Basics of the Reformed Faith: The Order of Salvation
When Christians speak of the “ordo salutis” we are referring to the “order of salvation.” While we should qualify any discussion of such an “order” by affirming that an omniscient God does not need to do things in sequential order as we do, nevertheless there is a logical order to the way in which God saves us from sin and its consequences. Since we are described as “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1-5) and unable to do anything to save ourselves from our dire predicament (John 6:44), God must act upon us while we are still “dead” in order to save us from our sins. The ordo salutis is simply an attempt to understand what steps God takes to save us, and in what logical order he takes them.
This is not an abstract concept because Scripture itself speaks of our salvation as being accomplished for us according to a divinely-ordained progression. The first of these passages is the so-called “golden chain” of salvation found in Romans 8:28-30. In that passage Paul writes, “and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
The passage has been described as the “golden chain” of salvation because Paul not only speaks of an unbreakable order to the plan by which God saves us (the chain), but the apostle is clear that our salvation from beginning to end is the work of a gracious and sovereign God, who having begun the process of our salvation, sees it through the end (the “gold”). There is no sense here that some of those chosen by God are eventually rejected, or that there is something good within the sinner which moves God to have pity on them and then act on their behalf.
Although Paul reminds his reader that God has the power to turn all things to good (v. 28), he quickly goes on to qualify that this applies to only those who are called according to God’s purpose. Therefore, when the gospel is preached to us, God effectually calls his elect to faith in Jesus Christ. And that call involves several important elements (i.e., the ordo salutis).
Paul speaks of those foreknown by God as being predestined. Some have erroneously taken this to mean that God looks down the corridors of time and then chooses to save those whom he knows in advance will believe the gospel when it is preached to them. This is not the case, because Paul has already told us that calling of certain people to salvation is not based upon foreseen faith, but upon the purposes of God (v. 28). Furthermore, foreknowledge does not merely mean that God knows what we will do in advance, but rather that God knows us as individuals in the full sense depicted in Psalm 139–where God is said to know our thoughts before we even think them because it is he who has formed us in our mother’s womb.
According to Paul, all those whom God foreknows, he also predestines. Predestination refers to the particular end for which his elect are chosen–to be conformed to the image of Christ (as spelled out in the final link in the chain, glorification). Those foreknown are predestined, and those predestined are called. Calling occurs when the gospel is preached, and God’s elect respond to that message with faith. Those called through the preaching of the gospel are said to be justified. Justification occurs because the merits of Christ are imputed to those called through the means of faith, and because of Christ’s merits, we are reckoned righteous before God.
The final link in the chain is that those foreknown, predestined, called, and justified, are at last said to be glorified. That is, we are fully restored from the effects of sin on the day when the dead in Christ are raised. Paul’s point is that God begins our salvation and ensures that it is completed.
In yet another passage, Paul lays out a similar “order” of salvation (1 Corinthians 6:11), when the apostle writes, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Although some of the particular elements appear in a different order than in Romans 8:28-30, the general idea is the same. For one thing, all the verbs (in the Greek aorist tense) used here by Paul indicate that each of these elements is already a completed act. And just as in Romans 8:28-30, God accomplishes these things for us. His saving work on our behalf is already finished. All those in Christ are washed, are sanctified, are justified.
Washing refers to regeneration, that divine act whereby we are given new life and are cleansed from the guilt of sin, and when sin’s power over us is broken. All those “washed” are also said to be sanctified. That is, those regenerated by God’s Spirit are now set apart for God’s holy purposes and begin the life-long process of dying to sin and rising to newness of life (sanctification). Those set part by God for his own holy purposes are also said to be justified–that is when we are regenerated, we come to life and place our trust in Jesus Christ. When we place our trust (faith) in Christ, Christ’s merits are reckoned or credited to us, so we are declared righteous before God. Paul ends this particular list of benefits by informing us that all of this was accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who applies to us the saving work of Jesus Christ.
The ordo salutis is one very useful way to keep before our eyes the fact that Scripture very clearly teaches that from beginning to end, our salvation is God’s work, accomplished for us by Jesus Christ. We also see that God doesn’t begin the process, only to quit in the middle of it. All those foreknown (in Romans 8:28-30) are glorified, and all those washed (in 1 Corinthians 6:11), are justified. Our salvation is truly of the Lord, from beginning to end.