Last week we spent several days looking at Christian Universalism and several errors abuses that I claim are making it easier for evangelical churches to fall into this heresy. The four I named specifically were a misunderstanding of the idea that “God is love,” a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone, the teaching of Free Grace theology as it pertains to perseverance, and the denial of the doctrine of a literal hell. Today I want to briefly discuss what I think we can do to protect against these errors and hold off the advancement of Christian Universalism into our churches. My thesis is this: in order to protect against the doctrinal errors that tempt Christians towards accepting the Christian Universalist viewpoint, we need to better teach, demonstrate, and embrace the traditional reformed doctrines of salvation, particularly the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election.
First, I believe that holding to a true understanding of total depravity goes a long way here, the core issue of this being whether or not man is by nature good and able to choose on his own to please God. He either is or he isn’t, there really is no middle ground, even though men like Paige Patterson muddy the waters playing fast-and-loose with this terminology.
Total depravity teaches that man is by nature sinful, wholly incapable of pleasing God and radically undesiring to do so (cf. Hebrews 11.6, Ephesians 2.1-3, Romans 3.9-12). Understanding this means that we are confronted with the fact that every second of a person’s life prior to being saved is spent in absolute rebellion against God. At no point is anything this person does going to incline God towards them or merit God’s favor in any way. ”[E]very intention of the thoughts of [their] heart [is] only evil continually” (Genesis 6.5). This is all sin and all an affront to the righteousness of God, which incurs his just anger. For God to forgive this requires more than just love. This is not some little kid who doesn’t mean to be bad they just are sometimes. This is a full-blown sociopath who shows no remorse or care that they are breaking every rule set out for them. If God is just he has to deal with this. If God is not just then he is not God and so were done. Therefore, “God is love” proves to be insufficient and salvation by grace alone must be understood in the context of who actually did pay for our transgression, that being Jesus Christ. If man is totally depraved then we have a real mess on our hands and it requires a much bigger God than the false God of Christian Universalism to fix what’s wrong with us.
Moreover, if man is totally depraved before salvation and yet able to please God after salvation then that means something happens at salvation. This something is what we find in Ezekiel 36 and Titus 3:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36.26-27)
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3.4-5)
At the moment of our salvation God washes over our totally depraved hearts and brings them out anew, ready to walk in his ways, able to follow his commands and serve him in a manner that is pleasing. We no longer are stuck in “following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2.2) but now are free to offer “spiritual worship” to our Lord (Romans 12.1). Therefore, to not do so is wildly out of place. Why would God set us up in such a way to do good works (Ephesians 2.10) if he did not have any intention on us actually doing them? Why are we given “heart[s] of flesh” and why does he say that he will “cause [us] to walk in [his] statutes“? Is God just being facetious? Was Ezekiel 36 only written to committed Christians and not the everyday average Joe Christian? Clearly not. God went through great trouble to enable us to do good works for us to just shoo that away as if it is an optional text. Totally depravity and Free Grace theology cannot coexist.
Finally, we can use the doctrine of unconditional election to deal with the denial of hell. Unconditional election, the process by which God has chosen his people, his children, from before time, without regard for their works or merit (because they have none prior to salvation, right?), and predestined them unto a sure salvation. Going further, because some Calvinists don’t do this, we need to understand that God saves ALL AND ONLY the elect. All of the elect will be saved and only the elect will be saved (cf. Romans 8.30, John 10.24-27).
But how does this help with the denial of hell? Put simply, it gives us understanding that no one is going to hell who wasn’t already choosing to go to hell. By our actions, our rebellion against God (in totally depravity) we are choosing hell. The only way out of this is by God’s grace in salvation. And the only way to salvation is through election. So, God remains just. He makes no man go to hell who did not already desire to go there himself. We need not view God as a God who damns unjustly or saves willy-nilly. God had a plan and purpose set out before the foundation of the world of whom he would save (Ephesians 1.3ff) and he is faithful to see that through. There is no one in hell who does not deserve it, and there is no design among men by which they may save themselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.26-31). God chose unconditionally and works this choice righteously to save those who are “called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).
There is much more. Taking on the reformed doctrines of salvation to their full extent (all five points of Calvinism) enlightens such a great portion of God’s plan that the confusion and mire of non-Calvinist soteriology and Easy Believism are wisked away. Admittedly, Calvinism is prone to its own abuses (particularly thinking here of the hyper-Calvinist practice of non-evangelism), but at the end of the day I would rather deal with the error of a God who does not call people to missions over the one of a God who does not call people to salvation, wouldn’t you?