(Loosely continued from yesterday’s column, Law and love — did Jesus contradict God?)
How many steps is it from confused Christianity to non-Christianity? When it comes to the question of how Jesus Christ and His love relate to God’s Law, it’s only a few:
- Biblical truth: Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
- Step down, still true, but less clear: Jesus came not to uphold the Law, but to fulfill it.
- Step down, questionable: Jesus came not to uphold the Law, but to love.
- Step down, more questionable: God now doesn’t uphold the Law, but only loves.
- Step down, un-Biblical belief: God doesn’t punish breakers of the Law, but only loves.
In just one simple, four-step process, with slight modifications — perhaps over generations, perhaps over only a few years in one church — a Biblical position becomes un-Biblical. Thus a slight confusion about how Jesus relates to the Law turns into universalism.
And some Christians may act or think like Universalists even if they do not believe everyone in the world will somehow, someday, eventually be saved.
For example, nowadays there’s a derivative view out there that greatly resembles universalism. Proponents refer to this by other names, such as the wider mercy view. From what I’ve read, that refers to God’s mercy supposedly being wider than we often think, and in fact, the most extreme versions of this view claim that people can be saved without consciously repenting of their sins and professing faith in Jesus Christ.
I can understand a few factors contributing to this view.
- “God is love.” Evangelicals have long overcorrected for notions — which apparently arose from somewhere in the past — that God was a mean tyrant. But for years many of our best and brightest have been saying “God is love” without defining love, or the “rest of” God — including His character traits of holiness, justice and sovereignty.
- “Make a decision.” Many have overdone the call for a response to the Gospel, as if God Himself is not powerful enough to save someone unless he/she “opens the door” to let Him do it. In response, some others may ask, even if only subconsciously, “why do we think God so powerless”? And to compensate for one extreme, some may lapse into yet another extreme idea: surely God is big enough to save people without their response.
- “What about those who have never heard?” Though answers to this question can be tricky, Christian leaders and teachers should not shy away from it. A vacuum of teaching about God’s sovereignty and man’s sinfulness (which says: those who have never heard are still guilty for what they do know) leads to the wrong answers filling the space.
From some professing Christian universalists, or “wider mercy” proponents, I’ve heard the reasoning: oh no, this doesn’t mean we believe God is unjust, or fails to punish evil. One person once told me he believes God will punish evil, just not in the ways we assume, etc.
But our intent should not be to maintain a Theology System, whether or not it has all the reasonable facsimiles we’d like of all the moving parts. Rather: does a System follow Scripture?
Apparently enough evangelicals have expressed doubts about whether conscious repentance and belief in Jesus really is the only way to God, that author/pastor John Piper has written a book on the topic. Last week The Gospel Coalition posted a review, which I’ll excerpt here. Based on Scripture alone — not hopes, emotional appeals, or definitions of Biblical terms and themes based not on Scripture but outside sources — it’s wrong to claim anyone is saved without a conscious repentance and faith in Christ.
Is conscious faith in Christ necessary for salvation? According to Piper, it is. His argument comes in four parts. First (chapter four), Christ’s first coming triggered a shift in the history of salvation. The “mystery of Christ” has been revealed, (Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:4-10). The “times of ignorance” are past, and God now calls all peoples to turn to him (Acts 17:30-31). Jesus “is now openly installed and declared as Judge, and he alone can receive the appeals for acquittal” (76).
Second (chapter five), the case of Cornelius (Acts 10) shows that true God-seekers still need the gospel. Cornelius was not saved apart from the gospel. He was saved through it.
Third (chapter six), the apostolic message was that men are saved by Jesus’ name (Acts 4:12; Rom 9:30-10:21). Nowhere do we see men saved unaware. All are saved by an explicit confession of Christ. And this comes only through the preaching of Christ.
Fourth (chapter seven), the missionary vision of Paul and John called for repentance and faith of all. Their message was “Repent and believe, and you will be saved.” It was never, “Great news, you’ve already been saved!” They preached the necessity of explicit repentance and faith to both Gentiles (Acts 26:15-18) and Jews (Acts 13:38-52).
As if that Biblically based reasoning wasn’t enough to overthrow “wider mercy,” I’m also still trying to figure out why “wider mercy” proponents seem to deny man’s free will. Do they really believe in a God who won’t respect a person’s meaningful choice to go on hating Him?
No one is saved apart from conscious faith in Christ and the Gospel. Jesus died not to show us that God had moved on from all that Law stuff, but to fulfill the Law’s requirements and to make possible a person’s repentance and faith. To imply that all are saved, or will be saved, is a blatant lie, trying to be more “spiritual” than God — and it does not love others.