Rethinking the Golden Chain

Over the last several years, I’ve come to think differently about the theological bling of the New Calvinism and the self-styled Truly Reformed, i.e. the Golden Chain of Redemption, the Reformed ordo salutis (order of salvation) as it’s commonly taught. This has a lot to do with why I’m more “Reformedish” than “Reformed”, though I’m certainly Reformed.

A friend directed me to this Visual Theology – The Order of Salvation from Tim Challies as representative of the common New Calvinist presentation of the subject, and he asked me what I thought of it. What follows is an adaptation of my response.

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Alrighty. For starters, this article from the Theopolis Institute is about how Richard Gaffin accidentally “started a revolution” in Reformed systematics by inadvertently undermining the ordo salutis of modern Reformed systematics when he demonstrated it’s an aberration from early Reformed theology centered on union with Christ in which most of the steps of the ordo salutis are actually different facets of the single reality of union with Christ.

In recent years, I’ve come to embrace this more eschatological understanding of salvation as it’s applied in our lives. The central reality is our union with the resurrected Lord Jesus. Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of the Resurrection or World to Come, the age of the kingdom of God. Therefore, he is the inauguration of the future in the present. Our union with him causes us to share in everything he is and has as the New Man, and therefore the character of the future invades the present in our lives and out to this world. Our personal salvation is the salvation of the entire world in the future invading the present world both individually and corporately as the society of salvation (i.e. the Church of Jesus Christ).

This all clicked for me at some point when I was studying eschatology and thinking about the Already and the Not-Yet and reading The Bible and the Future by Anthony Hoekema. This is how I came to see Soteriology is Ecclesiology is Eschatology is Christology.

So, the ordo salutis Challies posted is exactly the one I would have written out for you if you would’ve asked me eight or nine years ago. And I learned it primarily from reading lots of New Calvinists. Of course, even then I’d have said conversion, justification, and adoption are temporally simultaneous, also justification and adoption are logically simultaneous as parallel aspects. And this is pretty much the ordo salutis you’d get from the staunchly “Truly Reformed” types and the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” types.

So, here’s my critique, both good and bad . . .

I’m no longer convinced the typical biblical use of election language means what Challies says it means. I’d probably use the language of foreknown and foreordained (or predestined) to get a little closer. But all of those words when used in Scripture don’t have the truncated meaning that they do in Reformed systematics. I’d argue that anyone who’s in the Church either temporarily (and then apostatizes) or permanently (who perseveres to the end) can lay claim to this sort of language on account of participation in the Church, because that’s the way the apostles speak. In other words, there are covenantal aspects to this language that overlap or mix with the decretal aspects.

The same thing ends up being the case for a lot of the other terms. This has been a critique in quite a few Reformed circles, i.e. the biblical words used in that systematic ordo salutis have truncated and technical meanings that aren’t exactly the same as what we discern in Scripture. And we have to really check ourselves to keep from reading only the Reformed systematic meanings back onto Scripture.

The language of calling also has covenantal and ecclesiological connotations since “calling” (Gr. kaleo) and the “assembly” or “church” or “called-out ones” (Gr. ekklesia) are related. But I do agree that there’s this thing known as effectual calling in Reformed systematics.

I’m actually a little suspicious of this thing we call regeneration on two counts. First, even though it’s been popular to use “regeneration” this way in Reformed systematics for a few hundred years, it’s simply not the meaning of regeneration (Gr. palingenesia) in Scripture. In Scripture, there’s “the Regeneration” (Matt. 19:28) referring to the Eschaton, and there’s the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) which I believe is a baptismal reference. I think the Regeneration has primacy of meaning and is synonymous with the New Creation or the World to Come, etc. As it’s individually applied, our own regeneration is something a little closer to what is often meant by “progressive sanctification” (i.e. the lifelong process of being remade or refurbished after having been marred and mangled by sin). Second, I do question or wonder if there is really this definitive, absolute, black-and-white, internal change of natures that is called the “new birth” or being “born again” in typical evangelical theology, or if we’ve individualized and internalized something that’s actually a historical and ritual reality. I usually think something like this (though not a change of nature) is, in fact, included in the “new birth” as Scripture uses that language. Other words for it could be quickening or enlivening. But I’d still contend there are inescapable connections between these words and inclusion in the Church as a sociological identity in Scripture. I’d almost want to use the language of “circumcision of the heart”, but that has complications too.

I’m not a fan of using the language of conversion in reference to a single act of confession and renunciation or to a discreet episode (often during a moment of crisis). Scripturally and historically, “conversion” is like repentance; it’s an ongoing repetitive reality referring to our growth in wisdom and godly conduct. It also concerns changing our allegiance and then strengthening it.

Justification is definitely a truncated concept in modern Reformed theology and much of Protestant theology more generally. It’s often only a discrete, definitive legal declaration by God at a certain moment in the ordo salutis in an person’s life. It often comes across as generally very impersonal like a financial transaction and has very little connection with a deeply personal peace in fellowship with God. And there’s often no acknowledgement in Reformed systematics of progressive (“are being justified”) and future (“will be justified”) aspects of justification that are found in Scripture. There’s not much of a place afforded to descriptive righteousness, i.e. “the one who does what is righteous is the righteous one.” We should be able to speak of walking in paths of righteousness and going in the way of righteousness as Scripture does. I think Reformed systematics employs the language of sanctification to do the work that the language of righteousness is meant to do.

The language of adoption is another one of those instances where some biblical authors give it ties to membership in the covenant community or the Church.

In recent years, I’ve started to agree with the Lutherans that Calvinists generally have no clue what sanctification really means. Sanctification or holiness is a ceremonial status indicating or measuring our ritual proximity to God. You can definitely see in the Letter to the Hebrews that the author doesn’t use “sanctification” language the way Reformed systematics does. I’d be more inclined to talk about our “growth in good works” like a Lutheran rather than “progressive sanctification” like a Calvinist. However, I don’t deny progressive sanctification or that biblical language of holiness does relate to conduct.

I wouldn’t define perseverance quite like Challies does (“those who are justified are kept to the end”), because I’ve already noted I wouldn’t use justification precisely the way he does. I’d just say phenomenologically that perseverance is about maintaining faith in Christ to the end. There’s generally no real appreciation in a heavily decretal view of perseverance for what those who apostatize had once enjoyed and experienced (Heb. 6:4-6).

The way Challies (and pretty much everyone else who teaches the Reformed ordo salutis) uses glorification is pretty much completely wrong. Just look around in Paul’s writings. Even in the “Golden Chain” itself (the closest thing to be found in Scripture to a compact ordo salutis) in Romans 8:29-30, it’s in the past tense: “those whom he justified, he also glorified.” We’re already glorified. And we’re constantly being more glorified: “we all are being changed from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). And we will be yet more glorified in the future. If you want to talk about our individual future condition in the Resurrection, or Regeneration (Matt. 19:28), or Restoration (Acts 3:21), I’d talk about the consummation of our salvation. The aspect of glorification is one facet of our present state that’s parallel to our justification, conversion, regeneration, etc. (as I’ve described them above).

The biggest problem with this decretal ordo salutis is that it’s virtually useless pastorally. It can’t really be connected to an infallible certainty we have about ourselves or each other. It only provides us with categories for hypothetical individuals called the decretally elect and the presumptuously reprobate. Sometimes, less is more. We could just as easily say God is sovereign over all of salvation (and really mean what we say when we say that). And there’s a need to connect soteriology with ecclesiology so that salvation has a context. The Triune God isn’t saving a detached set of individuals; he’s saving a people with a structured social reality and shared corporate purpose.

So there’s my fairly contrarian rant on the matter. 😉

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