The Soteriology of B. B. Warfield

by Fred Zaspel

Warfield speaks often of the fundamental redemptive character of Christianity— a “sinner’s religion”—and takes great delight at seemingly every opportunity in expounding matters related to God’s powerful and gracious rescue of guilty sinners through Christ. God has revealed himself progressively with a redemptive purpose, and that revelation has reached its apex in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation Warfield always describes in salvific terms. He glories in the truth that through Christ sinners are made right with God, renewed, and secured to final glory. Salvation is accomplished for us in time by the workings of the triune God, whose purpose to save runs from eternity to eternity.
The Plan of Salvation

In The Plan of Salvation, Warfield examines the various views offered within Christendom regarding 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. On this there are widely differing opinions within professing Christendom.


As was pointed out in chapter 1, the question of naturalism versus supernaturalsm was in many respects the defining question of the day, and Warfield saw this principle at work not only in such discussions as inspiration and the incarnation. He saw it as the defining issue in soteriology also: either God saves us, or we save ourselves. That salvation is from God is the belief universally held by all professing Christians; that salvation comes from ourselves is the universal doctrine of heathenism. 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 Adam’s 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 merely 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 for 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 right are accepted by God as righteous and will be rewarded for their good works. 1

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.”2 Augustinianism triumphed over Pelagianism and its stepchild, 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 Augustine’s triumph was only formal, for while the church officially acknowledged both the necessity and the prevenience 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.

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 that 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 Melanchthon (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?”3

Autosoterism is but a dream that 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.”4 It is God who saves sinners.


Among supernaturalists, significant differences of opinion remain, most fundamentally the division between sacerdotalism and evangelicalism. Both are supernaturalists in that they both acknowledge that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God. The difference between them lies in the manner in which this divine power is brought to the human soul, whether immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities—the church and sacraments. The point at issue is the immediacy of God’s saving activity: “Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?”5

Evangelicalism preserves the notion of “pure” and “consistent supernaturalism.” It “sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace.” The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation, to look to God himself for grace rather than to any means of grace. His whole hope is that God the Holy Spirit is “actually operative where and when and how he will.” It is God alone who saves. This “evangelicalism” is, simply, Protestantism. 6

The greatest defect in the sacerdotal conception of salvation, best represented by the Church of Rome, is that it places sinners in the hands of men rather than a merciful God. Instead of being directed to God, we are “referred to an institution.” According to the sacerdotal scheme, God desires the salvation of all men and has made adequate provision for the salvation of all via the church and its sacraments; but the actual distribution of grace is performed at the hands of the church, and apart from the church there can be no salvation at all. All this is a very small step away from naturalism; it is still salvation at the hands of men. By this system, “direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit” is replaced by a “body of instrumentalities” on which the soul is tempted to depend. The sacerdotal system “thus betrays the soul into a mechanical conception of salvation.”7

To understand sacerdotalism aright, three observations must be kept in view. First, the church has taken the place of the Holy Spirit, and the Christian therefore

loses all the joy and power which come from conscious direct communion with God. It makes every diference to the religious life, and every diference to the comfort and assurance of the religious hope, whether we are consciously dependent upon instrumentalities of grace, or upon God the Lord himself, experienced as personally present to our souls, working salvation in his loving grace.

We have here, clearly, two very different types of piety—one fostered by dependence on instrumentalities of grace and one fostered by a conscious communion with God as a personal Savior. The Protestant rejection of sacerdotalism is in the interest of vital religion, “and this repudiation constitutes the very essence of evangelicalism. Precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation.”8

Second, sacerdotalism neglects the personality of God the Holy Spirit and treats him as if he were a mere force. The church describes itself as “the storehouse of salvation,” as though salvation were a commodity that could be stored and dispensed at its will.

It would probably be no exaggeration to say that no heresy could be more gross than that heresy which conceives the operations of God the Holy Spirit under the forms of the action of an impersonal, natural force. And yet it is quite obvious that at bottom this is the conception which underlies the sacerdotal system. The Church, the means of grace, contain in them the Holy Spirit as a salvation-working power which operates whenever and wherever it, we can scarcely say he, is applied. 9

Third, this system subjects the Holy Spirit in his gracious operations of salvation to the control of men. Rather than viewing the means of grace as instruments that the Holy Spirit uses in working salvation, the Holy Spirit is made an instrument of the church—an instrument that the church, the means of grace, puts to use in working salvation. 10 The initiative belongs to the church, and the Holy Spirit is placed at the church’s disposal. Until the church puts him to work, he waits for its permission. This “degrading” concept of the Spirit of God and his saving work is not worthy of “religion,” and Warfield dismisses it out of hand.

Pure sacerdotalism is most clearly represented in the Roman Catholic Church, which presents itself as “the institution of salvation, through which alone is salvation conveyed to men.” Saving grace is exclusively administered by the church. “Where the church is, there is the Spirit; outside the church there is no salvation.” But sacerdotal theology is not restricted to the Church of Rome. The Church of England teaches in strikingly similar terms, and confessional Lutheranism continues it in a modified form. Still there is something standing between the sinner and his saving God. The evangelical contradiction of sacerdotalism is merely a consistent denial of naturalism. An insistence on supernaturalism drives evangelicals to put their sole trust in God alone and refuse “to admit any intermediaries between the soul and God, as the sole source of salvation.” It is only a true evangelicalism that “sounds clearly the double confession that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God, and that God in his saving operations acts directly upon the soul.”11


The evangelical note of individual and immediate dependence upon God alone for salvation is formally sounded by the whole of Protestantism, and it is this note that shapes its piety. Protestant piety is “individualistic to the core, and depends for its support on an intense conviction that God the Lord deals with each sinful soul directly and for itself.”12 In odd yet obvious contradiction to this basic conviction, however, there exists within Protestantism a widespread tendency to explain God’s saving activities in universal, rather than in individual, terms. The work that God does in salvation, according to these universalistic interpretations, he does equally for all men alike, making no distinctions. This is the position of evangelical Arminianism, evangelical Lutheranism, and others.

It would seem that if these two premises are held—that God and God alone saves by the workings of his grace immediately upon the human heart, and that he works equally in all men alike—then all men alike will be saved, without exception. The conclusion is unavoidable unless one or the other of the premises is relaxed in some way. Scripture speaking so plainly on this matter, precious few evangelicals have been willing to claim that all men are, in fact, saved. Instead, they draw back to a position that allows for a universalistic work on God’s part yet issues in a particularistic result. God alone works in salvation, according to this view, but all that he does is directed indiscriminately to all men. It would seem necessary, therefore, either to affirm that the critical and decisive move in salvation belongs not to God but to man—in which case we have fallen from evangelicalism to naturalistic autosoterism—or to affirm that the operations of God’s saving grace are not universal but individual. We cannot affirm both unless we are willing to embrace outright universalism. “Consistent evangelicalism and consistent universalism can coexist only if we are prepared to assert the salvation by God’s almighty grace of all men without exception.”13

The hesitancy on the part of some evangelicals to ascribe a thoroughgoing particularism to God in the distribution of his saving grace is widespread. Evangelical Arminianism affirms that salvation ultimately depends on the exercise of the human will. Evangelical Lutheranism affirms the efficacy of baptism in communicating regenerating grace, a grace that is left to the individual to take advantage of, cooperate with, and act upon. The naturalistic (“semi-semi- Pelagian”) and sacerdotal tendencies are evident. In neither of these cases is salvation construed as monergistic. Further, in neither is salvation given—it is only made available. Salvation is made available and left to man either to resist or not, to take advantage of or not. It is the opportunity of salvation that is given freely to all. The result, then, is that God does not save all men—he saves none. He only opens a way of salvation to all, “and if any are saved they must save themselves.” What God does toward the salvation of one he does for all. He does not actually save by himself alone, nor is his work individualistic. Warfield asks, “Where then is our evangelicalism?”14

Universalistic notions seem to be driven by the assumptions that God “owes” salvation equally to all men, that it would be unfair for him to favor a few, and that sin is not really sin deserving of wrath but rather misfortune deserving of pity—that is, a low view of sin. Warfield illustrates the matter by comparing a doctor and a judge. We might fault a doctor who, although able to relieve a sickness in all, actually relieves only some. Yet we may wonder how a judge could release any guilty offender at all. God in his love does pity and save, but he is righteous as well as loving. Accordingly, God in love saves only as many “as he can get the consent of his whole nature to save.” God “will not permit even his ineffable love to betray him into any action which is not right.” We might sympathize with the “leveling” tendencies of politics—freedom for all, rights for all, education for all, and so on. The cry from a nation’s citizens to its government to give all “an equal chance” is one thing. But the turbulent self-assertion of convicted criminals demanding clemency is quite another. We must fix it firmly in our minds, Warfield insists, that salvation is the right of no one and that a “chance” to save oneself is no chance of salvation for any, and that if anyone at all is saved, it must be by a miracle of divine grace on which no one has any claim whatever. All this is so designed that any who are saved can only be “filled with wondering adoration of the marvels of the inexplicable love of God.” Indeed, Warfield continues, “To demand that all criminals shall be given a ‘chance’ of escaping their penalties, and that all shall be given an ‘equal chance,’ is simply to mock at the very idea of justice, and no less, at the very idea of love.”15

In all resistance to particularism the decisive factor in salvation is transferred from God to man—whether naturalistically or sacerdotally—and the evangelical principle of dependence upon God alone for salvation is lost. The parting of the ways remains here. “Certainly, only he can claim to be evangelical who with full consciousness rests entirely and directly on God and on God alone for his salvation.” Calvinists contend that supernaturalism in salvation, the immediacy of the divine work, and the evangelical ascription soli Deo gloria all demand particularism. At bottom, what divides particularists from inconsistent universalists is “just whether the saving grace of God, in which alone is salvation, actually saves. Does its presence mean salvation, or may it be present, and yet salvation fail?” If it is God himself who acts to save individual men apart from any intermediaries, and if all the glory must be ascribed to him for it, then we are left to see that he is selective in his saving work. 16


The Extent of the Atonement

Still, among particularists some differences remain. Some hold that God has only some men in view—that is, those who are actually saved—in all his saving operations, while others discriminate in this matter and assign some of his saving operations a particularistic reference and some a universal reference. This latter view seeks to mediate between the two (universalistic and particularistic) conceptions and maintains particularism in the process as well as in the final issue of salvation but yields to universalism in the actual redemption of the sinner by Christ’s death. According to this view, the death of Christ has, in the plan of God, a hypothetical reference to all men indiscriminately but a particular reference in the actual application of it to the soul. Christ died for all men if they believe, but it is left to the Spirit of God sovereignly to work faith in the heart; hence, a modified particularism. This scheme, which conceives that God’s elective decree logically follows his decree of redemption, is known historically as Amyraldianism and descriptively as postredemptionism, hypothetical redemptionism, or hypothetical universalism. The question at issue is whether the death of Christ has universal or particular design, and, therefore, the precise point reduces to whether or not the death of Christ actually saves those for whom Christ died or only makes that salvation possible. The genuine validity that Amyraldianism gives to the principle of particularism renders it a “recognizable form of Calvinism,”17 but the particularism to which it gives assent is only inconsistently applied.

The debate settles on not the extent, exactly, but the nature and meaning of Christ’s redemptive work. Does the death of Christ save, or does it merely make salvation possible? If Christ’s death were designed to save all, then, clearly, given the fact that not all men are saved, its efficacious value would be lost. Particularists emphasize that “whatever is added to [the atonement] extensively is taken from it intensively.” Hence, the issue remains here the same as in the debate with general universalism of the evangelical Lutherans and Arminians—do the saving operations actually save? If the work of Christ actually saves, we are left with a consistent particularism. If on the other hand Christ’s redemptive work has universal intent, then it is itself not efficacious. Christ did not die, truly, as the sinner’s substitute, bearing the penalties of his sins and securing eternal life for him; he died only to “open the way” of salvation and make salvation possible. He died, in this case, merely to “remove all the obstacles” that stand in the sinner’s way to salvation. “But what obstacle stands in the way of the salvation of sinners, except just their sin?” And if Christ’s death did not, in fact, remove the obstacle of sin, then the atonement lays no real foundation for the salvation of sinners, and its redemptive value is evaporated. It does nothing for any man that it does not do for all men; it therefore (given the Scripture’s clear denial of universalism) saves no one. Such an altered atonement wounds Christianity at its very heart. We are left to choose between an atonement of high, efficacious value and an atonement of wide intentions. The two notions cannot coexist. Only the consistent application of the principle of particularism does justice to the nature of Christ’s death. 18


Among consistent particularists themselves, however, a difference remains. The point at issue between them is not the actual work of God in saving sinners. The question behind all this is whether God, in election and preterition, contemplated men as merely men or as sinful men. The former alternative is known to history as supralapsarianism and the latter as sub- or infralapsarianism. Warfield insists, simply, that merely to ask the question is to provide the answer, for whether we speak of election or preterition, the underlying assumption is sin and/or salvation. In either case men as sinners in need of salvation are in view. Even in Romans 9, where God is said sovereignly both to hate and to love, to elect and to reprobate, his basic assumption throughout is that all men stand already condemned before an angry God. He has in view “a world of lost sinners.” If men were not sinners, then God’s sovereign rejection of them would not be to their destruction; it would be to some other destiny fitting for them. But because they are sinners, their rejection is to punishment. Both election and reprobation have men as sinners in view. 19


In summary, if we acknowledge theism, then we must acknowledge supernaturalism in salvation. If supernaturalism, then evangelicalism. And if evangelicalism, then particularism.

And particularism is Calvinism. Calvinism is the consistent application of the evangelical principle that God alone saves, that he saves according to purpose, and that his saving operations are applied immediately to the individuals who are saved. “Calvinism is only another name for consistent supernaturalism in religion.”20 The naturalist denies a God of providence and sees the universe directed simply by “the laws of nature.” The sacerdotalist conceives the grace of God in salvation distributed mechanically by means of the sacraments. The Arminian sees God’s activity in salvation as spread evenly over the entire world, a general, universal force acting uniformly in all cases. Hence, “The fundamental principle of Arminianism is that salvation hangs upon a free, intelligent choice of the individual will; that salvation is, in fact, the result of the acceptance of God by man, rather than of the acceptance of man by God.”21 The Calvinist, by contrast, recognizes

the pure theistic conception of a personal God—a God who, just because he is a person, must in all things act, not as an amorphic force by a uniform pressure made efectual here, there, or elsewhere by differences in the object on which it impinges, but in accordance with his own free purpose, the product of his own intellect, afections, and will. 22

Particularism in the processes of salvation, therefore, becomes the mark of Calvinism. “As supernaturalism is the mark of Christianity at large, and evangelicalism the mark of Protestantism, so particularism is the mark of Calvinism.”23 Christian supernaturalism, consistently applied, ultimately demands particularism. Supernaturalism leads us away from sacerdotalism to the immediacy of the divine operations of saving grace (i.e., evangelicalism) and on to particularism. To deny particularism is, ultimately, to reject Christianity.

Warfield argues that the doctrine of predestination was “the central doctrine of the Reformation” and “the hinge” on which “their whole religious consciousness and teaching turned,” and he cites Luther himself as witness. Luther viewed his dispute with Erasmus over the freedom of the will and the sovereignty of grace as “the top of the question” (summam caussae) involved in the Protestant revolt against Rome. “You and you alone,” Luther says to Erasmus, “have seen the hinge of things and have aimed at the throat.” “The whole substance of Luther’s fundamental theology was summed up in the antithesis of sin and grace: sin conceived as absolutely disabling to good; grace as absolutely recreative in effect.” Warfield notes that Luther was not alone in this but was at one with all the great Reformers in it. “In one word, this doctrine was Protestantism itself. All else that Protestantism stood for, in comparison with this, must be relegated to the second rank.” This “revival of Augustinianism,” with its fundamental antithesis of sin and grace, is “the soul of the whole Reformation movement.”24


As noted in chapter 5, Warfield views the doctrine of soteriological predestination against the larger backdrop of God’s all-inclusive decree and views it as a specific application of that decree. That God acts according to purpose is the fundamental postulate of theism. To affirm that God has ordained all that comes to pass is simply consistent theism. Moreover, to affirm God’s foreordination of all things is already to have affirmed that he has determined the destinies of all men. God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” and elects to salvation accordingly (Eph. 1:11). Election, like the whole course of all events, is due not “to chance, nor to necessity, nor yet to an abstract or arbitrary will,” but only to “the almighty, all-wise, all-holy, all-righteous, faithful, loving God,” who predetermines all that is. It is not God in bare sovereignty who orders all things, or God in sovereign wisdom only, but God “in his completeness as an infinite moral Person.” Election, as the larger decree itself, is therefore eternal, absolute, immutable, independent, free, unconditional, and effective. In the actual presentation of the doctrine, Scripture particularly stresses the idea of the sovereignty of God’s elective choice.

The very essence of the doctrine is made, indeed, to consist in the fact that, in the whole administration of His grace, God is moved by no consideration derived from the special recipients of His saving mercy, but the entire account of its distribution is to be found hidden in the free counsels of his own will. 25

Scripture makes it very plain that God does not bestow his saving operations equally either in space or in time. “His sovereignty shows itself not only in passing by one individual and granting His grace to another; but also in passing by one nation, or one age, and granting His grace to another.” The consistent witness of the whole Scripture is that sinners are saved not in any measure as a result of their wills but as a result of God’s. Salvation is his sovereign bestowal of mercy, the supreme act of his inconceivable love and glorious grace. Warfield says of Paul that his soteriology was predestinarian because, first and foremost, he was a consistent theist, but also because man is a sinner and as a sinner, condemned and without means or even the right to approach God. Salvation, therefore, must be wholly of grace, and every initiative God’s. 26


There is nothing about the doctrine of election that is “more steadily emphasized” in Scripture than that it is due only to God’s grace sovereignly distributed, and so it is with this broader subject of grace that Warfield begins his exposition of the doctrine. Taking Ephesians 2:5, 8 as his starting point he observes that Paul’s intention is not to remind the Ephesian believers that they are saved. He is intent, rather, on reminding them of how they were saved. The manner in which they were saved, he reminds them twice over, is by pure grace. God came to them when they were lying helpless in their sins and spiritual death, and he saved them by grace. Grace is “the heart of the heart” of the gospel, the hinge on which the gospel turns. 27

Warfield then analyzes the nature of saving grace and stresses its three leading characteristics. First, grace is power. Grace is not simply a good disposition. It is active power, which of course is precisely what the human condition, bound in sin, requires. “Dead men cannot do anything. They need not instruction but life; not good counsel but power.” It is because grace is power that sin “no longer has dominion” over us (Rom. 6:14). Grace does not merely instruct; it energizes. Indeed, it raises the dead. Second, grace is love. This is the fundamental implication of the word—favor, love. Grace is not bare power but power directed by love and exerted in kindness. It is the love of God in action and therefore has the character of mercy. When the apostle says we are saved “by grace,” therefore, he says that our salvation is solely the result of the love of God. Third, grace is gratuitous. It is “the love of benevolence.” Grace is not God’s response to anything in us that merits his favor. It is pure, undeserved kindness given to us, in fact, contrary to our ill deserts. It is “kindness to the ill-deserving.” Salvation is “a pure gratuity from God.” Warfield observes that “the body out of which believers are chosen by God . . . is the mass of justly condemned sinners,” and he concludes from this that God’s discrimination among men in election is an act of mercy alone. Drawing all this together Warfield insists that we know nothing about salvation at all until we understand well that we are saved by pure grace, the powerful workings of God’s unmerited, loving favor. And again he stresses that grace is “the heart of the heart of the gospel.”28

That God saves by grace, then, clarifies for us the nature of election. Grace is the manner in which God saves us; election is simply God’s purpose or intention to save us by grace. This is why the apostle can describe it as “the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5 kJV). God did not save us by grace inadvertently, apart from any intention to do so. He saved us on purpose, and this purpose is called election. The purpose preceded the action and even the first manifestations of his love to lost sinners. The doctrine of election, then, reminds us with great emphasis that our salvation is wholly of God’s good favor and is such that it leaves us only with “adoring wonder.” Our election, our salvation, does not trace back to anything in us or about us. Nothing about us could ever have attracted God’s “favorable notice,” for God is no “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34 kJV). By the nature of the case, Warfield says, apparently citing Puritan John Arrowsmith, we are predestined “according to the counsel of his own will, not after the good inclinations of ours.” Those of us who are saved were, like all others, objects of God’s just wrath and vengeance. Like all others, our wills were disinclined. We are chosen in order that we may become holy, not because of our holiness. Everything good about us hangs on God’s gracious election, and election itself hangs “on God alone.”29


This gracious character of God’s election was made necessary from the very hour of man’s first sin. “God savingly intervenes sua sponte with a gratuitous promise of deliverance.” At every stage it is God’s sovereign and gracious initiative that advances the redemptive purpose. From Adam through Seth to Noah to Shem to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel it is continually God’s own initiative, God’s own promise, God’s intervention, God’s covenant—all founded entirely on his unmerited love and directed to his own self-gratification in the manifestation of his saving mercy. God “knows” his people (עˆ, Amos 3:2), “chooses” them sovereignly for his own purpose (ךnכ, Deut. 7:6–7), and “separates” them from all other peoples for himself and his own sake (לךכ, Lev. 20:24, 26). His choice of Israel

is an absolutely sovereign one, founded solely in His unmerited love, and looking to nothing ultimately but the gratifcation of His own holy and loving impulses, and the manifestation of His grace through the formation of a heritage for Himself out of the mass of sinful men, by means of whom His saving mercy should advance to the whole world. 30

That is to say, God’s election is entirely of grace.

In the New Testament all this is brought into sharper focus still. In the Gospels his eternal purpose centers on the establishing of his kingdom, prepared for those so blessed to be a part of it. Entrance to the kingdom is given to God’s elect by means of a “constraining call” (Luke 14:23), he reveals his kingdom according to his own good pleasure (Luke 10:21; Matt. 11:25–26), and his grace is distributed independently of merit (Matt. 20:1–16). To be sure, sinful men, “condemned already” (John 3:18), unwilling, and unable of themselves to come to Christ for life, must be sovereignly “drawn” by the Father in order to be saved (John 6:44, 65). Christ has come to save “the world” (John 3:16–17), and in the end the world indeed shall be saved. But in the meantime, since the coming of Christ into the world, there is a sifting of those who are “of the world” from those who are “of God”—in the world but not of it—by divine choice (John 15:19; 17:14). For these chosen ones only, Christ is the intercessory high priest (John 17:9), and to them only he grants eternal life (John 17:2). Accordingly, the Spirit of God works sovereignly in giving the new birth (John 3:1–8). All this demonstrates that God’s elective decree is not conditioned on the foreseen activities of men and cannot be frustrated by men. 31

The book of Acts continues in the same vein. Salvation (Acts 11:23) and even saving faith (Acts 18:27) are traced solely to the grace of God. Luke similarly speaks of faith as the results of God’s own activity (Acts 2:47; 11:21; 14:27; 16:14) and the outworking of his eternal decree (Acts 13:48). And what is thus written large across the pages of the history of Acts is fully expressed in the epistles and especially the apostle Paul, whose predestinarian roots grow primarily out of his general doctrine of God who orders all that comes to pass, but also from his understanding of the nature of salvation as a gift of free grace, and of man, who in sin has neither rights nor means nor ability to lay claim on God’s favor. 32

Warfield offers three primary Pauline passages in which the apostle expounds soteriological predestination: Romans 8:29–30; Romans 9–11; and Ephesians 1:1–12. In Romans 8:29–30, Paul’s intent is to encourage believers who find themselves in afflictions and suffering. He does this first by an appeal to God’s universal government in directing all things to his good purpose (v. 28) and, secondarily, by a reminder of God’s gracious purpose for them (vv. 29–39). This purpose of grace runs from eternity to eternity—from “foreknown” to “glorified.” “Foreknown” carries the significance of electing love (as Amos 3:2), not simply “knowing ahead of time.” This “pregnant” use of the term in both Peter and Paul conveys “the sense of a loving, distinguishing regard,” which “assimilates to the idea of election.” Passages such as Romans 8:29 and 11:2 exhibit the “impossibility” of understanding the term as mere “prevision.” Hence, those foreknown are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Those so predestined are called. Those called are justified. And those justified are glorified. All five steps are described in the past tense to emphasize that where any one of these is present, all are present with it. Still, the order in which they are stated reveals that in Paul’s thought glorification rests on justification, which in turn rests on calling, and calling on predestination, and predestination on foreknowledge. The strict predestinarianism is obvious and can be avoided only by defining “foreknowledge” in a way that is inconsistent with its ordinary usage, with this context, and with the purpose for which this declaration is made. Paul’s intent is to support his contention that we are more than lovers of God, merely, but that “God is for us” in such a way that none can stand against us. He is keen to ground our confidence in the fact that all saving benefits have come to us from his own hands. “It would seem little short of absurd,” he argues, to hang all this “on the merely contemplative foresight of God.” Rather, the apostle assures us, salvation in its entire process is suspended on divine predestination. 33

Romans 9–11 follows with a perhaps even sharper assertion of the doctrine but treats it not on the individual plain, primarily, but on the historical plain in regard to the development and success of the kingdom of God. God chose Isaac and Jacob and rejected Ishmael and Esau before their births and before they had done good or evil. The impetus of salvation is not of the one who wills but of a sovereign and merciful God who determines these things sovereignly beforehand in order to establish his own purpose. God has mercy on whom he wills. He “shuts up all in disobedience” in order that he may distribute his mercy sovereignly (Rom. 11:32). When the apostle says that “it is not the children of the flesh that are the children of God but the children of the promise” (Rom. 9:8), he makes it plain that the inclusion of any individual in God’s kingdom is due only to God’s sovereign choice. 34

That this passage (Romans 9–11) is speaking of salvation and not simply higher privilege is indisputable. The very epistle is given to expound at length “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). This passage was sparked by the apostle’s discussion at the end of chapter 8 of the believer’s soteric hope, it concludes with a praise to God for his generous distribution of mercy, and throughout its steady focus is the same. “Vessels of mercy” versus “vessels of wrath”—“if such language has no reference to salvation, there is no language in the New Testament that need be interpreted of final destiny.”35

In Ephesians 1:1–12 the apostle Paul traces the history of salvation consecutively from eternity to eternity—from its preparation (vv. 4–5) to its execution (vv. 6–7), its publication (vv. 8–10), and its application (vv. 11–14). Salvation has come to us in fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose; that is, we are saved only because before the world began, we were chosen out of the mass of sinful men and predestined to adoption through Jesus Christ—all this according to the good purpose of God’s own will and to the praise of the glory of his grace. God’s eternal decree is all-embracing. The cosmos itself, the kingdom of God, the individuals who constitute that kingdom—are all destined, according to God’s own purpose and will, to be summed up in Christ.


Scripture further emphasizes the individual particularity of God’s elective choice. Election is not “the designation of a mere class to be filled up by undetermined individuals in the exercise of their own determinations,” whether foreseen or unforeseen. Nor has God merely established that there would be in the end these two destinies of life and condemnation. God, in the words of the confession, ordains “whatever comes to pass,” even the death of a sparrow and the falling of a single hair from our heads. His purpose is universal and all-inclusive. “The Biblical writers take special pains to carry home to the heart of each individual believer the assurance that he himself has been from all eternity the particular object of the Divine choice, and that he owes it to this Divine choice alone that he is a member of the class of the chosen ones” and therefore made able to fulfill the conditions of salvation. Indeed, it is “the very nerve” of the doctrine that each individual believer has from eternity been the particular object of the divine favor. 36

In his sermon “The Eternal Gospel,” Warfield expounds this point from the implications of 2 Timothy 1:9–10. Here the apostle Paul emphasizes “with a tremendous energy” that our calling to salvation was “not according to works of ours but according to His own purpose and grace”—a purpose and grace “given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal.” Warfield notes that this grace was not merely promised to us before times eternal. Nor does Paul say merely that we were destined for it. Rather, this grace was “actually and finally and unequivocally given” to us before times eternal. What has now been “manifested” or “made visible” (φανερόω) is but the outworking in time of “what was already done, concluded, accomplished in eternity.” Our experience of saving grace is, of course, an experience within time; but it was nonetheless ours—“given us”—eternally. 37


Warfield is careful to note that in their presentation of the doctrine of election the biblical writers do not feel themselves in the constraints of an antinomy. God’s sovereign predestination serves both as a ground of assurance and “the highest motive of moral effort.” Those “twin bases of religion and morality—the ineradicable feelings of dependence and responsibility”—are not “antagonistic sentiments of a hopelessly divided heart” but “the same profound conviction operating in a double sphere.” In Paul’s view, God works in concursus, in all things accomplishing his own will “in entire consistency with the action of second causes, necessary and free.” Nor is it “dehumanizing” to man to work through him this way, but “an act of God’s almighty power, removing old inabilities and creating new abilities of living, loving action” and “energizing man in a new direction of his powers.”38

The biblical writers are not embarrassed by negative or unpleasant implications of the doctrine but rather themselves make these a part of their teaching. Preterition, for example, is not obscured but implicit in the very word éκλéγομαι, which, says Warfield (citing Meyer), “always has, and must of logical necessity have, a reference to others to whom the chosen would, without the éκλογη , still belong.” It is simply impossible to choose some men to be saved without passing by (“preteriting”) others. The “elect” are chosen not merely from condemnation but “out of a company of the condemned—a company on whom the grace of God has no saving effect and who are therefore left without hope in their sins” and left to the just punishment of those sins. There is no acceptable alternative to preterition, as Warfield summarizes:

If God passes no man by in the distribution of his grace, then either all men must be saved or else the grace that is denied to none but given equally to all, cannot be efectual to salvation, cannot be irresistible. To deny sovereign preterition must thus logically lead either to Universalism or Arminianism. 39

Warfield counsels that the difficulties we feel with regard to predestination are not problems that rise from Scripture, for Scripture is full of the doctrine. And Scripture is full of predestination simply because “it is full of God, and when we say God and mean God—God in all that God is—we have said Predestination.” Our difficulties with the doctrine arise, rather, from our natural feelings of independence and self-sufficiency. We are not willing to consider ourselves as “wholly at the disposal of another.” In the words of the hymn, “we would not be controlled.” Perhaps better, we are not willing to admit that we are controlled. But to admit that we are not controlled would be to assert that there is no God. 40

Why does God elect only some and not all? And why does he send his saving grace only to those whom he has chosen to save? Warfield advises, simply, that these are not wise questions to ask. No doubt, God has his reasons, but he has not explained them to us. Why did our Lord raise only Lazarus that day in Bethany? We do not know. We may imagine. We may guess. But we can only know that he had his reasons. So with his sovereign election, we are best to leave it to him and content ourselves, like the apostle Paul, with a humble worship of our incomprehensible God (Rom. 11:33–36). Jesus’ statement “even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Matt. 11:26 kJV; Luke 10:21 kJV) is to him—and so ought to be for us—“an all-sufficient theodicy” in the face of all God’s discriminating and diverse dealings with men. But Warfield counsels further, that the question that should impress our minds is not why God chose some and not others, but why he chose any at all. The real difficulty is here—“how the holy God could get the consent of his nature to save a single sinner.” Or again, “It is not difficult to understand why a just God does not save all sinners; the difficulty is to understand how a just God saves any sinners.” An honest assessment of the matter will leave us here with wonder and, indeed, drive us to still more adoring wonder that God has chosen “me, even me, sunk in my sin and misery.” Citing Bernard, Warfield writes, “God deserveth love from such as he hath loved long before they could deserve it. . . . His love will be without end, who knoweth that God’s love to him was without any beginning.”41


For the weak soul who despairs that he may not be one of the elect, Warfield exhorts that we should not expend strength “prying into God’s secrets,” but we should instead simply “take him at his word.” God does not lay out election as a requirement to the sinner, nor is his offer of grace an offer of predestination. No, “He offers you not predestination, but Christ; and He requires of you not election, but faith.” The requirement for salvation is not election but repentance and faith, and the promise is that if you will come to Christ, you will be saved. Election is intended as a ground not of doubt and despair but of assurance and joy for the one who believes. 42

Warfield stresses with urgency that there are evidences that we are chosen of God to salvation apart from which, we may be sure, there is no salvation. Our faith itself, of course, is one. But there is also the evidence of good works and holiness—faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, love of the brethren, and so on. These are the marks of God’s elect. Those who are saved “certainly shall be holy,” Warfield insists. “This is what he has chosen them to— that they shall be holy” (Eph. 1:4–5), that they shall be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). We are created in Christ Jesus “for good works” (Eph. 2:10). We can—we must—expect that God’s elect are a holy people. “God has not chosen us to sloth.” This is what we are called to. “We are not elected in order to dispense us from the necessity of being good. We are elected to make it possible for us to be good, yea, rather, to make it certain that we shall be good, not apart from but through our own efforts.” The elect, then, are cautioned to “be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8, 14) and “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), to “make their calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10). “We need not, we must not, seek elsewhere for proof of our election: if we believe in Christ and obey him, we are his elect children.”43

But just as carefully and with as much certainty Warfield reminds us that this holiness required of the elect is not left to the elect to produce on their own. No, holiness is certain precisely because, “having chosen them to be holy, [God] has not left them to themselves, but, in his infinite grace, has taken them in hand to make them holy.” God gives his elect the faith he requires of them; he also works in them the holiness he requires.

We are not elected that we may not have to fght the good fght, but to secure that we shall fght it to the end, fght it successfully, and so fnish the course; not that we may not require to keep the faith, but that we may, that we shall keep it triumphantly and receive the crown. We are not released by our election from the duties and struggles and strifes, not even from the trials and suferings, of life: we are elected to be sustained in them and carried safely through them all.

The holiness to which God calls us, then, is a holiness that shall certainly be achieved, progressively in this life and perfectly in the next. “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). 44

Accordingly, there is another pastoral interest in which the biblical writers zealously present this doctrine. It is useful not only as an incentive to holiness but also as a ground of confident assurance. An understanding of this truth should make believers keenly aware of “their eternal safety in the faithful hands of God.” It is a frequent theme in the Pauline letters that our salvation is not committed to our own weak hands but to God; it rests securely in the faithfulness of the God who chose and called us according to his own eternal purpose (1 Thess. 5:24; 1 Cor. 1:8f.; 10:13; Phil. 1:6). Although our act of faith, consequent on hearing the gospel, marked the beginning of our appropriation of salvation, both of these were but the outworking of God’s sovereign purpose. At the beginning of the Christian life and all throughout, it is God’s willing and energizing operations at work in us that move us to faith and good works (Phil. 2:12–13). The hope of the Christian, and that of the church generally, is in the mercy of a freely electing God. Our destiny has been left not to our weak arms but on the everlasting arms of the almighty God. With this as a benefit of the doctrine of election, who would want to believe otherwise?45

That this note of worship is, for Warfield, where the issue comes down, is illustrated in his response to those of his day who were moving to alter the confessional doctrine of the decree (WCF 3). To excise from the confession its doctrine of the divine decree we must first excise from the Scriptures “all that gives us a right as individuals to trust in the saving grace of God alone for the inception, continuance, and completion of our salvation,” as well as all the many passages that present him as the author and governor of all things. “The real issue that is at stake,” Warfield insists, is “whether we are still prepared to preserve in its purity and in its strength our fundamental confession of ‘soli Deo gloria.’ So long as that confession sounds in our hearts, so long must we confess all that our Confession sets forth in the opening four sections of its third chapter.”46

That is to say, an understanding of God’s elective decree serves to promote in us a “deep sense of grateful dependence” upon God. Warfield is convinced that his Calvinistic doctrine of election is of the essence of pure religion. Pure religion is expressed in utter dependence47 upon God and trust in his mercy alone. It is the religion that is left remaining when all self-trust is driven out and leaves behind only trust in God. Pure religion is illustrated in the attitude of mind and heart when we pray, “when we kneel before God, not with the body merely, but with the mind and heart” in humble acknowledgment of his supremacy and our utter helplessness apart from his grace. It is here that religion comes to its rights. In short, this doctrine promotes true worship. 48
Divine Calling


Throughout all his discussions touching soteriology Warfield reflects a firm sense of utter dependence on God alone, and he is zealous above all other considerations to magnify the “pure” and “unalloyed” grace of God the Savior. His conviction that he himself is a helpless sinner—a “miserable sinner,” to use the historic language he is wont to keep alive—rescued sheerly by divine mercy alone, runs through virtually every page. At every turn he is unalterably opposed to every trace of Pelagianism, which currently shows itself in that “reduced Christianity” calling itself “modern Liberalism.”49 Salvation is deliverance, rescue, in every sense of the term, a rescue to which the sinner contributes precisely nothing but the sin from which he is saved, and Warfield will not countenance any human impingement on the divine glory in any part of the process. Grace—“pure grace,” “sheer mercy,” “monergism”—is the note resounding everywhere in Warfield’s soteriology.

These twin convictions of sin and helplessness, on the one hand, and dependence and grace, on the other, are captured vividly in his careful treatment of those Synoptic passages in which Jesus blesses the little children or otherwise refers to them as illustrative of salvation (Matt. 18:1–4; 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17). 50 Warfield demonstrates that these references have nothing to do with infants per se or with infant baptism or with infant salvation. Rather, Jesus uses the incident as a graphic illustration designed to stress that unless we “become as little children,” we cannot be saved. What is it to become as a little child? Warfield argues that it cannot be humility, simply, for this is hardly the leading characteristic of little children. “Childlikeness” is to be understood in more objective terms. What is it that characterizes little children? Warfield answers: they are helpless. They have nothing to contribute. They can lay claim to nothing but are utterly dependent on the goodness of another. All of Christ’s disciples are but “nursing infants” (Matt. 21:16)—helpless and utterly dependent. The incident of Jesus’ blessing the children is intended distinctly to instruct us regarding “the constitution of the kingdom of God,” which “is made up, not of children, but of the childlike.” “The kingdom of heaven is made up of those who are helplessly dependent on the king of Heavens.”

The upshot of all this is, then, this: that the kingdom of God is not taken—acquired— laid hold of; it is just “received.” It comes to men, men do not come to it. And when it comes to men, they merely “receive” it, “as”—“like”—“a little child.” That is to say, they bring nothing to it and have nothing to recommend them to it except their helplessness. They depend wholly on the king. Only they who so receive it can enter it; no disposition or act of their own commends them to it. Accordingly the kingdom of God is “of such as little children.” The helpless baby on the mother’s breast, then, now we can say it with new meaning, is the true type of the Christian in his relation to God. It is of the very essence of salvation that it is supernatural. It is purely a gift, a gift of God’s; and they who receive it must receive it purely as a gift. He who will not humble himself and enter it as a little child enters the world, in utter nakedness and complete dependence, shall never see it.

The problem with the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16–22 = Mark 10:17–22 = Luke 18:18–23) was precisely this. He had many possessions and “could not divest himself of everything and come into the kingdom naked.”51

Warfield notes that the pericope of the rich young ruler in all three Synoptics immediately follows the account of Jesus’ blessing the little children. In Luke, these are immediately preceded by the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). In Matthew they are immediately succeeded by the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), “who were surprised that their rewards were not nicely adjusted to what they deemed their relative services.” All of this is designed to stress that “the kingdom of God is a gratuity, not an acquisition; and the effect of bringing them together is to throw a great emphasis upon this, their common teaching.” Accordingly, Warfield refers to Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler as the Synoptic parallel to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, where again Jesus stresses that just as the precondition of entrance to the kingdom of God is that radical transformation wrought by the Spirit of God, so this is precisely what the Spirit sovereignly gives in the new birth. Saving life is a gift divinely bestowed. 52

This is a most familiar theme in Warfield. 53 In his sermon on 1 John 3:1 he comments that John marvels at the grace sovereignly bestowed on us that we should be called God’s children. He remarks that John’s language is not analytical but emotional, while nonetheless reflective of a settled conviction that God saves gratuitously. “‘Behold! What manner of love is this!’ ‘To seek us out and make us the sons of God!’ Language could not convey more clearly, more powerfully, the conception of the absolute sovereignty of the gift.” Childship to God is a favor “bestowed”—graciously conferred—on us. We do not earn it. The Father has given it to us freely. 54

Warfield treats this theme at considerable length in his sermon on Titus 3:4–7, in which the apostle Paul traces our salvation purely to God’s kindness and grace, his benignity and philanthropy. The passage is “a psalm of praise to God for his saving love” and sings “not only ‘Gloria Deo’ but ‘Soli Deo Gloria.’” Nor does this song of praise ascribe salvation to God generally or even in its root. It ascribes salvation “in every one of its details to God’s loving activities and to them alone; it ascribes its beginning and middle and end to Him and to Him only.” The apostle does not even see the need to mention faith, the condition we must perform in order to obtain salvation. “It is God alone who saves, ‘not by means of any works in righteousness which we have done ourselves but in consequence of his mercy’ and of that alone.” The whole force of the passage is to assert that

if we are saved at all, it is because—not that we have worked, not that we have believed,—but that God has manifested His benignity and philanthropy in saving us out of His mere mercy. He has, through Jesus Christ, shed down His Holy Spirit to regenerate and renovate us that we might be justifed “by His grace,”—in other words, gratuitously, not on the ground of our faith,—and so be made heirs of eternal life. 55

The attitude of trust and dependence on God, Warfield says repeatedly, is “the very essence of religion,” apart from which there is no religion at all, 56 and it is this attitude of utter dependence upon God that he is eager to promote. Everywhere in his works, divine grace—with a corresponding utter dependence upon God—is a theme that dominates. It is out of sheer grace that God works, from beginning to end, to accomplish our salvation. Salvation is in every way a gratuity, and the sinner is left only in utter dependence upon God. The very wonder of salvation is that God has taken pity on rebel sinners and from his own side alone has rescued them and transformed them.


That salvation is by grace is evident from man’s condition in sin. According to the biblical view, the human problem goes much deeper than so many individual acts of sin. Our depravity is essentially “a great ocean of sin within us, whose waves merely break in sinful acts.” Sin is “inborn, ingrained in nature itself” and leaves man altogether helpless. For remedy, it requires nothing less than a new creation. “An entire making over again can alone suffice,” and it is from this understanding that David cries, “create in me a clean heart” (Ps. 51:10). Warfield finds human inability implied in Acts 26:18, where the apostle Paul is commissioned “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” The express statement is that men are in darkness, requiring that their eyes “be opened.” Foolish minds are darkened and “they cannot know God,” for they are in “bondage to Satan.” Warfield considers it self-evident “that men cannot turn from darkness to light, from the tyranny of Satan to God, in their own strength” but need “the immanent work of the Holy Spirit.” These are feats that God alone can accomplish. It is required that the apostle preach the gospel, and it is required that his hearers be converted. Even so, God alone can give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6–7). 57

In a similar vein Warfield expounds Christ’s affirmation in Mark 10:27 that salvation is “impossible” for men. He rejects out of hand all explanations of “the camel passing through the eye of the needle” that mitigate the difficulty of the task. The impossibility is absolute. Jesus does not say that salvation, for man, is difficult but not impossible. He says straightforwardly that it is impossible. Salvation can only be had by the workings of the omnipotent God, with whom “all things are possible.” “Here is then the sharpest possible enunciation of the doctrine of ‘inability.’” But Warfield points out that this inability on the part of man does not lie in any lack of human endowment. The rich young ruler, in reference to whom this affirmation of inability was made, did not lack either the intelligence to know the commands of God or the freedom to keep them. He had a relatively upright life and character. The Evangelist records, indeed, that “Jesus loved him.” “Surely here is one, who, were it possible to man at all, might be expected to do what was necessary to inherit eternal life.” No, his inability did not lie in any lack of human endowment. He possessed all the necessary faculties. His inability lay, rather, in his “ingrained disposition” of sin. The root of his inability was “a sin-distorted vision, feeling, judgment—in a word, in a sin-deformed soul, to which it is just as impossible ‘to be perfect’ as it is for the lame leg not to limp.” Human inability, he summarizes, is “rooted in a heart too corrupt to appreciate, desire or go out in an active inclination toward ‘the good.’ What is in itself corrupt cannot but be corrupted in all its activities.” Sin has had a “paralyzing” effect that cripples “all activities toward God,” including even faith. “Inability is a sinful condition of the will,” and the sinner is unable to use his will for believing “because he loves sin too much.”58

Warfield finds the doctrine of inability summarized in John 5:44, where Jesus asks his opponents, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Here Jesus exposes “the grounds of men’s unbelief as rooted in an essentially self-seeking and worldly spirit.” Jesus has miraculously healed an impotent man, and from this incident grows his discourse intended to demonstrate the impotence of sinners to believe in him as the Savior of the world. The Jewish religious leaders are enraged with Jesus and seek to slay him, and Jesus simply observes that their eye is toward man and not God: “You accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God.” And so Jesus asks rhetorically, “How could you believe?” From this Warfield draws the following observations: (1) Jesus asserts that the Jews are unable to believe—there is a true inability of faith. (2) He traces this inability to its source in their misguided disposition. Their condition of mind and heart prevents them from believing. (3) The special sin that blinds them from seeing in Jesus a worthy object of faith is the sin of living for the world’s approval instead of God’s. (4) It follows from this that inability does not negate responsibility, for it is their own sinful motives that render them unable to believe. “They could not believe, but it was because of their wicked hearts.”59

But in Mark 10:27, where Jesus pointedly affirms the inability of man to obtain salvation, this inability is not in itself the point he is seeking to stress. The “great lesson” of his declaration is not human inability but divine ability: “All things are possible with God.” Jesus’ purpose is to “detach their hearts from trust in themselves and cast them on God.” In this discrimination between what men do and what God does for men lies “the totality of the gospel. . . . The Gospel, to Paul, consists precisely in this: that we do nothing to earn our salvation or to secure it for ourselves. God in Christ does it all.”60

In 2 Corinthians 5:14–21 the apostle Paul speaks in absolute terms of the inevitable effects of Christ’s death. Those for whom he died, died with him, and just as surely as they died with him, they live with him. The saving grace secured by Christ’s death is infallibly effective in the experience of those for whom he died. Those for whom Christ died are actually saved, a salvation that affects the whole of their lives. Warfield finds it, then, one of “the most astonishing curiosities of exposition” that Christians could teach that the decisive act of salvation is supplied by an action of the human will. Such would imply that all that God has done in salvation is outside of us, a notion everywhere contradicted by the biblical writers. It is God who makes men “differ in their spiritual endowments,” and it is God who “worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13 kJV). God “works our very willing as well as our doing.” “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:16 kJV). Everywhere salvation in its every step is said to be “of God.”61

In Romans 6–7 the apostle Paul alludes to this divine omnipotence which conquers human inability. On the one hand he declares that man is “of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). On the other hand he writes that under grace “sin shall not rule over you” (Rom. 6:14 BBW). Certainly the apostle allows room here for the voluntary activities of men, “but as certainly he presents grace that comes to them gratuitously as both ‘infallible’ and ‘irresistible.’” Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14 is not one of potential but one of fact: “Sin shall not rule over you.” And the reason for sin’s broken rule is plainly stated: “for you are under grace.” Clearly, then, “grace is a power which irresistibly brings the result”; it is “the almighty power of God which creatively works its effect” in us. 62 This is how sinners become believers—the irresistible grace of God.

Warfield considers irresistible grace necessary to a purely supernatural salvation and “the very heart of the doctrine of ‘renewal.’” It is “the hinge” and “distinguishing principle” of the Calvinistic soteriology, which, at its very heart, is concerned to exclude all creaturely elements in the initiation of the saving process so as to magnify the pure grace of God. 63

Warfield was a soteriological exclusivist in that he admitted salvation to none but those who believe (except infants). He is convinced that the reception of salvation depends on hearing and believing the gospel of Christ. 64 And he is confident that those whom in grace God has chosen will in God’s providence hear the gospel so that they may believe. But this only leads him to emphasize grace again—neither the hearing nor the believing is left merely to the abilities of man. God’s providence is over all, and he directs the gospel witness to those whom he has appointed to life. Likewise, the faith he requires of those who are to be saved is not left to their own native abilities to produce. That any sinner ever accepts the gospel proclamation is due only to a “call” from God working effectively in him and enabling him to do so. God calls sinners to “his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12), and, Warfield asks, “Who else can have the power to dispose of these but He?” He answers, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). In Paul’s understanding, the caller is emphatically also the performer. 65

Accordingly, there is in Warfield a dominant emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit who works powerfully and sovereignly in bringing sinners to Christ. He notes, for example, in 2 Corinthians 4:13 that the apostle Paul attributes his faith, like that of the Old Testament saints, to the workings of the Holy Spirit. He has the “same Spirit of faith.”

That the Spirit is called the “Spirit of faith” means that faith does not exist except as His gift; its very existence is bound up in His working. Just as we call Him the Spirit of life, the Spirit of holiness, and the like, because all life comes from Him and all holiness is of His making, so, when Paul calls Him the Spirit of faith, it is the evidence that in Paul’s conception all faith comes from Him.

The apostle’s expressed confidence—“With that same Spirit of faith . . . we also believe, and therefore speak” (BBW)—is not merely in his faith but in the Spirit of God who gave him faith. The apostle Paul understands faith to be the result of the operations of the Spirit in us. 66 Faith is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), a gift that he sovereignly distributes to men (1 Cor. 12:7).

Warfield supports this further in the ordo salutis, which he finds spelled out in Titus 3:4–7. Here the apostle tells us that God saves us by sheer mercy “through the renovating work of the Holy Spirit,” which in turn is “founded on the redeeming work of Christ.” We are told further that the renovating work of the Spirit is “in order that we might be justified and so become heirs.” Hence, the purchase by the death of Christ is the condition that precedes the regenerating work of the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit is the condition that precedes justification and adoption. In the application of salvation, “the Spirit works by first regenerating the soul, next justifying it, next adopting it into the family of God, and next sanctifying it.”67

In its every step it is the powerful working of God’s grace that makes a man a Christian. The righteousness required of him is wrought for him by another and credited to him freely. It is received only by faith—trust—but even this faith is given as a free gift. So also in sanctification, it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). “Every saving work of God actifies the soul, but no saving work of God waits on the soul’s activities.”68

All this yields great assurance to the Christian in his witness for Christ. We have not been sent to the world to tell it of things it already believes or even things it will readily accept. God “has sent us to preach unpalatable truths to a world lying in wickedness; apparently absurd truths to men, proud of their intellects; mysterious truths to men who are carnal and cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God.” Should this lead us to despair? “Certainly,” Warfield replies, “if it is left to us not only to plant and to water but also to give the increase. Certainly not, if we appeal to and depend upon the Spirit of faith. Let Him but move on our hearts and we will believe these truths.”69
Justification by Faith

Although Warfield never produced a single in-depth exposition of the doctrine of justification, he did address the matter frequently in preaching, and here and there in his other works. He everywhere reflects his deep-seated appreciation for and ever-hearty embrace of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone, which, for him, reflects the heart of the gospel. He acknowledges that Paul’s statement of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone was stated in the context of his “ineradicable conflict” with the Judaizers, but he insists that this does not affect the substance of his teaching, only its form. It is, after all, not merely Paul’s personal opinion that he proclaims but revealed truth. Paul’s first concern was not the Judaizers. His first concern was the gospel, and it is this that brought him into conflict with the Judaizers. “He did not hold this doctrine of salvation because he polemicized the Judaizers, but he polemicized the Judaizers because he held this doctrine of salvation.” Nor was this doctrine attained in controversy with his opponents. Rather, “he controverted the Judaizers because their teaching impinged on this precious doctrine.”70


Warfield understands the apostle Paul to be concerned over the Judaizing tendency to admit human works or merit into the ground of justification. This, for him, was unthinkable. The work of Christ alone constitutes the whole ground of our acceptance before God. The gospel, Warfield says, “is not good advice, but good news. It does not come to us to make known to us what we must do to earn salvation for ourselves, but proclaiming to us what Jesus has done to save us. It is salvation, a completed salvation, that it announces to us.” This is the crux of the matter, and this must be reflected in our doctrine of justification—our standing before God is given to us gratuitously in Christ; there is nothing at all the sinner contributes to it. 71

In his classroom lecture Warfield asserts that in justification God acts as judge. In justification God does not merely pardon, as a sovereign ruler may pardon a subject. A pardoned man remains guilty. In justification the man is declared righteous. This declaration, in turn, is grounded in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us and received by us through faith alone, apart from works of any kind. Warfield specifies further that faith is in Scripture always viewed as the instrument and never the ground of justification, as though it were a work for which we are rewarded. The dative is never used. The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). 72

In Philippians 3:9 the apostle Paul’s ambition is to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The plain statement is that “every item and degree” of our own righteousness is specifically excluded from the saving equation. Even faith, though demanded, is not allowed a place in the ground of our justification. “According to his express statements, at least, we are saved entirely on the ground of an alien righteousness and not at all on the ground of anything we are or have done, or can do,—be it even so small a matter as believing.” The apostle’s whole point is to lay stress on the truth that “Christ Jesus is all.” “The contrast is absolute,” and the alternatives are mutually exclusive. Paul holds all personal efforts in contempt. All that we are and have, all that men can appeal to, the apostle counts not merely useless, but loss—“all one mass of loss, to be cast away and buried in the sea”—so that we may instead gain Christ and be found in him. “On the one side stand all human works—they are all loss. On the other hand stands Christ—He is all in all. That is the contrast.” “The Gospel, to Paul, consists precisely in this: that we do nothing to earn our salvation or to secure it for ourselves. God in Christ does it all.” There is never anything “in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthy development, because of which we are acceptable to God.” We are accepted always and only “for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all.” It is on this ground that the apostle exhorts the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord.” He is eager that their worship of God will be truly “spiritual worship,” and spiritual worship can only be worship that is marked by a “boasting in Christ Jesus alone and the withdrawal of all confidence from the flesh.” They must rejoice in the Lord and could rejoice in the Lord precisely because it was the Lord’s own righteousness in which they stood. They were, after all, “saved—not self-saving souls.” This “alien righteousness,” the righteousness of Christ freely imputed to us, is the whole ground of our confidence before God. 73

That is to say, what God requires of us—righteousness—he gives us in Christ. Here the term “imputation” is essential. Imputation is “simply the act of setting to one’s account.” Just as Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity, and just as our sin was imputed to Christ, so also Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. The grounds may differ in each, and the thing imputed may differ. “The consequent treatment of the person or persons to which the imputation is made may and will differ as the things imputed to them differ.” But the act of imputation is the same in each case. It is not that God has merely smiled and agreed to let bygones be bygones. Nor has he relaxed the standard and determined no longer to require righteousness. Nor is it a fictional righteousness that is imputed. No, what he requires he provides. “The righteousness on the ground of which God accepts a sinner . . . is an absolutely real, and absolutely perfect righteousness. . . . It is the righteousness of Christ, provided by God in and through Christ.” Christ performed the work required of us, and his merit is “imputed” to us—credited, “set to our account.” This—the righteousness provided for us by God in Christis “the sole ground of our acceptance” before God. And thus imputation is “the hinge” on which turn the doctrines of human sin, the satisfaction of Christ, and justification by faith. 74

This gift of righteousness comes to us freely but not without cost. Thus the apostle Paul argues in Romans 3:24–25 that God justifies only on the ground of the ransoming work of Christ. He does not—indeed, God cannot—justify a sinner arbitrarily but only on the ground of the satisfaction of his justice. In Christ’s sacrificial and substitutional death God’s justice is satisfied in his payment for sin.

What Paul says is, that the ransoming that is in Christ Jesus is the means by which men, being sinners, are brought by God into a justifcation which they cannot secure for themselves. If the ransoming that is in Christ Jesus is the means by which alone they can be justifed, that is only another way of saying that God, who gratuitously justifes them in His grace, proceeds in this act in view of nothing in them, but solely in view of the ransoming that is in Christ Jesus. 75


Warfield analyzes Romans 5:1–2 and characterizes it as “Paul’s argument from experience.” Paul takes as his point of reference not a declaration of doctrine but an experience common to all believers: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” His point is that as a result of seeking justification from God not by works but by faith in Jesus Christ, all believers experience the peace of a quieted conscience and acceptance with God. His point is not that all believers ought to have this peace, but that all believers already have this peace. And it is on this universally acknowledged and undeniable fact that the apostle grounds his argument: you (believer) know in your own heart by the peace you experience that justification before God has come through faith. 76

This argument from experience does not form the entire ground of the apostle’s argument that justification is by faith. Just prior to this passage he establishes his argument on exegetical grounds: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him unto righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3 BBW). Then, in the following passage, he appeals to the pattern of God’s dealings with men in other matters: both sin and righteousness are imputed by a single representative man (Rom. 5:12ff.). But between these two passages he appeals to the universal Christian consciousness that peace with God has been established by faith: the fact that upon believing in Christ all Christians experience peace with God demonstrates that justification is indeed by faith. That is, “If the presence of the fruits of justification proves we are justified, the presence of the justification, thus proved, proves that justification is found on the road by which we reached it.”77

Warfield then draws from this its primary implication; namely, that justification by faith is naturally adapted to produce peace and joy in the believing sinner. It is not without objective warrant that the believer enjoys this peace. Certainly, it is the Holy Spirit who produces this peace in us, but it is not an ungrounded emotion that he gives. It is, rather, a peace that rests on the nature of the transaction. Warfield explains at length that after we all have tried other means by which to find God’s favor—self-efforts of various kinds, feverishly sincere though they may be—we still do not experience the peace we seek. We may give ourselves entirely to the service of God, but this alone does not clear the conscience. There yet remains that gnawing sense of sin, a realization that we have not made the required grade. But in being justified by faith the result is different—“peace and joy are the natural, or, indeed, the necessary fruits” of seeking salvation by faith alone. 78 This method of justification is perfectly suited to quiet our conscience; indeed, it is calculated to satisfy the conscience and allay all feelings of guilt, for it rests on God’s provision of a substitute—who supplies for us all the righteousness God requires of us and in whose blood perfect expiation of sin is made—and his gracious promise of full forgiveness in him. This method of justification does not leave us hoping that we have done well enough. It faces our unrighteousness squarely and makes full acknowledgment of it. It offers a substitute who does for us all that God requires of us. In Warfield’s words, this method of justification “empties us of all righteousness which we may claim,” and then it

turns and points to a wonderful spectacle of the Son of God, become man, taking His place at the head of His people, presenting an infnite sacrifce for their sins in His own body on the tree, working out a perfect righteousness in their stead in the myriad deeds of love and right that flled His short but active life; and ofering this righteousness, this righteousness of God, provided by God and acceptable to God, to the acceptance of the world.

And immediately Warfield says again, “Here is a mode of salvation which is indeed calculated to still the gnawing sense of guilt and quiet the fear of wrath.” Here is an approach to God, a means of finding his favor, in which the conscience can safely rest. “We gaze on Christ and His sacrifice, and we know that God also sees it, and seeing it cannot condemn him who is in Christ.”79


In his brief 1911 article “Justification by Faith, Out of Date,” Warfield considers the question of the relevance of this doctrine to modern man and argues passionately that if justification by faith is out of date, then salvation itself is out of date. For if justification means “to pronounce righteous,” then “there is no justification for sinful men except by faith.” The works of sinners are sinful, and these works can only condemn. Where then, except from a substitute, can the sinner obtain works on the basis of which he can be justified? This is precisely what is offered the sinner in justification by faith—the works of Christ in exchange for his own sinful works. Justification by faith “does not mean salvation by believing things instead of by doing right. It means pleading the merits of Christ before the throne of grace instead of our own merits.” It is certainly right to believe right things, but we cannot plead our own merits before God; we simply have no merits of our own to plead. “If we are to be justified at all, it must be on the ground of the merits of Another, whose merits can be made ours by faith.” This is the reason God sent his Son into the world, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”80

Paul’s deep antagonism against his Judaizing opponents, then, is due to the damaging—indeed, the damning (Gal. 1:8)—consequences of attempting to admit works as a ground of salvation. Such teachers are “dogs” (Phil. 3:2), and they are deservedly called such, for their teaching precludes that attitude which Paul everywhere impresses on his readers—that attitude “in which the whole Gospel consisted for him—the attitude of entire dependence on Christ to the exclusion of everything in themselves.”81

This notion—that the gospel consists in an attitude of entire dependence on Christ to the exclusion of everything else—defines Christianity emphatically and necessarily as a religion of faith, a gospel of trust. The whole of salvation, “in each of its steps and stages, runs back to God as its author and furtherer,” and because of this, “a continual sense of humble dependence on God and of loving trust in Him is by it formed and fostered in every heart into which it makes entrance. Under the teachings of this gospel the eye is withdrawn from self and the face turned upward in loving gratitude to God, the great giver.” “It must needs be by faith” that we receive all saving blessings, “for what is faith but a looking to God for blessings?”82


Warfield describes faith variously as “trust,” “a confident entrusting of ourselves to Christ,” “looking to God for blessing,” “casting” oneself upon God, “utter dependence” or “resting” or “reposing” on God, and simply “the instrument of reception to which salvation comes.” It is therefore “the very essence of Christianity.” It is the “fundamental element of religion” on the human side, just as grace is the fundamental element of religion on God’s side. Faith as “an attitude of dependence on God” is likewise “just the very essence” of true religion. “In proportion as any sense of self-sufficiency or any dependence on self enters the heart, in that proportion religion is driven from it.” This is the only attitude becoming or even possible in weak and sinful man. If we are to be saved at all, it must be God who saves us. “Every sinner, when once aroused to the sense of his sin, knows this for himself—knows it in the times of his clearest vision and deepest comprehension with a poignancy that drives him to despair.” And this despair is relieved only when he rests in God alone. 83

That faith entails not only knowledge and assent but also trust Warfield finds illustrated in the faith of Abraham (Gen. 15:1, 6). The object of his faith was not the promise of God but God himself, “and that not merely as the giver of the promise here recorded, but as His servant’s shield and exceeding great reward. It is therefore not the assentive but the fiducial element of faith which is here emphasized.” He “put his trust in God” (Rom. 4:3, BBW trans. of éπíστενσεν τψθεω ). To believe in God is to “rest in security and trustfulness upon Him.” This sense of faith as trust is expressed in the New Testament primarily by the use of πιστεύω with one of several prepositions. Πιστεύω +éν en seems to indicate confidence in the object of trust. Πιστεύω + éπí is somewhat parallel to this and expresses “steady, resting repose, reliance upon the object.” Πιστεύω + εις, the leading New Testament expression, expresses “‘an absolute transference of trust from ourselves to another,’ a complete self-surrender to Christ.” Following a survey of the various passages in which πιστεύω and πíστις occur, Warfield concludes again that faith, in the New Testament sense, is “self-abandoning trust,” a “self-commitment of the soul to Jesus as the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.”84

In short, given man’s sin and consequent unworthiness on the one hand and God’s gracious promise of rescue on the other, faith—faith as trust, reliance, dependence—is the only possible approach to God.


In his 1911 article “On Faith in its Psychological Aspects,” Warfield analyzes the notion of faith and how it is formed in the human mind. He stresses that “faith” or “belief” focuses on the grounds of the conviction expressed. It refers to a mental act or state “to which we feel constrained” by certain relevant and authoritative considerations. Faith is not an arbitrary act; it is a mental state or act “determined by sufficient reasons.” The Greek root meaning of πíστις is that of “binding,” and the Hebrew ymah, hnwma go back to the idea of “holding.” These ideas remain in our idea of faith. That which “holds” us or that which we discover to be “binding” on us is the object of “faith.” There is an element of constraint, “bindingness” in faith that distinguishes it from an act of the will. Consent of belief is not the same as consent of the will. The consent of belief is a “forced consent” driven by compelling evidence. Belief is neither arbitrary nor voluntary but a necessary consent of the mind to what it perceives to be sufficient reasons or evidence. 85

Although faith is forced consent, the product of evidence and not of volition, it nonetheless can be mistaken. Our beliefs may not, in fact, correspond with reality. We can be misinformed or misunderstand the evidence and thus believe what is in fact not true. Our minds may mistake weak evidence as strong or strong evidence as weak, and believe or not believe accordingly. Faith “does not follow evidence itself, in other words, but the judgment of the intellect on the evidence.” And this judgment will vary according to intellect, states of mind, and disposition. But what evidence the mind judges to be true based on objectively adequate evidence is therefore necessarily believed. Even so, the will is not the determining element. Warfield agrees with Augustine that faith, then, rests on authority, not reason alone. Reason underlies faith, to be sure, but there is involved also a judgment as to the authority of the evidence, its credibility. Faith, therefore, entails “trust” as one of its prominent components. In fact, it seems evident that the notion of “trust” is the implication that rules the usage of the term “faith, belief” and “determines its applications throughout the whole course of its development.”86


All this serves to demonstrate that the source of saving faith is found in God. Faith is not an act of the will. It is consent that is forced by our perception of that evidence and the object as trustworthy. Saving faith is not “inevitable” to the sinner merely because Christ is, in fact, trustworthy. The person’s judgment of the worthiness of the object and the evidence will determine how compelling the evidence is. This, in turn, depends upon the person’s capacity to appreciate the evidence rightly. Saving faith is not an arbitrary act of the will. 87

There are two factors in the production of faith. On the one hand, there is the evidence on the ground of which the faith is yielded. On the other hand, there is the subjective condition by virtue of which the evidence can take efect in the appropriate act of faith. There can be no belief, faith without evidence; it is on evidence that the mental exercise which we call belief, faith rests; and this exercise or state of mind cannot exist apart from its ground in evidence. But evidence cannot produce belief, faith, except in a mind open to this evidence, and capable of receiving, weighing, and responding to it. A mathematical demonstration is demonstrative proof of the proposition demonstrated. But even such a demonstration cannot produce conviction in a mind incapable of following the demonstration. Where musical taste is lacking, no evidence which derives its force from considerations of melody can work conviction. No conviction, whether of the order of what we call knowledge or of faith, can be produced by considerations to which the mind to be convinced is inhabile. 88

There is then something more that is needed than evidence. Evidence is necessary, for it is on evidence that faith rests. But whether or not that evidence is compelling is determined by the subjective nature or condition of the person to whom it is presented. “This is the ground of responsibility for belief, faith; it is not merely a question of evidence but of subjectivity. . . . Our action under evidence is the touchstone by which is determined what we are.” If the evidence presented is objectively adequate yet perceived subjectively to be inadequate, the fault is in us. This being the case, “it is easy to see that the sinful heart—which is enmity towards God—is incapable of that supreme act of trust in God.” The sinner’s heart is hostile against God. Sin has rendered trust impossible for him, and so the Scriptures represent faith as a gift of God. This gift, however, is not given in a way that violates our psychological constitution. Rather the Holy Spirit of God creates in us a “capacity for faith under the evidence submitted.” He softens the heart and quickens the will “so that the man so affected may freely and must inevitably perceive the force and yield to the compelling power of the evidence of the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ as Saviour submitted to him in the gospel.” In other words, there is renewal, regeneration, which issues in faith. There must before this be the atoning work of Christ, which cancels the guilt by which the sinner is kept under the wrath of God. Faith is truly man’s own act, but it is just as truly God’s gift to him so that he may so act. Stated briefly, our salvation is accomplished by Christ, and it therefore does not depend upon our faith—our faith depends upon it. 89

For this reason Scripture consistently presents faith as “a gratuity from God in the prosecution of His saving work.” Faith does not rise out of one’s own strength or virtue but is given to those who are chosen (2 Thess. 2:13). It is God’s gift (Eph. 6:23; cf. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29), given through Christ (Acts 3:16; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:21; Heb. 12:2), by the Spirit (2 Cor. 4:13; Gal. 5:5), by means of the preached Word (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2, 5). Because faith is received from God (2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 3; 1 Pet. 1:21), thanks for it are to be returned to God (Col. 1:3–4; 2 Thess. 1:3). All ground of boasting is excluded, for even our faith is his gift to us. This sheds light, again, on the nature of faith. Warfield heartily endorses the scholastic term “instrumental cause” and says that everywhere in the Bible, faith

is conceived as a boon from above which comes to men, no doubt through the channels of their own activities, but not as if it were an efect of their energies, but rather, as it has been fnely phrased, as a gift which God lays in the lap of the soul. “With the heart,” indeed, “man believeth unto righteousness”; but this believing does not arise of itself out of any heart indifferently, nor is it grounded in the heart’s own potencies; it is grounded rather in the freely-giving goodness of God, and comes to man as a benefaction out of heaven. 90


Warfield is clearly a soteriological exclusivist in that he admits salvation to none but those who believe (except infants). He emphasizes this at length in his sermon “Jesus Only,” based on Acts 4:12, and demonstrates with passion that throughout the history of the church this has always been the cutting edge of the Christian witness. “Participation in this salvation is certainly suspended on the proclamation and hearing of the gospel,” and this thought served to drive the apostle Paul in his missionary endeavors. Even those who die never having heard of Christ, perish. 91

Faith in Christ is the requisite channel through which salvation is received. Because man is a sinner, his faith terminates not on God immediately but on the Mediator, Jesus Christ, and through him on God. And this faith issues in justification. “He who humbly but confidently casts himself on the God of salvation has the assurance that he shall not be put to shame (Rom. 10:11; 9:33), but shall receive the end of his faith, even the salvation of his soul (1 Pet. 1:9).” By it we renounce our own righteousness and receive that righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 9:30; 10:3, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 5:5; Heb. 11:7; 2 Pet. 1:1). On the ground of this substitute righteousness, credited by faith alone, without works, enmity is abolished (Rom. 5:1), and the one who believes in Christ, Warfield says, “is justified in God’s sight, received into His favour, and made the recipient of the Holy Spirit” (John 7:39; Acts 5:32; Gal. 3:2). The immediate effect of faith is the possession, before the judgment day, of the righteousness wrought out by Christ; through this righteousness credited to the believer “the whole series of saving acts of God” and blessings of sonship follow. 92

Yet it is not faith, itself considered, that possesses all this value. Warfield is careful to lay stress on the trustworthiness of faith’s object and to emphasize that it is only from its object that faith derives its value. Justification is not said to come by repentance, for that would imply efforts on our part as ground for it. Justification comes through faith as trust precisely because it is accomplished solely by Christ. The saving power of faith resides in him. “It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith in any other object than Christ crucified brings only a curse. “It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or the nature of faith, but in the object of faith.” It would be a radical misconception of the biblical presentation of faith to transfer even the smallest fraction of saving energy to faith. The Scriptures carefully attribute all the saving power “solely to Christ Himself.” We must therefore “mind our prepositions,” Warfield counsels—“‘by’ and ‘through’ convey the notification of different and not inconsistent relations,” and they are instructive “with respect to passivity and activity. . . . The means by which God is reconciled to men is not their faith but the blood of Christ.”93

Even so, because of the value of faith’s object, faith is said to have certain important effects. It is the instrument through which we receive assurance of salvation and the justifying righteousness of Christ (2 Pet. 1:1). On the ground of this justification we are brought into God’s favor and made the recipients of his Spirit, by whose indwelling we are constituted God’s sons (Rom. 8:14) and heirs (Rom. 8:17; 1 Pet. 1:4–5). When we are justified by faith, a train of blessings follow. Enmity is removed and we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1–2), and we are given his Spirit by whom we overcome the world (1 John 5:4, 18–19). “In a word, because we are justified by faith, we are, through faith, endowed with all the privileges and supplied with all the graces of the children of God.”94


In his examination of the psychological aspects of faith Warfield demonstrates, as we have seen, that although faith rests on evidence, faith does not infallibly follow sufficient evidence. Disposition is the determining factor, and it is the ground of our responsibility. 95 But on a more pastoral level, in his “Inability and the Demand of Faith,” Warfield offers counsel in dealing with the sinner who, genuinely seeking salvation, may yet despair of his inability to come to Christ. Warfield acknowledges the difficulty but counsels that in such a case progress might be made by gently yet faithfully pressing the following ideas.

First, it must be recognized that “the puzzle is a logical one, and concerns doctrine, not action; and it must not be permitted to stand as an obstacle to action.” That is, we recognize our previous inability only after the fact, after regeneration and coming to Christ. Inability passes away in regeneration, but our consciousness of that great transformation, only after we have believed. “No man can know,” Warfield counsels, “whether he is unable save by striving to act.” We are obliged to believe, to turn to Christ. And we must be clear that “the doctrine of inability does not affirm that we cannot believe, but only that we cannot believe in our own strength. . . . We may believe . . . , but only in God’s strength.” Warfield finds illustration of this in the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1–5). Jesus commanded the man to stretch out his hand, yet it was just that—stretch out his hand—that he was unable to do. This is the nature of the problem itself. “But Christ commanded, and he stretched it forth.” Warfield surmises that what God commands, he in grace gives. The struggles of soul that we endure in the awareness of sin and need are themselves evidence of the workings of the Spirit of God. And so we have warrant to counsel men to believe: this is their responsibility. 96

Next, Warfield reminds us that it is not man’s responsibility to do what only God can do. It is not ours to give life; it is ours simply to believe. And “this very effort [to look to Christ] is already an exercise of the required faith.” Indeed, the recognition of inability brings us to see how desperate our condition is, and seeing this we are reminded that “Christ is needed as a Savior all the more because we cannot do the least thing to save ourselves.” Indeed, “Christ is not only a Savior to those who are naked and empty, and have no goodness to recommend themselves, but he is a Savior to those who are unable to give themselves to him.” In this way the recognition of our inability serves to incite faith, for “you cannot be in too desperate a condition for Christ.”97

Finally, Warfield suggests that the appeal should be driven home by our emphasizing “the dangers of delay, and the roots of it in a sinful state.” The sinner’s professed “waiting for grace” is in reality a continued self-reliance and refusal of Christ. Many others before us, and as desperate, have come to Christ and found him able to save. He calls us to trust him, and unless we do, we will perish. This, Warfield suggests, is how to deal with such seeking souls: “They are not to be argued with but pressed to come at once to Jesus.”98


Faith, which comes to its rights only when there is a personal object, is primarily an “entrusting” of ourselves to God, an “adoring trust” in Christ. It has both passive and active aspects to it—surrender and consecration. And it involves the three elements of notitia, assensus, fiducia (“knowledge,” “assent,” “trust”). “No true faith has arisen unless there has been a perception of the object to be believed in, an assent to its worthiness to be believed or believed in, and a commitment of ourselves to it as true and trustworthy.” There is no faith in a thing or person of which we have no knowledge. “Implicit faith” in this sense is an absurdity. And of course there is no faith in a thing or person to whose worthiness we do not give assent. There is also no faith “in that which we distrust too much to commit ourselves to it.” In every movement of faith there is an intellectual, an emotional, and a volitional element. The whole man is involved in the entirety of his being. The central movement of faith is doubtless that of assent, but this assent always depends on a movement not of the will but of the intellect. “The assensus issues from the notitia.” And “trust” is “the product of the assent.” But the disposition to believe and the capacity for faith, being naturally contrary to man’s fallen constitution, is given by God in the re-creative work of the Holy Spirit. 99
Conversion: “The Great Change”

Salvation in Christ involves more than legal forgiveness. It involves “a radical and complete transformation” of the soul (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23) by the Spirit of God (Titus 3:5) that constitutes the believer a “new man” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) who is “no longer conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9) but shaped in knowledge and holiness after the image of Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Rom. 12:2). In Christ is provided not only an objective but also a subjective salvation from sin.

It is uniformly taught in Scripture that by his sin man has not merely incurred the divine condemnation but also corrupted his own heart; that sin, in other words, is not merely guilt but depravity: and that there is needed for man’s recovery from sin, therefore, not merely atonement but renewal; that salvation, that is to say, consists not merely in pardon but in purifcation. Great as is the stress laid in the Scriptures on the forgiveness of sins as the root of salvation, no less stress is laid throughout the Scriptures on the cleansing of the heart as the fruit of salvation. Nowhere is the sinner permitted to rest satisfed with pardon as the end of salvation; everywhere he is made poignantly to feel that salvation is realized only in a clean heart and a right spirit. 100

“The great change” experienced by every believer upon entering the Christian life has both a Godward and a manward side. God “renews,” “begets,” “regenerates,” and “creates”; man “repents” and “turns.” God regenerates, “recreating the governing disposition” of the soul, and conversion instantly and inevitably follows. Warfield recognizes this personally transforming aspect of salvation as the fulfillment of God’s new covenant promise (Jer. 31:33; 32:39; Ezek. 36:26; 37:14) in which he promises the powerful inner workings of his Spirit in giving new life (a “new heart”) that manifests itself in inward and outward holiness. Growing out of this provision of the regenerating and sanctifying Spirit are all the New Testament exhortations to and descriptions of renewal, conversion, progressive sanctification, and glorification. 101

Repentance indicates primarily a change of mind, and this change of mind is one that issues in an amended life. Hence, in Matthew 21:29, Jesus speaks of the previously disobedient son who “repented, and went” (kJV) as his father commanded him. So also in Jesus’ application of the parable to the Jewish leaders, he scolds them for not “repenting and believing” John the Baptist. Repentance is a change of mind that issues in amendment of life. But in its largest view repentance also entails godly sorrow over sin. This is all stated succinctly in 2 Corinthians 7:8–11, particularly verse 10: “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation.” Warfield summarizes that repentance is a turning

from all wrong to all good, in which the trend of our life is altered, in which, in a word, we turn our backs on Satan and all the works of the fesh, and our face to God and his service. The repentance of the New Testament is a total change of mind and heart, not only from some sins but from sin itself.

Warfield finds this illustrated in the prodigal son, who “came to himself” and returned humbly to the father (Luke 15:17). 102

True repentance, moreover, does not view sin merely atomistically, in terms of so many evil acts. If we are ourselves sinful and guilty, then true godly sorrow and change of mind will have in view not only what we do but what we are, our sins as well as our sinfulness. There will be a recognition of personal demerit and guilt. “He only has really repented who has perceived and felt the filthiness and odiousness of his depraved nature and has turned from it to God with a full purpose of being hereafter more conformed to his image as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.”103

Warfield notes the proper order in all this. There is godly sorrow, on which repentance rests; there is the change of mind in reference to sin, repentance; and there is the resulting alteration of life, “the fruits of repentance.” Scripture says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10); “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15; Matt. 21:32); “repent and turn” (Acts 3:19, 26:20); “believe and turn” (Acts 11:21). “We need not press such phraseology beyond its capacity for bearing, but it seems at least to suggest the order metanoia, pistis, epistrophe; that there is first a change within, then faith, and then a corresponding change without.” All this is man’s responsibility and work. However, Warfield is quick to point out that repentance is declared to be the gift of God (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). This suggests a divine side, a previous activity on God’s part that leads to the change these words describe, and this divine activity leads him to a discussion of “a group of words which represent [God’s side] as a renewing, a rebegetting, a quickening, a resurrection, and even as a re-creating,” which produces, “in the highest sense of the term, a new man” (Col. 3:10; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Warfield characterizes this as a “repristination of man” wrought sovereignly and efficaciously by God the Holy Spirit, who awakens the soul and radically changes its disposition in reference both to sin and to God, thus enabling it to repent and believe. 104

This “conversion” shows itself not only in faith and repentance but in all of life. Faith issues in newness of life (Col. 2:12) and is characterized by the instinctive response, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). Dying with Christ we also rise with him to new life (Romans 6). In Christ we are a new creation in which the old has passed away and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17). Believers are men made new by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ has died for us to this end—so that we, having died with him, will no longer live to ourselves but unto him (2 Cor. 5:14–15); and “the end can no more fail than the means.” Those for whom Christ died find themselves living by the constraint of that love (v. 14), and all of life is adjusted and shaped accordingly. “You cannot die with Christ and not rise again with Him: it cannot be that He who knew no sin shall have been made sin for you, and you who have known no righteousness shall not be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Stated in theological terms, there can be no justification that does not issue in sanctification. Our salvation is not only from the penalty but also from the power of sin. 105

This transformation of life is described figuratively in the New Testament as a change of clothing (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:9–10; cf. Gal. 3:27; Rom. 13:14); the old man is laid aside like dirty clothes, and the new man is put on like a clean garment. Sometimes conversion is described in terms of a metamorphosis (Rom. 12:2). It is also spoken of descriptively in terms of reanimation (John 5:21; Eph. 2:4–6; Col. 2:12–13; Rom. 6:3–4) or a re-creation (Eph. 2:10; 4:24; Col. 3:10). And sometimes it is referred to, more technically, as sanctification, a making holy (1 Thess. 4:3, 7; 5:23; Rom. 6:19, 22; 15:16; etc.). Sometimes, in more direct reference to its source, this new life is described as the “living” or “forming” of Christ in us (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:9–10; Eph. 3:17; Gal. 4:19; cf. 1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 3:8) and as the indwelling of Christ or his Spirit in us or being led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18). The subjects of this work are referred to as “spiritual men,” men led of the Spirit (πνενματικοí , 1 Cor. 2:15; 3:1; Gal. 6:1; cf. 1 Pet. 2:5) as contrasted with “carnal men,” “men dominated by their own weak, vicious selves” (ψνχικοí , 1 Cor. 2:14; Jude 19; sarkikoi , 1 Cor. 3:3). All through the New Testament the great emphasis on God’s “power” working in us is to this end. “It does not require an exercise of divine power to extend power; it does require it to endow and enable us with all the qualities, energies, and activities that make for, and that make holiness and life.”106

It is important to Warfield to note that this change of life is not an optional extra to the Christian. Jesus taught Nicodemus that “the radical transformation of the Spirit of God” is “the precondition of entrance” to the kingdom of God. Heart and life transformation is part of the warp and woof of salvation itself. Justification by faith is the root of our salvation, but sanctification is “its substance.” Salvation is never pardon only; it is also a cleansing and transformation. In opposition to perfectionist and higher life teachers such as Asa Mahan (1799–1889) and Andrew Murray (1828–1917), Warfield insists that there can be no separation of regeneration from sanctification. He argues that “the essence” of Romans 8:29–30 “is to teach that God selects his children, chooses the goal to which he shall bring them, and brings them safely to that goal; and it justifies us in saying that without exception, ‘whom he regenerates, them also he sanctifies.’” It was the ancient new covenant promise that God would write his law on his people’s heart (Jer. 31:33), that he would take out the stony heart and replace it with a heart of flesh so that they would now walk in keeping with his commands (Ezek. 11:19). All this is the promised work of the Spirit of God in the lives of all of God’s people. Salvation necessarily entails a changed life. God works in his people to renew them, and the response inevitably is that of repentance and conversion. God’s work of salvation is such that “he who really is a child of God will necessarily possess marks and signs of being so.”107


Excerpt from The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, Copyright © 2010 by Fred G. Zaspel  Published by Crossway 1300 Crescent Street

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