There are at least three widely divergent beliefs
concerning the salvation of sinners which are held by various
segments of the Christian community. Hyper-Calvinists believe
that the salvation of sinners is in the hand of God from
beginning to end; the sinner does nothing and is required to do
nothing. In fact, he is regarded as being totally unable to do
anything in regard to his salvation, and is therefore saved
without any reaction or response on his part whatsoever. The
Roman Catholics, on the other hand, believe that the work of
God, whether the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit, on behalf
of a sinner, is of no avail apart from that which the church does
for him. The third belief is exemplified by the Arminian
theology which holds that the sinner's salvation is, by and large,
in his own hands. The provision, of course, for his salvation
was made by the death of Christ, but it is left entirely in the
hands of the sinner to accept or reject this potential salvation.
The truth is that each of these beliefs presents a true, but incomplete, view of a sinner's salvation, and not until we have harmonized them can we possibly have a correct, three- dimensional picture of salvation.
The three-fold truth about salvation is presented in the three-fold parable which constitutes our text. There are not three separate parables related here, but one three-fold parable which we may call the Parable of the Three Lost Things, or the Parable of Salvation. By examining this three-fold parable, and noting how each part gives a different view of a sinner's salvation, we can see salvation in its three-dimensional reality, and avoid the fragmentation of the doctrine which characterizes so many creeds.
The first part of the parable tells of a man who had a hundred sheep, of which one became lost. The man is represented as leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and going after the lost sheep until he finds it. He then brings the sheep home and invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. This story illustrates salvation from the divine point of view. The sinner, represented by the lost sheep, does nothing except to get lost. He does not seek the shepherd and makes no attempt to find his way back to the fold; he merely waits until the shepherd finds him, after which he is placed on the shoulders of the shepherd and is carried safely home. The shepherd is ceaselessly active; the sheep is completely passive. This is a true, but incomplete, picture of salvation. The lost sinner makes no attempt to seek God, or salvation, so that the essential work of salvation must be performed by the Lord. However, this divine work (which is called regeneration) is not the whole story. Note that after relating this part of the parable in which the work of God is emphasized, and the sinner appears to be completely passive, Jesus said:
"I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one
sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just
persons which need no repentance."
It is remarkable that it is not the divine work of regeneration
which causes this celestial joy, but the sinner's repentance.
Thus, in picturing salvation from the divine point of view, Jesus
did not ignore altogether the human element. The Hyper-Calvinists
have accepted the view of salvation presented in this
part of the parable, and have refused to concede that there is
any other possible view of this matter. The Hyper-Calvinist is
like a man who sees only one side of a coin, and denies that
there is any other side.
continued at top of next column
However, the parable does not end with the story of the
shepherd seeking his lost sheep. There are two more
parts, each being necessary to set forth the complete picture of
The second part of the parable tells of a woman who owned ten drachmas (silver coins), one of which she had lost. According to the story she lit a lamp, swept the house and sought diligently until she found the coin which was lost. Here we have salvation pictured from the church's point of view; for there is little reason to doubt that the woman is used as a figure for the church. In addition to the woman, however, both the lamp and the (implied) broom likewise symbolize the church. Under the figure of the woman, the church is seen to be not merely an organization, but a living entity who administers and carries on the work of reaching the lost with the gospel. As a lamp, the church is seen as the bearer of the light of the glorious gospel of Christ which must reach the lost before they can be found. The broom (which is not actually mentioned but which is implied in the act of sweeping) denotes the church as a unity made up of many individual units, all working together for a common purpose. Certainly, a broom, which is composed of many separate fibers bound together, beautifully illustrates both the composition and cooperative effort of the church. The coin is thus found when the woman (figure of the church in the sphere of administration) lights the lamp (figure of the church in the sphere of illumination) and sweeps the house with a broom (figure of the church in the sphere of evangelization). According to this part of the parable, then, the lost sinner is found by the church, not by the Lord. Naturally, both views are true. The finding of the lost sheep by the shepherd does not give the complete picture of the sinner's salvation because it ignores the part played by the church. In like manner, the finding of the lost coin by the woman does not give the complete picture, because it ignores God's work of grace in regeneration.
continued at top of next column
However, even when we put both of these views together
and harmonize them, we still have only two-thirds of the true
picture of salvation; for the salvation of a sinner is a three-
dimensional work, in that three different agencies play a part
therein. The first of these is God, in the person of the Holy
Spirit. His principal work in the sinner's salvation is
regeneration. The second agency is the church, whose principal
work is evangelization, or the proclamation of the gospel. The
third agency is the sinner, himself, and the part he plays in his
own salvation is that of repentance, or a complete change of
mind regarding himself and God. This phase of salvation is
illustrated by the third part of the parable which deals with a
lost son, or as he is commonly called, the prodigal son.
While it is obvious from verses 2,7 & 10, that this three- fold parable deals with the salvation of a lost sinner, there is a problem involved which has troubled many. If the lost sheep represents a lost sinner, how could he have been regarded as belonging to the shepherd in the first place? A similar question can be asked concerning the lost coin. And, if the prodigal son symbolizes a lost sinner, how can he be represented as having been a son in the beginning? The writer believes that the solution to this problem is to be found in the universally acknowledged fact that a child, before he reaches the age of accountability, is in a state of salvation, and is, therefore, in a sense, a son of God. The sheep, the coin, and the son are all figures of one who, as a child, has been under the saving grace of God; but who, having come to the years of accountability, has turned away from the sheltering fold, and has left the Father's house to go into a far country.
In the far country the wayward son spends his father's substance in riotous living, but eventually his wealth is gone, and he sinks into a miserable existence. Then, according to the parable, he came to himself and became fully aware of the wretchedness of his condition. He compared his present situation with the riches of his father's house, and resolved to return to his father and confess his sin. This experience corresponds to the repentance of a sinner.
It is noteworthy that salvation, seen from the sinner's point of view, is all in his own hands. It is a matter of coming to himself, resolving to return to his father's house, and then carrying out that resolution. The prodigal son knew nothing about a sheep being found by a shepherd, nor about a coin being found by a woman. He knew only that he was in misery and that there was abundant provision for his need in his father's house. So it is with the sinner who comes to salvation; he knows nothing of the work of grace that has been performed in him. He is not aware that the work of the church is being carried on for the purpose of reaching lost sinners like himself. He only knows that he suddenly sees himself in his true state, and that he must throw himself on the mercy of God for salvation.
Just as the Hyper-Calvinists have taken their stand on the first part of the parable, and refuse to concede that there is anything more to salvation than that work which God performs, so the Catholics have adopted as their view of salvation the one which is illustrated in the second part of the parable. To them, the work of God on behalf of the lost is all in vain, apart from the sacraments of the church. In order for a Catholic to remain in a state of grace, he must regularly receive the sacramental grace which allegedly can be dispensed only by the Catholic Church. In like manner, the third part of the parable has been seized upon by the Arminians and Free-Willers as being illustrative of their view of salvation. According to the theology of these people, the death of Christ made salvation available, but it is left entirely up to the sinner to accept it or reject it.
It should be obvious to an unbiased mind that Jesus did not intend that any one part of this parable should be regarded as giving the complete picture of salvation. Rather, we must blend all three parts of the parable together, and realize that while God does, indeed, seek and save that which is lost, there is a sense in which the church saves sinners, and, also, a sense in which the sinner, through repentance and faith, makes his own salvation a reality. Doing so, we see this overall picture: The church preaches the gospel to lost sinners - a necessary work if the lost are to be saved. At the appointed time in the life of one of these (elect) sinners. God regenerates him - also a necessary work in the sinner's salvation. As a result of the acquisition of a new, divine nature in regeneration, the sinner repents and believes on Christ as his Savior. Thus the shepherd has found his lost sheep, the woman has found her lost coin, and a lost son has been reconciled with his father.
In conclusion, we may say that a sinner is saved by means of the preaching of the gospel, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and his own repentance and faith. See Romans 10:8-15; John 3:5; Acts 17:30; 16:31.
John H Mattox