Broadly speaking, Christians believe that we are, as a race, separated from God and in need of restoration. We sin, and sin is offensive to God and outside of his intentions for us. Because of our separation, God suffers, we suffer and the world is in a state of corruption, and because it is outside of our capabilities to put things right God must take the initiative, which he does through the sacrifice of his son on our behalf. Christ died bearing the sins of us all and rose to new life, conquering both sin and death for the believer. Believers are thus saved from destruction and brought by Christ to new life with him. Anyone who studies the faith must have some form of blueprint for the process of salvation in order to provide himself with a framework upon which to build his studies.
I can only write this piece from a personal perspective, as there are several theological stances on the order of salvation and any conclusion one reaches on which one is right is entirely dependant upon which aspect one starts with. What follows is, I hope, a non-heretical, generally acceptable, but carefully considered order, based on scripture. First, it will help to identify the key components. They are:
God’s grace is not a commodity. It doesn’t come in buckets, litres, pounds or yards. God’s grace is his merciful and unmerited favour towards us. It is his unerring and unfailing kindness towards his creation. Some branches of theology attempt to further define it by categorising it into “strengths”, from “common grace” to “irresistible grace”, the weakest to the strongest. I reject any attempt to categorise; God is not “a little bit kind” or “so kind that you have no choice but to comply with his wishes”. His grace is universal and constant, surrounding us from our conception, giving us air to breathe, food to eat, and life to live.
Traditionally, our separation came at The Fall, the point at which man first sinned and all life changed. This “Original Sin” or loss of original holiness was passed from parent to child and the whole of humankind is said to suffer the effects of that sin, rendering us unable to turn to God of our own volition. Only god’s grace can enable us in such a way that we can turn to him.
There is a theological divide at this point, where Christianity is drawn along two distinct and contrary paths. On the one hand we have the views of the Arminians, called after Jacob Arminius, a Dutch Reformer of the sixteenth century. Arminius believed as the majority of Christians and I do, including the Catholic Church, that grace comes before anything else, and is thus “prevenient”. All may come to Christ, but those who reject him seal their own damnation. On the other hand we have the beliefs of John Calvin, who said that grace was not universal, but limited, specific and irresistible; God chooses whom he will save, enables them only to believe, and damns the rest, who according to Calvin were created for that purpose. Whatever path you follow, grace is your starting point, and without it we would all be “dead in our sins” and would remain unsaved.
The link between grace and faith is well established, in that most theological positions hold that man is unable to turn to God without grace. As said above, this position can be rigidly held, where grace is seen as almost an enabling substance which is 100% effective upon those to whom it is administered, to a looser definition, which can say as little as that our very existence is in itself a gracious act. Similarly, faith can be seen as a gift of God, given only to those whom he has fore-ordained will believe, to a voluntary action of man’s, brought about by a recognition of his need for salvation from his broken relationship with God. A third view understands that the grace of God is shown to us in the giving of his Son for our sake, and that Christ’s action alone shows us sufficient grace to enable our faith, though some will reject this graceful act and continue in a broken relationship with God. It’s important to accept that faith goes beyond a mere intellectual assent given to the idea of Christ’s sacrifice, or agreement that he was, in fact, a person who really lived 2,000 years ago. As a child, you may have jumped from a swing at it’s highest point, having faith that your father would catch you. This is very different from merely acknowledging your father’s existence.
Justification is the act of being declared righteous. It is the point at which God recognises your faith and declares you one of his people. Romans 4:
9 [Cometh] this blessedness then upon the circumcision [only], or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.
10 How was it then reckoned ? when he was in circumcision, or inuncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [he had yet] being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe , though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which [he had] being [yet] uncircumcised.
13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, [was] not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
Justification then comes through faith, to all who believe.
The placement of baptism is a difficult one for some. For many, baptism is analogous with circumcision, and as we have seen, Abraham was declared righteous BEFORE his circumcision, therefore baptism must follow justification. However, most would see that faith leads to obedience, and obedience requires baptism. For many the process of baptism would include the washing away of the stain of sin, forgiveness for past sins, justification and regeneration. Those of us who baptise infants and those unable to make their own decisions through mental impairment do so on the understanding that the individual is brought into the family of the Church, cleansed, forgiven and given new life. As time progresses is it hoped and believed that the grace of God will work within the individual to strengthen and build faith, which is ultimately personally declared at confirmation, where further helpful grace is imparted.
Regeneration is the process of New Birth, Rebirth or being Born Again. It is also described by Christ as being “Born from above” (John 3:7). God, after justifying us, gives us new life in the Power of the Holy Spirit. We then work with God, empowered by his grace and our faith to become the person he would have us be. The traditional churches see Baptism as the most common means of effecting regeneration, though God can use any means he pleases. Baptist churches deny God this freedom, rejecting baptismal regeneration and reducing baptism to mere ordinance – something we undergo because God says we must, but without specific salvific purpose.
Being born again does not, in itself, make us perfect. The process of gradual perfection is known as Sanctification. As we live a life fulfilling our Christian calling we grow daily in our faith. Our faith, in turn, leads to good works and we grow more Christlike. What may have started with some difficulty becomes “second nature” over time as our sanctification progresses, always aiming for Christian perfection. Most will say we can never achieve this perfection in this life, which has led some to believe in some form of post-mortem sanctification to complete the work. This is a huge debate. Catholics hold to a view of Purgatory, more of a state of being than a location, where sanctification continues and punishments for venial (or minor, non-mortal) sin takes place. Some hold similar views without using the word “Purgatory”, and many reject the view that sanctification continues in time, but that God makes all things perfect for believers prior to their final judgement. John Wesley, founder of Methodism and a lifelong Anglican priest, held that Christian Perfection was achieved on a daily basis, whereby every single decision a man makes is the best possible decision in God’s eyes, given the wherewithal of the individual. Man must make God his first thought in every action. Some have confused his view with Sinless Perfection, the ability to never sin, which he never agreed with nor supported in any way.
The act of being Glorified. This, then, is salvation, the point at which one is actually saved following death and final judgement. Some, particularly Protestants, will see salvation as occurring at the first point of belief. On this basis they may argue that salvation once given, cannot be lost, as God will complete the work started in an individual. In this God acts Monergistically. Orthodox believers (by which I mean non-Protestants) see salvation as a process, never complete until the very end. This is a Synergistic process whereby an individual CAN turn his back on God and foolishly walk away.
As a member of the Church of England, and therefore an Anglican, the above ordo salutis (order of salvation) can be seen to have both catholic and reformed elements. It is the order I personally adopt and one held by churches worldwide.