Our understanding of salvation depends on which of the following two assumptions we work with: (a) all persons are outside of Christ (i.e., “lost,” “condemned”) except those whom the Bible expressly declares will be saved (Thus, Rom. 1:18–3:20 and parallel passages become the starting point—prolegomenon—for structuring the doctrine of salvation); or (b) all persons are elect in Christ (i.e., “saved,” “justified”) except those whom the Bible expressly declares will be finally lost.
Throughout the centuries, the first premise has dominated Christian thinking. The biblical doctrine of original sin—the belief that all persons, except Jesus Christ, are children of wrath by nature, inclined to do evil, and deserving of eternal death—led many to the conclusion that all persons are outside of Christ except those whom the Bible expressly declares will be saved.
This perspective continued because its only challenge came from absolute universalists (those who teach that all persons will be saved). The church instinctively knew that such was not the overall message of Scripture, and summarily rejected that teaching (and rightly so).
Absolute universalism cannot be an option for those who acknowledge the authority of Scripture. However, in our dismissal of universalism, we have closed our eyes to the fact that many verses in the Bible speak of salvation in terms of all persons. These universalistic texts cannot be so easily ignored. Failure to acknowledge them hinders our ability to understand the good news. And yet, how do we reconcile God’s judgment with texts that imply universal salvation?
A New Starting Point
Three facts help resolve that problem: (1) the “universalistic” texts speak of actual salvation and they do so in relationship to all men; (2) some persons will be lost; and, (3) those who will be lost are those and only those who, in addition to their sin in Adam, finally persist in refusing to have God in their knowledge.
These biblical givens can be held in a tension-filled unity by recognizing that the so-called universalistic texts are not universals, but are generalizations. That is, they are universal statements that have known exceptions. In this case, we can best account for these assumptions by acknowledging the overall message of salvation as indicating all persons will be saved except those whom the Bible expressly declares will be finally lost.
This interpretation is consistent with the way God has dealt with mankind throughout history. He created man good and in a right relationship to himself. “And God blessed them” (Gen. 1:28). This blessing, together with the joy of living in God’s presence, was not something conferred upon mankind in response to, or conditioned by, obedience. However, these blessings and fellowship with God were no longer enjoyed when man refused to live in obedience to God’s revealed will. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16b–17). Mankind’s relationship to God followed this pattern: “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (Ezek. 28:14). The blessing was unconditional, the judgment had to be earned.
Again, when establishing his covenant with Abram, God did not propose or prescribe certain conditions so that by keeping them Abram could attain a favorable status with God. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).
God affirmed this covenant with the entire nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. He made his will known to them and gave them the Ten Commandments. The commandments were not given so that by keeping them the Israelites could become the recipients of God’s favor. The commandments came to Israel with the assurance “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2).
Thus, the Israelites were the recipients of God’s blessing. But it was also true that if they willfully, persistently, and finally refused to walk in accordance with God’s revealed will, they would not experience his blessing or live in fellowship with him.
Unconditional Good News
In the light of this history, we have reason to expect that salvation would also come as an announcement of unconditional good news accompanied by a threat of judgment upon disobedience. Salvation is by grace; condemnation is by works.
The good news is that the obedience of the Second Adam has overcome all the dreadful effects of the disobedience of the first Adam except for those who finally refuse to have God in their knowledge. That is to say: All persons are elect in Christ except those whom the Scripture expressly declares will be finally lost. It may be helpful to think of this premise as a “qualified universalism.” The necessary limiting qualifications to universalism are so clearly spelled out in Scripture that I do not hesitate to call this premise “biblical universalism.”
To so view the overall message of Scripture is foreign to our way of thinking. It raises many questions. But consider the following:
1. Biblical universalism does not say we should assume that all persons are converted. We are to assume they are elect in Christ unless we have decisive and final evidence to the contrary. Their subjective salvation, their regeneration, their new birth and conversion may take place at any point in time during their earthly life.
2. Saying “All the descendants of Adam … are saved,” and allowing only for biblically declared exceptions, does not imply that all persons are initially elect in Christ but subsequently some of them are removed from this union with Christ.
Such a view would contradict the scriptural teaching of the security of those who are “in Christ,” as well as John 3:36, which says of those who disobey the Son that “the wrath of God rests upon” (Greek: ‘remains upon’) them. God’s wrath was never removed from them.
3. Biblical universalism does not deny or in the least degree compromise the scriptural teaching concerning the sin of Adam and its devastating effect upon all his descendants. Due to the sin of Adam, all persons, except Jesus Christ, are not only worthy of eternal judgment, but they will actually suffer eternal death on the basis of their sin in Adam unless the sovereign electing grace of God intervenes to rescue them from such a fate.
What has been overlooked, however, is that the electing grace of God does intervene in behalf of every person except those who willfully, personally, and finally “refuse to have God in their knowledge.”
4. Biblical universalism does not negate the need for a definite decision to accept Christ as Savior. Everyone to whom the gospel is presented must repent, believe, and begin to walk in accordance with God’s will or they will not be saved.
If we use this premise rather than the idea that all are lost, some progress could be made between Arminians and Calvinists toward a common understanding of the good news.
A New View of the Lost
To put the premise of biblical universalism into practice is to view every person, and treat him or her, as one “for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11) unless, and until, they give decisive and final evidence to the contrary. The approach of biblical universalism breaks down barriers between people. It promotes a feeling of genuine concern and mutual trust. It helps overcome prejudices that arise out of fear because we view others apathetically—or worse still, with suspicion. On this basis we are to view all persons as heirs of the kingdom of heaven; bring to them the good news of what God in Christ has done for us; exhort them to repent, believe, and obey; help them, counsel them, and, if need be, warn them to flee the wrath which is sure to come on all who disregard the witness of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because we will not have final and decisive evidence to the contrary, we must approach all people with the perspective that “[Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This gives us biblical warrant for regarding all persons as equal children of God. And it exhorts us to warn them that persistent refusal to accept God’s offer of salvation will be just cause for their condemnation.
Neal Punt is a pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Evergreen Park, Illinois, and author of Unconditional Good News (Eerdmans, 1980).
The CT Institute Talks To Neal Punt
What reaction did your book, Unconditional Good News, create?
It was received quite favorably, though some in my own denomination thought I was contradicting Reformed theology. In fact, the book was brought before the local church and our classis where I was grilled pretty thoroughly. Then, the full synod was asked to rule on it. In each case, it was concluded I hadn’t violated either our creeds or the Scriptures.
Were you surprised at the reaction?
Not at all. A new perspective takes a good deal of time and thought before it can be discussed intelligently. I first ran across the idea of biblical universalism in Charles Hodge’s writings, 18 years before I started writing the book. If it took me that long to feel comfortable with it, I can’t expect others to accept my ideas without question.
Some might come to the conclusion that your concept of salvation is really a form of Arminianism. How would you respond?
I’ve had Arminians criticize the book for being too Calvinistic, and Calvinists have said it’s too Arminian. That suits me just fine because it shows that maybe these two points of view have more in common than we think.
What effect did the actual writing of the book have on your pastoral ministry?
It stimulated the process of finding sermon material. If all pastors would read and study for personal edification rather than for next Sunday’s sermon, they would discover more sermon material than they could use. As I worked on the book, I felt as if I was walking in an orchard. Like trees overburdened with fruit, sermon ideas fell before me.
In light of the criticism of Unconditional Good News, are you concerned about how your next book will be received?
Not really. Basically, it is the same book rewritten for a general audience. It will undoubtedly attract more attention, but theology must be a communal work. If I’m wrong, I want to be corrected. But so far, no one has been able to refute my understanding that all are saved except those whom the Bible says are lost.
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