Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation
New Challenges to the Gospel: Universalism, and Justification by Faith
Whether in this land of pitchers, plates, diamonds and strikes I can make a point by talking of English cricket I do not know. But I am going to try.
Half-way through the afternoon of Monday, July 20, 1981, in Leeds, Yorkshire, England was in trouble. It was the fourth day of the third of six five-day test matches against Australia. The first had been lost, the second drawn, and this, the third, now seemed doomed. The seventh player in England's second inning had just been dismissed with the score at 135; this was still 92 runs behind Australia's first inning total of 401, and only three more Englishmen remained to bat, while Australia had an entire second inning still to come. In cricket the batsmen (whom you may call strikers if you prefer) operate in pairs, and as the new man walked to the wicket, his partner, Ian Botham, who had so far scored 23, went to meet him. The following dialogue then took place, in the idiom that you might call sportsman's swagger. Botham: "You don't fancy hanging around on this wicket for a day and a half, do you?" New batsman: "No way." Botham: "Right; come on, let's give it some humpty." Which they did, hitting the ball all over the field to such good effect that, incredibly, England's score rose to 356, with Botham making 149, before the last man was out. Australia
was then dismissed for less than the 129 runs needed to win, and an apparently inevitable defeat had been turned into a famous victory, vividly illustrating the truth that attack is the best form of defence.1
I tell you that story so as to tune you in to the fact that, as I see it, the subject area that I have been given requires that, like Botham, I too give it a bit of humpty, and attack. Truths that seem to me vital are threatened, and to reaffirm them effectively I shall have to hit out not only at non-evangelicals, but at some of my evangelical brothers too. I have no wish to hurt anyone's feelings, but I must take a risk on that, for my judgment is that on matters so grave only forthright statement can be appropriate or adequate. So prepare for strong words.
First, I would like to make clear where I come from. I speak out of a heritage that is several centuries old, namely the theological approach that is rooted in the two tenets once singled out by Melanchthon as the foundation-principles of the Reformation. The first foundation principle is the formal one, namely the authority of the Scriptures, or more fully, their sufficiency for all questions of faith, life, and action of the authoritative, God-breathed, self-interpreting biblical canon, which the Holy Spirit opens our minds and enlightens our hearts to understand. The second foundation-principle, the substantial one, is justification by faith only, or more fully, our entire and final acceptance by God, here and now, on Christ's account, through the faith that in self-despair and a sense of guilt, shame, weakness, and spiritual hunger looks to Jesus Christ in conscious trust to worship and
serve him as our sin-bearing Savior. I shall shortly focus attention on the second of these principles, but I see a need at the outset to state my methodology in a clear and sharp-edged way, for I think it is a lack of clarity here that produces the erosions of belief elsewhere on which I have to comment.
I begin, then, by affirming, with Reformed theology generally, that acceptance of all that Scripture teaches, and a refusal either to add to it or subtract from it in our thinking about God, and the absolutizing of it as our interpretative framework for understanding everything else, is categorically necessary, for two reasons.
The first reason is that the fallen human mind, biased and warped as it is, more or less, by the universal anti-God syndrome called sin, fails to form and own and retain within itself true notions about the Creator drawn from general revelation, whether in the order and course of the world, our own created makeup, or the workings of natural conscience. God's general revelation of himself, though genuinely given to all, is correctly received by none. Scripture makes this point by speaking of our human minds as darkened and blinded, and of our hearts as hardened.2
The second reason is that regenerate believers, to whom the Spirit interprets the Scriptures, are nonetheless still prone to lapse intellectually into the world's ways of thinking, just as sometimes they lapse morally into the world's ways of behaving, and so they need constant critical correction and redirection by the Word of God.
The reality of spiritual darkness in all minds was recognized by none of the subjectivist theologians of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, whatever spot on the spectrum that links
rationalism and mysticism each occupied; and nowadays it is hard to get even evangelicals to take it seriously. But the Bible acting as judge and guide is a cognitive necessity for benighted sinners like ourselves, and evangelicals no less than others must learn to suspect themselves when they find themselves embracing innovations and modifications of view that reflect in a direct way the secular culture around them. To fall victim to secular philosophy and ideology has been a characteristic Protestant vice for three centuries, and it is one from which evangelicals are by no means free. To be an avowed Bible-believer is no guarantee that one's interpretation of the Bible will always be right, or that secularist distortions will never invade one's mind to discolor one's thoughts. We affirm this, pontifically enough, with regard to (for instance) Jehovah's Witnesses; we need humbly to remember that we face the same danger also.
How then may we avoid subjectivist eccentricity in our own biblical interpretation? The first necessity is precision in handling texts. The canon that God in his wisdom gave us is a miscellany of occasional writings, each anchored in a particular sociocultural milieu and grammatical-historical exegesis. To discover what each passage meant as a message about God written on his behalf to a particular envisaged readership, must be our first step. But then, in order to determine what meaning God has for us in this historical material, we must go on to an a posteriori theological analysis and application according to the analogy of Scripture. By theological analysis, I mean seeing what truths impact our lives today. When I say that this analysis and application must be
a posteriori, I mean that nothing must be read into texts that cannot be read out of them. When I say that it must be faithful, I mean that nothing taught by any text may be disregarded or left unapplied. When I speak of the analogy of Scripture, I am refering to the traditional procedures of letting one part of Scripture throw light on another that deals with the same subject, and of maintaining internal theological coherence by interpreting ambiguous passages in harmony with unambiguous ones, and of allowing things that define themselves as primary and central to provide a frame of reference and a perspective for looking at those that are secondary and peripheral.3 By observing these principles we may with the help of God's Spirit rise via the teaching of each author in his own situation to perceive the teaching of God himself as it bears on us in our situation. But if we allow ourselves, as so many do, to discount specific teachings of Scripture as being out of line with the Bible's main thrust, or to think it possible that God's penmen did not always manage to express what they intended to say, or to suppose that while God kept them right on major matters he left them free to go wrong on details, we may expect, I think and here, pace Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, I have nearly five centuries of responsible evangelical opinion with me to be constantly going astray on matters of importance.4 The instances of relativistic and impressionistic slippage that we shall discuss now might well be cases in point.
Evangelicals have always seen the question of salvation as one of supreme importance, and their witness to the way of salvation as the most precious gift they bring to the rest of the church.
This conviction rests not on the memory of the conversion of Paul or Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Whitefield or any other evangelical hero, but on the emphasis with which the Bible itself highlights salvation as its central theme. The Scriptures or perhaps I should say, preachers like Christ, Peter, Paul, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, as recorded in the Scriptures clearly regard ordinary human beings as lost, and accordingly call on them to repent, turn or return to God, come to Christ, put faith in him, and so find the pardon, peace, and newness of life that they need. The main concepts that the New Testament uses to delineate this salvation are reconciliation, redemption, and propitiation, all won for us by the sacrificial death of Christ; forgiveness, remission of sins, justification, adoption; regeneration or renovation (that is, new birth); the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as God's seal of ownership within us; sanctification; and glorification. By contrast the chief notions that are used to describe the condition of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, whether they have heard the gospel or not, are spiritual deadness, darkness of mind, delusion with regard to God, gods, and supernatural powers generally, moral delinquency bringing guilt and shame, and a destiny of certain distress. Paul speaks of "the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed, and God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking, and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger" (Romans 2:5-8). Thus, those who are not Christ's are perishing, and need to be saved. Historic evangelicalism, with some differences, I grant, of nuance in exposition and of evangelistic practice, but with great solidarity
of substance, as the literature from Luther on attests, has constantly affirmed these things. Modern evangelicalism will stand revealed as a degenerate plant if it does not just as constantly do the same.
There are, however, strong tendencies at work today that press evangelicals to revise these views. I shall deal with four such tendencies, which in ad hominem form may be stated as follows:
1. The question of salvation is less urgent than evangelicals have thought. This contention raises the issue of universalism, and the destiny of those who never heard the gospel.
2. The question of salvation is less agonizing than evangelicals have thought. This contention raises the issue of conditional immortality, and the annihilation of unbelievers following the last judgment.
3. Justification by faith is a less central doctrine than evangelicals have thought. It is contended that for Paul, its chief expositor, justification was only significant for anti-Jewish polemic, and the heart of his gospel was elsewhere.
4. Faith is a less substantial reality than evangelicals thought. Some dissolve away its cognitive substance, treating it simply as an existential commitment to a behavior pattern like that which the gospels ascribe to Jesus, while denying that it assumes or requires any specific beliefs about Jesus' deity, saviorhood, or even (in Tillich's case) historicity. Others dissolve away every element in faith except its cognitive substance, treating it as simply the mind's grateful acknowledgment that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, died for one's sins. On that view, cheap grace as denounced by Bonhoeffer is gospel truth after all; easy-believism is the true way of salvation, just as the Western religious world on
the fringe of the churches wishes to think, and antinomianism really is the true Christian life.
We will review these proposed revisions of historic evangelical soteriology in order, though spending most of our time on the first (the big one!).
The basis of the first revision, whereby the urgency of the question of salvation is destroyed, is the belief that some form of universalism is true. By universalism I mean, not Christianity's claim to be a faith for all mankind as distinct from a tribal or ethnic religion, but belief that, as the late C.H. Dodd somewhere put it, "as every human being lies under God's judgment, so every human being is ultimately destined, in God's mercy, to eternal life." This is apokatastasis (restoration) according to Origen, the doctrine of the guaranteed future salvation of all mankind, including Judas, the thieving hypocrite of whom Jesus himself said: "Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24). Universalists, however, must respectfully decline to endorse Jesus' judgment here, at least in its obvious meaning, since they themselves expect Judas to be saved.
Universalism, which was condemned in the fifth century and quiescent till the nineteenth, is currently popular, and on the march, among both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Its motivations are complex. A last-century story pinpoints two of them. The question was asked: what is the difference between Unitarians and Universalists? The answer given was: The Unitarians believe that God is too good to damn anyone; the Universalists believe that
man is too good for God to damn. Today, only the most thoughtless sentimentalist could maintain that man is too good for God to damn, for all the facts about human nature that the twentieth century can claim to have uncovered highlight our moral flaws. Many, however, press with zeal the momentous claim that only a doctrine of universal salvation does justice to the reality of God's love for mankind, and of Christ's victory won on the cross, and of the praiseworthiness of God who has providentially permitted so much inhumanity of man to man, so much unfruitful suffering, and so much waste of good, in the course of world history.5 Other motivations towards universalism operate too. The monist or panentheist conception of God's relation to the world makes it necessary that the eschatological consummation whereby, as Paul puts it, God "heads up" all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), with every knee bowing at the name of Jesus and God himself becoming "all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28) should involve every rational being relating harmoniously to the God of love in responsive loving rapport. This is the characteristic view of process theology, the fag-end of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, which, though uncertain whether the consummation can ever actually happen (because its God is so far from being omnipotent and sovereign over his world), is quite certain that the responsive love of every rational soul to God is part of the definition of it. Without universal reconciliation to God the consummation would not be a consummation: that is the argument. So among the theologians it is the supposed demands of eschatology, as well as of Christology, soteriology, theolodicy, and doxology, that prompt universalist opinion.
It is not only at the level of reflective theology that motivations to universalism have emerged in our day. Pastoral motivations
operate too. Harold O.J. Brown identifies as a "motive to universalism a sense of the futility and failure of the Christian enterprise. It is not on the mission field that universalism is strongest, despite its obvious emotional appeal to those with unconverted loved ones. Nor is it in North America, where evangelism and renewal are prominent if not dominant features of the Christian scene. It is in Europe, among the theologians, preachers, and people especially of the state-supported churches, who observe that most of Western Europe ignores Christ and has no higher value than hedonistic self-fulfillment. Because they are not winning others to Christ, but are being ignored, some people like to say, 'It doesn't really matter; everybody will be saved in the end' a confession of failure, a sort of baptizing of our own powerlessness."6 And this rationalizing reaction (as I believe it to be) to gross evangelistic and pastoral failure will, as Brown notes, itself operate as a cause of further failure in the future, because "if one thinks this way, there is scant motive to seek to bring people to conversion or renewal." If all are, as the title of a 19th century tract put it, "Doomed to be Saved", then the heat is off so far as evangelism is concerned, and it will be proper to give other ways of loving your neighbor a permanent priority over evangelizing him. It is no accident, I think, that universalism and Christian socialism have long walked hand in hand, nor that the theological thought of the World Council of Churches, which has in effect redefined mission as the necessary quest for socio-politico-economic shalom, with church-planting evangelism as an additional option if circumstances, time, and energy allow it to be fitted in, has a pronouncedly universalistic cast.
No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! Universalism is thus a comfortable doctrine in a way that alternatives are not. But wishful thinking, based on a craving for comfort and a reluctance to believe that some of God's truth might be tragic, is no sure index of reality. Yesterday's evangelicals felt the attraction of universalism, I am sure, just as poignantly as we do, but they denounced the doctrine as morally weakening and spiritually deadening. They equated it with the world's first falsehood, the devil's declaration in Eden, "you will not surely die." They saw it as the modern version of the first piece of armor that the devil puts on Mansoul in Bunyan's Holy War, namely "the hope of doing well at the last what life soever you have lived." And they preached and prayed as they believed especially, it seems, prayed. Evangelicals know that the power behind the eighteenth century revivals and the great nineteenth century missionary movement was prayer, and that the prayer was made out of hearts agonizing over the prospect of all who leave this world without Christ being lost. Was such prayer misconceived? uninstructed? foolish? wrong-headed? An evangelical who values his heritage must ponder that question, recognizing that if universalism is true all that missionary passion and praying was founded on a monstrous mistake. Could so much evangelical piety have been so far astray?
But universalism, like all other matters of doctrine, is ultimately a biblical question, and the evangelical way to assess it is by reference, not to our heritage, but to the Bible. So I shall now attempt a biblical response to the universalist thesis.
The universalist task is to circumvent the seemingly solid New Testament witness to the fate of the unbelievers, who are declared to be under sin, law, wrath and death (so says Romans 3:9, 19, 1:18, 5:17), alienated from God and without hope (so says Ephesians 2:12), facing exclusion from God's presence as punishment for their non-subjection to as much of the law and the gospel as they knew (Rom. 1:18-2:16). Jesus himself is strong on the horrific consequences of rejecting him: as W.G.T. Shedd said a century ago, "Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of eternal perdition."7 Granted that Jesus' references to weeping and grinding teeth, outer darkness, worm and fire, gehenna, and the great gulf fixed, are imagery, the imagery clearly stands for a terrible retribution. Nor, be it said, do Bible writers find a moral problem in catastrophic retribution; instead, they see such retribution as solving the moral problem of evil being allowed to run loose in God's good world, because retribution vindicates God's righteousness as judge of all the earth (see Rev. 19:1-5). How can universalism be affirmed on a biblical basis, we ask, in the face of all this?
Here the ways divide. Roman Catholic universalists refuse to believe that any human beings fail to receive grace that moves them to seek God inwardly here and now, or that any form of religion in this world fails to bring its faithful adherents the salvation that Christians know through Christ. Serious attempts to find biblical support for such speculations are, however, lacking. Protestant universalists, however, usually follow a different route, arguing that those who leave this world in unbelief do indeed go to hell, but in due course come out of it, having been brought to their senses, and so to a positive response to Christ, through the
harrowing torment they have tasted. Hell thus does for unbelievers what Rome thinks purgatory does for believers that is, it fits them for heaven. So Protestant universalism appears as a doctrine of salvation out of what the New Testament calls "eternal destruction", "eternal punishment", and perdition", through some kind of post-mortem encounter with Christ and his offer of mercy (a "second chance" for some, a "first chance" for others). This view is a speculation that differs from other "second-chance" speculations by its categorical confidence that the post-mortem invitation to turn to Christ will succeed in every single case. Debating responses leap to mind: if as a Calvinist one posits God's sovereign ability to call all men effectually to himself after death, the question arises as to why in that case he does not do it here, while if as an Arminian one thinks it beyond God's power to bring all men to faith here, the question arises as to how in that case he will be able to do it there. But is there biblical warrant for universalist speculation? There does not appear to be. Exegetical arguments fail, for no text certainly and unambiguously asserts universal final salvation, and those that verbally admit of such a construction are more naturally taken in a more restricted sense, as the standard commentaries do in fact take them.8 And there are Bible-based counter-arguments, some of which I shall now briefly deploy, casting them into question form.
(1) Does not universalism deny the sufficiency of Scripture? What warrant have we for embracing any speculation that lacks explicit biblical support, and basing our attitudes and actions directly upon it?
(2) Does not universalism ignore something that Scripture stresses, namely the unqualified decisiveness of this life's decisions
for our eternal destiny? What point is Jesus making when he warns the unbelieving Jews that they will die in their sins (John 8:21), and speaks of the great gulf fixed between two sorts of people, the godly and the ungodly, after death (Luke 16:26), and declares that speaking against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either here or hereafter (Mt. 12:32)? What point is Paul making when he declares that spiritually one reaps what one sows, either eternal life or destruction (Gal. 6:7f.), and that at Christ's judgment seat each person will "receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10)? Hebrews 2:1f., 3:8-4:11, 6:4-8, 10:26-31, 12:15-17,25, and Revelation 20:6, 10, 14f., 27, 21:8, 14f., would also come into the argument at this juncture.
(3) Does not universalism imply that the preaching of Christ and the apostles, who warned people to flee from the judgment of hell-fire by repentance here and now, is either inept or immoral? If the preachers did not themselves know that all were finally to be saved, their preaching was inept (and so today's universalists are wiser than Christ); if they knew it but concealed it, so as to bluff people into the kingdom by using the fear motive, their preaching was immoral (and so today's universalist preachers can be more righteous than Christ). Is either alternative acceptable? "We must preach hell," wrote Nells Ferré, "as having a school and a door in it."9 But why did not Jesus preach hell that way? The question presses; and if no satisfactory answer to it can be found, can universalism be right?
(4) Is not universalism rejected by each Christian's own conscience? Charity and wishful thinking may make us want to affirm a universalism that embraces everyone else, but would we
be able to envisage our own spiritual pilgrimage in the terms in which we would then be envisaging theirs? Surely there is no answer to the dictum of James Denney: "I dare not say to myself that if I forfeit the opportunity this life affords I shall ever have another; and therefore I dare not say so to another man."10 To hand others a lifebelt to which I could not entrust myself is neither compassionate nor humble, but at best thoughtless and at worst cynical. But is not this where universalism would lead me?
But if, under pressure from such questions, we stop our ears to the universalist siren song, how shall we then rebut the claim that in this world of sin and pain, where it seems that in every Christian era most people die without knowing the Gospel and most who hear it are unmoved by it, universalist belief is needed to do justice to the biblical themes of God's love, Christ's victory at Calvary, and divine competence in world-management? Is there any viable theodicy any way, that is, of showing God to be gloriously in the right, and thus worthy of our praise other than that of process theology, which sees God as intending universal salvation but does not know if he can bring it off, or of universalism, which rests its theodicy on the certainty that he can and will? Yes, there is a further option in theodicy; it is the option that evangelical theology has historically embraced, and that direct biblical exegesis without extrapolation and speculation actually establishes. It can be set out like this:
(1) The sin that God mysteriously chooses to permit and humans madly choose to commit so offends God, and so robs them of value in his sight, that retribution for the impenitent becomes the natural reaction whereby he expresses his holy nature. This self-vindicating judicial righteousness is glorious, and calls for praise.
(2) Mysteriously again, God chooses to extend mercy to the penitent mercy at which general revelation hints, and which the gospel shows to be based on costly blood atonement and defined in generous promises of justification, regeneration, and glorification. This marvelous mercy is glorious, and calls for praise.
(3) Mysteriously once more, God maintains in all developed human beings the power of self-determining moral choice, and respects their choices, while yet, paradoxically, all who choose to trust God's mercy find themselves constrained to say that it was not their own intelligence or will-power, but the illuminating and drawing action of God himself that brought them to faith. Both aspects of this situation are glorious, and call for praise.
(4) Mysteriously, too, God sanctifies all believers' sufferings, through their faith-experience of the power of the risen Christ, as a means of furthering that character conformity to Christ that is their destiny. This also is glorious, and calls for praise.
(5) Mysteriously yet once more, God sends his people to publish the gospel throughout the human community, promising that as they plead with people to trust God through Christ and plead with God to touch people through grace, others will enter that new life that is being proclaimed. Here, again, is a glorious fact that calls for praise.
My use of "mysteriously" is meant as a reminder that in each of these purposes and works of God there is much that is beyond us to grasp, and moreover that many of our questions about them are left unanswered by the Word of God. But my contention here is that despite this ignorance we have in the awareness, which my five points encompass, that all who are saved by grace through faith, while all who perish do so through the fault of their
own choice and impenitence, a magnificent theodicy that for time and eternity must prompt undying praise.
One final point. A British lay theologian, Sir Norman Anderson, poses an often-asked question as follows: "Might it not be true of the follower of some other religion that the God of all mercy had worked in his heart by his Spirit, bringing him in some measure to realize his sin and need for forgiveness, and enabling him, in his twilight as it were, to throw himself on God's mercy?"11 The answer surely is: yes, it might be true, as it seems to have been true for some non-Israelites in Old Testament times: think of Melchizedek, Job, Naaman, Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, the sailors in Jonah's boat, and the Ninevites to whom he preached, for starters. In heaven, any such penitents will learn that they were saved by Christ's death and their hearts were renewed by the Holy Spirit, and they will worship God accordingly. Christians since the second century have voiced the hope that there are such people, and we may properly voice the same hope today. But and this is the point to consider we have no warrant from Scripture to expect that God will act thus in any single case where the Gospel is not yet known. To cherish this hope, therefore, is not to diminish in the slightest our urgent and never-ending missionary obligation, any more than it is to embrace universalism as a basis for personal and communal living. Living by the Bible means assuming that no one will be saved apart from faith in Christ, and acting accordingly.
Now we turn to the second proposed revision of historic evangelical soteriology, the view that the question of salvation is
less agonizing than we thought because after judgment day the unsaved will not exist. This is universalism in reverse: like universalism, it envisages a final state in which all are saved; unlike universalism, it anticipates, not post-mortem conversion, but annihilation and non-being for those who leave this world in unbelief. The exponents of this view, which for our purposes may be called either annihilationism or conditionalism,12 are all Protestants or cultists.13 Having been condemned at the fifth lateran Council in 1513, it is not an option for Roman Catholics. Among the Protestants are some distinguished evangelicals, 14 including recently my fellow Anglicans John Stott 15 and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes,16 and I think it is currently gaining more evangelical adherents.17 But the question, whether an opinion is true, is not resolved by asking who holds it.
Conditionalism is never advocated as expressing the obvious meaning of Scripture, for this it does not do. Its advocates back into it, rather, in horrified recoil from the thought of billions in endless torment a thought to which the memory of Hitler's holocaust, and the modern statistical mind-set, no doubt add vividness. The arguments for conditionalism, however, are far from convincing. They boil down to four, which I state as Bible-believing conditionalists state them.
First, it is said that the New Testament terms for the fate of the lost destruction and death, corruption and punishment, the worm and the fire might mean annihilation. So they might, but this possible meaning is not the natural meaning. In all the contexts cited, the natural meaning of the phrases in which these words appear is ruin and distress, not entry upon non-existence. Conditionalism can be read into these passages, but not read out
of them. And in all Bible study it is the natural meaning that should be sought.
Second, it is said that everlasting punishment is not required by God's justice, and would in fact be needless cruelty. But, leaving aside the question of how the conditionalists can know this, I would point out that this argument, if it proves anything, proves too much: for if it is needlessly cruel, and not required by justice, for God to keep the lost in being after judgment, no reason can be given why it is not needlessly cruel for him to keep the lost in the conscious misery of the intermediate state (on which see Jesus' story of Dives, Luke 16:23 ff.), and then to raise them bodily in what Jesus calls "the resurrection of judgment" (NIV, they "rise to be condemned"; John 5:28). What God sought to do, on conditionalist principles, is annihilate unbelievers at death but Scripture shows that he does not do this. So the conditionalist argument, which ought to clear God of the suspicion of needless cruelty, actually puts him under it.
Third, it is said that the harmony of the new heaven and earth will be marred if somewhere the lost continue to exist in impenitence and distress. But again it must be asked how the conditionalist know this. The argument is pure speculation.
Fourth, it is said that the joy of heaven will be marred by knowledge that some continue under punitive suffering. But this cannot be said of God, as if the expressing of his holiness in retribution hurts him more than it hurts the offenders; and since in heaven Christians will be like God in character, there is no reason to think that their joy will be impaired in this way either.
What troubles me most here, I confess, is the assumption of superior sensitivity by the conditionalists. Their assumption
appears in the adjectives (awful, dreadful, terrible, fearful, intolerable, etc.) that they apply to the concept of eternal punishment, as if to suggest that holders of the historic view have never thought about the meaning of what they have been saying. John Stott records his belief "that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment."18 Respectfully, I disagree, for the biblical arguments are to my mind flimsy special pleading 19 and the feelings that make people want conditionalism to be true seem to me to reflect, not superior spiritual sensitivity, but secular sentimentalism which assumes that in heaven our feelings about others will be as at present, and our joy in the manifesting of God's justice will be no greater than it is now. It is certainly agonizing now to live with the thought of people going to an eternal hell, but it is not right to reduce the agony by evading the facts; and in heaven, we may be sure, the agony will be a thing of the past.
The third and fourth of the proposed revisions concern the central tenet of the Reformation and of the older forms of evangelicalism, namely the doctrine of justification by grace through faith on the ground of Christ's vicarious obedience to death. This doctrine has been somewhat in eclipse in recent years. For liberal and radical Protestantism, which denies the realities of judgment and atonement, the assertion of justification in the evangelical sense has been an impossibility; and conservative evangelicalism has in recent years tended to stop short at proclaiming present forgiveness of sins and a personal relationship with Jesus, as modern Roman Catholicism also does, and to
neglect the larger implications about the believer's relationship with God that the doctrine of justification carries. Recently the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission was given the topic of justification by faith to explore; they extended their terms of reference unilaterally and came up with a report titled Salvation and the Church, in which the key issues of the Reformation debate, namely the formal cause of justification and the content of Christian assurance, were ignored entirely; and few noticed the omission.20 As for the proposed revisions at which we shall now briefly look, it can be said at once that acceptance of them would virtually guarantee that justification by faith, as the Reformers understood it, would never be back on the Christian map again. So I make no apology for arguing polemically against them.
First question then: Should we agree with Wrede, and Albert Schweitzer, and many exegetes and theologians since their time, that Paul's doctrine of justification was no more than a controversial device developed for use against Jews and Judaizers, and so need not greatly concern us? No, for at least these reasons:
(1) Paul's letter to the Romans is by design a full-dress statement of his gospel, and the doctrine of justification is its backbone.
(2) In all the places where Paul writes in the first person singular of the convictions that made him the man and the missionary that he was, he couches his testimony in terms of justification by faith (Gal. 2:15-21; 2 Cor. 5:16-21; Phil. 3:4-14; cf. 1 Tim. 1:12-16). The terms in which a man gives his testimony indicate what is nearest his heart.
(3) Present justification, God's declaration that the believer is in the right with him, is for Paul God's basic act of blessing, which both saves from the past by remitting guilt and assures for the future by its guarantee of continuing acceptance. For justification is the judgment of the last day brought forward, a final, irrevocable verdict bringing peace and hope to sinners who previously had neither. The centrality of final judgment in Paul's view of life is plain, and justification is part of that central reality.
(4) Paul's total account of salvation has justification in and through Christ as its central reference point. It is in terms of justification that Paul explains grace (Romans 3:24, 4:4 f.); the reconciling, redemptive, and revelatory significance of Christ's death (2 Corinthians 5:18 f.; Rom. 3:24, 5:5-11; Gal. 3:13); the covenant relationship (Gal. 3:15 ff.); faith (Romans 4:23 ff., 10:8 ff.); adoption and the gift of the Spirit (Gal. 4:6-8); and Christian assurance (Romans 5:1-11, 8:1-39) to look no further. Justification is thus seen to be at the heart of Paul's soteriology.
(5) The question that Paul deployed his doctrine of justification to answer in debate with Jews and Judaizers, namely, "Who are the true children of Abraham?", was for him central to the gospel. For God's salvation is for Abraham's seed, and the mediatorial significance of Christ is that in union with him Jewish and Gentile believers become Abraham's seed for salvation (Galatians 3:6-29).21
The threefold claim, drawn mainly from Paul, that justification is a status, given now, and that the formal cause of its being given is the righteousness of Christ, and that the result of its being given is that sinners know themselves to be permanently right with God in a way that daily stumbling into sin cannot affect,
revolutionized spiritual life in the sixteenth century, turning Christianity at a stroke from an affair of apprehensive aspiration into a joyful experience of assurance. That experience cannot survive, however, if its doctrinal foundation gets obscured or sidelined. Luther is said to have predicted that after his death the devil would counter-attack with this sidelining as his objective, and that appears to be something that he is still doing today. Surely Scripture requires us to restore the often neglected emphasis on a coming personal judgment for each of us at the hands of a holy God, and against that background to reinstate the precious truth of justification22 the wonderful exchange, as Luther called it, whereby Christ took our sin on himself and set righteousness upon us in its place. (Never forget that penal substitutionary atonement and the righteous justification of sinners are the two sides of a single coin, the two elements in the one saving transaction whereby God rescues us from hell.) It would be ruinously enfeebling for us to be allured away at any stage from a central emphasis on justification by faith.23
So we move to the fourth revisionary suggestion, which we shall consider in the form it is made by an evangelical school of thought which, ironically, has done more than most over the past half-century to keep the doctrine of justification by faith at the center.24 The suggestion is that saving faith is an assent to the truth about the atonement, and a formalized receiving of Jesus as Savior, without any necessity of turning from sin to become his disciple and, in the relational sense, follower, and that to ask for more than this as a response to the gospel is a legalistic lapse into justification by works, and an unwarranted restriction of God's free grace. To this suggestion I make a threefold response.
(1) Faith must be defined, just as it must be exercised, in terms of its object. But the Christ who is the object of saving faith is the Christ of the New Testament, he who is prophet and king no less than he is priest; and more particularly it is the Christ of the gospels, who constantly called for a life of active discipleship as the means of benefiting from his ministry, who is our only basis of salvation. Surely it is undeniable that God has joined faith and repentance, in the sense of change of life, as the two facets of response to Christ, and has made it clear that turning to Christ means turning from sin and letting ungodliness go. Surely it is undeniable that in the New Testament true faith is not only knowing facts about Jesus, but coming to him in personal trust to worship, love, and serve him. Surely it is undeniable that if we put asunder these things that God has joined together, our Christianity will be seriously distorted.
(2) There is an evident confusion here between faith as a psychological act, that is, something that you do (in this case, "closing with Christ" as the Puritans used to put it), and faith as a meritorious work, that is, a means of earning God's favor and inducing his acceptance. When it is argued that to call for active commitment to discipleship as a response to the gospel is to teach works-righteousness, the confusion is clear. The truth is that every act of faith, psychologically regarded, is a matter of doing something (knowing, receiving, and trusting are as much acts in the psychological sense as is resolving to obey); yet no act of faith ever presents itself to its doer as other than a means of receiving undeserved mercy in some shape or form. This is as true of a trustful commitment to follow Christ as it is of a trustful resting on the Saviour's promise of pardon. There is no need to restrict faith to
passive reliance without active devotion in order to keep works-righteousness and legalism out of the picture.
(3) The pastoral effect of this teaching, if taken seriously, can only be to produce what the Puritans called "gospel hypocrites" persons who have been told, or who have told themselves, that they are Christians, eternally secure in Christ, because they believe that he died for them, when their hearts are unchanged and they have no inward commitment to Christ at all. I know what I am talking about, for I was just such a gospel hypocrite for two years in my teens before God mercifully made me aware of my unconverted state. If I seem harshly critical when I categorize this proposed redefinition of faith as a barren intellectual formalism, you must remember that I was once myself burned by teaching of this type, and a burned child dreads the fire.
"Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16). The only recommendation to which my survey leads me is that in relation to all the proposed revisions of evangelical faith that we have discussed, we should take these words to heart.
Response || Table of Contents
1. Ian Botham, The Incredible Test (London: Pelham Books, 1981), p.65. [BACK]
2. See Romans 1:21; Eph. 4:18. [BACK]
3. The idea of the analogy of Scripture assumes that the extent of the biblical canon is fixed and known. In the contemporary context this assumption, which many Protestant liberals query and which Roman Catholics claim presupposes the infallibility of the canonizing church, requires exposition and defense, which is not possible here. Materials which in my judgment make possible a convincing defense of the 66-book Protestant canon as fixed and certain in its God-givenness are contained in Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (London: SPCK and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1985); F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988); Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987); H.N. Ridderbos, The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1963; 2nd rev. ed., Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, 1988); Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.ii. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), chapter 3, pp. 457-740; G.C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), chapter 3, pp. 67-104; A.B. du Toit (Pretoria: N.G. Kerkboekhandel Transvaal, 1979); David G. Dunbar, "The Biblical Canon," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), pp. 295-360. [BACK]
4. In The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), Rogers and McKim maintain that authentic, healthy Christian theology has always recognized, implicitly if not explicitly, that God so accommodated himself to the humanity of the Bible writers as to produce for us a Bible that, while functioning as a safe guide for faith and life, contains various sorts of mistakes on matters of factual detail. This thesis in historical theology with its implications for healthy bibliology today and tomorrow is effectively countered by John D. Woodbridge in Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers-McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982). [BACK]
5. For the thesis that divine love points to universalism, see J.A. T. Robinson, In the End God (London: James Clarke, 1950; 2nd edition, London: Fontana, 1968) and Nels Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God (London: SCM Press, 1952), pp. 219ff. For the idea that the victory of Christ on the cross and in the resurrection entails universalism, see G.C. Berkouwer's critique, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and London: Paternoster Press, 1956).pp. 262-96, 361-68. For the view that theodicy requires us to posit universalism, see John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London: Fontana, 1968), and Nels Ferre, Evil and the Christian Faith (New York:Harper, 1947). There are useful brief reviews of universalist thinking in Stephen H. Travis, Christian Hope and the Future (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 124ff, and in Themelios 4.2, Jan. 1979, articles by R.J. Bauckham, N.T. Wright, E.A. Blum, and B.J. Nicholls. [BACK]
6. Harold O.J. Brown, "Will Everyone be Saved?," Pastoral Renewal, June 1987, p. 13. [BACK]
7. W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889), II. 680. [BACK]
8. The texts in question are Jn 12:32; Acts 3:21; Romans 5:18f, 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22-28; 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20ff; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 2:9; Tit. 2:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 1 John 2:2, 2 Peter 3:9. In Hasting's Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908), II. 785, Robert Mackintosh, himself a wishful universalist, observed: "The question (sc., of universalism) is generally argued as one of New Testament interpretation. The present writer does not think that hopeful. He sees no ground for challenging the old doctrine on exegetical lines." Nothing that has been offered during the past eighty years seems to invalidate that verdict. [BACK]
9. Ferre, The Christian Understanding of God, p. 241. [BACK]
10. James Denney, Studies in Theology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), p.244. [BACK]
11. Sir Norman Anderson, Christianity and World Religions (Leicester and Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1984), p.148f. [BACK]
12. Annihilationism is the version of this view that assumes the natural immortality of created human beings, conditionalism the version that denies it. Since no creature has life at any level, or existence in any form, for a single moment apart from God's active upholding, this is a verbal distinction that corresponds to no theological difference. Only within a deistic frame of reference would the distinction mean anything. [BACK]
13. Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Herbert W. Armstrong's World-Wide Church of God are committed to conditionalism. [BACK]
14. "In conservative circles there is a seeming reluctance to espouse publicly a doctrine of hell, and where it is held there is a seeming tendency towards a doctrine of hell as annihilation... Our interest here is with conditional immortality, which appears to be gaining acceptance in evangelical orthodox circles" (Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986, pp. 174,176). In The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1966) Leroy Edwin Froom, a Seventh-day Adventist, highlighted the conditionalism of Basil F.C. Atkinson, an able lay theologian of Cambridge, England (II.881-88), who seems to have influenced many gifted evangelical students to embrace this view. H.E. Guilleband, author of The Righteous Judge: A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment (Taunton: Goodman,), a careful conditionalist statement, was close to Atkinson, Atkinson's own conditionalism, already explicit in his Pocket Commentary on Genesis, was later spelled out in Life and Immortality: An Examination of the Meaning of Life and Death as they are Revealed in the Scriptures (Taunton: E. Goodman, n.d.). [BACK]
15. David Edwards and John Stott, Essentials (London: Hodder and Stoughton and Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 312-20. [BACK]
16. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 398-407. [BACK]
17. Among recent evangelical writers of distinction who incline more or less explicitly towards conditionalism are Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, with (dissenting) preface by F.F. Bruce (Houston: Providential Press, 1982); John W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (Leicester and Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974), chapter 2, pp. 27-41; Stephen H. Travis, who declares: "If pressed, I must myself opt for" conditional immortality (I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, p. 198). [BACK]
18. Stott, op. cit., p. 320. [BACK]
19. For detailed argument confirming this verdict, see Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984), chapter 8, pp. 199-222. [BACK]
20. Among those who did notice it, and comment on it, were Alister McGrath (ARCIC II and Justification: an Evangelical Anglican Assessment of Salvation and the Church, Oxford: Latimer House, 1987; "Justification: the New Ecumenical Debate," in Themelios, 13.2, Jan.-Feb. 1988, pp. 43-48); Christopher J.L. Bennett, "Justification and ARCIC II," in The Banner of Truth, 297, June 1988, pp. 6-11, 32; and, with profound pastoral insight matching theological acumen, Christopher Fitzsimons Allison, "The Pastoral and Political Implications of Trent on Justification: A Response to the A.R.C.I.C. Agreed Statement Salvation and the Church," in Churchman 103.1, 1989, p. 15-31; reprinted from St. Luke's
Journal of Theology (Sewanee), XXXI.3, 1988. Bishop Allison's The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (Wilton: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986) is the authoritative account of Anglican responses to the Tridentine teaching on justification in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. See also McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), II. 1-134. [BACK]
21. For development of this point, see the brilliant chapter by Tom Wright, "Justification: the Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism," in The Great Acquittal: Justification by Faith and Current Christian Thought, ed. Gavin Reid (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1980), pp. 13-37. [BACK]
22. Alister McGrath's otherwise admirable exposition, Justification by Faith: What it Means for Us Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), fails us here: amazingly, it makes no mention whatever of judgment to come. [BACK]
23. I develop some of these points in my introduction to James Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification (London: Banner of Truth, 1961) and my chapter, "Justification in Protestant Theology," in J.I. Packer and others, Here We Stand: Justification by Faith Today (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986), pp. 84-102. [BACK]
24. See John MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan and Panorama City: Word of Grace, 1988), citing and interacting with relevant works by Zane Hodges, Charles Ryrie, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and G. Michael Cocoris. Darrell L. Bock wrote a judicious review of the interaction in Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan.March, 1989, pp.21-40. The debate continues. [BACK]
Response || Table of Contents