The current final version of the Plan of Salvation taught in most Churches of Christ and Christian Churches looks like this:
- HEAR – Romans 10:17,
- BELIEVE – John 1:11-12, Acts 8:36-37, Romans 10:9
- REPENT – Luke 13:3, 5, Acts 2:38, 17:30, 2 Peter 3:9
- CONFESS – Matt 10:32-33, Romans 10:9-10; Acts 8:37
- Be BAPTIZED – 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-5
- (GROW – 2 Peter3:18 and/or ENDURE to the End – Mark 13:13)
For more explanation of these steps see this post.
Although these Steps have been taught as Gospel for many years, I have a few concerns with them. I also have some issues with this approach to Bible study. However, I DO BELIEVE that each of these “Steps” is crucial to our relationship with God. We cannot have meaningful relationship with God while rejecting any of these commands. The Bible clearly connects each of these attitudes and actions with the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. We cannot simply choose to remove or ignore that connection.
I think the simplest way to discuss my concerns is the tried and true “list method”, so here goes:
- We often talk about the Steps of Salvation as though they have been handed down from heaven on stone tablets. This is misleading. The Steps of Salvation result from Bible scholars compiling a list of passages that connect a human action with the forgiveness of sins. The list was then arranged into a logical sequence and presented as the “Plan of Salvation”. ALWAYS REMEMBER, there is no list of the Steps of Salvation in the Bible. Since they’re a human compilation, there’s always the risk that we’re using these verses incorrectly. See my post here that discusses the evolution of the Steps. If the list of Steps we have now is “right”, what happened to the people who didn’t say the right confession prior to their baptism?
- Teaching the Steps of Salvation focuses attention upon a moment in time. We treat the moment one moves from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light as though it is the focus of Scripture. Yet if it is the focus of Scripture, it’s a particularly fuzzy focus since the steps are never listed in any one place. I once heard someone say “the success of the church should be measured in tombstones, not baptisms.” I believe this is true. This is why I always include the 6th point (Grow/Endure) whenever I refer to the Steps. But even then the conversion experience itself is often more of a process than a moment in time. While the conversion stories in Acts portray examples of people quickly persuaded by logical explanation that they need to commit their lives to following Jesus, that is not a uniform pattern in any age. Many people come to a gradual realisation of their need for forgiveness and spiritual adoption. The Steps of Salvation do not adequately address this process. Rather than emphasising whether someone is In or Out, we need to emphasise the commitment we all need to make to a life of following Christ.
- Traditionally in Churches of Christ, the Steps of Salvation were included in the invitation at the end of every sermon. The sermon could be about the sinfulness of gossip and not discuss the sacrifice of Christ on the cross at all. Then the preacher would invite people to be saved by hearing, believing, repenting, confessing, being immersed, and enduring. This seems to make the individual responsible for our own salvation, rather than acknowledging it is a gift from God. There is a real risk that by emphasising Steps over the cross that we preach salvation by works. I know the “Believe” step is fairly open ended and should of course include the belief that Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven, but the emphasis is still on me believing… and then moving onto the next step.
- The Plan of Salvation seems to be very much a product of the modernisitic worldview. It fits the view that there is always a set “order” to the way God works. Is it really impossible for someone to Believe and then Confess that Jesus is their Lord and only later Repent of their sins? Aren’t there many Christians who still struggle to really Believe that their sins can be forgiven while living in faith and hope that God will forgive them?
- The Steps can at best only be part of the plan of salvation. They must be preceded by a telling of the Gospel (Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. 1 Cor. 15:1-5) and followed by a description of how God responds when we complete the “Steps”. To call the Steps a “Plan of Salvation” is at best a misnomer.
- I have often heard the Steps referred to as “obeying the Gospel”. The sermon invitation often encourages people to “obey the Gospel”. I believe that we are to accept the Gospel, not obey it. I don’t accept that emphasising obedience is the right place to start a new life. Consider Galatians 3:26-27 which describes baptism as an adoption and a “putting on of Christ” rather than an act of obedience. I believe that the Steps can only ever be a response to the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.
- If the number of steps and sequence of steps are so important, why are they never grouped together in Scripture? Why did Paul just end his sermon on Mars Hill with a plea for repentance (Acts 17:30) and “overlook” the other steps?
- The Steps omit Faith. It can certainly be argued that each of the Steps is an act of faith. I wouldn’t dispute that. Some preachers replace “Believe” with “Faith” but I think they still mean “believe”. The “Believe” step usually has some associated teaching about the specific points a person must accept in order to receive salvation. Using the word Faith doesn’t alter the associated teaching to my knowledge. Yet Scripture explicitly says that we are saved by Faith. Romans 3:25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. Galatians 3:14 He redeemed us … so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
- The Steps generally teach that the work of the Holy Spirit in a persons life begins after baptism. They encourage a very linear view of how God works in the world. Perhaps the greatest step a person needs to take is to open their minds and lives up to the working of the Holy Spirit. Consider the Steps we’re told that God and the Holy Spirit take in our lives: a. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8) b. God draws people to Jesus to receive eternal life (John 6:44) c. God can act to open hearts to the Gospel (Acts 16:14) d. God is described as “granting” (giving) repentance (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim 2:25) e. God distributes faith to people (Rom 12:3).
- The Steps do not point us toward the first and greatest command, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt. 22:37-38) Rather, they point us toward searching the Scriptures for every little command and making sure we keep them all. I believe that God wants us to keep all his commands, including the little ones. But he doesn’t want us to focus on them and in the process lose our love for him or our view of grace. (Matt 23:23-25)
Let me reiterate that I am not suggesting that we no longer need to teach Belief, or Repentance, or Confession, or Baptism, or Endurance. Rather, I am proposing that we rely less upon the one-size-fits-all teaching of the Plan of Salvation. These steps make up one (or six) element of our response to the Gospel. The story of God’s love for the world, and the commitment to love and serve God whole-heartedly for the rest of our lives should receive greater emphasis in our presentation of the Gospel than the mis-named “Steps of Salvation”.
- Wes McAdams has written a similar, but more tactful, article HERE.