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The Biblical Plan of Salvation: No, It's Not the Calvinist One

If you are evangelical, this is probably not the plan of salvation you have learned. This is, though, the plan of salvation taught by all churches when the churches were one.

It is somewhat frustrating that the last sentence I wrote has so little impact on evangelicals. The early church fathers have been slandered so much that to say "at one time all the apostles' churches believed this" means very little. Apparently, many of us are able to convince ourselves that all the apostles' churches could have gone astray, and not only astray, but astray into the exact same error! What a triumph for the devil!

Such error might have been possible if the claims of Roman Catholic apologists were true. If there were a pope in the late first and second centuries decreeing doctrine to all the known churches, then it would be easy for all the churches to slip into error. But the bishop of Rome did not have such authority in the first and second centuries. Instead, the bishop and elders of the apostolic churches, all of whom had as their primary task to preserve without change the teachings that had been handed down by the apostles, stayed in fellowship with one another and held each other accountable so that ...

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. (Irenaeus, c. 185, Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. 10, par. 2)

If you want to read more about how the early churches "carefully preserve[d]" the teaching of the apostles, see my Christian history web site.

 

The Biblical and Original Plan of Salvation

 1. On the last day, at the final judgment, God will repay everyone based on their works. Those who have done good will receive life, and those who have done evil will be condemned. This did not change when Jesus died because Jesus died for us, not for the judgment nor for our already perfect and merciful Father in heaven.

 

Scripture:

Ezek. 18:20-30; Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17. It is John 5:28-29 that directly says what I wrote above. Together, these verses say that everyone, including Christians, will be impartially judged after death, where those who did good will receive eternal life and those who did evil will be condemned. Ezekiel adds that if any wicked person repents and starts doing good, God will forget all the wickedness that person did and only reward their righteousness. This is also true the other way around; those who turn from their righteousness will be condemned for their wickedness (Ezek. 18:24). Therefore, Jesus himself tells the church in Sardis that only those who have not defiled their garments will walk with him in white; the rest will have their names blotted out of the Book of Life (Rev. 3:4-5).

 

When the church was one:

Clement of Rome (c. AD 81 or c. AD 96): "Since then all things are seen and heard [by God], let us fear Him, and forsake those wicked works which proceed from evil desires; so that, through His mercy, we may be protected from the judgments to come" (1 Clement 28).

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 110 - 160): "I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful. Abstain from every form of evil [1 Thes. 5:22]. For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen" (Epistle to the Philippians 11).

 

2. The judgment will be fair and just, taking into account the fact that we are human and imperfect. The God who will judge us is the same God who loved us even while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8) and has delayed the return of Christ so that everyone has a chance to repent (2 Pet. 3:9). He will be merciful to those who have been merciful (Matt. 5:7), and he will reward eternal life to those who have patiently continued to do good (Rom. 2:7), but to the self-seeking, disobedient, and unrighteous there will be wrath, indignation, and anguish (Rom. 2:8-9). 

 

Scripture and explanation

Contrary to Calvinist teaching, there are and were righteous people even before Jesus came. Daniel, Noah, and Job were all so righteous that their righteousness would "deliver their own souls" (Ezek. 14:14,20, WEB). Their righteousness was not "filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). Those influenced by Calvinism quote Isaiah 64:6 regularly, but neither the apostles nor the church fathers ever quoted it. Yes, there was a generation of Israelites so evil that even their righteous deeds were offensive to God. This is the context of Isaiah 64:6. This is not true of every human as Ezekiel 14:14 attests. "The righteous" are mentioned repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, especially in Psalms and Proverbs.  Paul acknowledges this even of the Gentiles, who had no law before the Gospel, writing, "For when Gentiles who don't have the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying with them, and their thoughts among themselves accusing or else excusing them in the day that God will judge the secrets of men, according to my Gospel, by Jesus Christ" (Rom. 2:14-16). There are people whose conscience will excuse them on the day God judges the secrets of the heart.

 

When the church was one:

Theophilus of Antioch (Paul's home church) (c. AD 170): "But you, if you please, give reverent attention to the prophetic Scriptures, and they will make your way plainer for escaping the eternal punishments and obtaining the eternal prizes of God. For the One who gave the mouth for speech, formed the ear to hear, and made the eye to see will examine all things and will judge righteous judgment, rendering merited awards to each. 'To those who by patiently continuing to do good seek immortality, he will give life everlasting, joy, peace, rest, and abundance of good things' [Rom. 2:7].'" (To Autolycus I:14)

 

Tertullian of Carthage (AD 194-220): "The Divine Goodness ... is now dispensed according to the deserts of every man; it is offered to the worthy, denied to the unworthy, taken away from the unthankful, and also avenged on all its enemies. Thus the entire office of justice in this respect becomes an agency for goodness: whatever it condemns by its judgment, whatever it chastises by its condemnation, whatever ... it ruthlessly pursues, it, in fact, benefits with good instead of injuring. Indeed, the fear of judgment contributes to good, not to evil." (Against Marcion II:13)

 

3. Jesus died to eliminate our past, restore us to favor (grace) with God, obtain for us the promised Holy Spirit, and empower us to do good works so that we will be rewarded with eternal life at the judgment.

 

Scripture and explanation:

We receive these great benefits by faith in Jesus as Christ, Son of God, and Lord (Matt. 16:16; Jn. 20:31; Acts 2:36-38; Rom. 10:9-10). What we do NOT receive is a free pass at the judgment. We will all still face the judgment (2 Cor. 5:10). If we defile our garments (Rev. 3:4) by immorality, uncleanness, and greed, we will not receive any inheritance in the kingdom of God and of Christ (Eph. 5:5). Instead, we will be condemned with the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:6-7; cf. Rev. 3:4-5). Or, as Jesus put it, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

     Ephesians 2:8-10 is one of the best descriptions of my step 3. We received salvation—the things I described in step 3—by faith apart from works and, as a result, once we are saved we are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do."

     Titus 2:13-14 says that Jesus died to purchase for himself a people zealous for good works. In response to this truth, the apostle Paul tells Timothy to "confidently affirm" that God's people "must be careful to maintain good works" (Tit. 3:8). The letter to the Galatians confirms all this with "He who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap everlasting life. Let's not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season if we do not give up" (Gal. 6:8-9). In other words, if we walk by the Holy Spirit, who was given to us by faith and not by works, we will "not fulfill the lusts of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16) and thus "not grow weary in doing good" and reap eternal life at the judgment. To "not grow weary in doing good" in Galatians 6:9 is the same as "patiently continuing to do good" in Romans 2:7. Thus, both passages tell us that eternal life is rewarded to those who patiently continue to do good. Thanks be to God, this is great news to Christians because, by faith and apart from works, we are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10). Titus 2:11-12 says something similar, that grace will teach us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age.

     I should add here that God's plan is for us to live in the light, exposing our deeds to God on an ongoing basis (Jn. 3:19-21). If we walk in the light, we will produce goodness, righteousness, and truth (Eph. 5:9), and the blood of Jesus Christ will continually cleanse us from sin (1 John 1:7). Those who walk in the light are the ones about whom Romans 4 says, "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not account sin" (Rom. 4:8). These will appear blameless before the Lord on the last day because God will work in them both to do and to desire his will (Php. 2:13).

     Another great passage to describe this process is Romans 5:9-10: "Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life." We were reconciled to God by Jesus' death. This refers to the benefits that we receive when we are saved that I described above. We shall be  saved from wrath by his life. We are not yet saved from wrath because we must still face the judgment. His life will save us at the judgment, though, because as we live by his life (Gal. 2:20), "love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world" (1 Jn. 4:17).

When the church was one:

Clement of Rome (c. AD 81 or AD 96): "Take heed, beloved, lest his many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all, unless we walk worthy of Him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in His sight." (1 Clement 21)

Ignatius of Antioch (AD 107 or 116): "For there is not now a demand for mere profession, but that a man be found continuing in the power of faith to the end." (Letter to the Ephesians 14)

The same Ignatius: "And why are we not all prudent, since we have received the knowledge of God, which is Jesus Christ? Why do we foolishly perish, not recognizing the gift which the Lord has of a truth sent to us?" (Letter to the Ephesians 17)

 

What Do We Do in Response to this Plan of Salvation?

Upon "God's firm foundation" is written, "Let all those who name the name of Christ depart from unrighteousness" (2 Tim. 2:19). Under the plan of salvation once believed by all the apostles' churches, it is obvious why this inscription would be foundational. Our foundational response, then, once we have believe and been baptized, is to depart from unrighteousness.

Much of the New Testament and the gifts we received at salvation are devoted to teaching us about and training us to do good works.

 

a. The purpose of the Scriptures, as we use them to speak to one another, is to equip us to do good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

b. The purpose of grace is to break the power of sin (Rom. 6:14) and teach us to live soberly, righteously, and godly (Tit. 2:11-12).

c. One purpose of fellowship as Christians is to exhort one another so that we are not deceived by sin (Heb. 3:13) and to provoke us to love and good works (Heb. 10:24).

d. A central purpose of the Holy Spirit is empower us to deny our flesh and do good (Rom. 8:12-13; Gal. 5:16-25; Gal. 6:8-9).

 

Jesus said, "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Christianity is not a self-help program, and it is not an earthly religion. The Christian faith came from heaven, is empowered by heaven, and is lived spiritually. We are commanded to carefully maintain good works (Tit. 3:8), but we maintain good works by walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-18). Peter tells us to "diligently add" certain character and behavior traits to our faith (2 Pet. 1:5-7), but these additions are the fruit—i.e., the results or product—of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Paul teaches us something important and interesting in his letter to the Colossians. If you try to produce the fruit of the Spirit by strenuously keeping rules like "do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," your efforts will be "of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:20-23). Instead, he recommends "holding firmly to the head [Jesus Christ], from whom the whole body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that comes from God" (Col. 2:19). Or, as he says right afterward, "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:1-3). Do this, and "When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory" (Col. 3:4).

The Christian life is not an easy one. "It is through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22), but living a life in fellowship with God and union with Jesus Christ is "joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Pet. 1:8).

 

Help For Calvinists Terrified by the Very Idea of a Judgment by Works

The judgment should cause us fear (2 Cor. 5:10-11). In fact, that fear is commanded in the Bible (1 Pet. 1:17). Evangelicals, though, face an irrational fear of the final judgment because of the Calvinist teaching that the God who judges us is someone other than our loving heavenly Father who already judges us every day with kindness, guidance, and discipline. The Calvinist God who must punish sin even though he wants to show mercy does not exist. He is a fantasy of the medieval imagination. The God who will judge us sent his Son to die for us while were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23), and his mercies are everlasting and new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). He knows no one is perfect, yet he has always rewarded the righteous, those with a pattern of doing good (Ezek. 18:20-30; Rom. 2:6-7).

 

For Further Reading

1. 2 Peter 1:3-11 is an excellent overview of the plan of salvation I have outlined here.

2. My book, Rebuilding the Foundations, still in the editing process, can be downloaded in its current form at RebuildingTheFoundations.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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