A Pastoral Soteriology: Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

Soteriology is the technical term for the study of the doctrine of salvation.  From the Greek soterios, meaning “salvation,” this field of study biblically defines the basis of what is necessary for man to be made right with God and have fellowship with him.

In short order, salvation is that which satisfies the judgment placed by God upon man’s sinful condition.  Thus, if man were not a sinner there would be no need for salvation.  As such, Soteriology and Harmartiology (the study of the doctrine of sin) are inextricably connected.  It is because of man’s sin that he is separated from God and it is because of salvation that man is able to be restored to God.  Unconditionally, a valid and biblical presentation of the (true) gospel must emphasize man’s sin, which is the core condition requiring God’s intervention on his behalf.  Sin is universal and incurable by man’s own actions.  Furthermore, it holds the most serious consequence of any action of eternity past or future; an eternal separation from God in unquenchable punishment. 

As such, salvation is man’s most needed remedy and is the chief revelation of the whole of scripture.  The call to and nature of salvation is the prevailing message of scripture at every turn.  The need for salvation applies to every man in every age.  None are exempt, and none are left without the provision for it, though not all – indeed precious few- will partake of it.  In Genesis, man’s sin created the need for salvation to exist.  In Revelation the full fruition of salvation is realized with the creation of a new earth and the installment of Heavenly perfection upon it. 

Scope and Purposes of This Study

A thorough discourse on Soteriology is a massive undertaking requiring a great deal of theological insight which, like all areas of systematic theology, can easily absorb a person’s entire lifetime in study.  For that reason, this work will not attempt to be a treatise on systematic theology.  Many other men are far better equipped than the author at  presenting such a mechanical and thorough assessment of this field of study.  Rather, this work will be a pastoral presentation of the doctrine of salvation for the purposes of teaching properly these tenants on a basic comprehension level. 

By “pastoral,” what is meant is that this study will be specifically oriented toward the mean.  It will be theological in content, but will be presented in a manner which attempts to reach a broad audience.  A pastor’s job is to lead his people spiritually.  As such, this study will be oriented toward a functional and practical understanding of soteriology for the benefit of the common believer.  It will not presume to be a treatise on the subject, nor will it excessively deal with the non-essential elements of question which can easily be entertained in the context of any thorough discourse on theology.

Another tenant of the pastoral approach is that it is presented personally; aimed at the needs of a particular congregation.  Make no mistake, the fundamentals of salvation are not different from one audience to another, but the degree to which one engages a subject matter is greatly influenced by the audience to which it is aimed.  The congregation this study will aim at will be that of the typical God-fearing citizen of 2009; a historical season marked by a sheer lack of theological uniformity, and sadly, one which is very proud of it.

The current age is filled with all variants of spurious teachings which presume to attest to the nature of the gospel.  Apostasy is rampant in this church age, with men presenting the doctrine of “salvation” as if it were a product to be secured at some human cost.  Sermons have commonly become “commercials” which purport the numerous self-help benefits of acquiring such a product.  As such, salvation has been presented as something which man can afford to man.  It is offered as something for which there are differing “brands” available to each market segment.  One brand may have a higher cost, but yield better benefits.  Another brand may be very cheap, but make no promises.  The gospel has been literally consumerized, with many churches finding no problems at all at “tailoring” it’s message to their target audience.

A pastoral presentation of soteriology to this modern congregation necessitates a sharp breaking from that cultural norm of relativistic and “personal” idealism.  Salvation is God’s offer to man, not man’s offer to himself.  Nor is it the individually tailored offer of a church to its congregants.  Salvation belongs to the Lord, alone.  To that end, it must be understood from God’s own revelation, with no market-driven customization.  God’s revelation is found in his Word, which has preserved his revelation to man and is to be the source of any pursuit into theological knowledge.

In conclusion, the nature of the described “pastoral” approach to soteriology, then, will involve the presentation of the Bible’s own testimony and will align itself in a combative posture against the numerous “other gospels” common in today’s church “market” which are contrary to scripture.

Common Modern Misrepresentations of Salvation

Such attempts at marketing the gospel in the modern world have led to all manners of treacherous doctrines.  While it is possible for a man to be truly saved by the work of the Holy Spirit – even from the teachings of a charlatan- it should be noted that many custom gospel messages today omit important elements of the doctrine of salvation and, in some cases, add considerable human interest “perks” which are not a part of the true gospel at all.  This section represents the author’s own categorizations, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, yet demonstrating a very serious condition in the world which hears such apostate doctrines preached, while believing they have heard from God on the subject.

The Self-Help Gospel

One such categorical variety of false gospel message stems from countless preachers who today are presenting the gospel in a self-help format.  America’s mega-church pastors are particularly guilty of this aberration overall, as they frequently present the gospel as the ultimate way for a man to get what he wants out of life.  The inherent call of this false gospel message is that God exists to serve man in some capacity.  One of America’s most well-known mega-church pastors stated in an interview on national television that he never mentions sin in his church.   Rather, his understanding of the gospel is that man can come to God and receive a good life, a healthy and fulfilled life and a life which overcomes obstacles.  For the record, a “gospel” which fails to mention sin is no gospel at all.  Such is the nature of the self-help gospel.  It is man-centric,  self-serving and is in no manner what scripture teaches concerning the nature of salvation. 

The Sugar Daddy Gospel

Similarly, an enormous group of churches are presenting the gospel as God’s “empowering” of man to achieve god-like status themselves.  Myriads of Word of Faith teachers proclaim that the transformation of the gospel involves man elevating to a “godhood” status whereby he can participate with God in the acquisition of wealth, health and happiness.  Even more consumer-oriented than the self-help gospel, this false gospel presents God as sharing his glory with others- even to the point of empowering man with his own attributes.  It is likewise a consumerized version of the gospel, with man’s own interests providing the focal incentive for salvation.

The Social Action Gospel

A relatively new development in church history is that of Emergent or Emerging congregations.  Major proponents of Emergent theology are teaching what could best be described as a social action gospel.  It is their contention that being made right with God is as simple as “doing” the types of things that Jesus did.  Numerous prolific authors in this emerging movement have unapologetically equated salvation with a properly engaged platform of works.  To make short toil of it, they teach that if one does the ministry of Christ- feed the hungry, nurse the sick, care for the needy- then one is a “Christian” by merit of having joined oneself with Christ’s kingdom work.  Many of these new thinkers have gone so far as to proclaim a universalist doctrine of salvation for all- even those who do not follow Christ by their minimalist standards.

No Gospel at All

The apostle Paul was certainly not one to be impressed with the re-thinking of soteriology.  In fact, he relegated any and every deviation from the gospel of scripture into a singular category; “no gospel at all.”

Galatians 1:6-9 (NIV)
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

Paul’s firm assertion is that the gospel “we preached to you” is singularly the gospel message of Christ.  It is not to be edited, updated, marginalized, culturalized or made somehow more “relevant” to any given climate.  It is God’s unchanging act of grace than man has been given an opportunity to be remedied of sin through the work of Jesus Christ.  No one has the privilege of changing someone else’s gift after the fact, especially when the giver is the timeless God who has unmistakably revealed its nature to his recipients.

To that end, today’s religious caprice being passed off as “the gospel” is in dire need of a scriptural rebuttal from a decisively plain-language and pastoral approach. This series will attempt to define, from a strictly biblical basis, the essence of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

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