Four Understandings of How
Humans Receive Salvation
in the History of Christianity

These four summaries were written by the Rev. Todd Green when he was Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waco, Texas. They look at the four historically predominant views of how humans receive salvation.

In the 5th century AD, a British monk named Pelagius, renowned for his piety and austerity, developed this doctrine of salvation. According to Pelagius, though human beings have succumbed to the influences of Adam*s "original sin," the possibility of overcoming human sinfulness still existed. Pelagius basically believed that all humans possessed the ability not to sin, and the role of the commandments in the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament was to show us how to live sinless lives. Further, if we wanted to receive God*s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and if we wanted therefore to receive salvation, we had to earn this through living a life that was in accord with Biblical teachings.

A series of Church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries condemned this view as heresy. Though no major Christian denomination endorses this view today, this "heresy" still exists in more subtle ways in the theology of many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. Today, Pelagianism is often referred to as a salvation of works -- if we do enough good deeds, God will love us, forgive us, and save us.

Key Texts:

Matthew 25:31-46

31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Mark 10:17-22

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ " 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

James 2:14-26

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This is a somewhat moderate form of Pelagianism. Whereas in Pelagianism, there is the understanding that humans must live moral and superior lives in order to receive salvation, in classic Semi-Pelagianism, there is the belief that it is impossible to live sinless lives. Therefore, the only way that people can receive salvation is through God*s grace alone. However, there is a catch! In order for humans to receive this grace, they must first turn to God and ask for it. God*s grace, forgiveness, and salvation can be given only to those who seek God and petition God for it. Salvation is dependent solely on the strength of our faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, salvation both in semi-Pelagianism and in Pelagianism is based first and foremost on human initiative. We must do something first before God "saves" us.

This position became the official Roman Catholic understanding of salvation at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Though the Protestant reformers rejected it, it managed to infiltrate Protestant theology after the Enlightenment. The Great Awakening and other revival movements in American history have made this position particularly popular in Protestant Christianity in America. Today, practically all Christian denominations who label themselves "evangelicals," and some Christians of other denominations as well, officially adopt a Semi-Pelagian understanding of salvation.

Key Texts:

John 3:18

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

John 6:40

40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.

Acts 2:21

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.


20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.


This position is actually quite complicated and has many faces. Augustine first developed an understanding of predestination in the 5th century AD in response to Pelagius (see above). Some of the most prominent theologians in the history of Christianity have promoted some understanding of predestination in their theology, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.

The most common understanding of predestination comes from the theology of John Calvin, the "founding" theologian of the Reformed tradition. Calvin*s understanding of predestination is popularly labeled "double predestination." According to Calvin, God extends grace, forgiveness, and salvation freely to some human beings, not based on their merit, and not based on the strength of their faith, but based on God*s own free will. They do not have to turn to God and ask for grace or salvation before they receive it. It is a free gift from God. These people are God*s elect or chosen ones. On the other hand, those people in the world who are not chosen by God do not receive the gift of grace, forgiveness, or salvation. They are the damned. Why God has chosen not to choose or elect these people is truly a mystery, but from Calvin*s perspective, we are in no place to command. Calvin believes that since we were all sinners and all undeserving of God*s grace, we all deserve to be damned for all eternity. The fact that God chooses some at all is truly good news for which we should be thankful.

Though many Christians criticize this understanding of salvation, it is important to understand Calvin*s motives for developing this doctrine. Calvin is attempting to argue in his doctrine of double predestination that there is absolutely nothing that we humans can do to earn God*s love, grace, mercy, and salvation. If we receive these at all, they are free gifts. In this light, Calvin (and double predestination) differs dramatically from Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, both of which maintain that humans must do something first in order to earn or receive grace, forgiveness, and salvation. Calvin turns this around -- God takes the initiative in giving these things to us (or at least some of us).

Many historians and Christians consider double predestination to be the trademark of the Reformed tradition, including the Presbyterian tradition. Indeed, this has been the case historically. Today, few Presbyterians uphold Calvin*s strict understanding of double predestination, though some Presbyterians (and other Christians) seek to support the doctrine of single predestination, which focuses on those whom God chooses to "save" and avoids speculation on what happens to those who are not chosen. Still others lift up predestination simply as a reminder that salvation does not depend on human merit, setting aside all speculation as to whether or not God elects some and not others. However, the majority of Christians today, including Presbyterians, abandon all talk of predestination.

Key Texts:

Matthew 11:25-27

25 At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Matthew 16:13-17

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

Acts 13:46-48

46 Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ " 48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.

Romans 8:26-30

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Ephesians l:3-14

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.


Some theologians consider universalism to be a form of predestination, whereas others allow universalism to stand on its own merit. According to this understanding of salvation, God loves everybody, shows grace towards everybody, and ultimately, God will give salvation to everybody, even to those who are not Christians and who do not believe in Jesus Christ. It is possible toargue that this is a form of predestination, but instead of God electing only a limited number for salvation, God chooses to elect all people for salvation. At the very least, universalism shares with predestination the understanding that salvation is based on God*s initiative alone; we humans need not do something first in order to receive it. Regardless of whether or not universalism has any other affinities with predestination, its emphasis on universal election separates it from the other three categories listed above.

The beginnings of universalism in the history of Christianity date back to the 3rd-century theologian, Origen. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, a handful of Anabaptists theologians argued in favor of universalism. In 18th and 19th century America, universalism gained some acceptance and support in the New England area as a response to the strict understanding of Calvinist predestination that existed. Unitarian churches emerged out of this universalist atmosphere, and to this day, the Unitarian church is one of the only religious bodies associated with the Judeo-Christian denomination that officially endorses universalism. Other theologians and church leaders throughout the past several hundred years have endorsed universalism, and in the Reformed tradition, the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, at least flirted with the idea that God would redeem all of humankind. Today, in many mainline denominations, both in Europe and in the United States, universalism is gaining popularity, though in the U.S., it is still a much less prominent understanding of how humans receive salvation than Semi-Pelagianism.

Key Texts:

Romans 5:18

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

Romans 11:32

32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

I Cor.15:21-22

21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

Ephesians 1:9-10

9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Philippians 2:9-11

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Colossians 1:19-20

19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

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