Getting the Cart before the Horse
by Douglas Bond
Stopping by for a chat after school, one of my fresh, new English students shared an idea he had for a poem. “How about if I write couplets organized around what we do and then what God does?” I looked closely at him. Surely he had to be kidding. But there wasn’t the slightest evidence that he was aware he had said anything out of order.
After thinking about it for a moment, I asked him if it wouldn’t be more accurate to reverse the order. He frowned and said, “What I mean is, we are wise and then God rewards us.”
One of the refreshing things about working with young people is that they often speak and write frankly about what they have been hearing. One thing was clear. However well intentioned the spiritual influences in this young man’s life were, what he had been hearing was that he needed to do something and then God would reward him for doing it. Whatever the good intentions of his parents and his minister, the message this young man had heard had fatally inverted the order of things.
“But if we are wise,” I asked him, “how did we get that way?” I explained further to him that there was only one way I could see that he could keep the order of our works and God’s rewards in his couplets. His poem could feature what we do: our sins of thought, word, and deed; even the splendid sins of our good works—all that could form the first part. And the second part could then feature what Jesus has done once for all time in the gospel: united us with himself in redemption, justification, and imputed righteousness, forgiving us all our sins by taking our guilt and punishment on himself on the cross. That would make a grand poem, a hymn of glory to God for his amazing grace, and it would be so because it kept the order of salvation in its biblical order.
After growing up in a Christian home and attending church and youth group throughout his entire life, nevertheless, this fifteen-year-old young man was caught in a classic theological blunder, one entirely destructive to the gospel. He had confused what theologians term the ordo salutis, or the order of the different components of salvation. By inverting the order, by getting the cart before the horse, he had unwittingly done violence to the gospel.
Order Is Everything
Just as in making an omelet, the order is everything. Cook the eggs before you break them and you have boiled eggs but not an omelet. Attempt to whip them before cracking them and you have an inedible mess. Wait until the eggs hatch into chicks and go to work on them—and you have roadkill. Ridiculous as this sounds, many of us do the same thing in our thinking about the ordo salutis, the order of salvation.
Theologians since the Reformation have described the order of the components of salvation in this way: predestination, calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, and glorification. But let’s be honest: most of us don’t naturally think of the order in this God-initiated way. We are more inclined to give the order from our finite human vantage point. After all, that’s the way we experienced things. Hence, we prefer to think that our faith and believing come before regeneration, for example, and our own persevering in obedience comes before, and is a contingency of, glorification. Put more simply, we tend to think that salvation has to be something to which we contribute something—as my student was thinking.
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