Universalism?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Joe and TammySome claim that Trinitarian theology teaches universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved, regardless of whether they are good or bad, repentant or unrepentant, accepting or rejecting of Jesus, and that, consequently, there is no such thing as hell. I have two problems with this claim, which is a “straw man” argument (a logical fallacy). First, accepting Trinitarian theology does not necessitate belief in universalism. Noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth did not teach universalism. Neither did theologians Thomas F. Torrance and James B. Torrance. In GCI, we teach Trinitarian theology, but not universalism. Our website clearly states our position:

Universalism is a biblically unsound doctrine, which says that in the end all souls, whether human, angelic or demonic, will be saved by God’s grace. Some Universalists argue that repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ are irrelevant. Universalists typically deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and many Universalists are Unitarians. Contrary to universalism, the Bible teaches that there is salvation only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect, but that does not necessarily mean that all humans will ultimately accept God’s free gift. God desires that all come to repentance, and he has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship with him, but true fellowship can never constitute a forced relationship. We believe that in Christ, God makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have yet believed the gospel, but all who remain hostile to God remain unsaved by their own choice.

Careful students of the Bible recognize that though we need not rule out the possibility that everyone will in the end repent and receive God’s gift of salvation, the scriptures are not conclusive. Therefore we are not dogmatic about this issue.

My second problem is this: Why should the possibility that all would be saved arouse hostility and accusations of “heresy”?

The creeds of the early church were not dogmatic on the nature of hell. The biblical metaphors are of flames, outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. They are meant to convey what it is like for a person to be lost forever in a self-enclosed “world,” with their own selfish heart and desires, adamantly rejecting the source of all love, goodness and truth. If taken literally, these metaphors are conflicting. But metaphors are not intended to be taken literally—they illustrate various aspects of the topic. What we gain from them is that hell, whatever it is, is not where we want to be. To have an ardent desire that all humanity be saved and that no one suffer in hell, does not necessarily make a person a heretic. What Christian would not want every person who ever lived to repent, receive forgiveness and experience reconciliation with God?

The idea of all humanity, transformed by the Spirit of Christ and in heaven together, surely is to be desired. That is, in fact, exactly what God desires. He wants all people to come to repentance and not suffer the consequences of rejecting his gracious provision for them. God wants this because he loves the world (cosmos), just as we read in John 3:16. God tells us to love our enemies, just as Jesus loved and served even his betrayer Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper (John 13:1, 26) and on the Cross (Luke 23:34).

However, the Bible does not guarantee that all will necessarily accept God’s love—it warns that there very well may be people who will refuse God’s forgiveness, rejecting the redemption and the adoption he has for them. Still, it is difficult to believe that anyone would make such a choice. And it is even more difficult to imagine that any would persist in rebellion against having a loving relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis described in The Great Divorce, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

Universalism should not be confused with the universal or cosmic scope of the effectiveness of Christ’s saving work. In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect.

That does not mean we can say for certain that all humans will ultimately accept God’s gift. But surely we can hope that they do. According to the apostle Peter, God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Furthermore, God has done everything possible to save us from the terrible and horrific situation that is hell.

Yet, in the end, God will not violate the deliberate and persistent choice of those who willfully and deliberately reject his love and turn away from him. In fact, for God to absolutely override their minds, wills and hearts he would have to undo their humanity—he would have to uncreate them. Of course, were he to do that, there would be no human being there to freely receive God’s costly gift of grace, which is life in Jesus Christ. God has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship—a relationship with him that cannot be forced.

The Bible does not blur the difference between believer and unbeliever, and neither should we. When we say that all people are forgiven, saved and reconciled in Christ, we mean that while we all belong to Christ, not all are in communion with him. While God has reconciled all to himself, not all are yet trusting and living in that reconciliation. Therefore the apostle Paul says, “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world (cosmos) to himself…” So, “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20, NASB). And that is why ours is a ministry, not of condemnation, but of the announcement of Christ’s finished work of reconciliation.

Our focus is to bear witness to the biblical revelation and orthodox teaching concerning God’s own character, mind, heart, purpose and attitude towards all people, manifested in Jesus Christ. We preach the universal or cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ and so hope in the cosmic reconciliation of all those created according to his image. Since the Bible tells us that it is God’s desire for all to come to him in repentance to receive his gracious and costly forgiveness, that is our desire as well.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

7 thoughts on “Universalism?”

  1. Excellent article Joe. As you know, this is fully my position as well. Universalism would be nice, but it would not require our acceptance of the grace and forgiveness of God.

    The Bible clearly indicates that there certainly will be those who reject God and will ultimately be annihilated in the Lake of Fire. Life for them, under the leadership and authority of the Lord would be a living hell, and so they deliberately choose to reject him. On the other hand our loving triune God wants a relationship of mutual love, respect and admiration with his children, as we do with our own physical children as well.

  2. Hi Joe…what freedom and life there is in knowing our inclusion in the life and love of our Triune God in Christ even before we knew it…WOW…Amen to that! Something worth sharing. It sure makes a difference on how we view life in this world. Excellent article and well put together.

    Thank you for your leadership and the HQ team.

    Blessings,

    Tom

  3. Dear Joe,

    Many thanks for this balanced and timely “From the President”. I fully agree with the chosen approach and content. Whether every person that ever lived will eventually accept the gift of grace and eternal life in communion with the Triune God remains an open question. But, as you rightly uncerscored, this is certainly something that every Christian should deeply desire.

    We thank God for blessing us with a deeper gospel understanding.

    In Christ,
    Santiago Lange

  4. Greetings, Mr. Tkach:

    What a refreshing article. This is the exact place to which I’ve come in my studies. It is my prayer that all will come to read and understand this position which is well-documented in the Word of God. Thanks for making it so clear and sharing with us!
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Dave Holmes

  5. Very interesting. I happen to believe that God will get what he wants, and that he knows what it will take to convince the will of every person, whether in this life or that transition from this life through death to the next life. I believe all must believe, and he knows what it takes to convince them. I also believe those saved purely by his grace will be stripped of their sins and enter as new creatures in heaven. Those who accept Him in this life will wear a crown (have memories) of the life Christ lived through them. Does that make sense or am I nuts? Ken

  6. Elect in Christ, but not in relationship with God. Reconciled, but not accepting of God. This is an old Pelagian position. God did His part, now man has to do his. It’s a value added atonement. What God has done plus what man does equals salvation. Election is always to something, it is not without a goal (See Romans 8, et. al.)Atonement is propitious, that is it accomplishes exactly what God designed, to satisfy God on man’s behalf. While there is a universal aspect to this as a provision for all mankind, the limited aspect is that God justifies believers, Romans 5.

  7. Terry, here is Joseph Tkach’s reply to your comment.

    Grace Communion International teaches, as indicated in your comment, that there is a universal aspect to God’s provision for all humanity. And we do not teach any sort of grace plus works formula. Rather, we teach that Jesus Christ is God’s grace, present among us. We do not detach God’s being from what God is doing in human history.

    We agree with T.F. Torrance and James Torrance in pointing out the subtle dangers of Pelagianism in the human heart – our constant attempt to turn back on ourselves, even using Christian concepts in order to validate such a turn.

    We have a strong or high view of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As both Barth and the Torrance’s taught, God’s act is the Holy Spirit empowering us to believe in Jesus Christ. And more than that, by the Holy Spirit we participate in Christ’s own perfect substitutionary response to the Father — his faith, his trust, his worship, his praise, his prayer, his obedience, his righteousness, his sanctification. We never count on our own responses but only, by the Holy Spirit, in his responses for us, in our place and on our behalf.

    We look away from ourselves to Christ, as Calvin used to put it. When we really hear the word of God (by the Spirit) we are made free to live in harmony with his will for us. We will then be living according to his law, because the goal of the law is to direct us to our total reliance on God — God’s love and God’s grace. The life lived is one of “the obedience of faith,” as the Apostle Paul put it.

    We recognize there are weaknesses in both the Arminian and Calvinian explanations and neither of these are our position. One of the weaknesses of the Arminian program is a misunderstanding of the word “freedom” itself. Many think of freedom with a human-centered type of freedom, or more succinctly stated, as a libertarian type of freedom. Karl Barth frequently hammers on this to show us that freedom is actually a unidirectional freedom. It’s the Son who sets us free with his own freedom achieved for us in his saving work.

    The Holy Spirit of truth blowing in and through our sails is what gives us the freedom to choose God. And without the Holy Spirit, without his work in our lives, we really are not free to choose God at all. By the Spirit we share in Christ’s vicarious freedom to repent and believe/have faith in response to grace. Those who think the Spirit of Christ gives us a neutral freedom to choose on our own, either for or against God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we would regard as having a defective view of the gift of Christ’s freedom.

    So, contrary to your comment, we are not advocating any sort of Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian) position and we do not believe that humans have the wherewithal to save themselves.

    Calvinian explanations most often misunderstand the efficacy of atonement to be limited, as if God’s love is bridled, when in fact Jesus died while we were yet sinners. The fact that God unconditionally loves us in Christ actually gives a permission — a freedom — for us to live that new life, so we can trust in God’s forgiving grace and truly do so.

    Jesus Christ and him crucified did effect reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness -– but not just for the limited group of people out there. Not along the lines of a limited atonement — but for all. We believe the scope of Christ’s atoning work is best captured in texts with explicit reference to God’s intentions/purpose and descriptions of the “cosmic” dimensions of Christ’s work. In relevant passages dealing with Christ’s work there is no reason not to take the “all” as on behalf of everyone. Even Calvin recognized this on many occasions in his commentaries.

    Finally, designating Christ and the new federal head of humanity — the new Adam — adds additional reason to affirm the universal scope of the work of Christ, but not universalism.

    Typically both Calvinism and Arminianism think of God’s will as causal, mechanical, impersonal and non-interactive or participatory. Both universalim and double predestination rely on inferences that assume mechanico-causal views of God’s will and working. We do not think that the efficacy of the Holy Spirit’s working can be reduced to such creaturely ways and means of achieving God’s ends.

    Thinking of the Spirit’s work in strictly creaturely terms would constitute mythology and idolatry. Such a framework of thinking most often results in doctrinal formulations that either are deterministic (double-predestination), Pelagian or universalistic. GCI in its doctrinal formulations intends to assiduously avoid all three of these alternatives.

    Of course those who insist that there are only those three alternatives will not see eye-to-eye with our doctrinal formulations and they will have a tendency to identify our position with the ones they oppose. This is mistaken. But we would hope that those who disagree with our position would not misrepresent it and, if they object, would see that the first thing to be addressed is whether there are only those three positions available to faithful Christian theology.

    At any rate we would hope for charitable and fair interaction on points of theological formulation where we disagree, while recognizing our unity in our worship of God through Christ and in the Spirit whose glory and reality exceeds all our understandings.

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