Part 4: Issues with the List as a Formula (and what’s missing)
It’s very important to point out that the “5-step plan of Salvation” does not appear in scripture—not as a list, anyway. The scriptures themselves never group these 5 things together and present them as an ordered list of things to accomplish in order to be saved. This does not make them untrue, but rather tell us that these five steps in this particular order are not something the Holy Spirit seems to have had in mind for us to memorize in order to evangelize, or to recite as a systematic creed that defines us.
Kevin Moore records the words of Edwin Jones: “Interesting, is it not, that no one verse contains all the five steps? It seems that God, though perfectly capable of doing just that, chose to contextualize the ‘steps’ so the richness of their God given presentation might be discovered. ‘Shorthand,’ even when supported by short citations, has a way of taking on a life of its own that obscures the ‘longhand’ of the original. Though summations certainly have their place, original contexts are gold!” I would agree that we should always be careful with any shorthand presentation of what the Gospel in full depth of richness.
This plan also treats Salvation as a series of easily identifiable and singular moments leading up to a moment of salvation. When exactly has one heard? How much are they believing when they are ready to repent? Is repentance a thing we only do once? What about the times we sin afterward? When should all these occur? Is it something you can do in the span of five minutes, or is it a method that takes years? These are important questions to tackle when distinguishing Christianity from other religions, or at least authentic Christianity from other creeds.
Then there’s the order to consider. Does it all have to be in this way? I have seen and heard of other combinations:
- I heard the gospel and realized I have done wrong in my life and repented of it. I decided not to do bad things I’ve done, and apologized for them. Then I came to a belief in Christ and confessed that he was the son of God, etc.
- I heard the word of God, believe it fully, and have confessed that Christ is Lord. Now I am ready to confess that I have sinned. Then I will be baptized.
- I heard, believed, repented, confessed and was baptized. But I still struggle with belief, and I’m not sure if God forgives me. I need to think about that some more. Not sure if that means I need to be baptized again.
Where is faith in all this? Is it to be equated with belief? Are we to say that faith and belief are the same thing? These are serious questions to consider, if we are to adhere ourselves to an essential list of steps to salvation without including the word “faith.” Paul certainly believed faith to be essential to salvation. In Romans he said that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood, to be received by faith” (3:25), and in Galatians he said that Christ “redeemed us…so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
Where is the Holy Spirit mentioned? Where is it mentioned that we are to open our mind and heart to the work of the Spirit, or that we will receive the Spirit when we become Christians? John tells us that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (16:8), the father draws us to the son (6:44) and opens our hearts to the Gospel (16:14).
Kevin Moore, director of missions studies at Freed-Hardeman, points out that our being added to the church is silent in the “5 steps of salvation,” and considers the abuse of the “5 step” outline in various churches as one of the many reasons people have abandoned the church in recent generations. In Moore’s words, the Gospel plan of salvation “is our gracious God seeking to reconcile sinners to himself through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in a unified collectivity of forgiven disciples.” Notice how he emphasizes the church as central to this salvation. Of course, Moore clearly states that the “5 steps” are a way we can summarize our response, and he does not take issue with the truth they represent.
These “5 steps to salvation” are often referred to as “obeying the Gospel,” a phrase that should raise an eyebrow. The Gospel is good news. A person can not obey news. It is not our obedience so much as our faith that is our primary response to the good news. When we comb through the New Testament, we do not see sermons and calls to conversion focusing on obedience. Even in reflection on salvation, for instance, Paul does not mention obedience itself as a primary aspect of our salvation: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were immersed into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). Notice that Paul’s emphasis is on faith and being clothed in Christ. Obedience flows out of this salvation in Christ, but it is not at all the mechanism of salvation.
Counting the Cost
Becoming a Christian is exciting, but also daunting. We enter into a world of eternal blessings, but it’s not an easy road. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). That’s more than just bearing a symbol. It’s committing to a life of possible persecution and suffering in his name. The rich young ruler needed to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. It was so great a price that he went away sorrowful.
In Luke 14 Jesus says that we have to be willing to despise our own family if that’s what it takes, or in other words, love Jesus so much more than our family we would forsake their will because of his.“Suppose,” says Jesus, “one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” He makes it clear that only a fool makes a huge life-altering decision without considering what it will cost him. “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” A serious problem with the “5-step plan” is that counting the cost of discipleship is not a step. Many Christians have been baptized with the notion that hearing the Gospel, confessing Jesus, and basically “being a good Christian” by going to church and trying not to sin is going to make them faithful. They do not truly count the cost, and when trouble or temptation arises, they fall away all too easily.
Finally, let’s say we complete all five steps. Now what? Again, the “stay faithful” additional step isn’t always included, it’s as if in parentheses. New Christians run the risk of abandoning the Church, or worse: Becoming lukewarm Christians.
It’s easy to become lukewarm from completing such a plan because there’s not much joy in the presentation of such a plan. It looks like a checklist to get something. Then what? I remember being left with such a feeling after being baptized. “Now what?” It was not that I didn’t know what was being asked of me now, but that I didn’t have such a simple list all of a sudden, and that was frightening. I wanted to gobble up all these charts and outlines that could help me stay saved. Because part of me felt my salvation was based off of a series of steps, it was natural to feel that I would need to continue completing steps and filling charts and hitting points if I wanted to stay saved.
The “five step plan” helped me to understand my salvation, but it also confused my understanding of salvation. I saw my salvation as procedure, and the most complicated was the remaining procedure: A lifetime of trying to map out this narrow road in the same human way we have tried to illustrate the door that led us in.
In the final post, I want to share how we can turn to scripture itself to enlist more effective, more transformative ways of presenting salvation to ourselves and to the lost.