Who's Sovereign in Salvation? – Part 1 – Universalism
At the time of the American Revolution, most American Christians were Calvinist. But after casting off the bonds of a monarchy, the new-found American individualism eventually cast off the bonds of the creedal church too—and the sovereignty of God in salvation. By the mid nineteenth century, Arminianism had gained a foothold in the American theological landscape.
Today, Arminianism is assumed—it’s the theological air modern Evangelicals breath—and Calvinism is looked upon with great suspicion, and even scorn. But is this justified? Who do the Scriptures say is sovereign in salvation, God or man? Did Christ’s work merely make salvation possible? Or did he actually save sinners? It is to questions like these that we’ll now turn our attention. But first, we’ll consider the question, Does God save all men?
Are All Saved?
The claim that in the end all men will be saved is known as Universalism (apokatastasis). This doctrine claims that all men, regardless of whether or not true faith is present, will be saved.
Universalism has been with us for a long time, tracing its history back to the Greek church fathers. The two best known proponents of this doctrine were Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) and his student Origen (c. 185 – c. 254). In 553, Universalism in general, and Origen’s theology in particular, were declared heretical at the fifth Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople.
Scriptures Used to Support Universalism
There are six verses commonly used to support Universalism. Here they are in summary:
- Mark 1:5 – All went out to him and were baptized
- Luke 3:15 – All wondered if John the Baptist was the Christ
- John 3:26 – All were coming to John for Baptism
- John 8:2 – All came to the temple to hear Christ teach
- Acts 22:15 – Paul will be a witness to all men
- 2 Cor. 3:2 – “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men”
Theologian A.W. Pink sheds light on these passages:
Were the Aztecs baptized by John? Did the Pygmies go to the temple to hear Christ? No. As A.W. Pink points out, these texts refer to “all” without distinction, not "all" without exception. Remember the following three rules of interpretation: context, context, context.
In none of the above passages has "all," "all men," "all the people" an unlimited scope. In each of those passages these general terms have only a relative meaning. In Scripture "all" is used in two ways: meaning "all without exception" (occurring infrequently), and "all without distinction" (its general significance), that is, all classes and kinds—old and young, men and women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in many instances Jews and Gentiles, men of all nations . . .
A.W. Pink (1886–1952)
As we have seen, the Scriptural support is found wanting. In my next post in this series we'll see what Scripture has to say about God's judgment, and we'll consider the claim of Universalists that a loving God would never eternally punish people for their sins.
Stay tuned for part 2!