In our last two essays we have studied classic Calvinism and compared and contrasted it with Arminian-Weleyanism at certain key points. Now we are ready to look in detail at the Arminian-Wesleyan view of the process of salvation.
By the process of salvation, I mean the entire scope of what happens to people when they are saved. When one takes the whole of it into consideration; and that is what we want to do, it is a rather complex matter.
For one thing there are a number of theological terms that have been put forward by the theologians as labels for what happens. It takes a bit of effort; but if we are going to understand the process, we have to learn those terms and their relation to one another. That is our goal in this essay.
We all are familiar with the term “conversion.” “To convert” means “to turn.” So a conversion is literally “a turning.” And we Christians commonly use the term to describe what a person does when turning away from sin to faith in Christ.
I use the term “conversion” as a general term to describe the whole process of the birth of the Spirit. “Birth of the Spirit” is another general term for the same experience. When one is converted, one receives the gift of the Spirit and becomes a Christian. Thus the phrase “birth of the Spirit.”
But as we saw in the last essay, the process of salvation actually begins before conversion, with the “wooing” of the Holy Spirit, which Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” That is the Spirit of God calls, prods, and woos individuals in various ways until that moment when an individual converts by repentance and faith. We repent of our sins and believe in Jesus as Lord.
Now when a person converts, several concomitant events happen immediately, the moment that faith transaction is made. Concomitant means “accompanying.” Thus concomitant events are events that accompany one another. That is, they occur at the same time. They do not occur in any chronological order.
There are four concomitant events that take place at conversion. The first is justification. To be justified has two aspects. One aspect is a pardoning of sin. That is, the sinner stands before the bar of divine justice as guilty; but God (the Great Judge) issues a pardon. He forgives the sinner, because the sinner has repented and believes in Jesus as Lord.
The other aspect of justification is to be accepted into the favor of God. In other words justification is not simply a pardon of the past; it also is an acceptance into favor for the future. Remember that the definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” In justification God places the undeserving sinner into his favor.
Now we must learn something else about justification. It is important, because learning this helps one understand several important passages of the New Testament.
When you see in English translations of the New Testament, the words “justification” and “righteousness,” they are translating the same Greek word. So when you see in Rom. 4:3, for example, Abraham’s faith being “reckoned to him as righteousness,” that could have been translated “reckoned to him as justification.”
Now then, the Greek word we are discussing has two primary uses. One is a legal usage, and the other a moral usage. By legal usage I refer to the imagery involved. This usage is couched in the language of the courtroom. It is the imagery of the sinner’s being pardoned before the bar of divine justice. This is the way I was using the word justification a few moments ago when I was talking about conversion. The forgiven sinner is made righteous in a legal sense.
But there is a second usage of the word. It is the moral or ethical usage. This use of the term has to do with actions which evidence moral character. The idea is that God has a moral standard that he expects Christians to live up to. To meet that true ethical standard is to be righteous in a moral sense. Therefore moral righteousness has to do with doing what is right or just, rather than being righteous by God’s forgiveness.
To summarize, human beings can be righteous, that is justified, in the sense of having their sins forgiven. And humans also can be righteous in the sense of meeting God’s ethical standards. But we cannot have the latter without the former. Both the legal and moral uses are found in the Bible.
The second concomitant event that takes place at conversion is regeneration. Remember that concomitant means that the events are happening at the same instant. Regeneration is the theological term for the impartation of a new nature. I would interpret that new nature as an impartation of the Holy Spirit (or of the Spirit of Christ).
Paul in 2 Cor. 3:17 informs us that “the Lord is the Spirit.” So to receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the Lord. Rom 8:9 is instructive here. It says: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” In other words when we are converted we are not just pardoned. It isn’t simply a matter of having our names written in the Lamb’s book of life. At the moment we believe, something real happens inside us. There is a miracle of regeneration that takes place within our souls. There is a positive impartation of God’s Spirit, and we enter into a real relationship with Christ himself.
The third concomitant event in conversion is Adoption. Not only are our sins forgiven and the Spirit of Christ imparted to us, but we also are adopted as children of God. We enter into the relation of heirs with full privileges.
And finally at conversion, there is a fourth concomitant event. Not only are we justified, regenerated, and adopted into God’s family, fourth, we experience initial sanctification. That is, the process of sanctification begins.
Sanctification is the process of making a person holy. The theologians call this beginning of the sanctification process at conversion initial sanctification, because normally it is only that. Full sanctification comes as a later experience.
Now it is important to remember that all of these events that we have just discussed are concomitant; they do not follow one another in any order; they occur at the same instant, at the moment of conversion.
Now this may be a good spot to come back to another New Testament term that we mentioned in our lectures on the atonement, namely reconciliation. Reconciliation is the result of our conversion experience. When our sins are forgiven, and we are justified, we are reconciled to God. We are restored to the family relationship to God intended for us from the beginning.
But conversion or the birth of the Spirit isn’t the end of the matter. There is a growth process that begins at conversion, but which never stops. There may even be a sense in which it begins before conversion under the influence of prevenient grace. At any rate, salvation is progressive. And as a person yields more and more to the control of the indwelling Holy Spirit, that person grows as a Christian and becomes more like Christ. Therefore the process not only is progressive, it also is a matter of maturing.
Hopefully, the moment comes when the person is completely yielded. That is the moment of infilling with the Holy Spirit. It is the experience referred to by many as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Others call it the moment of entire sanctification. It is the moment when a person is freed from sin. And it is the moment when the Holy Spirit endues a person with authority and power for ministry.
This is the so-called “second work of grace,” which in the experience of most Christians occurs as the second of two exceedingly important instantaneous moments in the overall salvation process. The first work is the birth of the Spirit; and the second work is the infilling of the Spirit.
However, there is a sense in which the “second work of grace” is a misnomer. God wants his people made holy, sanctified, in this life (1 Thess. 4:3). Therefore to dogmatically say that God’s will always is two works of grace in each believer’s life doe not completely line up with the biblical revelation. Either God wants us sanctified in this life or he does not. The New Testament says he does. Therefore it is absurd to think that God would desire to delay it for even a moment, let alone for years, as occurs with some people. God’s will is our full sanctification, now as soon as we are willing to receive it. Any delay involved comes from the human side, from an unwillingness to yield to the Spirit.
But the infilling with the Holy Spirit isn’t the end of the matter either. The growing, maturing process goes on after what we call entire sanctification, even after physical death. The process continues on to the experience of glorification in the heavenly realm. And I would suspect even beyond that. For I doubt that any human being ever can completely attain the likeness of Christ. There will always be greater growth available in Christian growth.
Finally, one should not confuse the quality of purity that one attains in entire sanctification with psychological maturity. Psychological maturity is different from spiritual maturity. One can be psychologically mature without being a Christian at all. So you do not want to confuse psychological maturity with spiritual maturity. Of course sanctification is a strong factor in the ability of a Christian to be psychologically mature, but it is not automatic by any means. One can be entirely sanctified and still have a long way to go to be psychologically mature.