Published on June 30, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Great Christian Books, 2013 | 106 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance

Editor’s Note

This week’s Book Summary from Books At a Glance reaches back a hundred years to a true Warfield classic. B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) was the renowned Reformed theologian of Princeton Seminary whose efforts in the exposition and defense of the church’s historic faith were unparalleled. In this work – perhaps a bit lesser known – Warfield examines God’s plan of salvation as historically understood by the various branches of professing Christendom.


In his The Plan of Salvation Warfield examines the various views offered within Christendom concerning the order and outworking of the decrees of God concerning human salvation. That God acts in salvation according to a plan is a given in theism, for purpose is essential to personhood. Even the Deist must acknowledge that God acts according to plan, even if in that system God’s plan is carried out in a mere mechanical fashion. In the Deist conception salvation is not by chance, but neither is it by the immediate workings of a personal Deity. But if we grant the theistic conception of God — that he is a personal being who maintains immediate control over his creation — then we are forced to acknowledge that he acts according to plan in human salvation.

The question here has to do with the nature of this plan. Here there are widely differing opinions within professing Christendom.

I. Naturalism (Autosoterism) vs. Supernaturalism

Fundamentally, there are two doctrines of salvation:  either God saves us, or we save ourselves. Self-salvation is the universal teaching of heathenism, it was the explicit teaching of Pelagius, and it is the teaching of liberal Protestantism also. Still, that salvation is from God has been the professed belief of Christianity. Salvation, by definition, for Christians, is a work of God.

A. Pelagianism vs. Augustinianism

It is this understanding that prompted Jerome to describe Pelagianism, the first autosoteric scheme to arise in the church, as the “heresy of Pythagoras and Zeno.” Pelagius built his system on the assumption of the full ability of the unaided human will to do what God requires — the principle that human obligation implies human ability — so that, in the end, man has saved himself. He has within him all the necessary powers. The effect of “fall” was but that of a bad example — humanity is not itself scarred from it. “Man is able to be without sin,” and “he is able to keep the commandments of God,” said Pelagius. At every moment, every man is fully able to cease from all sinning and to continue on in perfection. For the Pelagian, “grace” is but the endowment to man of this inalienable freedom of will and the divine inducements to use his freedom for good. Additionally, God has given the law and the gospel to illumination and persuasion. And he has given Christ “to supply an expiation for past sins for all who will do righteousness, and especially to set a good example.” Those who submit to these inducements and exercise their freedom to cease from sinning and do righteousness, are accepted by God as righteous and will be rewarded for their good works.

Such a system which “casts man back upon his native powers,” Warfield insists, is not, properly, religion at all but a system of ethics, “fitted only for the righteous who need no salvation.”

Augustinianism triumphed over Palagianism and its step-child, semi-pelagianism, and insisted that it is God alone who saves. Not some, but all the power exerted in saving the human soul is from God. But this triumph was only formal, for while the church officially acknowledged both the necessity and the preveniency of grace, it refused to acknowledge, and in fact denied, the efficacy of grace. Thus, the downward pull of synergism prevailed, and, despite its official condemnation by the church, semi-pelagianism dominated the church of the middle ages.

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B. Reformation vs. Pelagianism

In Luther and in Calvin Augustinianism found new champions. To Luther, Pelagianism was the heresy of heresies, equal to unbelief itself. To Luther and Calvin alike it was but the fodder which fed human pride, filling men “with an over-weening opinion of their own virtue, swelling them out with vanity, and leaving no room for the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit.” But in Luther’s very successor, Philip Melancthon (1497-1560), “the old leaven of self-salvation” began to make its way back. In time, even Reformed churches began to draw back, and rationalistic notions of freedom of the will and human independence began to gain precedence. God saves, but he does so merely by keeping the way of salvation open for those who exercise their free will aright. Warfield wonders if such can properly be called “salvation” at all. He further wonders whether a gospel that is contingent on the human will can be good news to anyone, for the will is precisely the problem — it is diseased and hostile against God. Indeed, it is dead. “For the sinner who knows himself to be a sinner, and knows what it is to be a sinner,” not a “whoever will” gospel but “only a ‘God will’ gospel will suffice.”  If the only gospel that can be given to men with dead and sinful wills is merely a “whoever will” gospel, “who then can be saved?”

Autosoterism is but a dream which cannot save at all. Warfield cites Spurgeon approvingly: “If there be but one stitch in the celestial garment of our righteousness which we ourselves are to put in it, we are lost.” It is God who saves sinners.

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The Plan of Salvation

Great Christian Books, 2013 | 106 pages

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