Let’s start by making sure we understand one important point. There is a difference between Reformed theology and Reformed soteriology (doctrine of salvation). They are not mutually exclusive, but they are different. Reformed soteriology is a part of Reformed theology, but the latter is broader, and includes, but is not limited to, the former. When most people think of Reformed theology, they think of sovereignty, Calvinism, TULIP, predestination / election, or something like that. They would be right, sort-of. Reformed theology is so much more than discussions of salvation and sovereignty. If you have been following this series of blogs, I trust that you will have figured this out.
In this post I would like to explore the distinctiveness of the Reformed theological understanding of soteriology. But before we get too far, we need to remember what John Hendryx states about the origin and development of Reformed theology as a whole,
The Reformed position’s strength is exegesis — the interpretation of the text in light of its grammar, syntax, and context. The doctrine is proved by (1) the direct statements of Scripture; (2) the teaching of the Bible concerning the incapacity of man to do anything that is pleasing to God without God’s first freeing the sinner from the bonds of death; and (3) the teaching of those passages that combine these two truths into an undeniable whole.
Reformed soteriology, at its core, is monergistic. Which means, to quote Hendryx from a different article,
Since faith is infinitely beyond all the power of our unregenerated human nature, it is only God who can give the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see the beauty of Christ in the gospel. God alone disarms the hostility of the sinner turning his heart of stone to a heart of flesh. So the problem of conversion is not with the Word or God’s Law but with man’s prideful heart. The humility required to submit to the gospel (which is beyond man’s natural capacity) is, therefore, not prompted by man’s will but by God’s mercy (John 1:13; Rom 9:16) since no one can believe the gospel unless God grants it (John 6:63, 65). The Spirit must likewise give all His people spiritual life and understanding if their hearts are to be opened and thus respond to Christ in faith.
Put simply Reformed theology believes what the Scriptures say about our pre-regenerate, sinful state and its implications. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13); we are therefore unable to seek God, please God or come to God (Romans 3:9-18); and thus we need the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to enable us to believe in Christ for our salvation (John 3:1-8; Ephesians 2:8-10).
Reformed theology recognizes the biblical truth of the following realities and is willing to affirm them regardless of how we might feel about them or desire them to be different. We don’t start with a list of things that need to be protected – like free will – and then progress into the text. Instead, the text is allowed to speak for itself, no matter where it leads and what must be believed. I strongly encourage you to review this link and this one from which the information below is summarized and which contain numerous biblical passages.
Radical Corruption or Total Depravity – Man is spiritually dead. Because of the fall, man has become spiritually dead, blind and deaf to the things of God and is therefore unable of himself to choose spiritual good and determine his own destiny. As Blum states, “Because man’s will is not free—for it is in bondage to his evil nature—he will never, and in fact can never, choose the goodness of God over the sinful desires of the flesh.” Thus we can never speak of man having “free will” since it is always in bondage to sin apart from salvation in Christ.
Sovereign or Unconditional Election – God’s election is unconditional. God’s choice of certain individuals for salvation was not based on any foreseen response of obedience, future faith, repentance or any other action. From eternity past, God the Father chose certain individuals from every tongue, tribe, nation and generation of humanity to redeem—the elect—and passed over the rest of mankind—the reprobate. Thus God’s choice of who he would save was rooted entirely in His sovereign, transcendent, perfect will, the nature or specifics of which the Bible leaves as a complete mystery to us. No one deserves salvation, since “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus salvation is entirely of God’s grace to save some out of the mass of perdition.
Definite or Limited Atonement – Christ’s death was designed to actually secure the salvation of all of God’s chosen people, rather than merely make it possible. Christ’s death secured and actually accomplished the salvation of all of God’s chosen people. God has determined that all for whom Christ sacrificed Himself will be saved. To put it in a slightly different way, “not only was Christ’s Atonement designed for, and given to, only the elect; it also actually secured salvation for them, and purchased all the means to such, including their faith and repentance, thereby guaranteeing their salvation. Thus, the Atonement did not merely offer its objects the opportunity to be redeemed, but it wholly and effectively redeemed them!” (Blum)
Effectual or Irresistible Grace – The Holy Spirit regenerates every one of God’s chosen people, enabling them to believe. When the external call to salvation is made through gospel proclamation, the Holy Spirit extends a special inward call to the elect people that God wishes to save at that particular time and regenerates them. This regeneration creates within them a new heart and enables them to freely and willingly believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord. The new birth precedes and makes possible saving faith. In drawing his elect to himself, God does not force people “against their will, squealing and kicking as it were” to believe in him. (Carson) This doctrine emphasizes that “it is God’s choice of the sinner, and not the sinner’s of God, that ultimately and fully causes salvation, since the sinner’s very willingness to put faith in Christ is solely a gift from God that was purchased at the Cross” (Blum)
Preservation or Perseverance of the Saints – All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of God and therefore continue to persevere in faith. Once the Holy Spirit regenerates people, and they place their trust in Christ, they are eternally kept in their state of salvation by God. He faithfully preserves all whom He set out to save and drew to him. Likewise, whenever anyone apparently “receives Christ,” but later falls away and dies in that state, they were never truly saved at all—for anyone whom the Holy Spirit calls was predestined by the Father and atoned for by the Son, and thus is sealed with God’s promise of eternal life.
I will allow John Hendryx to conclude:
Monergism strips us of all hope to ourselves, reveals our spiritual bankruptcy apart from Christ, and thus leads us to give all glory to God alone for our salvation. As long as we think we contributed something, even a little bit (like good intentions) then we still think deep down that God saves us for something good he sees in us over our neighbor. But this is clearly not the case. Only Jesus makes us to differ from anyone else. We are all sinners and can boast in nothing before God, including the desire for faith in Christ (Phil 1:29, Eph 2:8, 2 Tim 2:25). For why do we have faith and not our neighbor? Please consider that. Did we make better use of God’s grace than he did? Were we smarter? More sensitive? Do some naturally love God? The answer is ‘no’ to all of the above. It is God’s grace in Christ that makes us to differ from our neighbor and God’s grace alone that gave rise to our faith, not because we were better or had more insight. No other element but Jesus mercy alone.
Soli Deo Gloria