Book Reviews,  Originals

The Plan of Salvation – B. B. Warfield

Warfield’s handout on The Order of Decrees, colorized by

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield is widely considered to be one of the last great Princetonians before Princeton Theological Seminary split. In his little book, The Plan of Salvation, based off of a series of five lectures given in 1914, BB Warfield walks through the decision tree of Christianity to understand the “entire course of the divine dealing with man”.


The defining characteristic of the book is Warfield’s fierce logic. He identifies three great points of division that separate major Christian sects from one another, and organizes them into a decision tree. In every conception of Christianity, he analyzes their answers to the great divisions of Christianity and their adherence to the principles that they profess to believe, and tests the rationality of their arguments in light of their confessions.

For example, the Catholic church confesses that they are supernaturalists – they believe that salvation is not by or from man, but it is from God. However, in the application of salvation, they are sacerdotalists, believing that God saves indirectly “through instrumentalities which he has established as the means by which his saving grace is communicated to men”. God does desire for men to be saved, but the operations of grace are given through the Church and the sacraments. The Catholic church acknowledges that all men are not saved, and the “inequality of the distribution of saving grace” is attributed to human factors. The salvation that the Catholic church professes to offer then is not really a salvation by God, but a salvation by the hands of man.

In his analysis of Jesuit thinker William Humphrey S. J.’s case for the death of an unbaptized infant, he notices an even greater logical contradiction – the salvation of men leads to a form of Deism because God institutes operational causes (free will, baptism) for salvation but does not concern himself with the personal souls of men.

“If we ask therefore why, on this scheme, one man is saved rather than another, we must answer, Because the sacraments come to one and not to the other. If we ask why the sacraments come to one rather than to another, we must answer, Because the general order of providence, wisely and justly instituted for the government of the world, permits them to come to the one and not to the other… there is a manifest removal of man in the matter of his salvation from the direct control of God and the commitment of him instead to the tender mercies of a mechanism.”

Even though the Catholic church attributes salvation to God alone, Warfield draws out their doctrine to the logical end to show that their adherence to sacerdotalism not only leads to a contradiction with their confession as supernaturalists, but leads to a deism that is contrary to the personal God of Christianity.

The Catholic church is easy pickings as far as logical inconsistency goes, but for Warfield, the real challenge is how he will break down the beliefs of those who call themselves “Protestants” or “Evangelicals”. The great distinction in this group, he contends, is that in whether the saving operations of God are done “to or for individual men… or for all men alike, making no distinctions.” After all, if God is the only one who works salvation (supernaturalism), and he works salvation directly upon the souls of men (evangelicalism), and if it’s done to all men alike, is not the only consistent conclusion that all men are saved? But we know empirically that all men are saved. And therefore, the only way a church can hold to a universalistic principle with regards to the frame of reference of salvation, and not conclude that all men are saved, is to relax either the supernaturalist principle or the evangelical principle.

For example, with the Arminians, God is universalistic by offering salvation equally to all men. If God acts equally by offering salvation to all men and yet not all are saved, Warfield concludes that all God does falls short of actually saving. The determining factor in salvation is our ability to accept or reject the gospel, thereby violating the supernaturalist principle. With the Lutherans, the doctrine of salvation becomes even stranger, with some asserting that the universality of grace postulates a doctrine of second probation for all men, where all men must have the gospel preached to them in this life or the next. This is true of all the denominations that Warfield examines – Anglicans, Lutherans, Wesleyans, etc., and his conclusion is that they are not logically consistent in their beliefs. The particularism characteristic of Calvinism is the only logically consistent plan of salvation.

So the plan of salvation comes down to the particularistic principle which is characteristic of Calvinism. Here, BB Warfield leaves the realm of his fierce logic to explain four different conceptions of Calvinism and how they apply the particularistic principle (Supralapsarianism, Infralapsarianism, Post-redemptionism, and Pajonism). This section is relatively incomplete compared to his analysis of other conceptions of Christianity. There is a description of what all four believe, but without the depth of thought that is given to other forms of Christianity.

We must ask why suddenly his tone shifts in his famous defense of Calvinism. One intention in examining the case for different types of Calvinism may be that he desires to highlight good and bad theology. For example, the post-redemptionists are particularists in that they limit the scope of whom the Holy Spirit applies redemption to. But as Warfield astutely points out, doing so robs the substitutionary atonement of Christ of all its meaning. While post-redemptionists may point to pride in their particularness of salvation as good Calvinism, they have altered their doctrine of the atonement so that it is no longer recognizably Christian.

Warfield also understands that the primary objection to Calvinism is not that it is logically untenable, but rather that it is hard to swallow. He shows in his treatment of both post-redemptionism and Pajonism that while particularism is the distinguishing mark of Calvinism, it is not the substance of Calvinism. Here he makes his stand against those who attack the principles of particularism, by pointing out that the particularism of Calvinism was built to safeguard the relations between God and the soul, the efficaciousness of the salvation that is given, and the assurance of which Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. Here, his view expands so that he sees the whole horizon of salvation, including the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the innerness of the Trinitarian dynamics.

“We have not done justice to the Biblical doctrine of the plan of salvation therefore so long as we confine our attention to the modes of the divine operation in saving the individual, and insist accordingly on what we have called its particularism. There is a wider prospect on which we must feast our eyes if we are to view the whole land of ‘ salvation. It was because God loved the world, that he sent his only-begotten Son; it was for the sins of the world that Jesus Christ made propitiation; it was the world which he came to save; it is nothing less than the world that shall be saved by him.”

One of the bigger problems of the book is that Warfield uses terminology that has taken on new meanings now. It is not a problem with Warfield’s oration or writing, but rather a problem that presents itself to modern-day readers. I hate to nitpick on word choices because it such criticism tends to detract from reflecting on the actual ideas that the author presents, but in this case, the terminology interferes with following Warfield’s train of logic. For example, the concept of universalism does not refer to the idea that all people are saved, but rather God acts in some parts of his plan of salvation with a universal frame of reference (e.g. Christ made atonement for all). Evangelicalism does not refer to the body of believers who hold to the belief of salvation by grace through faith, but rather specifically to the idea that God acts directly on the soul. Even more confusing is that he uses multiple synonyms to reference the ideas of naturalism (Pelagianism, autosoterism).


This book is an excellent introduction to the world of more difficult reading. While it is dense, it is also short – an attraction to readers who have shorter attention spans. It introduces new readers to the applications of the basic laws of logic in regards to theology. And the defense of Calvinism points us to the strength of Calvinism in defending the whole substance of salvation. (It bugs me to no end that oftentimes the “best” arguments against Calvinism are just taking the antithesis of the five points.)

But we should also recognize that this book is not a hermeneutical defense of Calvinism. It is half of a full understanding of the mystery of God. Alvin Plantinga makes a case in his book Warranted Christian Belief that Christian beliefs can be separated into warranted beliefs (presuppositions) and rational beliefs (conclusions). Scripture and hermeneutical studies reveal the warrant, and BB Warfield makes a case for the rationality of Calvinism and the plan of salvation.

“The point of insistence in Calvinistic particularism is not that God saves out of the sinful mass of men only one here and there, a few brands snatched from the burning, but that God’s method of saving men is to set upon them in his almighty grace, to purchase them to himself by the precious blood of his Son, to visit them in the inmost core of their being by the creative operations of his Spirit, and himself, the Lord God Almighty, to save them.”

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