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What is Salvation? – Fred Sanders

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Sanders on the doctrine of salvation and God’s mission to save humanity.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The ordo salutis, the specific categories of salvation, including justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification
  • Key distinctions between evangelicals and Catholics on the doctrine of justification
  • How Christians should approach sanctification/growth in Christ
  • Helpful resources for understanding more about the doctrine of salvation

Dr. Fred Sanders serves as a professor at Biola University and is the associate director of the Torrey Honors College. Dr. Sanders is the author of several books, including Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love (Crossway, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

When I was in college, I was deeply involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru. And Campus Crusade for Christ did two things really well—evangelism and discipleship. And learning how to share my faith in college, we used a pamphlet that Bill Bright had put together called The Four Spiritual Laws, where we talked people through God and his holiness, man and his sin in turning away from God, Christ in his redemptive work on behalf of sinners, and finally, the response that people needed to make if they were going to give their lives to Christ or not. And for us in college, that became kind of the totality of our view of salvation. In reality, the Bible talks about salvation in many different, fuller ways. And we want to talk about that today. And with us to discuss that is Dr. Fred Sanders, who is professor of Theology at Biola University, also the associate director of the Torrey Honors Institute. Fred, thanks so much for joining us today.

Fred Sanders (01:15):

Thanks for having me on.

Brian Arnold (01:16):

So our big question, we always like to have one big question and today it is—what is salvation? And admittedly, this is a massive question. We could have 20 questions underneath this, because there’s so many components. But maybe we start with the doctrine of God, and conceive of God’s massive project of human salvation, and then kind of get into some more particulars.

Fred Sanders (01:37):

Yeah. Sounds good.

Brian Arnold (01:39):

So let’s begin there. God is on a mission to save humanity. The whole Bible is, in essence, an unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. So how do you put that in the context of the character of God?

Fred Sanders (01:54):

Yeah. That’s the thing. Talking about Christian salvation, talking about the gospel, includes within it clear reference to who God is, what our problem with God is, and what provision God has made for overcoming that problem. So it’s always…Christian salvation is always a doctrine about reconciliation, in really broad terms, right? That God is the source of our being, God is where we are from. And we are in a state of alienation from God. And so he has made a plan and put it in place to bring us back into fellowship with him. That’s kind of the large umbrella, conceptual framework of what salvation is.

Brian Arnold (02:42):

And then it breaks down into a lot of different specific pieces. Some theologians refer to this as what we call the ordo salutis, that is, the order of salvation. Maybe, Fred, could you walk us through some of those steps of salvation, and we’ll dive into a couple in particular?

Fred Sanders (03:00):

Yeah. Good. And of course there are some…there’s a list here…the order of salvation, it’s going to include an enumerated list of sub-doctrines. It’s easy to get kind of lost in the weeds. So, you know, the key points that really stand out are justification by grace alone, through faith alone, regeneration, where you’re born again, and a new life comes to be within you. And as that new life is cultivated and grows to maturity, we talk about sanctification. And then, of course, the termination of all this, the fulfillment of it, in ultimate reconciliation with God and glorification. Before we go into any one of those in particular though, I do just want to flag the value of having some kind of word that is an overarching word that covers all of this.

Fred Sanders (03:51):

And for us, I think, in English, among evangelicals, that is almost always the word salvation, which is, of course, a biblical word, but we use it…I don’t want to say we use it in an unbiblical way. We use the word salvation as our ultimate highest level term to talk about everything that could possibly go in this category. And I think that’s valuable. Now it can lead to a little bit of sloppiness, where you can use the word salvation to say, “yeah, but what’s the crucial thing that I have to do to be saved?” And you might, by the word save in that question, you might mean something like to be converted.

Brian Arnold (04:27):

To go to heaven. Probably most people have in mind, what do I—bare minimum—have to do to get to heaven?

Fred Sanders (04:33):

That’s right. And you know, we can communicate by using the word that way, but also at some point we need to break this down and say, “well, the word salvation is a complex, kind of umbrella term.” [It] includes—I mean, how would John Wesley say it?—like all the drawings of the Father, all the wooings of the Holy Spirit, everything about your conversion and your justification and standing before God righteously, not on the basis of your work, but on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ, real growth and holiness, all of that is the Christian inheritance in Christ.

Brian Arnold (05:08):

It’s more comprehensive. It isn’t, you know, we do have the tendency to be reductionistic. I mean, that’s why I even began with talking about Campus Crusade. I love sharing the gospel, even that way. I think it is a helpful approach, but it can become—what is the minimal thing that one must have in order to go to heaven? And then it’s done, and then you move on. Instead of seeing how Scripture just has this manifold beauty when it comes to…from God, you know, on a mission to save sinners through calling, election calling, and faith and repentance, regeneration on down that list, like you said. And so there is kind of a both/and approach to it, it seems.

Fred Sanders (05:52):

Yeah. And I think when everything’s working well, that’s fine. Like if you were to ask me, when did you get saved? I would know what you meant. And I would say, “I got saved in a youth group revival in Western Kentucky in the mid-80s.” But then if I think about saved in the more comprehensive sense, I would say, “oh, I mean, the presence of God in my life, even my consciousness of God’s presence in my life, goes back to my upbringing in a Pentecostal church, where I didn’t really grasp everything, but I was aware of God’s presence. And I felt drawn to him in a way that didn’t really bear fruit in my life until my teenage years.” And then I would talk about, you know, compared to what I knew when I got saved at age 15 in Western Kentucky, it’s not just that I have a PhD in theology now. It’s that I’ve been living the Christian life for decades, and I know so much more and have experienced so much more than I did at my moment of conversion, that I can actually look at my Christian life and say, “I know there’s that turning point when I gave my life to Jesus at age 15,

Fred Sanders (06:53):

but the growth I’ve experienced since then is, you know, it’s on a whole different level.”

Brian Arnold (07:00):

Yeah. It’s almost like there is this like static moment of conversion, when somebody goes from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. They are saved, in the sense of—Christ’s atonement has now paid for their sins, heaven is going to be their future home. And yet there is somewhat of a dynamic sense, in which Scripture can talk about “I was saved, and I am being saved, and I’m experiencing more of God, I’m understanding in a more comprehensive sense what he did to save me.” I love how you even said—it’s growth in knowledge of those things, but it’s also experiencing God.

Fred Sanders (07:35):

Yeah. Yeah. And in one sense, I mean, you have to say this carefully, because you don’t want to undercut assurance of salvation, but there’s a sense in which nobody is really saved until judgment day, right? Like the salvation that we experience in the gospel is a promise that when God judges everyone for everything, our judgment day has already been worked out in Christ. So in the meantime, I’m on my way to judgment day in Christ, knowing that he bears the judgment for me.

Brian Arnold (08:08):

And that’s a helpful correction to—I think—a lot of misunderstanding. And even the tradition that I come out of, in the Baptist tradition, of eternal security—once saved, always saved. We have a lot of different ways of saying it. And I do think it’s a biblical concept, and yet there’s warnings in Scripture. And you’ll know that you’re walking in the path of obedience and faith, because you’re walking with Christ through the rest of your days.

Fred Sanders (08:34):

Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. The preservation, or the perseverance of the saints, is an important doctrine. And where we always, I think, spend a lot of time and can get confused or turned around on, is when you’re talking about the perseverance of notorious sinners, right? That’s where the lid comes off, and you want say, “whoa, that’s different.” Talking about perseverance of the saints is just talking about grace continuing to have its effect in your life, you know, steadfastly and permanently.

Brian Arnold (09:04):

That’s right. Well, Fred, I would love to dive down in there more at some point, especially…you’re coming from more of a Wesleyan tradition, I come from a bit more of a Reformed background. It’d be very interesting to flesh that out. And for listeners who know both you and me, I think that that could be a discussion we could have later on. But I want to focus on another area of salvation in particular, and that is justification and sanctification. You mentioned those before. Kind of walk us through those, define those. What differentiates those doctrines?

Fred Sanders (09:37):

Yeah. There’s a distinction here between the sort of forensic, or the what God does for you side of things, a recognition that when you are in Christ, in terms of your status before God, God views you a certain way and declares something to be true about you. That’s one side of things. You get it in Romans, but often in Romans, in the very next verse, you’ll get things about walking by the Spirit, right? “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Yay! That’s sort of that forensic, what God did, how God looks at me side of things. “For those who walk according to the Spirit.” You say, “well, wait—walking according to the Spirit is an ongoing reality of the power of God in my life” And we, in sort of American English usage at least, we use the word sanctification to point to that ongoing reality of growth in grace.

Brian Arnold (10:39):

And it seems like Paul has this idea of like a positional sanctification. He can call the people at the church of Corinth, “you are saints, you have been sanctified.” And yet there’s a progression in sanctification as well. We’re “growing up in godliness.”

Fred Sanders (10:56):

Yeah, that’s right. And I would trace that…I mean, I love the doctrine of sanctification, it’s sort of my favorite part of my Wesleyan heritage, is the attention and the realism given to that doctrine. But it’s always built on regeneration. That is to say, the divine bringing forth of a new nature within the human. So being born again. Everyone who is justified is born again, and everyone who is born again is justified. It’s package deal. Because it’s the same God carrying out the same plan who does these two things. And I would even say, simultaneously. And yet, they’re distinct. Justification is a different thing from regeneration, even though everybody who gets one gets both.

Brian Arnold (11:43):

And then, yeah, I think having these doctrines in their categories…seeing how they work together, but having them separated by category is really important to see what God is doing at each of those stages. So that when we’re justified there is that legal declaration. It’s a moment in time where we are considered not guilty of sin, and even given Christ’s righteousness, which then goes into the doctrine of sanctification. I think if something like the Roman Catholic church. So a lot of evangelicals might have a hard time differentiating—what makes our doctrine of salvation different than Roman Catholic theology on that? And to me, a lot of it comes down to this point on justification and sanctification. How do you walk somebody through that, if they have that question?

Fred Sanders (12:25):

Yeah. So this is…the sense in which we’re talking about justification is that it’s a declaring just. And it’s…I guess one way to put it is—it’s where the Christian life starts. You know, it starts with the declaration of forgiveness and of justification. And then you grow in a process of knowledge and grace. As opposed to, if you flip that around, it would be something like—well, the start of the Christian life is something like the right to begin doing Spirit-empowered works, at the end of which process you will be justified. So it’s sort of like the Christian life has a beginning and an end. And the question is, where do you put justification on that order? This is the crucial side of the ordo salutis that we were talking about.

Brian Arnold (13:15):

Well, and it seems like there’s a blurring, in the Roman Catholic sense, between justification and sanctification, as you said. I mean, do we have these works by the Spirit which finally, eventually, lead toward our justification? Or is it that singular moment in time—we’re declared righteous, which begins a process of sanctification. I mean, this is what the Reformation was founded on. I am justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, and because of that, now I can live a life of faithful obedience—walking by the Spirit, bearing the fruits of the Spirit—that I could not do on my own. And I bring nothing to the table of my own justification. If I did, I’d have reason to boast before God. And Paul tells us in Romans—there’s no ground for boasting, because God has done the work of salvation in justifying us.

Fred Sanders (13:59):

Yeah. And justification, in this, what I take to be the correct biblical sense, that is the Protestant sense here, is this clean, sharp, direct…there’s nothing else like it in the doctrine of salvation, you know? Everything else, all the other elements of the doctrine of salvation have this sort of like extended or organic or experiential component to it, that you can approach from different elements. Justification is just sort of a bolt from the blue, you know, the unilateral divine action declaring one righteous.

Brian Arnold (14:34):

Yes. And then that opens up that kind of pathway to sanctification, as the Spirit comes to indwell, and now we have a chance to grow in holiness in Christ. I actually share your affinity for the doctrine of sanctification. In seminary I wrote multiple papers on it, because I felt drawn to it. Because it really is—how am I going to live out this moment in time, from the time that I quote unquote “got saved,” I’ve been justified, declared righteous—onto the point where I go to glory? How do I grow in Christ-likeness? So let’s continue to unpack that even a little bit more. So how do you encourage Christians to seize upon their sanctification, actually begin to grow in Christ?

Fred Sanders (15:17):

Yeah. Yeah, because I think it’s worth admitting, and in some evangelical circles, that there is a danger to focusing on this character of justification. What do I mean by danger? I mean, it’s…you could approach salvation as a merely transactional encounter, after which you will go to heaven instead of hell. And that’s all there is to it. And if you want to get sanctified, you know, between now and the time you die—that’s optional. You can do that. There is a…you know, it’s our carnal selfishness that wants to reduce and control and manipulate the doctrine of justification, so that it becomes merely a transaction that happened to me once upon a time. And that’s dangerous. That is just spiritually dangerous. It means it lives in your mind as a kind of mythology, right? About what’s going to happen when you die. It’s hard to know if that’s engaged with spiritual reality at all, because it it’s been so reduced.

Brian Arnold (16:16):

Well, the Reformers knew that this was going to be a problem, which is why they were quick to say, “you can’t just see justification as that transactional piece, and then live however you want.” But the person who actually has the gospel inside of them is going to be the seed planted on the fertile soil. It’s going to grow up, it’s going to bear the fruits of the Spirit. And people should have real concern—that if their life is not displaying godliness as described by Scripture, maybe they’re not being sanctified. And that might lead them to question whether or not they’ve actually been justified.

Fred Sanders (16:51):

Yeah, there’s a phrase I ran across, I think it might be in John Wesley, but it reflects a wider understanding here— “the high doctrine of sanctification, begun in justification.” It’s an interesting phrase. It’s…so justification is not sanctification. There’s a reason for making a clear conceptual distinction between these, and yet something about true justification provides the power of sanctification. I think in one of Wesley’s sermons he puts it this way. He presents the gospel, and he says, “if you hear this word today, your sins will be forgiven. How forgiven? So forgiven that they will no longer rule over you.” Now, I think that’s a beautiful…Wesley’s got his categories straight. He knows what justification is. He knows what sanctification is. But then he uses this sentence—”your sins will be so forgiven that they will no longer rule over you.”

Fred Sanders (17:51):

You see what he’s doing there? He’s eliding, or sliding over from justification as a legal forensic act, to sanctification as an experienced reality. Because there’s something about being forgiven that gives you the momentum to actually begin to do well, right? You may…let’s say you take an adult convert who gets saved, the next day after his moment of conversion. He is right with God and justified, but he still has all the habits and inclinations and sort of, you know, go-to behaviors that he had the day before. But he now faces them with a clear conscience and an awareness that God is on his side, and that the decisive battle is over. And now if he has to, you know, enroll in a rehab program, or if he has to get accountability for various things, whatever he has to do in order to engage in the battle against sin with a hope of winning, he does in the strength of his justification,

Brian Arnold (18:51):

It is the overflow. It is the expectation of overflow. And I just want to say for anybody listening right now, who, you look at your life and you’re saying, “am I actually growing in sanctification? Am I taking these steps in faithful obedience?” And your heart is, you know, yearning for Christ—I think that’s a good indication that you are in the Lord, and then seeking ways to fight for your sanctification. It’s interesting how Paul uses these kinds of ideas of mortification and vivification, as the Puritans would pull it out. We’ve got to put to death the deeds of the body, and we have to bring to life the things of the Spirit. And by doing these things, they’re kind of two wings on the plane of sanctification that I think people could start doing today to really begin to grow in Christ-likeness.

Fred Sanders (19:41):


Brian Arnold (19:41):

Well, I want to push you on one piece, Fred. Maybe a place where we disagree, I’m not sure. You wrote a really great book, I enjoyed it a lot, on John Wesley. You come a bit more from the Wesleyan background, and one of the tenants, at least of some Wesleyan theology, as it relates to sanctification, is this idea—and I know you’ll probably rebuff at the word—but sinless perfection. So, what is that? How did that come about? And I’d love to hear your views on it.

Fred Sanders (20:10):

Yeah. Yeah. Let me see if I can put this, you know, helpfully. So John Wesley definitely taught Christian perfection. He would always distinguish that from sinless perfection. And how did Wesley get into it?

Brian Arnold (20:28):

It’s known sins, right? He would say you’re kind of free from known sins? Is that right?

Fred Sanders (20:32):

Yeah. Yeah. So his main point here is…in Wesley’s defense, he is being biblical, you know. We’ve got this group of words in the New Testament built on the teleos root. We tend to translate it in our modern Bible, something like maturity or completion, but certainly in the King James Bible, you know, 17th century, it is the word perfect or perfection. So when he teaches Christian perfection, in one sense, he thinks, “what’s the big hassle, are you not reading the New Testament? It’s, you know, all over the place, there’s talk about perfection.” Probably the most helpful category to put it under is entire sanctification. And the idea here is that sanctification—progressive sanctification—is a process. And Wesley wants to say that it is a process which can be completed. It reaches its completion. And one reason he proposes this is—a lot of people think, “yes, it’s a process, and you go through sanctification until you die, and then you’re glorified, but you never completed sanctification on its own,

Fred Sanders (21:40):

that’s not even possible. You just get as sanctified as you can, then you die and get glorified.” And Wesley wanted to say, “you know, what if I’m reading the New Testament right? And there is, in fact, such a thing as completing the process of sanctification?” That’s kind of the pitch. That’s…it’s a hard and distinctive doctrine in Wesleyanism.

Brian Arnold (22:00):

Do you agree with him? I’m just curious.

Fred Sanders (22:04):

Yeah, it…yeah, that’s a good question. Because I’m a bad Wesleyan in multiple ways. I agree that conceptually sanctification has to have a terminus point. You know, in order to be a thing, it’s got to be a thing that can be completed.

Brian Arnold (22:24):

Okay. That’s great. Well, Fred, we’ve got about a minute left. Can you give us some helpful resources? We’ve obviously just barely cracked the door into this whole world of the doctrine of salvation. What are a few resources that you might point people to, where they could learn more about these things?

Fred Sanders (22:40):

Yeah. There are so many good resources out there. Evangelicals have done a great job writing in this field. I would always go back to J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. You know, it puts it in a much broader framework, but by volume, by page count, that is mostly a book about salvation. You know, it does it in a way that doesn’t divorce it from knowledge of God and other theological issues. I also really like Sinclair Ferguson’s book—I think it’s still in print—The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Really solid book. A later book by Ferguson is The Whole Christ, which I think brings it much more into contact with the doctrine of union with Christ, which is another one of these great master categories in the doctrine of salvation. And then, this is kind of a helpful two book set from Robert Peterson. He did Salvation Accomplished by the Son, and then Salvation Applied by the Spirit. You don’t want to split up the work of salvation and assign different job duties to the Son and Spirit, but those are important organizing heads under which to see—salvation accomplished in the work of Christ, and then applied to our life in the work of the Spirit.

Brian Arnold (23:46):

I think those are fantastic resources. And I think they’re accessible for anyone listening to go pick up and to learn more about these things. Well, as we kind of close down our conversation on the doctrine of salvation today, I would feel really remiss, because I know a lot of different people could be listening, to not appeal to you. If you’ve not had a relationship with Christ, if you’ve not been justified by faith alone, if you’re not walking in sanctification—to turn to Christ today, the only hope of salvation. And for those who are in Christ and maybe haven’t been walking in sanctification, to begin those steps today, of putting to death the deeds of the body, bringing to life the things of the Spirit. Fred, thanks so much for joining us to talk about salvation today.

Fred Sanders (24:34):

Thanks for having me on.

Outro (24:35):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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