Salvation: Romans Road Less Traveled
Paul of Tarsus' letter to the Romans features the most thorough soteriology ("study of salvation"), which is why many pastors lead new believers on the "Romans Road" to salvation. A historical-grammatical approach to Romans must include historical and cultural backgrounds, and even more so the author's intent. In his Jewish setting, Paul's belief on salvation features a robust definition of faith and works as well as law and grace. We mistakenly teach faith or works and law or grace as mutually exclusive. Yet, the scriptures explain them as mutually inclusive. Too many Christians today view salvation as a minimum list of tasks or beliefs required to have God's mercy. However, biblical soteriology is a maximum relationship between a disciple and their Savior, who is Jesus.
Phases in the Order of Salvation
The three phases in the "order of salvation" (Latin: Ordo salutis) are justification, sanctification, and glorification. When most churchgoers profess to be "saved," they really mean "justified". This is because salvation (Greek: sōtēria; 4991, "wellbeing" or "deliverance") is a lifelong process of discipleship and faithful practice of Jesus' teaching. No ritual saves us merely because a church leader performed it, whether that is baptism or an altar call confession. Simply put, no one is saved until death. Jesus himself teaches this, "But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 10:22; 24:13). Paul agreed when he said, "But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life" (Rom. 6:22). God the Father draws us toward justification, to be declared righteous by the merits of Jesus alone. In his gospel, John son of Zebedee wrote, "No one can come to [Jesus] unless drawn by the Father who sent [him]; and [he] will raise that person up on the last day" (6:44). Following our response to his call, the Holy Spirit leads us into living increasingly more holy lives through sanctification. At the final resurrection, we receive new bodies for our eternal souls in a process called glorification (Rom. 6:19, 22; 8:30). Parenthetically, the Greek Orthodox view the three phases of salvation as an ongoing transformation called theōsis—to gradually be more like God and partake in his divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).
Many Christians are familiar with the "five Solas" that express a soteriological foundation:
Sola scriptura: We develop sound teaching on God-breathed "scripture alone" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The Lutheran scholar Theodore Engelder (1865–1949) and the Reformed theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966) only listed the "five Solas" in its current form in the twentieth century. However, they based the concept on a lesson from the German reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), a companion to Martin Luther (1497–1560): "Only by grace do we justify and only by faith are we justified" (Latin: Sola gratia justificamus et sola fide justificamur). Luther and the French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) taught a similar formula, shaping the course of Christian theology ever since their Protestant Reformation (1517–1648).
The Anglican scholar N. T. Wright cautions us, "For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It's time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions" (p. 37). Simply put, we must be careful not to assume Paul was talking about our modern idea of salvation, but to read him in context. While the "five Solas" are useful prompts in our understanding of salvation, we must ensure they align with the Bible in its historical and literary settings. As you will see, this does not mean throwing away the "five Solas" completely, but enhancing their vocabulary to coincide with biblical theology and exegesis. They started as the Reformation's correction of Roman Catholic soteriology and were later modified to confront Enlightenment (1685–1815) skepticism. However, we must redevelop the "Solas" to better fit the cultural background of first-century Galilee and Judea, even if that means adjusting some of them to "Primas" to gain a twenty-first-century New Testament faith.
The verb justify means "to prove something just, right, or reasonable". This is a legal term, referring to when a courtroom judge issues a verdict of "not guilty" about the defendant. However, this does not mean the defendant is innocent of wrongdoing, which is why rulings never include this word. In context, the judge is merely ruling that the accuser did not meet the "reasonable doubt" standard of evidence (first-century Jewish courts did not have prosecutors). Lutheran and Reformed theologians call this forensic justification because God, the highest Judge of the most eminent courtroom, declares us "not guilty" based on Jesus' atonement of our sins. The word "forensic" applies to the knowledge and method of justification. Therefore, we are saved by faith, that is, trust in the effectiveness of Jesus to save us in God's heavenly court. This efficacy derives from Christ's death on the cross, removing the death penalty that we deserve for our crimes against divinity.
Consequently, any righteousness we do have before God is granted to us because Jesus endured our punishments and suffered for us (Isa. 53; Acts 8:26-35). This is the doctrine of imputed righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). However, we must not confuse being credited as righteous with obtaining or being infused with God's virtue, which is elusive to us. The founding Methodist theologian John Wesley (1703–1791) believed that God both imputes and imparts righteousness to us, meaning that he not only deems us right with him but also transforms our minds to think adversely about sin (Jer. 31:33-34; Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). When God justifies us, we are reborn "from above" through the Holy Spirit's breathing his life into us (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet. 1:23). Through the prophet Ezekiel, God declared,
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (36:25-28).
Both Old and New Testaments say that no one is righteous in God's sight; not one single person on earth (Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Rom. 3:9-11). The legal framework of justification begins with the Law of Moses, which God will use to judge all humankind on the last day from his bēma (G968, "judgment platform"), similar to "the bench" in a modern courtroom (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). However, Paul informs us, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us [on the cross]" (Gal 3:13). We meet God's intent for the Mosaic Law by trusting in Jesus for our salvation.
The verb sanctify means 1) "to set apart to a sacred purpose," 2) "to free from sin," and 3) "to impart or impute sacredness". Sanctification also underlies the definition of the word church, which the New Testament writers applied the Greek noun ekklēsia (G1577), a compound word meaning "called out" (ek, 1537; kaleō, 2564). Sanctification is the action of faith, that is, we are to live in faithfulness to God. The doctrine of Prima fide—an approach more fitting of biblical theology rather than the systematic view of Sola fide—refers to the primacy of faith over works as the believer's response to God's calling. However, it does not and cannot eliminate the importance of works in the life of a Christian. James of Jerusalem, who was Jesus' brother, wrote, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). Therefore, sanctification is the process of living into one's justification, but must not be confused with earning it. It is a posture of gratitude and obedience. Oftentimes, church leaders use Paul's words at Eph. 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast") to downplay works in opposition to James. Luther wanted to remove James' letter from the New Testament canon because of this, dismissing it as an "epistle of straw". He also added the word "alone" to Rom. 3:28 ("For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law") in his German translation to maintain justification by "faith alone". However, Paul's teaching dovetails with James since the very next verse after the Sola fide proof-text reads, "For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Eph. 2:10). That "way of life" is our sanctification.
The proponents of the "five Solas" inadvertently forgot to mention the Holy Spirit while including the Father and the Son. For the "Solas" to correctly express God's tri-unity, they must feature all three of the divine beings. This neglect also causes us to pit faith versus works rather than discerning them as reciprocal in nature. A more complete soteriological trademark expands the "five Solas" to these seven tenets: Soli Deo gloria → Prima gratia (God's prevenient grace first draws us with an expectation of continued piety and holiness) → Solus Christus → Prima fide → Solus Spiritus Santus → Sola ecclesia → Prima scriptura (i.e., the Bible's primacy over—but not excluding—Christian tradition, reason, and experience). This enhanced knowledge in Solus Spiritus Sanctus ("Holy Spirit alone") informs our understanding of how faith and works go together in the deliberate effort of faithful and holy living. Sanctification brings us into the "called out" community of God's set-apart people known as the "church". This gives rise to Sola ecclesia ("church alone"), which means there is no salvation outside of the Christian church of which Jesus entrusted the keys of God's kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19).
Another misunderstanding based on Sola fide is the common assumption that God does not expect Christians to be perfect. This error is best exemplified by the bumper-sticker phrase, "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven". The scriptures tell us that God's forgiveness leads us into sanctification, the Holy Spirit's process of making us perfect. He is not satisfied with a religious abstract belief in Jesus' atonement of our sins, but more so with a life of holiness in response to being forgiven. Repentance (metanoia; G3341, "change of mind") is a continuous process of mental and spiritual transformation that inspires us to always choose to do good over evil (Rom. 12:2, 21). So when Jesus tells us, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48), this is not some notional advice but his real expectation for us. Therefore, faith and works, as well as law and grace, are two sides of the same coin in the Bible's historical-grammatical and Jewish setting. Keep in mind, scholars translate the Greek noun pistis (4102, "trust") as both "faith" and "faithfulness". This means faithfulness is both the result and action of faith—that faith is a work!
The verb glorify means 1) to make glorious by bestowing honor, praise, or admiration, 2) to elevate to celestial glory, 3) to light up brilliantly, and 4) to make better than the original condition. Yes, this last phase in the order of salvation is the resurrection of the living and the dead in Christ Jesus! Paul said this about our glorified selves when God resurrects us,
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:42-49).
John also wrote about glorification during his exile on Patmos: "Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills, that we may be completely yours, fully dedicated to you; and then employ us as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through Jesus the Messiah, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
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