Is Christ enough?

I’m having difficulty understanding the negative, sometimes venomous, response evangelicals give to the notion of universalism.  It seems to me that even the possibility of everyone being saved is a joyous notion, but it apparently leads some to doubt the sanity/faith/salvation of people who believe it, and it leads those on the receiving end to fear.  The author of The Evangelical Universalist wrote under a pseudonym for fear of being burned at the stake.  It was apparently staggering to evangelicals when John Stott supported the doctrine of annihilationism; imagine how his world would have been shaken had he shown an inclination towards universalism.

I don’t think the doctrine of hell is important enough to stake one’s salvation on it.  I do, however, think it’s important enough that we cannot be nonchalant about it.  At the very least, the notion of eternal conscious punishment in hell deserves some hard questions.  It’s not something we can glibly accept; it’s too horrible.

An issue that continues to come to mind as I think about hell and salvation is whether Christ’s work on the cross (however you explain it) was enough to deal with everyone’s sin.  I can’t imagine anyone saying that it wasn’t sufficient, because even the traditionalist would agree that if every person repented (in the traditional sense) they would all be saved by Christ’s work on the cross and be spared eternal damnation.  His work was enough because salvation is available to everyone, it’s just a question of who receives it.

If this is indeed the case, if Christ’s death and resurrection was enough to deal with everyone’s sin, then what, exactly, is the point of the “…but…”?

Imagine a group of friends out to dinner at an expensive restaurant.  After the meal, when the friends go to pay for their food, they are surprised and delighted to discover that a stranger has paid all of their bills.  In fact, he has paid the bills for everyone in the restaurant and everyone who ever has and ever will eat at that restaurant.  But there’s a catch, which the restaurant’s owner reveals: before each person’s bill is paid, that person must first find out who this stranger is and then he or she must ask him nicely and thank him profusely for the gift. If they refuse to do so, they will have to pay their bills again, despite the fact that they have already been paid (the owner will become a very rich man!).  It’s not the greatest analogy in the history of analogies (and it was better in the first draft, but I decided to get technical), but you can see what I’m getting at.  Christ’s work was sufficient for all…but…first you have to identify who did the work and then you have to ask for his help nicely.

This leads into a sneaking suspicion I’ve had for some time: that the notion of “salvation through faith”, at least as we flout it, has a distinctly “work-ish” smell about it.  What I mean is, we evangelicals are big on these wonderful words of the apostle Paul: “salvation is by grace, through faith, and not by works, so that none can boast”. What this often turns into, however, is “it is your faith that saves you”, that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s salvation…except believe.  It seems that the more we dwell on “faith versus works” the blurrier the difference becomes.  Faith as a goal is still a way to attain salvation, or can be unwittingly treated that way.  That faith saves is not orthodox Christianity.  Orthodox Christianity says that it is Christ who saves us—the role our faith plays in that is not entirely clear.

INterestingly, the Christian universalist view would provide for a salvation given (rather than attained) purely by the grace of God through the work of Christ, with nothing we’ve done (mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, etc.) affecting it.

Of course some of you are thinking that this inevitably leads to anarchy and hedonism—after all, if we all get there eventually, why not live it up now?   There are many reasons, other than getting into heaven/staying out of hell, for being holy, seeking righteousness, doing justly and loving mercy, not least of which is that Jesus lived it and commanded it.  (But this has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t do it again here.)

13 thoughts on “Is Christ enough?

  1. Simon

    Marc, I think that dinner analogy is fantastic! Inspired, even. By citing universalism, you remind me a “cute” little religion quiz I found via another friend’s site that may sort of pique your interest. I never put very much stock in these sorts of things, but it turns out, based on 5 minutes of multiple choice questions, that I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

    Fun! Here’s the link:

    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/76/story_7665_1.html

  2. Marc

    Thanks, Simon! I’ll check it out.

    By the way, I wanted to add that “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” is a biblical concept. My point was simply that it is Jesus that saves us, not our faith.

  3. Marc

    Also, this post is simply asking a question. Analogy is not a definitive form of argument, but enough to show what the question means.

  4. jim

    That’s a great analogy Marc!

    Regarding the negative response to universalism I think one of the reasons for this is ignorance of what Christian Universalism is. The assumption is that Universalism = the cross means nothing. In some form I think that is what first crosses the average Christian’s mind first. This understandably solicits a negative, even violent reaction and leads one to question the universalists understanding of the cross (hence “are they even saved”?). But the way I see it the Christian Universalist thinks the cross means everything. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Christian Universalism is it’s insistance that the cross is enough… it’s God redeeming his creation very effectually… period, no “buts” or “ifs”.

    And you are right, it doesn’t lead to anarchy and hedonism… actually it hasn’t. Love never fails. To say that it does lead to anarchy and hedonism (or to at least fear that it does) is to also unwittingly affirm that fear and the threat of grave consequences are better motivators for holy living. And in fact exclusivism (in all its human variations) has been the cause of great violence and harm, which are not the same as anarchy and hedonism I realise but very negative fruits just the same.

    Paul anticipates this line of thought (objection) in Romans. Right after he says, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Rom 5:18) he says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1) It’s like he’s saying, “ya, you heard me right and I know what some you will say.”

  5. Toni

    I hope I didn’t come across too much like that Marc (I don’t mind if I sounded a little grumpy – that’s just me anyway ;¬) ).

    I’ve been reading through Luke a lot recently. In Luke 13 Jesus talks about people perishing in a way that suggests spiritual death, even though the example given was of physical death. He connects it directly to faith and righteousness. In fact there’s quite a bit there, up through Ch17. There are certain things that could be taken to support both universalism and salvation only of the faithful, but you’d expect that.

    The meal analogy is good, but not quite right: to me at least. Much more a case of funds being made available by someone, but only given to the diners if they ask for it.

    Picking up Jims point, universalism would never negate the value of the cross (of course it couldn’t) but it does largely negate the point of the church. If all men are now saved automatically, why shouldn’t they live as they wish? In fact, if all creation has been redeemed, why isn’t the current creation now perfect again and men no longer subject to the power of sin in their lives?

    As for the unpleasant things that men have done to each other in the name of God…. that’s fairly typical of fallen man, unfortunately. Exclusivism wasn’t the sole cause of this. Actually I suspect that the church comprised a large number of those at certain times that many of us wouldn’t even recognise as ‘Christian’ now.

    The idea of this universal salvation is wonderful, but it doesn’t seem to match some of the things Jesus said about it.

  6. Marc

    No, Toni, you didn’t come across like that. You simply disagree with the position, which is fair enough. Nobody agrees on everything and I don’t expect them to.

    No, I’m referring to those people who would nearly lynch family and friends for adopting a universalist perspective, doubting that they’re “Christians” because of it.

    As for why they shouldn’t live as they wish, as I say, I’ve discussed that at length in other posts. I would like to think that people would be willing to behave in an appropriate manner for reasons outside of simply “getting in the door”. That would be doing good as a work, wouldn’t it? What about righteousness for righteousness’ sake or for God’s sake (literally)?

    Presumably God is working towards redemption and the church plays a part. We aren’t there yet.

  7. graham

    Marc,

    I guess some in the analogy may object that they didn’t want their meal to be paid by someone else. (Maybe they’re feminists and they want to object to the frequent presentation of women as in need of a man to save them?!)

    Maybe though, they didn’t realise that the bill was so big they’d never be able to pay it.

    Even then, maybe some would rather do the washing-up than have someone else ‘enforce’ his generosity on them!

    So, that’s how decided I am on this topic! 😉

  8. Ian H.

    Aside from the “living how we want to because it doesn’t matter in the end” question is a bigger one: if universalism is true, why evangelize?

  9. Marc

    I suppose it depends on your definition of evangelism.

    I’ve posted my thoughts on universalist evangelism here. The short answer: because Jesus told us to. The slightly longer answer: because there is more to Christ than “getting into heaven”. A longer answer can be found in the post I linked to.

    Jesus didn’t say, “Go and get people to ask me into their hearts” or “Go and increase the population of heaven”? He said “preach the Gospel” and “make disciples”, both of which, it seems to me are much broader than having people say “The Sinner’s Prayer”.

    Can we reject universalism solely on the basis of our emphasis on evangelism? Could it be that we have narrowed our understanding of the Gospel, and thereby evangelism, too much?

  10. Marc

    Graham:

    MacDonald addresses these issues in the book, I think. Is it unreasonable for the Stranger to pay their meals if the alternative is that they will have to pay for it for eternity, even if it is against the diner’s will? Is the diner’s desire so important, so untouchable?

    Of course, you’ve already read the book!

  11. Ian H.

    I do recall that post, but the question isn’t necessarily why should we evangelize, but why would Christ tell us to, if His redemptive work saves everyone in the end, regardless of whether they know Him or not?

  12. andrew

    I think the point of evangelizing is exactly what Jesus said it was, to urge people to follow Jesus’ way of living. Imagine a world where people actually took Jesus’ teachings about love of neighbour, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, etc. seriously! Come to think of it, I might be out a job if that were to happen…

  13. graham

    Yes, a fair response, Marc.

    I think that’s Gregory’s point about the ‘insanity’ of rejecting Christ, which you skipped over. 😉

    I guess the problem is that we can all think of examples of higher powers (e.g. governement) enforcing their apparent understanding of what’s really better for us.

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