What We Believe

Chapter 3
What Must I Do To Be Saved?—Part 1

We have seen that the Bible is the only infallible source of a true knowledge of God. But it is also the only infallible source of a true knowledge of ourselves. And both of these are referred to in the second membership vow of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It reads as follows:

Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

Two things are quite clear in this vow. (1) The first is an awareness of our lost condition as fallen creatures. This condition includes two aspects. (a) One is our guilt before God. By this we do not mean mere guilt feelings. One may have strong guilt feelings and be guilty in fact. But a person may also be guilty in fact when he does not feel guilty. The reason is this: the fact of guilt does not depend on the feeling of guilt, but on the judgment of God. God is holy. The law, which is summarized in the ten commandments, reveals his unchanging will for man who was made in His image. Whenever a man violates any of God's holy commandments, in any way, he incurs guilt. To be guilty means to be deserving of, and therefore liable to, God's just punishment. To put it another way: because this is God's universe, all sin must be punished, and it will be punished—either by the eternal damnation of the one who sins, or by the punishment of a Substitute who stands in his stead. This is one aspect of the matter. (b) The other aspect is what we call man's total depravity, and consequent inability. What this means is not that every unsaved person is already as bad as bad can be. A condition such as that (which is found only in Satan, the demons and lost men in hell) would have to be called absolute depravity. And we can be thankful that God so restrains the wickedness of men, in this life, that few if any ever reach the point of absolute depravity. No, what is meant by "total depravity" is that the whole of man's personality has been affected by the fall and is now polluted or corrupt. Man's mind has been darkened, his heart is deceitful, and his will is therefore in bondage. It is sometimes imagined that "the natural man" (by which we mean man as he is "by nature" since, and because of, the fall) is able to do something about his own lost condition. But this is a sad delusion. How can a man do something to remedy his lost condition when "every intent of the thoughts of his heart [is] only evil continually"? (Gen. 6:5). We might just as well expect a leopard to change the color of its spots, or a man the color of his skin (Jer. 13:23). It is for this reason that we are told repeatedly in the Bible (Ps. 14, 53, and Rom. 3) that when God looks down from heaven to see if there is anyone, anywhere, who—of his own volition—is seeking for God, he finds none. The reason is plain: since man's character became depraved it has no affinity with the good. That is why the natural man can do nothing pertaining to his own salvation or conversion (1 Cor. 2:14). It was for this reason that our Lord said (to his disciples) "it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing...therefore I have said unto you that no one can come to me unless it has been granted to him by My Father" (Jn. 6:63, 65).

(2) The second thing we must be aware of, then, is the fact that our salvation is from God alone. It is not from ourselves in any way whatever. This cannot be emphasized too much. Our salvation comes from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father acted to save us when he decided to save us by sending His only begotten Son to redeem us (Gal. 4:4). The Lord Jesus Christ acted to save us when He humbled himself, took upon himself our nature, lived a sinless life and then died on the cross as our substitute. The Holy Spirit acts to save us when He regenerates us and draws us to Christ, and then sanctifies us until we are finally like Jesus. In this brief summary we are not saying the work of the three divine persons can be put in separate "water tight" compartments, as it were. One could as well say, in other words, that the Father and Son regenerate us through the operation of the Holy Spirit, as to say that the Spirit does it. There is always unity—as well as diversity—in the work of the three persons of the divine being. But at this point we simply wish to emphasize two things. (a) One is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. This can best be understood if we learn the concept of imputation. Imputation is the act by which something originally belonging to one person is "regarded as belonging to"—or "placed to the account of"—another person. To effect our salvation there had to be a double imputation: our sin (with its guilt and punishment) was laid to Christ's account, and his righteousness (with its merit and reward) was regarded as belonging to us. (b) The other is God's enabling grace. By this we mean the unmerited gift of God—the gift of the saving work of the Holy Spirit within us— which precedes everything that we ourselves do. God, in saving us, acted in a unilateral manner. The whole thing started from his side, in other words. By the operation of the Holy Spirit we, being dead in sin, are made alive. We are regenerated, or made new creatures. It is only because of this initial act of God—and out of the new nature thereby created—that we are able to respond to the gospel offer in repentance and faith.

It will be clear, from all this, why we must never give ourselves the credit for any part of our own salvation! No, our attitude toward "self" will rather be one of abhorrence. And just because we find no resources in self, we will look to Jesus alone for our salvation. Again, it should not be hard to see why we, as Reformed Christians, do not for a moment think of ourselves as "better" than other Christians. As a matter of fact we do not even think of ourselves as "better," in and of ourselves, than unbelievers. It is not the case that we are better. Not at all. But that we are different. We are different because it is our intention to reject the false position of autonomy completely, taking an uncompromising stand in submission to the authority of the Bible. We are therefore willing to acknowledge God's absolute sovereignty in election. Because we admit the truth as to man's fallen condition, we do not take offense when the Bible says it is God who has the final say as to who will—and who will not—be saved. We deserved no mercy. And it was not that we—out of some vestige of goodness left in our hearts—took the initiative in seeking a restored fellowship with God. No, it was God who took the initiative. But it was not His good pleasure to save everyone. That is why the Bible says He elected some to everlasting life, and determined to pass others by (Rom. 9:11). This doctrine is, of course, very distasteful to an autonomous person. An autonomous person does not want to even hear of such things. Such a person will argue vehemently against this truth, saying "This is not fair!" (Rom. 9:14), or "God is unjust [when he finds fault with helpless people]" (Rom. 9:22). We as Reformed Christians, on the other hand, have a very different attitude. We do not presume to argue with God. No, to the contrary, we remember what Paul once said to those who argue with God! "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom. 9:20). Because we understand the magnitude of our own sin and guilt—and realize we are helpless to save ourselves—we know there is no just basis to argue against God's sovereignty in election. As a matter of fact we recognize that election—far from being an evil thing—is really the sinners only hope.

Diagram 4: Man in Salvation

Salvation restores man to a relationship with God which is much like what we saw at the beginning (see diagram #4, above). God is supreme. Man is once again in willing submission to the Word of God which is now deposited—in its entirety—in the Bible. By means of the truth of the Scriptures—because of the regeneration of our hearts by the Holy Spirit—we again knows what we are to believe, and what we are to do in order to please God. This is, of course, the way it really is in essence—but it is also the way it ought to be consistently worked out in our lives. However, as we shall see, there is a constant danger of compromising this basic position. To this we will turn in the next section.


  1. What does Reformed Christianity seek to reject completely?
  2. What two central concepts are contained in the second covenant membership vow?
  3. What are the two elements we need to understand regarding man's fallen condition?
  4. What is guilt?
  5. What is depravity?
  6. What is the difference between "total" and "absolute" depravity?
  7. For what two things does a believer look away from himself entirely, and to Jesus only?
  8. If Christ alone is our Savior, is it wrong to give credit for our salvation to the triune God? Why?
  9. How do Reformed Christians differ from other Christians?
  10. Why do Reformed Christians raise no objection to God's sovereignty in election?


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