f The Wittenberg Door: Who's Sovereign in Salvation? – Part 1 – Universalism

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Monday, June 23, 2014

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?

Universalism

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.

Meaning of All

In brief, the main scriptural support offered by Universalists are the “all” passages, such as 1 Tim. 2:4 (“who desires all men to be saved”) and 2 Pet. 3:9 (“not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance”). Their view of these passages is simple: all means all and that’s all all means. But can this approach be legitimately employed in interpreting these and other such passages? Considers these:

  • 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:

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)

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.

Conclusion

Later in this study we’ll take a closer look at the “all” passages. But suffice it to say, it is insufficient to isolate a few verses and repeat the mantra “all means all and that’s all all means.” But the clearest way to determine if Universalism is true is to see if the bible teaches that God will judge the wicked; for if it does, then clearly not all are saved. So 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!

--The Catechizer

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