As a child I remember hearing the “Steps of Salvation” periodically throughout my time in children’s Bible classes. I remember seeing on the walls of those classrooms pictures of the steps as they led toward a life in Christ. I remember being told throughout my teenage and college years that these steps were a good way to convert others.
Having stopped and thought about it over the last year I’ve realized how awful this model of salvation really is. The steps themselves are not wrong, but they are incomplete and can even be misleading. Today I want to go through this oft-used illustration of salvation step by step analyzing each steps shortcoming before suggesting what we can do to present salvation in a better way.
Step #1: Hear
This step, like all the ones that follow, comes with a supporting Scripture (Rom. 10:17). Do we really need to tell the person that is already listening to us to listen to us? I know that hearing the message of God is part of the salvation process, but telling the person we’re studying with that they need to hear the message we're trying to present to them doesn't make a lot of sense. It’s time we retired this step. All in favor? “Hear, hear!”
EDIT: Wanted to clear the air on this point since I've been asked by a few different people whether I think "hearing" is essential to being saved. It absolutely is (Rom. 10:14; Matthew 7:24). I was merely pointing out the redundancy of telling someone who is already hearing the message of Christ, that they need to hear the message of Christ.
Step #2: Believe
My problem with steps #2-4 are all the same. Are belief, repentance, and confession necessary components to the salvation process? Absolutely (see John 8:24; Acts 17:30; Rom. 10:9-10 among other verses)! Unfortunately, our “steps” model sells these components short. The step illustration portrays these actions as one-time acts, but the Bible is very clear that these actions are continuous. Take belief for example. Belief in God is necessary in order to obey Him, but it’s also necessary in order to remain obedient. You begin believing in Jesus before you become a Christian, and you must continue to believe in order to remain a Christian. This may seem obvious to us, but it’s not that obvious to the person you’re studying with and the chart doesn’t make it any clearer and even runs the risk of confusing the one we're studying with.
Step #3: Repent
In addition to the original point made in Step #2, I want to add how important it is that we teach repentance as a continual action. When someone becomes a Christian they need to be convicted of the sin in their life and shown how it separates them from God, but they also need to know that Christians aren’t perfect, that they’ll fail, and that God will always be there to gracefully forgive them when they repent (1 John 1:7-2:1). So many new Christians are crushed when they realized they’ve fallen back into sin having thought that sin was no longer something that would plague them as a Christian. Proper teaching on repentance and sin is important so that they know what to expect in their life.
Step #4: Confess
In addition to the original point made in Step #2 it’s necessary that we talk a little bit about what confession is. When I asked the high school class where I work what the “confess” step refers to I was given the answer I thought I’d get: “that’s the confession we make before baptism right?” Now there’s nothing wrong with what is often called “the good confession”, but the Bible speaks about confession as something much more than a one-time, before baptism event (2 Cor. 9:13; 1 John 4:15; Mt. 10:32). Those we study with need to know that God expects them to publicly claim Him as Lord at every opportunity.
Step #5: Be Baptized
We now come to our fifth and final step, baptism. My first problem with this step is that it’s the last one. It leaves the impression that once you’re baptized you’re done. You’re sins are forgiven, you’re in Christ, and you’re good to go! Except that’s not true, at least not the part about being “done”.
This problem is extended to the teacher as well. All too often studies are conducted through the point of baptism only to be ended there. This leaves the new convert all alone in their Christian walk, and it really shouldn't come as a surprise to us when they don't remain that faithful to Jesus. Baptism is the last step of the chart but the first step along the long, tough, trying road of Christianity. The Christian life begins with this new birth (John 3:5) and ends with the death of that Christian or the coming of Christ (whichever comes first). As Christians, we ought to bear with each other to the end, not abandon each other after the journey begins.
One Last Thought About the Steps Chart
In addition to portraying continuous actions as one-time actions and ending at the beginning of the salvation process, the steps of salvation chart also runs the risk of making salvation appear to be all on our shoulders. Yes we must accept it and yes, obedience is necessary, but the saving is done by God. Nowhere on our traditional “steps of salvation” charts do we have that we are saved by the grace of God. The steps of salvation chart says "here's what you must do to be saved" without really addressing why these actions take our sin away. I know you know that we’re saved by grace, but many of those we are studying with do not (at the very least they think we don’t believe that because our chart doesn’t reflect it).
Rewriting the Steps of Salvation
I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint some of you with this section. I don’t have a clever new five-step salvation illustration to suggest. What I can suggest is this, let’s stop trying to boil God’s message down so much that we end up not teaching the things God wants us to teach. God wants us to teach that belief, repentance, and confession are continual actions. He wants us to teach that we are saved by grace, because we are (Eph. 2:8-10). God wants the focus of our teaching to be on Christ, and we know that because the entirety of the Bible points to Jesus! Instead of trying to simplify salvation down to an incomplete checklist (which is what these “steps” really are) or catchphrase, let’s let God and His simple message of grace do the talking.
How do we present God to those around us? This is a vital question to ask so that we do not run the risk of cheapening God’s saving message through the boiling down of Scripture. There will always be charts and sayings we need to “rewrite” in order to communicate God’s word more accurately. Admitting that is the first step to becoming a church that is more effective at saving others.
Thoughts, comments, criticisms? You can send them to me here at StrongChurchMinistries@gmail.com