No other theologian in the 20th century had as big an impact on conservative evangelical Christianity than Francis Schaeffer; but often his view of salvation as substitutionary and ongoing is ignored when discussing his philosophy and theology. Schaeffer believed that salvation was a past, present, and future event that Christians partook in. Though Christians were justified at one time through the substitution of Christ on the cross – an irrevocable justification – he also taught that salvation was ongoing through sanctification and culminated in glorification. Though he might have put too much emphasis on the rational aspect of salvation in certain works, his works as a whole do an excellent job to show that salvation is both rational and relational. Though the apologetic works of Schaeffer are important, his teachings on salvation are invaluable.
Francis Schaeffer was born January 30, 1912 in Pennsylvania to a nominally Christian home. Schaeffer parents groomed him to be an electrician by trade, but early in his teens he began to read philosophical works by Greek philosophers. After going through an agnostic stage in his walk, at the age of eighteen Francis Schaeffer was drawn to Christ. After coming to Christ he began to realize that one must believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and also live the truth of the Bible. Though he was raised in a nominally Christian home, Christ drew him to a deeper walk with the Lord.
Though he did not have the intellectual fortitude earl in his Christian walk – the same fortitude that would define him later in his Christianity – he did see the importance of living and practicing the Christian faith. In the 1930s, when segregation was not only rampant, but seen as moral, Schaeffer would walk to an African American church to teach Sunday school to little children. Later, in the 1940s when Schaeffer was a pastor at a church, a family in his church couldn’t afford to send their child with Down’s syndrome to a special school. Schaeffer voluntarily went to that family’s house and tutored the child himself, on top of his other duties. These actions are best summed up by Bryan Follis when he states, “This is true Christian love – a compassion for those considered by society to be unimportant and a compassion that is costly in terms of time effort, and commitment.” This idea of Christian love – practicing the faith – was central to Schaeffer’s idea of sanctification within salvation.
Even as Schaeffer grew in his intellectual understanding of Christianity, he never once deviated from the idea that salvation is a continuous action on this earth, manifested in the actions of Christians. In the 1950’s, Schaeffer founded L’Abri (“shelter”) in order to reach out to students in colleges. Students would come to Schaeffer with intellectual questions and while there were taken care of physically and spiritually. Schaeffer would feed them, give them a place to sleep, but also deal with the difficult questions they posed. To his death, Schaeffer was always concentrated on the person and never on the multitude of people. One time shortly before his death in 1984, Schaeffer was late for a speaking engagement for several thousand people, while staying in the United States. When the organizers finally found him, they discovered he was in his hotel room having a conversation about the Gospel with the maid. Schaeffer never abandoned his view that the Gospel was to be lived out.
The Three Views of Salvation: Past, Present, and Future
Francis Schaeffer held that there were three views of salvation: the past, the present and the future. He attempted to develop (or rediscover according to some) a synthesis between the Protestant view of salvation – that it is a one-time event – and the Catholic view of salvation – that salvation is an ongoing process. By describing salvation as a past, present, and future action, Schaeffer subsequently divided salvation into Justification, Sanctification, and glorification.
Schaeffer believed that justification was a one-time act that occurred on the cross when Christ was substituted for man’s sins. Though Schaeffer flirted with the idea that other views of Christ’s death might be valid, he was unwavering on his view that the substitutionary atonement stood at the center. He even said, “The Bible makes plain that there was no other way that even God could provide a way of salvation except by Jesus paying the price for the guilt of our sins.” To Schaeffer, man had sinned against God and therefore owed a debt to God; Jesus served as a substitution for this debt.
Schaeffer used the example of how one time in Switzerland one of his daughters had gone to the local town and begun to buy things and charge it to her credit. When the storeowner brought this to his attention, Schaeffer went to the town and had the storeowner charge Schaeffer the debt instead of charging his daughter. He then explained Romans 4:1-9, 22-25 in a similar way, explaining that the passage “…means that God charges our sins to Christ’s account.” Thus, all Christians owed a debt to God through sin, but God provided Christ as a substitution to this debt, much like Schaeffer’s payment to the storeowner was a substitutionary act for his daughter’s debt.
Though justification was a one-time act that occurred on the cross, according to Schaeffer it is also a one-time act that occurs when one accepts Christ. Schaeffer says, “…we died with Christ when we accepted Him as Savior. If I have accepted Christ as Savior, this is now a past thing in history.” Thus, a person is justified one time when he accepts Christ. This justification cannot be nullified or redone; therefore a person cannot fall away from salvation since justification is a one-time act.
Schaeffer argued that justification merely began the process of salvation and, though irrevocable, Christians would continue the process of salvation through sanctification. He believed that sanctification was the process by which a Christian overcame sin and became more Christ-like; justification provided the forgiveness of all sins (past, present, and future), but sanctification gave Christians the power to overcome sin while living on this earth.Under many views of salvation, sanctification is viewed as a “second-grace” – justification allows a believer to begin sanctification, but one can lose salvation during the sanctification process. Schaeffer did not adhere to this view of sanctification. Instead, sanctification aided the Christian in overcoming the battle with sin by reaching for perfection and changing his view of the world. He even stated, “While we will always have new ground to gain for Christ in our lives, our standard for every moment must be no lower than God’s command – that is, perfection.”Sanctification, according to Schaeffer, is the process Christians use to grow closer to God, not to obtain salvation, but to perfect it.
Under Schaeffer’s view of Sanctification, the Christian’s view of the world is to also change, not just his level of personal piety. For Schaeffer, this included accepting the beauty of the world in creation and art. Schaeffer was somewhat unique in this teaching among 20th century theologians in that, while others placed an emphasis on personal piety after salvation, Schaeffer taught on personal piety and a new view of the world.
Finally, Schaeffer believed that the future context of salvation would culminate in glorification, which occurs after death in Heaven. Schaeffer believed that Christians are glorified at death, which is the final “step” in salvation. At this point, Christians are finally free from the bondage of sin. Though the soul of man is glorified at death, the whole of man (body and soul) is glorified in the resurrection of the dead. On this matter, he said, “As Christ rose physically from the dead, so the bodies of Christians will also be raised physically. When this happens, our redemption, our salvation, will be complete. Just as God made the whole man and the whole man fell, so the whole man will be redeemed.” For Schaeffer, death is the final release for Christians that brings them to the culmination of salvation.
One critique of Schaeffer’s view of salvation doesn’t deal with his believe in what salvation is, but in how it is obtained. In his apologetic Trilogy, Schaeffer taught that Christianity was a rational faith that relied on propositional truth and that without this propositional truth, Christianity would collapse. This led him to critique the Existentialist experiences within Christianity, where the experience validates the believer’s faith and not the propositional truth of the Bible. Such criticisms have led people, such as T. A. Noble to say that Schaeffer often associated experiences with “…liberalism, existentialism and subjectivism.” Noble goes on to state that Schaeffer was too rationalistic in his view of the Christian faith and downplayed experiences and relationships within Christianity. Thus, Noble did not disagree with Schaeffer’s view of what salvation is, but certainly had issues with Schaeffer’s emphasis on reason in obtaining salvation.
Another argument levied against Schaeffer is that he shifted from his relational view of the Gospel to a more political view of the Gospel. Christianity Today recently published an article accusing Schaeffer of moving from the personal Gospel that he preached in the 60s and 70s to a political Gospel in the 80s. Though Schaeffer dealt with people on a personal level and lived his view of the Gospel personally early in his life, he later became too political and too rational in his approach to the Gospel, so the article claims.
Relational AND Rational
These critiques of Schaeffer, however, are highly inadequate and ignore that Schaeffer always taught that one came to salvation through both a rational and relational view of the Gospel. Schaeffer even stated that salvation was ultimately about a relationship with Christ in Two Contents, Two Realities by saying, “But after having the correct propositions, the end of the matter is to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds.” He was saying that after the propositions, after the intellectual aspects of the faith, the ultimate end of man was to pursue God relationally and in a loving manner. Schaeffer was not a rationalist nor did he ascribe to the Enlightenment ideal of sola ratio, but instead believed that a relationship was a key and necessary component of obtaining salvation.
At the same time, Schaeffer never once taught that salvation was purely experiential either; he believed that there was a rational element to Christianity. He didn’t believe in an empty, mindless faith, but instead taught that Christianity has “…answers which will stand up to the test of rationality and the whole of life as we must live it.” Christianity, according to Schaeffer, isn’t just relational or just rational, but both; Christianity is a series of relational experiences validated by rational and truthful propositions.
Ultimately, Schaeffer’s view of salvation was consistent and never changed; there is no “early Schaeffer” and “later Schaeffer.” Schaeffer always believed that salvation was obtained on a rational basis through experiential means. One had to believe that Christ existed in time and space and that He literally came to die as a substitution for mankind’s sins, but one also had to have a personal relationship with this very real Christ. His political writings and writings on philosophy were extensions of his view of salvation and neither can properly be understood until one explores his soteriological view.
Francis Schaeffer is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, theologian of the twentieth century. His view of salvation is something that all Christians should, at the very least, reflect upon and study. The idea that salvation past, present, and future is a very Biblical view. He appeases the Protestant view of justification as a one-time act, but does not promote a lazy faith and therefore teaches about the importance of sanctification. Though accused and misunderstood as a rationalist or as abandoning his earlier beliefs, a proper reading of Schaeffer’s works will show that his view of salvation – what it is and how it is obtained – never changed. Schaeffer’s impact in apologetics still exists nearly three decades after his death, but his often overlooked view of salvation is what makes his theology so great.
Scott R. and Walls Burson, Jerry L, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 37.