Five Steps of Salvation

The following article is an overview of the “Steps of Salvation”.  You can read my concerns and critique of the “Steps” HERE.

The early teachings of the Restoration Movement emphasised logic and order. One of Alexander Campbell’s major works is even titled The Christian System. How’s that for structure and logic? This commitment to logic an order encourages Bible scholars to consider all of Scripture when developing doctrines as it anticipates consistency of thought and teaching throughout Scripture. We should regard this big picture perspective and expectation of consistent thought as a strength of the Restoration approach.

At the same time, emphasising common sense rationality also created some blind spots that continue to trouble the church. The quest for order and systems resulted in teachers constructing logical doctrines where the Bible doesn’t explicitly give them. This use of logic is not problematic of itself, but over time the doctrines of logic often become as staunchly defended as God’s Word itself. Making logical conclusions as we study Scripture is not wrong, it’s natural, and we often arrive at correct conclusions.  However, because we also know that all human logic fails at some point, we should always teach with humility.

One of the “systems” that the early Restorationists developed was the “Plan of Salvation”.  This plan was organised to answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” To this point in time the view that “believers baptism (immersion) was for the remission of sins” distinguished the Restoration Movement from most contemporary denominations. However, baptism alone provides an incomplete teaching.

In 1827 Walter Scott described the Gospel under six points. In the context of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, humans should:

  1. Faith (Believe),
  2. Repent,
  3. Be baptised.

In response God would:

  1. Forgive sins,
  2. Give the gift of the Holy Spirit, and
  3. Grant eternal life.

Later, Scott would combine the last two points to summarise the Gospel as five points that could easily be remembered using fingers.  It’s worth noting that these are not “Steps in order to obtain Salvation”, but a description of what takes place AS one is saved with God doing most of the work. According to Boring in Disciples and the Bible (42) everyone in all churches accepted that individually these steps played a role in one’s salvation, but taking it a step further “Scott repeatedly insists that it is not only having the right things, but having them in the right order, that is important (e.g., The Gospel Restored, 246).”

As I researched this topic I was surprised to find how much the “Plan of Salvation” has varied through the years. This serves to remind us that it’s a human construct, not explicit Scriptural teaching. This observation doesn’t diminish the importance of each “step”, it just reminds us that our steps aren’t necessarily exhaustive, or perhaps even required.

Even contemporary with Walter Scott, Alexander Campbell would often just list

  1. Believe,
  2. Repent,
  3. Be baptised,

as the three primary saving events.  Although at times he would mention confession of Christ as Lord, and the need to continue in Christian faith and practice, the first three remained primary.

According to Boring, (396) In the 1860s David Lipscomb acknowledged ‘faith, repentance, confession, baptism’ as standard doctrine.” The inclusion of confession as one of the steps developed into a significant debate in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. (You can read more of this debate in an article by Dr John Mark Hicks here.)

Somewhere in the 1930s Scott’s “Five Finger Gospel” crystallised its transition to “A Five Step Plan of Salvation”. This is a significant change.  The five steps came to concentrate solely upon the human response to the Gospel of Christ and now included “Hear” as the first step.  Some less common alternative Five Step plans omitted “Hear” and included “Christian life” as the fifth step.  So the generally accepted final version of the Plan of Salvation looks like this:

  1. HEAR – Romans 10:17,
  2. BELIEVE – John 1:11-12, Acts 8:36-37, Romans 10:9
  3. REPENT – Luke 13:3, 5, Acts 2:38, 17:30, 2 Peter 3:9
  4. CONFESS – Matt 10:32-33, Romans 10:9-10; Acts 8:37
  5. Be BAPTIZED – 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-5
  6. (GROW – 2 Peter3:18)

I find this evolution really interesting. I hope you do too.

Since we can clearly see the evolution of this teaching, and how it arises from human logical construction, I believe we need to teach it as our best understanding of the topic. We should approach this conversation with confidence and conviction, but also with humility. We need to be careful that we don’t become arrogant in our own logic and dismissive toward the rational abilities of others. Since this “Plan” is a logical human construct, we must remain open to the possibility that we’ve got all of it, or aspects of it, wrong.

We also need to take extreme care that we don’t make these Steps the Gospel itself. The Gospel is all that God has done and continues to do for us through Christ. The Steps can never be more than a response to the Gospel.

I’m currently preaching a sermon series titled “Daily Steps of Salvation”.  You can read my reflections on these subjects here.

Resources I used in compiling this included:

Some other websites on this topic that I found include:

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7 comments

  1. Bill Brewer

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the reference link. I think the broader context of the Five-Step Plan is the “scholastic” impulse within Western culture to systematize faith with reason. The Five-Step plan reflects the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement’s (SCRM) expression of that impulse.

    See http://historeo.com/Resources/historyofscholasticismmr.jpg for my take on it.

    I see you got your MDiv from Harding. I got mine from Lipscomb (starting out with an MS in BRS from Abilene).

    I think we may be fellow travelers on the pilgrimage of adapting SCRM ideals to a new cultural context.

    If so, I would really value any critique you can offer.

    Peace,

    billb
    http://historeo.com

  2. ozziepete

    Hi Bill,

    It sounds like if you get a DMin from Harding you can start building houses and hotels!! 🙂

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. There’s no doubt that the origins and popularity of the Five Finger Exercise reflect the thinking and culture of the day. The modernistic emphasis on logic was well and truly in full swing.

    It’s been my understanding that part of the attraction of the Five Finger Exercise wasn’t just in its logic, but as a contrast to other major churches at the time. Strong Calvinist churches gave people no assurance of salvation until after the church acknowledge a spiritual “experience” in a person indicating they were part of God’s family. The contrast of each individual having concrete “steps” to respond to the Gospel rather than waiting and hoping was tremendously attractive.

  3. Bill Brewer

    I think you’re right.

    My recollection is Scott taught it to the kids and the kids went home to tell their parents.

    Times have changed though. I don’t think any unacquainted man could safely engage kids in a conversation in public nowadays.

    Regards,

    billb

  4. Pingback: Compassionate & Gracious God « Peter’s Patter
  5. Xyhelm

    Great conclusions!

    When I attempted to come up with my own “ingredients for salvation,” I learned there are many ingredients that the Five Steps leave out. For example, Jesus is pretty clear that one of the ingredients must be to count the cost. I am curious why I rarely (if ever) see counting the cost included in someone’s method of teaching salvation.

    • ozziepete

      Thanks Xyhelm. Yes, I suspect many people regard “count the cost” as equivalent to “repent” but the case could certainly be made to separate them.

      I would argue that the traditional emotional “invitation” at the conclusion of a sermon short circuits the concept of counting the cost. I think it’s a good point.

      If you follow the link at the very top of this post you’ll find my critique of the 5 steps. Blessings.

  6. Donnie

    I would just follow Jesus’s example like he did at the lady at the well, the lawyer, and young rich ruler also Stephen if called to do so

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