Douglas Bond is a Ruling Elder in the PCA. This post is an excerpt from his new release, GRACE WORKS (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) (P&R, 2014).
Carts Before Horses
Stopping by for a chat after school, one of my fresh, new English students shared an idea he had for a poem. “How about if I write couplets organized around what we do and then what God does?” I looked closely at him. Surely he had to be kidding. But there wasn’t the slightest evidence that he was aware he had said anything out of order.
After thinking about it for a moment, I asked him if it wouldn’t be more accurate to reverse the order. He frowned and said, “What I mean is, we are wise and then God rewards us.”
One of the refreshing things about working with young people is that they often speak and write frankly about what they have been hearing. One thing was clear. However well intentioned the spiritual influences in this young man’s life were, what he had been hearing was that he needed to do something and then God would reward him for doing it. Whatever the good intentions of his parents and his minister, the message this young man had heard had fatally inverted the order of things.
“But if we are wise,” I asked him, “how did we get that way?” I explained further to him that there was only one way I could see that he could keep the order of our works and God’s rewards in his couplets. His poem could feature what we do: our sins of thought, word, and deed; even the splendid sins of our good works—all that could form the first part. And the second part could then feature what Jesus has done once for all time in the gospel: united us with himself in redemption, justification, and imputed righteousness, forgiving us all our sins by taking our guilt and punishment on himself on the cross. That would make a grand poem, a hymn of glory to God for his amazing grace, and it would be so because it kept the order of salvation in its biblical order.
After growing up in a Christian home and attending church and youth group throughout his entire life, nevertheless, this fifteen-year-old young man was caught in a classic theological blunder, one entirely destructive to the gospel. He had confused what theologians term the ordo salutis, or the order of the different components of salvation. By inverting the order, by getting the cart before the horse, he had unwittingly done violence to the gospel.
Order Is Everything
Just as in making an omelet, the order is everything. Cook the eggs before you break them and you have boiled eggs but not an omelet. Attempt to whip them before cracking them and you have an inedible mess. Wait until the eggs hatch into chicks and go to work on them—and you have roadkill. Ridiculous as this sounds, many of us do the same thing in our thinking about the ordo salutis, the order of salvation.
Theologians since the Reformation have described the order of the components of salvation in this way: predestination, calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, and glorification. But let’s be honest: most of us don’t naturally think of the order in this God-initiated way. We are more inclined to give the order from our finite human vantage point. After all, that’s the way we experienced things. Hence, we prefer to think that our faith and believing come before regeneration, for example, and our own persevering in obedience comes before, and is a contingency of, glorification. Put more simply, we tend to think that salvation has to be something to which we contribute something—as my student was thinking.
Faith Out of Order
One of the more common ways justification by faith alone gets out of order is when we misunderstand faith to be man’s part in salvation. In answer to Paul’s question, “Who makes you different from anyone else?” (1 Cor. 4:7 niv), many evangelicals today without hesitation would say their faith makes them different from unbelievers. I posed this question to a fellow who showed up at a community group meeting in our home one evening. “My faith,” he said, as if it were obvious. “What makes me different from an unbeliever is my choice to believe. I heard the message. It made sense to me, and I chose to believe it.” I attempted to help him see that this meant he was the final arbiter of his salvation. His will and choice were the things that set him apart from the unbeliever, not God’s will and choice. He confidently reaffirmed that it was his will and choice.
When talking about God saving sinners, something seems rather out of order when the final thing that makes the difference in that salvation is something the sinner does. It is precisely what Paul is disabusing the Corinthians from thinking about themselves. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?” he asked them. “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7 niv).
The question itself reveals its own answer: everything we are and have comes as a gift from God; how much more is our eternal salvation from first to last a gift of God. Any doctrine of salvation that points us away from the will and purpose of God, the finished work of Christ, the effectual regenerating work of the Spirit, is just another self-salvation endeavor that says, “Do this and live”—the same message that every other religion presses upon its adherents.
What is happening here is another way we get things out of order. When we give sinners credit for exercising saving faith as an act of their free will, we are making the philosophical blunder of drawing ultimate conclusions from only what is immediately verifiable to our limited sight. We observe sinners as they hear the gospel, fall on their knees, and ask Jesus to save them, and Jesus does save them.
From our immediate observation, we leap to the conclusion—against mountains of biblical evidence—that there was a cause and effect being acted out before us. What we could observe was the sinner’s repentance and faith, and we draw the conclusion that God passively waited to save him until he decided of his own free will to believe in God. What we could not observe, however, was the divine perspective, the saving operation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Faith in Order
If we turn faith into a condition of salvation that man must on his own hook fulfill, there’s no other way to slice it than that our faith is functioning in the role of our doing something. Protest all we want, faith understood this way is equal to merit. If God chose you because he passively foresaw that you would believe, your believing is what makes you different from the unbeliever, and it would make sense for you to boast in your faith.
When the Reformers preached justification by faith alone, they did not mean what many evangelicals mean by faith alone: salvation is a responsible partnership between God and man, and faith is man’s part in salvation. God does his part, and it’s up to the sinner to come up with enough faith to close the deal.
They used to get this right in Amsterdam, Geneva, Edinburgh, and Boston, and in all these places they either produced or adhered to carefully crafted confessions of faith in which they precisely defined the language of the gospel, including the meaning of the word faith itself. One of the finest of those statements we find in the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Question 73: How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
Answer: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
Why were the Westminster divines so careful with their language here? They knew that error in our understanding of what faith is would corrupt the gospel. They wanted to make absolutely certain that everyone understood that faith is the instrument of receiving and applying Christ’s righteousness, but what “always accompany it”—that is, the good works that flow from faith—are not a part of justification. They chose their words carefully here and throughout the confessional standards, precisely to avoid the error of including what faith produces (the fruit of good works) with faith alone in the imputed righteousness of Jesus alone.
Screwtape to Narnia
All the Protestant confessions make it crystal clear that faith is not something man must drum up, the deal-closing merit we must contribute, by an act of our free will, to finish our conversion. In short, there is no equivocation about the order of faith and regeneration in the confessions of the Reformation.
But our understanding of these things is often a process. I find it illuminating to trace the progression of C. S. Lewis’ thinking on the ordo salutis, and on faith and man’s free will. In 1942, when he had been a Christian for eleven years, Lewis wrote, “The Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of [God’s] scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning.” In fairness, we must remember that Lewis wrote this in the persona of his infernal demon Screwtape, who, Lewis warns in his preface, does not always get things right. Nevertheless, Lewis here and elsewhere makes philosophical arguments in favor of man being capable of making salvific choices from his free will. He wrote that God “leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.”
When we look closely we can begin to observe that writers are sometimes at their best when writing poetry or imaginative fiction—and still more at their best when they have matured in their understanding of the depth of human depravity and the wonder of the sovereign, electing love that alone is capable of rescuing dead sinners. In a book published in 1953, fully eleven years later, Lewis seems to have developed in his understanding of the doctrine theologians term the effectual calling. In The Silver Chair, when Aslan tells Jill that he called her out of her world, Jill disagrees. “Nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call . . . And we did, and then we found the door open.” Jill, like most, mistakenly thought that she was calling by her own free will and that it was her calling that had opened the door. A now wiser Lewis has his Christ figure, Aslan, reply, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.” Written twenty-two years after his conversion, Lewis here wonderfully illustrates the ordo salutis: that God sovereignly and effectually calls and awakens dead sinners first, and then, and only then, they call on him to save them.
Similarly, in The Magician’s Nephew (1950), Lewis has Aslan utter “a long single note; not very loud, but full of power. Polly’s heart jumped in her body when she heard it. She felt sure that it was a call, and that anyone who heard that call would want to obey it and (what’s more) would be able to obey it, however many worlds and ages lay between.”
Here Lewis gives an imaginative and incremental explanation of the order of salvation: God’s call comes first and is heard only by some, but those who hear his voice calling them, not only want to obey his call, “(what’s more)” they are enabled by the grace of God alone to heed his call.
In his spiritual autobiography Lewis attempted to sort out what was happening when “God closed in on me,” as he called it. Reflecting back on his conversion and new found freedom in Christ, Lewis does not describe what happened in the terms he has Screwtape use—God never uses “the Irresistible or the Indisputable.” He marvels at the divine mercy that compelled him to come in, and concludes, “God’s compulsion is our liberation,” which sounds much closer to a man who believes it was the sovereign power and authority of God that liberated him from his sins and gave him freedom in Christ.
But, at the end of the day, does any of this matter, really?
Douglas Bond is a Ruling Elder in the PCA. This post is an excerpt from his new release, GRACE WORKS (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) (P&R, 2014). Click on link to hear a radio interview on this new book with Bond and Kevin Boling at Knowing the Truth Radio
 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 38.
 Ibid., 39.
 C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 24.
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 137.
 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987), 123.
 Ibid., 125.