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The Plan of Salvation: Part 1: Differing Conceptions

By Benjamin B. Warfield

      THE SUBJECT to which our attention is to be directed in this series of lectures is ordinarily spoken of as "The Plan of Salvation." Its more technical designation is, "The Order of Decrees." And this technical designation has the advantage over the more popular one, of more accurately defining the scope of the subject matter. This is not commonly confined to the process of salvation itself but is generally made to include the entire course of the divine dealing with man which ends in his salvation. Creation is not uncommonly comprehended in it, and of course the fall, and the condition of man brought about by the fall. This portion of the subject matter may, however, certainly with some propriety, be looked upon as rather of the nature of a presupposition, than as a substantive part of the subject matter itself; and no great harm will be done if we abide by the more popular designation. Its greater concreteness gives it an advantage which should not be accounted small; and above all it has the merit of throwing into emphasis the main matter, salvation. The series of the divine activities which are brought into consideration are in any event supposed to circle around as their center, and to have as their proximate goal, the salvation of sinful man. When the implications of this are fairly considered it may not seem to require much argument to justify the designation of the whole by the term, "The Plan of Salvation."

      It does not seem necessary to pause to discuss the previous question whether God, in his saving activities, acts upon a plan. That God acts upon a plan in all his activities, is already given in Theism. On the establishment of a personal God, this question is closed. For person means purpose: precisely what distinguishes a person from a thing is that its modes of action are purposive, that all it does is directed to an end and proceeds through the choice of means to that end. Even the Deist, therefore, must allow that God has a plan. We may, no doubt, imagine an extreme form of Deism, in which it may be contended that God does not concern himself at all with what happens in his universe; that, having created it, he turns aside from it and lets it run its own course to any end that may happen to it, without having himself given a thought to it. It is needless to say, however, that no such extreme form of Deism actually exists, though, strange to say, there are some, as we shall have occasion to observe, who appear to think that in the particular matter of the salvation of man God does act much after this irresponsible fashion.

      What the actual Deist stands for is law. He conceives that God commits his universe, not to unforeseen and unprepared caprice, but to law; law which God has impressed on his universe and to the guidance of which he can safely leave his universe. That is to say, even the Deist conceives God to have a plan; a plan which embraces all that happens in the universe. He differs with the Theist only as to the modes of activity by which he conceives God to carry out this plan. Deism involves a mechanical conception of the universe. God has made a machine, and just because it is a good machine, he can leave it to work out, not its, but his ends. So we may make a clock and then, just because it is a good clock, leave it to tick off the seconds, and point out the minutes, and strike the hours, and mark off the days of the month, and turn up the phases of the moon and the accompanying tides; and if we choose, we may put in a comet which shall appear on the dial but once in the life of the clock, not erratically, but when and where and how we have arranged for it to appear. The clock does not go its own way; it goes our way, the way which we have arranged for it to go; and God's clock, the universe, goes not its way but his way, as he has ordained for it, grinding out the inevitable events with mechanical precision.

      This is a great conception, the Deist conception of law. It delivers us from chance. But it does so, only to cast us into the cogged teeth of a machine. It is, therefore, not the greatest conception. The greatest conception is the conception of Theism, which delivers us even from law, and places us in the immediate hands of a person. It is a great thing to be delivered from the inordinate realm of aimless chance. The goddess Tyche, Fortuna, was one of the most terrible divinities of the old world, quite as terrible as and scarcely distinguishable from Fate. It is a great thing to be under the control of intelligent purpose. But it makes every difference whether the purpose is executed by mere law, acting automatically, or by the ever present personal control of the person himself There is nothing more ordinate than the control of a person, all of whose actions are governed by intelligent purpose, directed to an end.

      If we believe in a personal God, then, and much more if, being Theists, we believe in the immediate control by this personal God of the world he has made, we must believe in a plan underlying all that God does, and therefore also in a plan of salvation. The only question that can arise concerns not the reality but the nature of this plan. As to its nature, however, it must be admitted that a great many differing opinions have been held. Indeed pretty nearly every possible opinion has been announced at one time or another, in one quarter or another. Even if we leave all extra-Christian opinions to one side, we need scarcely modify this statement. Lines of division have been drawn through the Church; parties have been set over against parties; and different types of belief have been developed which amount to nothing less than different systems of religion, which are at one in little more than the mere common name of Christian, claimed by them all.

      It is my purpose in this lecture to bring before us in a rapid survey such of these varying views as have been held by large parties in the Church, that some conception may be formed of their range and relations. This may be most conveniently done by observing, in the first instance at least, only the great points of difference which separate them. I shall enumerate them in the order of significance, proceeding from the most profound and far-reaching differences which divide Christians to those of less radical effect.

      1. The deepest cleft which separates men calling themselves Christians in their conceptions of the plan of salvation, is that which divides what we may call the Naturalistic and the Supernaturalistic views. The line of division here is whether, in the matter of the salvation of man, God has planned simply to leave men, with more or less completeness, to save themselves, or whether he has planned himself to intervene to save them. The issue between the naturalist and the supernaturalist is thus the eminently simple but quite absolute one: Does man save himself or does God save him?

      The consistently naturalistic scheme is known in the history of doctrine as Pelagianism. Pelagianism in its purity, affirms that all the power exerted in saving man is native to man himself. But Pelagianism is not merely a matter of history, nor does it always exist in its purity. As the poor in earthly goods are always with us, so the poor in spiritual things are also always with us. It may indeed be thought that there never was a period in the history of the Church in which naturalistic conceptions of the process of salvation were more wide-spread or more radical than at present. A Pelagianism which out pelagianizes Pelagus himself in the completeness of its naturalism is in fact at the moment intensely fashionable among the self-constituted leaders of Christian thought. And everywhere, in all communions alike, conceptions are current which assign to man, in the use of his native powers at least the decisive activity in the saving of the soul, that is to say, which suppose that God has planned that those shall be saved, who, at the decisive point, in one way or another save themselves.

      These so-called intermediate views are obviously, in principle, naturalistic views, since (whatever part they permit God to play in the circumstantials of salvation) when they come to the crucial point of salvation itself they cast man back upon his native powers. In so doing they separate themselves definitely from the supernaturalistic view of the plan of salvation and, with it, from the united testimony of the entire organized Church. For, however much naturalistic views have seeped into the membership of the churches, the entire organized Church--Orthodox Greek, Roman Catholic Latin, and Protestant in all its great historical forms, Lutheran and Reformed, Calvinistic and Arminian--bears its consentient, firm and emphatic testimony to the supernaturalistic conception of salvation. We shall have to journey to the periphery of Christendom, to such sects of doubtful standing in the Christian body as, say, the Unitarians, to find an organized body of Christians with aught but a supernaturalistic confession.

      This confession, in direct opposition to naturalism, declares with emphasis that it is God the Lord and not man himself who saves the soul; and, that no mistake may be made, it does not shrink from the complete assertion and affirms, with full understanding of the issue, precisely that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God. Here, then, is the knife-edge which separates the two parties. The supernaturalist is not content to say that some of the power which is exerted in saving the soul; that most of the power that is exerted in saving the soul, is from God. He asserts that all the power that is exerted in saving the soul is from God, that whatever part man plays in the saving process is subsidiary, is itself the effect of the divine operation and that it is God and God alone who saves the soul. And the supernaturalist in this sense is the entire organized Church in the whole stretch of its official testimony.

      2. There exist, no doubt, differences among the Supernaturalists, and differences which are not small or unimportant. The most deeply cutting of these separates the Sacerdotalists and the Evangelicals. Both sacerdotalists and evangelicals are supernaturalists. That is to say, they agree that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God. They differ in their conception of the manner in which the power of God, by which salvation is wrought, is brought to bear on the soul. The exact point of difference between them turns on the question whether God, by whose power alone salvation is wrought, saves men by dealing himself immediately with them as individuals, or only by establishing supernatural endowed instrumentalities in the world by means of which men may be saved. The issue concerns the immediacy of the saving operations of God: Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?

      The typical form of sacerdotalism is supplied by the teaching of the Church of Rome. In that teaching the church is held to be the institution of salvation, through which alone is salvation conveyed to men. Outside the church and its ordinances salvation is not supposed to be found; grace is communicated by and through the ministrations of the church, otherwise not. The two maxims are therefore in force: Where the church is, there is the Spirit; outside the church there is no salvation. The sacerdotal principle is present, however, wherever instrumentalities through which saving grace is brought to the soul are made indispensable to salvation; and it is dominant wherever this indispensability is made absolute. Thus what are called the Means of Grace are given the "necessity of means," and are made in the strict sense not merely the sine quibius non, but the actual quibus of salvation.

      Over against this whole view evangelicalism, seeking to conserve what it conceives to be only consistent supernaturalism, sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace. It is directly upon God and not the means of grace that the evangelical feels dependent for salvation; it is directly to God rather than to the means of grace that he looks for grace; and he proclaims the Holy Spirit therefore not only able to act hut actually operative where and when and how he will. The Church and its ordinances he conceives rather as instruments which the Spirit uses than as agents which employ the Holy Spirit in working salvation. In direct opposition to the maxims of consistent sacerdotalism, he takes therefore as his mottoes: Where the Spirit is, there is the church; outside the body of the saints there is no salvation.

      In thus describing evangelicalism, it will not escape notice that we are also describing Protestantism. In point of fact the whole body of Confessional Protestantism is evangelical in its view of the plan of salvation, inclusive alike of its Lutheran and Reformed, of its Calvinistic and Arminian branches. Protestantism and evangelicalism are accordingly conterminous, if not exactly synonymous designation. As all organized Christianity is clear and emphatic in its confession of a pure supernaturalism, so all organized Protestantism is equally clear and emphatic in its confession of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism thus comes before us as the distinctively Protestant conception of the plan of salvation, and perhaps it is not strange that, in its immediate contradiction of sacerdotalism, the more deeply lying contradiction to naturalism which it equally and indeed primarily embodies is sometimes almost lost sight of. Evangelicalism does not cease to be fundamentally antinaturalistic, however, in becoming antisacerdotal: its primary protest continues to be against naturalism, and in opposing sacerdotalism also it only is the more 'Consistently supernaturalistic, refusing to admit any intermediaries between the soul and God, as the sole source of salvation. That only is true evangelicalism, therefore, in which sounds clearly the double confession that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God, and that God in his saving operations acts directly upon the soul.

      3. Even so, however, there remain differences, many and deep-reaching, which divide Evangelicals among themselves. All evangelicals are agreed that all the power exerted in salvation is from God, and that God works directly upon the soul in his saving operations. But upon the exact methods employed by God in bringing many sons into glory they differ much from one another. Some evangelicals have attained their evangelical position by a process of modification, in the way of correction, applied to a fundamental sacerdotalism, from which they have thus won their way out. Naturally elements of this underlying sacerdotalism have remained imbedded in their construction, and color their whole mode of conceiving evangelicalism. There are other evangelicals whose conceptions are similarly colored by an underlying naturalism, out of which they have formed their better confession by a like process of modification and correction. The former of these parties is represented by the evangelical Lutherans, who, accordingly delight to speak of themselves as adherents of a "conservative Reformation"; that is to say, as having formed their evangelicalism on the basis of the sacerdotalism of the Church of Rome, out of which they have, painfully perhaps, though not always perfectly, made their way. The other party is represented by the evangelical Arminians, whose evangelicalism is a correction in the interest of evangelical feeling of the underlying semi-pelagianism of the Dutch Remonstrants. Over against all such forms there are still other evangelicals whose evangelicalism is more the pure expression of the fundamental evangelical principle, uncolored by intruding elements from without.

      Amid this variety of types it is not easy to fix upon a principle of classification which will enable us to discriminate between the chief forms which evangelicalism takes by a clear line of demarcation. Such a principle, however, seems to be provided by the opposition between what we may call the Universalistic and the Particularistic conceptions of the plan of salvation. All evangelicals agree that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God, and that this saving power is exerted immediately upon the soul. But they differ as to whether God exerts this saving power equally, or at least indiscriminately, upon all men, be they actually saved or not, or rather only upon particular men, namely upon those who are actually saved. The point of division here is whether God is conceived to have planned actually himself to save men by his almighty and certainly efficacious grace, or only so to pour out his grace upon men as to enable them to be saved, without actually securing, however, in any particular cases that they shall be saved.

      The specific contention of those whom I have spoken of as universalistic is that, while all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God, and this power is exerted immediately from God upon the soul, yet all that God does, looking to the salvation of men, he does for and to all men alike, without discrimination. On the face of it this looks as if it must result in a doctrine of universal salvation. If it is God the Lord who saves the soul, and not man himself; and if God the Lord saves the soul by working directly upon it in his saving grace; and then if God the Lord so works in his saving grace upon all souls alike; it would surely seem inevitably to follow that therefore all are saved. Accordingly, there have sometimes appeared earnest evangelicals who have vigorously contended precisely on these grounds that all men are saved: salvation is wholly from God, and God is almighty, and as God works salvation by his almighty grace in all men, all men are saved. From this consistent universalism, however, the great mass of evangelical universalists have always drawn back, compelled by the clearness and emphasis of the Scriptural declaration that, in point of fact, all men are not saved. They have found themselves therefore face to face with a great problem; and various efforts have been made by them to construe the activities of God looking to salvation as all universalistic and the issue as nevertheless particularistic; while yet the fundamental evangelical principle is preserved that it is the grace of God alone which saves the soul. These efforts have given us especially the two great schemes of evangelical Lutheranism and evangelical Arminianism, the characteristic contention of both of which is that all salvation is in the hands of God alone, and all that God does, looking to salvation, is directed indiscriminately to all men, and yet not all but some men only are saved.

      Over against this inconsistent universalism, other evangelicals contend that the particularism which attaches to the issue of the saving process, must, just because it is God and God alone who saves, belong also to the process itself. In the interests of their common evangelicalism, in the interests also of the underlying supernaturalism common to all Christians, neither of which comes to its rights otherwise-nay, in the interests of religion itself-they plead that God deals throughout the whole process of salvation not with men in the mass but with individual men one by one, upon each of whom he lays hold with his grace, and each of whom he by his grace brings to salvation. As it is he who saves men, and as he saves them by immediate operations on their hearts, and as his saving grace is his almighty power effecting salvation, men owe in each and every case their actual salvation, and not merely their general opportunity to be saved, to him. And therefore, to him and to him alone belongs in each instance all the glory, which none can share with him. Thus, they contend, in order that the right evangelical ascription, Soli Deo gloria, may be true and suffer no diminution in meaning or in force, it is necessary to understand that it is of God that each one who is saved has everything that enters into salvation and, most of all, the very fact that it is he who enters into salvation. The precise issue which divides the universalists and the particularists is, accordingly, just whether the saving grace of God, in which alone is salvation, actually saves. Does its presence mean salvation, or may it be present, and yet salvation fail?

      4. Even the Particularists, however, have their differences. The most important of these differences divides between those who hold that God has in view not all but some men, namely those who are actually saved, in all his operations looking toward the salvation of men; and those who wish to discriminate among God's operations in this matter and to assign only to some of them a particularistic which they assign to others a universalistic reference. The latter view is, of course, an attempt to mediate between the particularistic and the universalistic conceptions, preserving particularism in the processes as well as in the issue of salvation sufficiently to hang salvation upon the grace of God alone and to give to him all the glory of the actual salvation; while yet yielding to universalism so much of the process of salvation as its adherents think can be made at all consistent with this fundamental particularism.

      The special one of the saving operations which is yielded by them to universalism is the redemption of the sinner by Christ. This is supposed to have in the plan of God, not indeed an absolute, but a hypothetical reference to all men. All men are redeemed by Christ-that is, if they believe in him. Their believing in him is, however, dependent on the working of faith in their hearts by God, the Holy Spirit, in his saving operations designed to give effect to the redemption of Christ. The scheme is therefore known not merely by the name of its author, as Amyraldianism, but also, more descriptively, as Hypothetical Redemptionism, or, more commonly, as Hypothetical Universalism. It transfers the question which divides the particularist and the universalist with respect to the plan of salvation as a whole, to the more specific question of the reference of the redeeming work of Christ. And the precise point at issue comes therefore to be whether the redemptive work of Christ actually saves those for whom it is wrought, or only opens a possibility of salvation to them. The hypothetical universalist, holding that its reference is to all men indifferently and that not all men are saved, cannot ascribe to it a specifically saving operation and are therefore accustomed to speak of it as rendering salvation possible to all, as opening the way of salvation to men, as removing all the obstacles to the salvation of men, or in some other similar way. On the other hand, the consistent particularist is able to look upon the redemption wrought by Christ as actually redemptive, and insists that it is in itself a saving act which actually saves, securing the salvation of those for whom it is wrought.

      The debate comes thus to turn upon the nature of the redemptive work of Christ; and the particularists are able to make it very clear that whatever is added to it extensively is taken from it intensively. In other words, the issue remains here the same as in the debate with the general universalism of the Lutheran and the Arminian, namely, whether the saving operations of God actually save; though this issue is here concentrated upon a single one of these saving operations. If the saving operations of God actually save, then all those upon whom he savingly operates are saved, and particularism is given in the very nature of the case; unless we are prepared to go the whole way with universalism and declare that all men are saved. It is thus in the interests of the fundamental supernaturalistic postulate by which all organized Christianity separates itself from mere naturalism, that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God-and of the great evangelical ascription, of Soli Deo gloria, as well-that the consistent particularist contends that the reference of the redemption of Christ cannot be extended beyond the body of those who are actually saved, but must be held to be only one of the operations by which God saves those whom he saves, and not they themselves. Not only, then, they contend, must we give a place to particularism in the process as well as in the issue of salvation, but a place must be vindicated for it in all the processes of salvation alike. It is God the Lord who saves; and in all the operations by which he works salvation alike, he operates for and upon, not all men indifferently, but some men only, those namely whom he saves. Thus only can we preserve to him his glory and ascribe to him and to him only the whole work of salvation.

      5. The differences which have been enumerated exhaust the possibilities of differences of large moment within the limits of the plan of salvation. Men must be either Naturalists or Supematuralists; Supematuralists either Sacerdotalists or Evangelicals; Evangelicals either Universalistic or Particularistic; Particularists must be particularistic with respect to only some or with respect to all of God's saving operations. But the consistent particularists themselves find it still possible to differ among themselves, not indeed upon the terms of the plan of salvation itself, upon which they are all at one, but in the region of the presuppositions of that plan; and for the sake of completeness of enumeration it is desirable that this difference, too, should be adverted to here. It does not concern what God has done in the course of his saving operations; but passing behind the matter of salvation, it asks how God had dealt in general with the human race, as a race, with respect to its destiny. The two parties here are known in the history of thought by the contrasting names of Supralapsarians and Sublapsarians or Infralapsarians. The point of difference between them is whether God, in his dealing with men with reference to their destiny, divides them into two classes merely as men, or as sinners. That is to say, whether God's decree of election and preterition concerns men contemplated merely as men, or contemplated as already sinful men, a massa corrupta.

      The mere putting of the question seems to carry its answer with it. For the actual dealing with men which is in question, is, with respect to both classes alike, those who are elected and those who are passed by, conditioned on sin: we cannot speak of salvation any more than of reprobation without positing sin. Sin is necessarily precedent in thought, not indeed to the abstract idea of discrimination, but to the concrete instance of discrimination which is in question, a discrimination with regard to a destiny which involves either salvation or punishment. There must be sin in contemplation to ground a decree of salvation, as truly a decree of punishment. We cannot speak of a decree discriminating between men with reference to salvation and punishment, therefore, without positing the contemplation of men as sinners as its logical prius.

      The fault of the division of opinion now in question is that it seeks to lift the question of the discrimination on God's part between men, by which they are divided into two classes, the one the recipients of his undeserved favor, and the other the objects of his just displeasure, out of the region of reality; and thus loses itself in mere abstractions. When we bring it back to earth we find that the question which is raised amounts to this: whether God discriminates between men in order that he may save some; or whether he saves some in order that he may discriminate between men. Is the proximate motive that moves him an abstract desire for discrimination, a wish that he may have some variety in his dealings with men; and he therefore determines to make some of the objects of his ineffable favor and to deal with others in strict accordance with their personal deserts, in order that he may thus exercise all his faculties? Or is it the proximate motive that moves him an unwillingness that all mankind should perish in their sins; and, therefore, in order to gratify the promptings of his compassion, he intervenes to rescue from their ruin and misery an innumerable multitude which no man can number-as many as under the pressure of his sense of right he can obtain the consent of his whole nature to relieve from the just penalties of their sin-by an expedient in which his justice and mercy meet and kiss each other? Whatever we may say of the former question, it surely is the latter which is oriented aright with respect to the tremendous realities of human existence.

      One of the leading motives in the framing of the supralapsarian scheme, is the desire to preserve the particularistic principle throughout the whole of God's dealings with men; not with respect to man's salvation only, but throughout the entire course of the divine action with respect to men. God from creation itself, it is therefore said, deals with men conceived as divided into two classes, the recipients respectively of his undeserved favor and of his well-merited reprobation. Accordingly, some supralapsarians place the decree of discrimination first in the order of thought, precedent even to the decree of creation. All of them place it in the order of thought precedent to the decree of the fall. It is in place therefore to point out that this attempt to particularize the whole dealing of God with men is not really carried out, and indeed cannot in the nature of the case be carried out. The decree to create man, and more particularly the decree to permit the man whose creation is contemplated to fall into sin, are of necessity universalistic. Not some men only are created, nor some men created differently from others; but all mankind is created in its first head, and all mankind alike. Not some men only are permitted to fall; but all men and all men alike. The attempt to push particularism out of the sphere of the plan of salvation, where the issue is diverse (because confessedly only some men are saved), into the sphere of creation or of the fall, where the issue is common (for all men are created and all men are fallen), fails of the very necessity of the case. Particularism can come into question only where the diverse issues call for the postulation of diverse dealings looking toward the differing issues. It cannot then be pushed into the region of the divine dealings with man prior to man's need of salvation and God's dealings with him with reference to a salvation which is not common to all. Supralapsarianism errs therefore as seriously on the one side as universalism does on the other. Infralapsarianism offers the only scheme which is either self-consistent or consistent with the facts.

      It will scarcely have escaped notice that the several conceptions of the nature of the plan of salvation which we have passed in review do not stand simply side by side as varying conceptions of that plan, each making its appeal in opposition to all the rest. They are related to one another rather as a progressive series of corrections of a primal error, attaining ever more and more consistency in the embodiment of the one fundamental idea of salvation. If, then, we wish to find our way among them it must not be by pitting them indiscriminately against one another, but by following them regularly up the series. Supernaturalism must first be validated as against Naturalism, then Evangelicalism as against Sacerdotalism, then Particularism as against Universalism; and thus we shall arrive at length at the conception of the plan of salvation which does full justice to its specific character. It is to this survey that attention will be addressed in the succeeding lectures.

      The accompanying diagram will exhibit in a synoptical view the several conceptions which have been enumerated in this lecture, and may facilitate the apprehension of their mutual relations.

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See Also:
   The Plan of Salvation: Part 1: Differing Conceptions
   The Plan of Salvation: Part 2: Autosoterism
   The Plan of Salvation: Part 3: Sacerdotalism
   The Plan of Salvation: Part 4: Universalism
   The Plan of Salvation: Part 5: Calvinism


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