Ask Steve: Soteriology

Question: Steve, could you explain to me what the doctrine of soteriology is and why it is important to me? Also how is the doctrine of soteriology relevant to the church as a whole?

Answer: Soteriology is simply defined as the study of salvation. It is the doctrine that explores what saving faith is, what saving faith is not, and how exactly Christ’s death secures the salvation of all those who believe. Though popular salvific verses like John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and Ephesians 2:8-9 portray saving faith as something that is simple, there are surprisingly vast differences in interpretation about how a person gets saved, even in the evangelical community. This is why soteriology is a major study in Christendom, and a very significant one since it is foundational to faith. It is not a peripheral issue by any means.

One’s eternal destiny depends on one’s accurate understanding of saving faith. With a false view of salvation, there can be no saving faith, no matter how sincere one’s intentions are, since the preaching of a different gospel leads to one being accursed according to Galatians 1:8. That is why soteriology is a detailed study concerned with such doctrines as election, regeneration, justification, propitiation, penal substitution, sanctification, and glorification. A major twist on any of these core truths represent heretical falsehood that does not represent saving faith.

To begin with, we shall examine the issue of faith and works. Does someone get saved by faith alone, as Ephesians 2:8-9 states? Or are works involved as part of the justification process, as James 2:26 may possibly hint at? What is the relationship between faith and works? The study of soteriology becomes very helpful when it comes to this area. Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Mormons believe that such faith needs to be supplemented by works in order for one to find justification before God. These groups come to this conclusion by a wrong interpretation of salvific passages and reliance on traditions and extrabiblical documents to supplement or reinterpret what the Bible teaches.

However, the true biblical understanding of faith is that sinners are justified by repentant faith in Christ, trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior. Works play no part in getting someone saved, since this would contradict the free nature of God’s grace that is granted by faith (Rom 11:6). However, the book of James and 1 John speak of a type of works (fruits of the Spirit) that appear in a born again believer’s life because of his regenerated nature and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in his life. Though the amount and type varies, these fruits are evident in every Christian. There is no such thing as an untransformed Christian. Fruits demonstrate the reality of a believer’s justification and are proof of his salvation.

If a person is transformed and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, he will perform good works, since that is what he is purposed for by God (Matt 7:17; Eph 2:10). This captures the sanctification process. Those who have not been transformed in their hearts will have no good fruit to demonstrate the reality of their salvation, which would give us reasons to doubt their faith, since they are most likely a false convert. This is the biblical relationship of faith and works in the Bible, which runs contrary to the false soteriology taught by non-Protestants.

My illustration also shows that a study of the doctrine of faith and works is inextricably linked to doctrines such as election, justification, and sanctification. This is why soteriology is important and is extremely important for you, especially if you want to understand the validity of your own faith or are actively involved in evangelism, where you need to explain your faith to “Christians” who have different ideas of saving faith. Even though such doctrines as election, justification, sanctification, and prevenient grace/effectual call may seem like trifling and complex theological disputes, they are surely not. A “Christian” may claim to abide by the teachings of John 3:16 and Titus 3:5, however, he may espouse a non-biblical view of justification, believing that it is not a one-time deal upon regeneration and faith, but is a process that comes to fruition at the end of one’s life after a lifetime of faith and works. If taken to an extreme, this teaching can be heretical and does not represent the same believe that the Bible says saves people. It is more in line with the Roman Catholic view of justification that is, in reality, a form of works-righteousness salvation that runs contrary to the Bible’s teaching about justification by faith (Rom 5:1).

Issues like these show that salvation is not as “clear” to everyone as we would expect, and thus a study of soteriology is entirely beneficial and necessary for personal assurance, evangelism, and apologetics. We live in a time, as like many others before us, where the gospel message is under attack from all directions, attempting to distort the message of salvation so that people are led eternally astray. This is why an effective study of soteriology should take into account all major doctrines such as election, predestination, atonement, God’s law, imputed righteousness, and even understanding the opposing views like prevenient grace, conferred grace, resistible grace, and baptismal regeneration. A study of soteriology makes one a stronger Christian, a stronger evangelist, and a stronger apologist for the Christian faith.

The doctrine of soteriology is relevant to the church as a whole because it is the foundation that affects the direction of the church and the health of the congregants. It affects everything from ecclesiology to eschatology. A wrong understanding of salvation obviously leads to a wrong gospel being preached on the pulpit, leading to false converts and unregenerate people. Even if the gospel is not entirely heretical but merely watered down, it affects the direction and health of the church tremendously. People will not have a high appreciation for the gospel and a high view of God’s holiness, justice, love, and grace. They may entertain a wrong notion concerning their moral nature and how necessary grace is in their everyday lives.

A distorted soteriology may also lead to a wrong view of missiology, in which the church may view evangelism and outreach as changing the city and improving lives instead of saving people from sin and hell. A wrong view of eschatology will also lead to a wrong implementation of sacraments such as baptism and the communion. If salvation is understood as a works-righteousness faith, then baptism will not be a public testimony of one’s justification, but will be the means by which a person is saved, or at least an important merit added to his resume before his death. Communion will not be viewed as a celebration of those who are in Christ, but will be seen as the means by which grace is conferred to them.

As you can see, a right understanding of soteriology affects everything from individual faith to the life of the church. A Christian should not only study soteriology, but study the right soteriology, one that has been timelessly affirmed by evangelical faith since the commencement of the church. It is now more practical than ever, especially since that are many religions, and even “Christian” groups, that claim to know salvation, yet their teachings contradict what Jesus and the Apostles spoke about saving faith. 

Recommended Resource: The Cross and Salvation by Bruce Demarest

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who just hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is only those who have the faith to actually obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 amplified.