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Soteriology: The Study of the
Biblical Doctrines of Salvation

by Dr. Henry Vazquez, BBS, M.Div., Th.D.
and Dr. Linda Smallwood, BBS, M.Min., D. Min.


In This Series
Calvinism | Arminianism | Once Saved, Always Saved?

In This Lesson
The Nature of the Atonement | The Extent of the Atonement
The Process of Salvation | Calvinism | Arminianism


The term "soteriology" comes from two Greek terms: meaning "savior" or "preserver" and logos meaning "word" or "study". Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, the matter of which occupies a place of special significance in every religion. In Christian systematic theology, it refers to the study of the Biblical doctrine of salvation. It often includes such topics as the nature and extent of the atonement as well as the entire process of salvation — that is, the process conceived as an eternal, divine plan designed to rescue lost and erring sinners to bring them back into eternal fellowship with God. Many regard it as the primary theme in Scripture with its goal being the eternal glory of God.

To be absolutely clear, all Christian doctrines firmly assert that salvation is found in God alone because He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. He alone gives everyone a hope and a future, knowing that they are going to meet Him face-to-face one day.

In the academic field of religious studies, soteriology is often studied in a comparative context: i.e., comparing various ideas about what salvation is, and how it is obtained. In this and the next two lessons on the "Foundations of the Faith", we'll do the same. We will compare the best-known doctrines and finally the two most-common doctrines among professing Christians today.

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The Nature of the Atonement
Throughout the history of the Church, theologians have promoted a number of different views regarding the nature of the atonement (i.e., the theological significance of Christ's death).

  • The Recapitulation View
    This doctrine was advanced by Irenaeus (ca. 120-200). From this perspective, Christ sums up all humanity in Himself in that He went through all the stages of human life, without succumbing to temptation in any way, died, and then rose from the dead. The benefits of His life, death, and resurrection are available to all who participate in Him through faith.

  • The Example or Moral Influence View
    Also known as the "subjective" view, this doctrine was advanced by theologians such as Pelagius (ca. 400), Faustus and Laelius Socinus (sixteenth century), and Abelard (1079-11421. Though there are certainly different moral example views,2 their essential agreement consists in arguing that the cross demonstrates how much God loves us and this, then, awakens a response of love in our hearts; we live as Jesus Himself lived. While there is Biblical support for this idea (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Peter 2:21), this is incomplete, as it fails to recognize the more crucial aspects of Scriptural teaching on the issue.

  • The Ransom-to-Satan View
    This theory of the atonement was advanced in the early church — and really maintained as the standard view in the early church until Anselm (1033-1109). Origen (185-254) was one of the chief proponents of this understanding which asserts that Christ's death was a ransom paid to Satan to secure the release of his hostages (i.e., sinful men and women). While ransom language is used in Scripture to refer to the atonement (e.g., Mark 10:45), this is probably incorrect to include in this the idea that a "price" was paid to Satan, for that idea is not suggested in Scripture anywhere.

  • The Divine Triumph or Dramatic View
    In his work "Christus Victor", the Swedish theologian Gustav Auln (1879-1977) argued for a "Divine Triumph" view of the atonement, similar to the ransom theories of Origen and the early church. In this view, God overcame all the powers of hell and death through the cross; and in doing so, He made visible His reconciling love to men. This too has some Biblical support, but it is unlikely that it adequately summarizes all of Scriptural revelation on this issue.

  • The Satisfaction or Commercial View
    Promoted by Anselm (1033-1109), this view argues that man has dishonored God by His sin and that through the death of the perfect, sinless God-man, Jesus Christ, that honor and more — including Satan's defeat — has been restored to God. This theory also finds support in Scripture, but far more than God's honor was restored through the death of His Son.

  • The Governmental View
    Advanced by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), this view places a high value on the justice of God and the demand of His holy law. In this view, the death of Christ upholds God's moral government in that it demonstrates His utter commitment to His holy law. He could have forgiven men without the death of Christ, but this would have left men without the true knowledge of His commitment to His Law. The death of Christ, then, is not as a substitute for us, but rather God's statement about what He thinks about His moral government of the universe. This view has much to commend it, but as a global theory it simply cannot account for the tight connection between three important facts in Scripture:
    • the reconciliation to God of the believing sinner;
    • the forgiveness of sin; and
    • the death of Christ. Peter says that "Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

      Romans 5:8—

  • The Penal Substitution View
    This view of the atonement3 — the view most often associated with the Reformers, in particular, Calvin — argues that Christ died in the sinner's place and appeased the wrath of God toward sin. Thus, a cluster of ideas exist in this view including redemption (ransom), sacrifice, substitution, propitiation, and reconciliation.

    Though there are tensions in this view, and though the other views each contribute important insights to the idea of Christ's atonement in the New Testament, this one perhaps rests on the best Scriptural support, and brings together the holiness and love of God, the nature and sacrifice of Christ, and the sinfulness of man in a way that all are properly maintained. It is important to note, however, that the valid insights from the other views not get lost or eclipsed by this model.

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The Extent of the Atonement
The question is often asked, "For whom did Christ die?" Evangelicals generally give one of two answers to this question. Both answers appear to enjoy support from Scripture, tradition, and logic. They are that "He died for all men" (the general redemption view), and that "He died only for the elect" (the limited or particular redemption view). No evangelical believes that Christ died to save the entire world in the sense that every person will go to Heaven on the basis of His death. This is universalism and rightly rejected by Scripturally-informed Christians. Therefore, it is important to note that every Evangelical does limit the application of the atonement to some degree.

Both sides in this dispute agree that the Gospel can and should be genuinely offered to all men, that it is sufficient for the salvation of every man, but that not all men will be saved. In the end, the most consistent summary of the Biblical evidence is that Christ died for the elect only. In this way, He paid the penalty for the sins of the elect only and all other people will pay for their own sins in eternal destruction. In this scheme, there is unity in the workings of the Godhead in that the Father elects certain ones in eternity past, Christ dies for them in history (He does not die for all men, only for those whom the Father has chosen), and the Spirit applies that death to the elect and keeps them until the day of Christ. This is precisely the portrait we get in Ephesians 1:3-14 (see also John 17:9). In the case of particular or limited atonement, then, the term "world" in Scripture (e.g., John 3:16) does not mean all without exception, but all without distinction; and the term "bought" in 2 Peter 2:1 does not ultimately mean actually "bought" in a salvific [pertaining to the power of salvation or redemption] way, but means that God is the rightful owner of these men, though they deny this by their teaching.4

Deuteronomy 32:6—

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The Process of Salvation
It is important to note, again, that all Christian doctrines firmly assert that salvation is found in God alone because He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. He alone gives everyone a hope and a future, knowing that they are going to meet Him face-to-face one day.

The two best-known and oft-debated doctrines or views concerning the process by which humankind is saved are Calvinism and Arminianism. Sadly, today I would dare say that most Christians barely know these terms, let alone what they represent. We shall seek to address and abate that ignorance with these brief lessons on both.

I believe there is much confusion, not only with the brethren who hold to Calvin's teachings, but equally for those who hold to the Arminian doctrine. Much of the confusion comes from misunderstanding and ignorance when it comes to truly understanding either Classical Arminianism or Calvinism.

Before we discuss the differences in the process of salvation between the two doctrines, let us restate the basics and see if we can build a working "bridge" between the two views.

  • Both Calvinism and Arminianism are authentically Protestant and Evangelical. They are merely very different approaches to the doctrine of salvation.

  • Both believe in salvation by grace through faith.

  • Both believe Christians should remain active in pursuing good works as we are saved unto good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10).

  • Both deny that we must work for our salvation and that salvation is works based.

  • Both preach and teach that believers cannot earn their own salvation through their own human merit.

  • Both cling to the authority of holy writ and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

  • Both Calvinists and Arminians affirm the total sovereignty of God, the priesthood of believers, and the awesome justification by faith whereby Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer and preserves the distinction between justification and sanctification. His ways are far beyond finding out and we will never know everything there is to know about any one particular subject since God is omniscient (cf. Romans 11:33)! Praise God!

As you can see, there is much on which both doctrines agree. The two doctrines of belief on which Calvinists and Arminians have a different perspective are divine Providence and divine predestination. Note the following synopses of Calvinism and Aminianism:

  • Calvinism
    Calvinism [also called "Reformed tradition", the "Reformed faith", or "Reformed theology"] is a Protestant doctrine advanced by several theologians such as Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Huldrych Zwingli. However, this branch of Christianity bears the name of the French reformer John Calvin because of his prominent influence on it and because of his role in the confessional and ecclesiastical debates throughout the 16th century.

    Today, this term also refers to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed churches, of which Calvin was an early leader. Less commonly, it can refer to the individual, Biblical teachings of Calvin himself.

    The "Five Points of Classical Calvinism", which stress the total contingency of man's salvation upon the absolute sovereignty of God, are:
    • Man's total depravity
    • Unconditional election
    • Limited atonement
    • Irresistible grace
    • Perseverance of the saints

    Calvinism is best known for its doctrines of predestination and total depravity, stressing the total contingency of man's salvation upon the absolute sovereignty of God. We will take a closer look at these points in our in-depth study of Calvinism.

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  • Arminianism
    Arminianism is a doctrine within Protestant Christianity based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed Theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) and his historic followers, the Remonstrants5.

    The five points of Arminianism, which stress man's free will as playing a significant part in his salvation, are:
    • election and/or condemnation are conditioned by the rational faith or non-faith of man;
    • while qualitatively adequate for all men, the atonement is effective only for the person of faith;
    • unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God's will;
    • grace is not irresistible; and
    • believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.

    The crux of Arminianism lies in the assertion that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will.

    We will take a closer look at these points in our in-depth study of Arminianism.

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1It is difficult to say for sure whether this was Abelard's view or whether he simply wanted to emphasize it alongside more orthodox views.

2The Socinan view emphasized Christ's human nature in order to present Him as an example of the kind of love we are to show to God. The moral influence theory, as advocated by Abelard, and later by Horace Bushnell in the US, regards the death of Christ as a demonstration of divine love and Jesus' divine dimension is emphasized. See Erickson, Christian Theology, 785.

3We are here envisioning the atonement to include such important ideas as substitution, sacrifice, reconciliation, and propitiation.

4See Grudem, Theology, 594-603. For a more modified Calvinistic view, see Erickson, Christian Theology, 825-35. Also, the language of "bought" (agorazo) in 2 Peter 2:1 might come from the OT, as we pointed out, but it might be the specific language of Peter's opponents, that is, it might be their estimation of themselves. Peter thus uses it in a sarcastic way. Also, when John says that Christ died not only for our sins, but also for (peri + gen) the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2), He may simply be responding to an incipient form of Gnosticism which confined initiation to a select few. John says, "no, this Gospel is equally for all men." For a thorough discussion of this issue, the reader is encouraged to study John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967).

5Remonstrants — the Dutch Protestants who, after the death of Jacobus Arminius, maintained the views associated with his name. In 1610 they presented to the States of Holland and Friesland a remonstrance in five articles formulating their points of disagreement from Calvinism.