using the five fingers of the human hand to remember the process, calling it “The Five Finger Gospel”—hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. During this time, most Christians following the Restoration movement already believed that these things occurred in our salvation, but Scott stressed the particular itemized order most of us have come to know.
As Bobby Valentine recounts, Scott later lamented how his own memory tool was used to draw focus away from the Messiah and toward our decision to baptize ourselves as the door to salvation. By 1844 Scott wrote that although the Restoration movement had intended to aim Christians back at the Christ, stripping away the doctrines of men, “many failed nevertheless to see it, and were carried away wholly by the easier and more popular generalization of faith, repentance, baptism, &c., till, in fact, they do not know their own principles when they are advocated.” His own memory tool, now a sort of mantra, was representative of a movement that, in some churches, had begun to lose its own Christ-centric vision.
By the time of the Great Revival of the 1930’s Scott’s “Five Finger Gospel” technique of summarizing the human response to God’s grace became known as “The Five-Step Plan of Salvation.” In many Churches of Christ, it had become near creed-like recitation, and a first impression of salvation to the unconverted.
This formula had served well in a time when Restoration preachers were battling the false doctrine of Calvinism, which had long taught that God arbitrarily just chooses to save or not save each person, and that there was no deed or thought we could conjure to do a single thing about that. This 5-step plan with scripture to back it up helped a new generation of Christians understand that God did give us a role to play in our salvation.
However, this 5-point exercise does not seem like it was originally intended to be a flagship propaganda routine to feed to seekers and top off sermons, but rather a helpful tool for those evangelizing. As Douglas A. Foster in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement recounts, “analyses of the process of conversion were not intended for the prospective convert but for the understanding and use of persons engaged in the ministry of regeneration.” I like that phrase, ministry of regeneration. Foster outlines that in some Churches preachers presented the 5 steps as “the substance of the Gospel and obeying them as a means of achieving acceptance”—essentially a works-based schematic.
Between the World Wars, more Church of Christ preachers began to challenge the use of Scott’s exercise, emphasizing God’s grace, justification by faith, and developing a relationship with Christ.
In 1943 David Lipscomb questioned whether confession should be counted as an actual, isolated step. In his commentary on Romans, he explained that formal confession does not seem to be ceremonially required in the examples of scripture, but rather that it is “necessary that confession of Christ should be made at all times or Christ will not own us.” In other words, confession begins with conversion and continues onward as part of being Christian. Lipscomb saw no need to itemize it on the road toward salvation. He was not the only one.
By the 1960s, there was a shift in Churches of Christ that came on the heels of preachers such as K.C. Moser, among the first of popular preachers to critique the “5 steps” method. Writing for Gospel Advocate, he advised us to focus less on “a plan” and more on “the man” of salvation. When the steps were taught “apart from their reference to the atonement,” he pointed out, “the conditions of salvation become pure law and salvation is based on mere works,” leaving out grace.
In an issue of Firm Foundation, Waymon Miller wrote, “In our effervescent zeal to convince all of the true terms of pardon, we have perhaps erred in selling a plan rather than a Person.” This kicked off a controversy among some preachers that involved a number of debates over the years, and changed the landscape of doctrine among the Churches of Christ. [Read more on Moser]
“Step 6: Remain Faithful.”
Sometimes we come across the 5-step model with an extra step added. Sometimes it’s worded “remain faithful unto death,” sometimes “stay faithful,” sometimes “live out a faithful life” or some other variation.
This is certainly an improvement on our understanding of salvation as it is presented in the list. After all, the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” is not taught in scripture, but rather the possibility that one can fall away from righteousness and abandon the faith. However, this step is often left out of the picture because it is not presented as a “step to salvation” but a step to keeping it. We do this after getting saved, not in order to be saved.
Still, this addition does leave some sloppy perceptions and curious questions, as well as complicating the “list” with yet another step. How simple is this salvation business, anyway? The sixth step also demonstrates the evolution of this presentation, how it has changed since its invention in recent Church history.
The first thing to repeat here is that this “Five-Step Plan of Salvation” did not originate with any passage of scripture, but with a human being almost 2,000 years after the Gospels. This does not make the summary of our role in our salvation inherently false, but it is a reminder that the Gospel writers themselves did not see fit to present our role in salvation in such a way, and Christians have operated without it more than they have with it, historically. If we have no record of first century Christians using such a list, our churches won’t apostatize without it.
However, there is merit to the fact that such a summary of our role in our salvation was given during a unique time in Church history in which many Protestants sought to unify churches by simplifying doctrine and faith. The “Five-Finger Gospel” has its place as a useful teaching tool, and each of the five elements presented are crucial to God’s work in saving us and our response to being saved. We’ll explore more about that as we move on with our posts.
In the next post we examine each of the steps individually as listed.