Sunday, February 04, 2007

Universalism and the Death of the Gospel

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3,4

Having lived in Europe now for 21 years, and having seen the result of what Theological Universalism has done to the Church and to the belief of thousands, even millions of people, I am horrified that Universalism is rearing its ugly head in writings of people who might call themselves Evangelicals. As I have observed the visible church in Europe, I have seen that among many professors, pastors and lay people, the dominant thought about the Doctrine of Salvation is that the Grace of God did not need the death of Christ to bring reconciliation between God and people. Rather, Gods’ loving Grace is universal is scope and application. In its scope, there is nothing that God’s grace cannot over come and in it’s application, there is no one to whom God’s saving Grace will not be applied. They say that when all is said and done, “every knee will bow and every tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

This thinking has permeated the church is Europe with the result of the emptying of it seats and decimating it’s influence. People no longer see the Church as the place where the “good news” is announced and practiced. The church is no longer needed for one to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” No… it is said glibly, “God will forgive… that’s his job.”

Nevertheless, Universalism is not compatible with the Gospel that Jesus himself came to announce and this is evidenced by the how people have left the church and left following Christ. Thankfully, the “faith once given” still brings people to belief and discipleship of Christ. The true message has that power. J.I Packer once said good theology works. Universalism is an example of the converse, bad theology that does not work. It has been a disaster for any church that has embraced it. The European church “stands” as primary evidence of the deficiency of the teaching of Universalism. American Unitarian/Universalism is it’s second. And so-called “Trinitarian Universalism” as embraced by many theologically liberal churches in North America is the deciding vote. In embracing it, they have lost their Gospel and continue to see an exodus of people, shrinking membership and fewer and fewer people answering Jesus’ call to “come follow me.” Universalism has been the death of the Gospel.

Universalism is “another Gospel”, the type of which Paul the apostle warns against in his letter to the Galatians. Even though it is experiencing renewed discussion among those calling themselves “evangelical”, and among “emergent” circles, it is not new. The early church examined the idea of universal salvation and rejected it. Origen, was a proponent and was ultimately judged has a heretic. In 544 A.D. the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned universalism as heresy. The great theologian Augustine in his “Enchiridion” championed the defense that for grace to be applied, faith was required.

In spite of the Scriptures’ overwhelming emphasis on the need for faith to be pleasing to God, faith that brings personal relationship, there are those who seem to do Jeffersonian exegesis and cut out the parts of the inspired scriptures that they don’t like. While Universalism may be, “an exegetical possibility”, only a partial and selective reading of scripture to lead to the conclusion of Universalism. When doing exegesis, one does catalogue the possible meanings of the reading of a text. But then good exegesis seeks to see how the various readings come together in support of God’s intended and inspired meaning. While there are texts in the Bible that when read in isolation, might point to universal salvation, the overall reading of the scriptures does not leave us that possibility. Citing God’s universal love for the world (John 3:16) and his desire that “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” as biblical evidence for universal salvation, insults the intelligence of anyone taking to time to combine good exegesis with the theological doctrines of God’s love, grace and justice. The Scriptures, read in their totality, when speaking of the Judgment, never explicitly, implicitly or otherwise give a hint of an idea that God will give people the option to have faith and accept his salvation after death. Rather, it is what we do in life for which we are held accountable and judged.

It seems to be in vogue today to say that C.S. Lewis supported Universalism. But in fact he himself said the opposite. “When a reader asked why Lewis disagreed with George MacDonald on universalism, Lewis answered, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.”(1) Lewis’ reading of the scriptures led him to believe that, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” (1)

I have at times said that I would love to be a Universalist, that is, if Jesus’ teachings in the Bible left me that option. They don’t. And as Ivo Meyer, (a Catholic priest and spiritual guide at John XXIII Catholic Parish in Geneva Switzerland, now with the Lord, but who I had the honor of knowing) once said to me, “No faith, no grace.”

In writing this, I do not want to be harsh. But I fear in speaking directly, one may think that I am. But my heart’s desire is for everyone to have the joy of knowing Christ and being known by him. Like God I want “ all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4) Universalism is not that truth and will not lead to the truth. But the Lord has given us freedom to follow him or not. And God loves everyone so much that he not going take away that choice.

In the “Great Divorce”, C.S.Lewis’ amazing story on the reality of Hell, he says…

“There are only two kinds of people in the end:
those that say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’
and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’

(1) Beyond Mere Christianity: What Shall we make of C.S. Lewis

Internet references.

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