Q – Would you please comment on the idea of “all men” from page 55 of your book By Grace Alone? It was confusing to me.
Jim – I’m not certain what point your particular confusion involved, but I’ll give you a quick overview and hopefully it will cause the light bulb to ignite in your head.
There has been a long-standing theological debate – begun the morning Christ resurrected, I suppose – over who exactly benefited from His atoning work. After all, Christ was personally innocent of any sin. So, He should not have been subject to decay and death as the rest of us Adam-like sinners are (Acts 2:24). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:13), but He was spotless. So, God ‘imputed’ sin to Christ. God judicially applied our sinfulness to His Son. Thus, Christ died as a substitute for sinners. He died with our sins imputed to His account and He died to pay the penalty for those sins. That’s basic Christian doctrine.
However, the debate involves the recipients of that vicarious (or, substitutionary) act. Did Christ die for each and every mortal person who ever lived, thus removing their sin, paying their price and perfecting them forever? Or, did He die for particular people, the elect, the Church, whom He intended to save from before the foundations of the world?
Now, the first answer – that Christ died for everyone who ever lived – is much more palatable to human reason. It seems fair. And, it implies that everyone has an equal chance to be saved. The primary difficulty with this notion is the indisputable fact that not everyone actually gets saved. Some people actually are condemned and go to hell. So, what’s the difference between the saved and the condemned? If Christ died for everyone, why are some saved and some lost?
Well, the answer to that dilemma has taken many shapes and forms through the centuries. But, invariably, theologians who defend this view must add something to the work of Christ in order to complete it and make it effectual in a person’s life. For instance, they will preach that Christ died for everyone, but now you have to make a profession of faith in Christ, and that profession guarantees your salvation. Or, you have to exercise faith. Or, you have to go to enough masses. Or, you have to join the Church – especially their Church! Or, you have to do penance of some sort, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, or the Rosary. Or, you have to be baptized, or give enough money, or do enough good works.
Whatever the case, they always have to add something to Christ’s atoning work to separate the saved from the unsaved. That’s the first position, and it sounds quite tenable. Christ did most the work, now you just add your work and you’re saved! Jesus did everything He could do, but now it’s up to you to add the ingredient that will guarantee your eternal destiny. Sounds good, eh?
The problem is that the Bible knows nothing of such teaching. In fact, Paul preached adamantly that there is absolutely nothing we can add to Christ’s finished work. Despite the fact that our flesh has a terribly hard time accepting it, the second proposition – that Christ died for particular people, whom He chose before the foundations of the world – is exactly what Scripture declares. That’s why so many people have trouble with the Bible and argue against it. It offends our sense of fairness and our belief that each and every person ought to have an equal opportunity to reach Heaven.
Think about it for a minute, though. Jesus taught His absolute authority to save whom He would. He called Himself God and said that He had the absolute judgment of the quick and the dead. The religious people of His day hated Him for it. They killed Him for it. Paul came along preaching the same thing, declaring Christ’s position at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, judging men and raising up whom He would. The religious people of the day hated him, and lost his head in Rome.
Yet, the modern church has so watered down the message of salvation by grace through faith that it barely resembles the original Biblical teaching. And, they do it for a very specific reason – they don’t want to offend anyone. If you offend people, they might stop coming and stop giving. And, that would ruin the big building, the big choir, the big television cameras and the big preacher’s salary. So, they preach a more attractive gospel, which Paul said was not another. It was a lie. It was a perversion of the truth (Gal. 1:6-7).
It takes lots of nerve to preach the Bible the way it’s written. That’s why people grow up in the Church and still know virtually nothing about their Bible. That’s why preachers take a verse out of context and preach about it for fifteen minutes and then go home. That way they can pick and choose the most comfortable parts of Scripture without every having to address the more complicated truth.
Anyway, back to the subject. One of the defenses used by theologians who promote the “universal atonement” (that Christ died for each and every human individual), is Paul’s use of the word “all” and “all men” in his epistles. That’s what I was writing about on page 54-55 of the By Grace Alone book. It may appear that Paul defended universalism and stated that Christ died for all men. But, universalism just leads us back into the same conundrum we discussed a minute ago – if He died for everyone and paid for everyone’s sins, how can He judge people and send them to hell?
The answer to the problem is really quite simple. Paul used the word “all” in many places, concerning many subjects. And, from his use of the word, we can grasp his meaning of the word. And, of course, the historical context will help.
The First Century Church was primarily Jewish. Christ was Jewish and the first people to hear the gospel were Jewish. In fact, Jesus instructed his twelve apostles,
“Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mat. 10:5-6)
Later, when a Canaanite woman approached Him, He answered her,
“I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mat. 15:24)
After the resurrection, when the Church came into being at Pentecost, the first three thousand converts were Jewish (Acts 2:5-6,41). Even that event, however, declared the sovereign purpose of God in salvation –
“And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:47)
Then, almost immediately after Pentecost, John and Peter preached in the temple and another five thousand Jews converted (Acts 4:4).
So, it was natural that the earliest Israelite converts to Christianity would assume that the Savior came to save them exclusively, as opposed to saving Gentiles, heathens, or people other than Israel. Christianity was originally a strictly Israelitish enterprise.
After His resurrection, Jesus taught Peter to accept Gentile converts into the Church – which terribly upset the Church leaders at Jerusalem, John and James (Acts 10-11). Then, into this mix came Paul, a Jewish Pharisee who was busy killing Christians when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Then, as remarkable as it seems, Jesus sent this Jewish Christian-hater out into the Gentile world to spread the gospel of salvation by grace. Paul met with resistance from the Jerusalem Church (which is the impetus of the book of Galatians). So, he had to argue repeatedly that Jesus did not die strictly for the sins of Israel, but also for the sins of every man who believed on His finished work.
And, that’s where this word “all” comes in. Paul never argued that Jesus died for each and every person who ever lived. In fact, he argued very much the opposite in Romans 9. However, he did argue that Jesus died for all kinds of men – not just Israelites. So, when Paul used the phrase “all men,” he was arguing for the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church. Christ died for all types, or all sorts, or all nationalities of men. He will not save every man who ever lived, but He will save people “out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:10).
So, the point of this very particular bit of clarification is that universalism is not a Biblical concept. Christ gave His life for particular people, whom He will save “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). They will not have to add their part to His finished work. When He died, He secured the redemption of His people, and so we can rest assured that His people will most certainly persevere all the way to their heavenly estate.
Don’t let people incorporate Paul’s use of the word “all” to try to convince you that Jesus died with the sins of every human individual on His shoulders. He did not. That theology is the first step down the slippery slope of telling you what you have to do to complete His work for Him. Instead, rest assured that the King knows what He is doing and that He did not give His back to the whip or His hands to the nails or His body to the wrath of God just in case anyone would accept His offer and complete His work. He died on purpose.
“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.” (John 10:17-18)
And, His purpose in dying and resurrecting will most certainly be accomplished. He is not sitting on His eternal throne, wringing His hands and hoping that someone will come along and validate His death. He died for particular people and He accomplished their complete redemption in His resurrection.
And, He will not lose a single one of them. He will save them “all.”
Have a good evening and thanks for this opportunity to talk about our Lord. It’s a wonderful thing we’re considering, here.
Yours for His sake,