The Order of Salvation
Everything starts with God’s grace, his unexpected, unconstrained, unexacted, and undeservable goodwill toward creatures. As John Wesley preached (in Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith,”) “all the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favor; his free, undeserved favor; favor altogether undeserved favor; favor altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies.”
Just as the ultimate goal of salvation is the magnification of God’s grace (we were chosen in Christ “to the praise of the glory of his grace,” Eph. 1:6), so the ultimate origin of salvation is the grace of God. Scripture consistently traces salvation back, not to “works done by us in righteousness,” but to “his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). Moved by mercy, God the Father put forth Christ Jesus as a propitiation; those who by faith receive this redemption in Christ are “justified by his grace as a gift.” (Rom. 3:23-25)
Individual salvation hinges on being “in Christ,” on being connected to the propitiation of the death of Christ, in order to receive all the blessings connected with it: chiefly adoption, the indwelling Spirit, and resurrection. In the work of atonement, Christ laid hold of human nature itself and reoriented it back toward God: he is the new Adam. In that sense, the atonement is universal and not particular or limited. What Christ accomplishes for human nature, however, must be applied and completed by the work of the Holy Spirit in each human person. Thus the Son and Spirit together bring about reconciliation to the Father in all who are saved.
The order of salvation, then, presupposes God’s prevenient grace working behind every move the unconverted person makes toward God: “all the drawings of the Father; the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more; –all the light wherewith the Son of God 'enlighteneth every one that cometh into the world;' showing every man 'to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God'; –all the convictions which His Spirit, from time to time, works in every child of man" (Wesley, sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”).
Whatever complex spiritual history a person may have, and however they may have been awakened to their sinfulness (there is enormous diversity here in individual experience), the key moment is hearing the gospel message with understanding, and responding with faith and repentance. Faith and repentance are two sides of one reality, and cannot be separated. Together they constitute a new orientation, simultaneously turning toward God and away from sin. The Holy Spirit brings this conversion about.
When a person receives the gospel message by faith, he is justified and born again at the same time. These two gifts are simultaneous, yet logically distinct: justification is a change in status relative to God, but regeneration is a change in nature. In fact, they are logically sequential, because the turning away of God’s wrath is prior to the Spirit’s working within our heart to bring a renewal of character. Regeneration is actually the initial work of sanctification, the first and epochal instance of God not only reckoning us to be righteous (that is justification) but then on that basis causing us to become righteous by his power of renewal: “He breaks the power of cancelled sin.” So while justification and sanctification are logically distinct and are in fact different divine works, they arrive together as a consequence of union with Christ. Having begun his renewing work in regeneration, the Spirit continues it in progressive sanctification, until the work is completed.
The Extent of the Atonement
Beliefs about the extent of the atonement—whether it is universal or particular—should not affect our approach to missions. For those who believe that the atonement is universal, or applicable to humanity as such, it is self-evident that the gospel ought to be preached widely and offered freely to all.
The main danger on this side would be the temptation to slide over from universal atonement to universal salvation, that is, to affirming universalism. But only rarely in the history of the church has the error of universalism ever actually arisen from some kind of overblown atonement theology.
The real root of universalism is usually elsewhere: in a low estimate of the sinfulness of sin, made possible by a low estimate of the holiness of God; or in a sentimental apprehension of God’s kindness; or in an embarrassment about the hard doctrines of punishment and sacrifice; and usually with some way of relativizing the witness of Scripture to irrevocable alienation from the life of God.
Among those who believe in particular redemption or limited atonement, the vast majority have also affirmed that the external call can be given to all, and that it is backed up by a genuine, or well-meant, offer of salvation. In J.I. Packer’s influential book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, he affirms that "whatever we may believe about election and, for that matter, about the extent of the atonement, the fact remains that God in the gospel really does offer Christ and promise justification and life to 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.'”
Non-Calvinists may look on these discussions as overly-complex work-arounds made necessary by previous missteps. But the well-meant offer is so well-attested in the Reformed tradition that it should be respected as the classic, or ordinary, Reformed position. Perhaps it would be rude for a non-Calvinist to say how Calvinists ought to argue, but it seems to me they ought to avoid arguing directly from archetypal theology of the eternal decrees to implications for mission. And they usually have avoided this.