Friday, September 02, 2011

Universalism Does Not Save

Dear Mike,

I would like to ask you who can become a member of a church.

A married couple (baptized) with two children went to a church for three years. Then they finally decided to become members of this church. Yet, the church said they could not join them because of their religious beliefs (universalism) and they did not like the man's testimony - the man could not say that there had been one particular moment in his life when he was born again.

Betty from Boston

Hi Betty,

I would not have a problem with someone wanting to join the church if they could not pinpoint when they were saved. Many people can't name the day. It similar to knowing when the sun came up. You don't need to know when it came up to know that it came up. So someone who could not identify the exact moment of their salvation would not be a problem for me.

I would want to do a lot of questioning about that universalism thing, however. If by "universalism" they mean that they believe that God will save all mankind in Christ and they mean that they are standing on the promises of God in 1 Jn. 4:14 and other similar passages, I wouldn't have trouble with them joining.

If they meant that God will save everyone regardless of their beliefs about God, just because God is a god of love and wouldn't send anyone to Hell, I would say that they cannot join. In this case, they clearly do not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus was sent to save sinners from the wrath of God.

We earned this wrath because of our rebellion and thus sin against the holy God. Some might counter with something like “the sin was done by simple men and women and we should not assume that our simply sin should be judged so harshly.” But that is not how anyone measures these kinds of things. Sin is not measured by the one committing it, but by the one it is against.

We do this all the time. For example, which is worse someone stealing your neighbor's car, or their stealing your car? It is a bad deal for your neighbor, but when it is against you, your reaction is much stronger. When we measure the wrong, it is much worse when it is against us than when it is against someone else (unless, of course, we are afraid it might turn toward us in the future). In the case of God, our sin against him is much greater in an absolute way. This is because God is the absolute. He is the source of all ownership, of all being, of all right, of all wrong, and he is the final authority for everything. So when you poke him in the eye, you are doing a much more evil thing than when someone pokes you in the eye.

The thing that makes all this even worse is that there isn't anything we can do to fix the wrong done against God. There is no restitution and no penance great enough to solve the problem. You cannot make the situation right on your own. The fact that our sin is against the infinitely holy God means that our sin is infinitely evil and deserves an infinitely terrible consequence. And that is how the Bible depicts the end of those who have rebelled against God. Not everyone is saved in the end. The world in not a universalist world. Evil will be judged in all its forms.

But the Bible also tells us that God loved the world (sinful men) and sent Jesus to take the penalty for our sins on himself. This seems like a pretty strange statement since it is hot on the heels of the statement about no one being able to appease a prefect and holy God. But that is because you don't understand that Jesus is God incarnate. He is wholly man, but he is also the creator of the universe in human form. God himself provided a sacrifice who could appease his wrath (1 Jn. 2:2). And God himself was that sacrifice. Jesus is God. The Bible tells us that Jesus was the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and that Jesus is the high priest who offers the lamb. Therefore, Jesus' death on the cross takes away the sins of those who believe in him (Jn. 3:16). What a great transaction! My sin was laid on Jesus and he paid my penalty.

How is this just? How can a man who did not sin (God cannot sin) take the punishment for the sins of sinful people who did sin? The Bible tells us that this is a mystery, but that it is a mystery that has been disclosed to us. God works in a way that is called “covenantal” in the Bible. One of the aspects of covenant is that the leaders of groups are representatives of those groups. When the leader does something, his whole group is help accountable for that something. We see this sort of thing all the time in normal life. For example, suppose our congress decides it is a good thing to go to war. They decide to go and have a vote. Because they are our leaders in a covenantal sort way, when they decide to go to war, we go to war.

It also works the other way around. If someone in the group, the leader is over, does something, the leader, because he is responsible for the group, suffers or is blessed for that person's behavior. Suppose a worker in Microsoft were to invent a computer that could read your mind and type everything you thought. The worker would get rewards, but so would Bill Gates. In fact, not many know who invented the touch screen that is so popular on our phones, but Bill Gates is getting plenty of money out of the deal. In the other direction, when a submarine runs into a mountain under the ocean, the captain is released from his command, but not necessarily the sailor who was on watch at the time. This is also an example of a covenant relationship.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is our head, or leader. When he died, those who would believe in him also died with him because he represented us. Also, when he rose from the dead, those who would believe in him also rose from the dead. Jesus died, we died. Jesus rose, we rose.

This has a number of implications for us as Christians. If we died in Christ, because he died to sin, we also died to sin. This means that we don't have a reason or excuse to sin anymore. In fact, we may not sin. It also means that since Jesus rose from the dead and we rose from the dead, that we also are to live a new, resurrected life. We are to count ourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ, to Christ. This is why a person who is a Christian should live a new life. It should be completely different from the old one. We should be taking off the old life with its rebellion and sin, and putting on the new life with its loveliness, joy, peace, and holiness.

To get back to your question: I would not let a person who believes in universalism join the church because they are not Christians. The church is a gathering of people who have acknowledged their rebellion and sin, but who have embraced the realization that Jesus died for their sins and have committed themselves to living for God and doing it in a covenantal relationship with the others in the church. Since these folks do not believe the Gospel they are still in their sins. Because they are still in their sins, they will continue to sin as before and if allowed to join the church will either destroy the church from within, or be asked to leave pretty soon anyway.

I know this is long and I got carried away a bit, but I hope it helps.

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