Part 5: The Scheme of Redemption
and the Ministry of Regeneration [see previous post]
Growing up as many people did in Churches of Christ, I heard countless sermons that ended with a call to baptism, including a quick rehashing of the five steps leading up to baptism, the opportunity for which all were given as an “invitation” song was sung. It was communicated that if your heart was right and the sermon had stirred you, then you had heard and believed the word, and the next step was to repent and confess before being baptized. This has helped lead me and countless others to the Gospel.
However, in some churches, preachers have sunk into a stale, formulaic repetition of “one must hear-believe-repent-confess-and-be-baptized-as-together-we-stand-and-sing” that all but deflates the real gust of many a good sermon. Sometimes, it’s as if we’re not trusting the Gospel to preach itself, and have to put in a precise code every time, one that isn’t even precisely laid out in scripture the way we imagine.
As Jack Dodgen of StrongChurch blog writes, “The steps themselves are not wrong, but they are incomplete and can even be misleading.” It seems that the entire weight of salvation rests on my shoulders. If I am a visitor especially, I will be confused about how salvation works. In fact, I may be led to believe that salvation is done through works.
The Problem with our Plan; The Mastery of the Man
Ultimately, the major issue I believe we must take with the “plan” is that it doesn’t even tell half the story of salvation. Listing steps of things we must do to be saved and labeling it “THE Plan of Salvation” is misleading and dangerous. It’s man-centric theology. Absent from this presentation is the promise of Christ, his birth, his ministry, his death, burial, resurrection and ascension, and the final calling of his people home. Also absent is God’s response to our steps, our counting the cost of our commitment, the role of the Church, the Holy Spirit, and most of all, God’s grace operating through it all.
The relationship between God and man in the “5 step plan” is almost nonexistent, at best formalized, shrunken, scripted. In trying to defeat Calvinism, Restoration preachers (and their children) got carried away, and now minimized God’s role in our salvation.
As minister and Christian blogger Allan Stranglin says, “It is God who works to will and to act according to his good purpose. It is God who initiates salvation, who begins the good work and sees it through to completion. Belief and repentance and confession are salvation steps to be taken every day, not once on a ladder list of human accomplishments. Baptism is never the end of what the apostle Paul calls “being saved,” it’s the beginning. Our five steps minimize our God. Our five steps neglect a lifetime of day-by-day, hour-by-hour difficult discipleship to Jesus. And they ignore the unmerited and continuous grace of our merciful Father.”
What’s good about the “5-step” list?
- Is useful for learning about our role in our salvation
- Has helped and still helps refute false teachings like Calvinism
- Simplifies theology for the memory
- It’s elements are true
What’s unfortunate about the “5-step” list?
- Is not found in the Bible as a list
- Resembles a 5-point creed
- Makes each step seem equal in significance, and even length
- Leaves out more important aspects of our salvation
- Minimizes God’s role
- Opens the assumption that the list is the Gospel
- Raises too many questions
Paul wrote to the Church in Rome that God distributes faith to His people (12:3). Our salvation is reliant on him, and until we understand that, we do not understand salvation. Any presentation of the Good News that doesn’t make this central is potentially dangerous.
Consider the words of G.C. Brewer, from an issue of Gospel Advocate in the 1940s:
“We are saved by a person, not by a plan; we are saved by a Savior, not by a ceremony. Our faith is in that divine personage—that living Lord—and not in items and steps and ordinances. We are saved through faith in Christ and on account of our faith in Christ, and not because of a faith in a plan. Sometimes we are led to fear that some people only have faith in faith, repentance, confession and baptism. . . We must trust his grace and rely upon his blood and look for and expect his healing mercy. To trust a plan is to expect to save yourself by your own works. It is to build according to a blueprint; and if you meet the specifications, your building will be approved by the great Inspector! Otherwise you fail to measure up and you are lost! You could not meet the demands of the law! You could not achieve success!”
The “5-finger Gospel” is a cute way to outline our response to God. But sometimes churches abuse it and turn the Good News into a “five-finger discount,” a sales motto at the end of a sermon that has sometimes cheapened the very message being proclaimed. In some places, it almost seems the preacher is neurotically making sure he checks of the list of things to check off so that God will approve of his sermon. This we must avoid.
The Steps of Jesus
I’ve seen it explained that although our response requires us to repent and be immersed in Christ, the real “steps of salvation” were performed by Christ himself:
- Jesus stepped down from heaven to walk upon the earth.
- Jesus stepped down into the waters of baptism.
- Jesus stepped down from the mount of transfiguration
- Jesus stepped down to stretch himself upon a cross.
- Jesus stepped away from a tomb.
- Jesus stepped up to a throne.
If we view the “steps” of salvation in this way, we can view our path as following in his steps. We walk from earth to haven, step into baptism, step up to worship, step up to our own cross to bear, step away from death, and step into the kingdom—all as one step, one continual leap, or walk, even.
The Greatest Command
When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37-38). If this is the greatest thing we are told to do, how can it be left out of a plan titled “the plan of salvation”? How can I tell the story of salvation without even mention of the word love?
Coming to salvation
Salvation in the Gospels is certainly presented as involving a moment when we step from outside the kingdom into the kingdom, from darkness to light. However, our journey there is a process, and our path after entering is an enduring path, sometimes paved with doubt. As another blogger has put it, “Many people come to a gradual realization of their need for forgiveness and spiritual adoption. The Steps of Salvation do not adequately address this process.”
Here is what I know about my relationship with God and what salvation means, condensed into points backed with scripture:
- God loves us (John 3:16)
- We are unrighteous, which angers God (Romans 1:18)
- The law came in the picture to show how much we needed God’s righteousness and can’t be justified on our own (Rom. 3:19,20)
- The Gospel (good news) is the power of God for our salvation (Rom. 1:116,17)
- Christ is our sacrifice (Rom. 3:24-26)
- Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, according to prophecy (1 Cor. 15)
- Faith and salvation are God’s gift (Eph. 2:8-9)
- If I confess and believe, I will be saved (Rom. 10:8-11)
- I should repent, believe, and be immersed (Acts 2:38)
- I must live faithfully all my life (Rev. 2:10)
- I can know that I am going to Heaven (John 5:13)
This is not a formula. This is a summary. And even this leaves things out.
There are other tools out there to help us understand the work of salvation in our lives and codify it in an easily understood way. One writer has offered 5 phases of transformation, based on Acts 9, as a way of viewing how God operates in our lives and how we respond.
Another suggested way of examining salvation is known as the “3 T’s,” how we are Transferred (from darkness to light), Transformed (from sinners to saints), and how we Transcend (from the world to the kingdom).
Writing for Gospel Advocate in 1946, Roy Key explained that “the gospel is the actual happenings of redemptive significance that have been witnessed to in the New Testament. In reality, the gospel is act, not word; it is deed, not language (I Cor. 15:l-4). […] Only in the redemption centered in the cross is the righteousness of God truly disclosed.” He wrote that confession is faith spoken, that baptism is faith visualized. The Gospel is story, not law. Christ is salvation, not our deeds. Redemption is carrying the cross, not taking steps toward it.
Regeneration in the blood of Christ is not a step-by-step schematic; a list of steps can only function as an aid in understanding one layer of the beautiful work of God in saving us. If we are going to use the “Five Finger Gospel” that Walter Scott came up with, we should actively refer to it as a kind of shorthand for man’s role in salvation, and we should not emphasize it so much that we minimize what the Gospel is truly about, a subject the “5 steps” hardly touch. It is not fully representative enough of God’s actual plan for salvation to be titled “THE plan”; it is too much like calling the Ten Commandments “THE Covenant.”
Evangelism is part of the ministry of regeneration, a ministry whose high priest is Jesus Christ. The Churches of Christ have exemplified a tradition of consistently pointing to Christ as our only high priest and reverend. Let us also point to Christ as the one who works regeneration in us.
If you want to tell someone about becoming a Christian, what would I suggest? Well, first of all, use scripture. Not just as a prooftext, but as a thing to read. We should be able to tell of Christ without a 5-step plan, just as the 1st century church did. Tell the story of Christ. Use the Gospel. When they show interest in following Christ and being regenerated by his gift, focus on Christ and tell them how the Bible has prompted them to respond with a repentance to Christ, shown in being immersed in Christ (1 Peter 3:21), so that we can be resurrected with him in eternal life.
God’s scheme of regeneration is simple: The Messiah. Tell the story. Unpack it. Let man’s response to salvation come out of the scriptures. Let the Spirit guide. Whether it is laid out in 5 steps, 3 steps, or 7 steps, as long as it is scriptural, the Spirit is doing the work of leading people to Jesus. Let our plans decrease so he may increase. Have faith in the son of Man.