How can God be so Bold? Universalism’s Crosshairs and the Just Simplicity of Divine Gratuity
The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the question, “Will all be saved?” The following is Matthew Barrett’s column, “How can God be so Bold? Universalism’s Crosshairs and the Just Simplicity of Divine Gratuity.” Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; 40 Questions About Salvation; God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture; Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary; Salvation by Grace, and Owen on the Christian Life. He is the host of the Credo podcast where he engages top theologians on the most important theological issues today.
In the twenty-first century, affirming the exclusivity of the gospel sounds downright harsh, lacking in compassion. To say, as the Christian should, that salvation is particular, and not universal, is to appear inhumane. That stereotype is only perpetuated when the best defense of the heaven-hell divide we have is to shout out John 14:6 or Mark 9:42-48, but more out of dismissive condescension than theological perceptivity. I have met more than one Christian with such an attitude, but it fools no one in the end, coming off as a cover for an otherwise superficial defense, much like an overpriced Christmas tree all bushy in the front but bare naked in the back.
Don’t misunderstand me: textual engagement is key and indispensable, for ultimately our case rests on what scripture says about God and salvation. But my concern is different: dismissiveness in the form of a quick proof-text more often than not neglects the heart of the matter: the character of God himself. More than a debate over this text or that text, Christianity and its claims to exclusivity and particularity are first and foremost a doctrine of God issue. Even the most decided universalist knows that, which is why most conversations, lay or academic, almost always turn to the love of God as the ace card in the deck.
But what if the average Christian was taught by the average pastor to defend the particularity of the gospel theologically, even systematically? Perhaps, just perhaps, those go-to proof-texts might shine, even sparkle, grounded as they are in the very attributes of the God we worship.
Is this not Paul’s approach in Romans 3? Paul refuses to dispense with divine justice in the name of compassionate (universal) love. Nor will he disregard the extreme benevolence of divine love in the name of a cold, apathetic righteousness. Presupposing divine simplicity, Paul’s view of God is far too holistic to rest his entire worldview on just one attribute at the expense of so many others.
To begin with, Paul stresses the outrageous gratuity of grace. Although none is righteous, and all have sinned, falling short of the infinite, impeccable glory of God (3:10, 23), God has given to the ungodly a gift they never could deserve: grace. Yet not just any generic type of grace, but a grace that justifies, declaring the unrighteous righteous in his sight, granting them a new status by means of his definitive and forensic declaration. Universalism is caught in the cross-hairs of the cross: it cannot fathom the just simplicity of his divine gratuity. Click To Tweet
It is hard to imagine—perhaps impossible?—a more compassionate, benevolent, and generous act by God. Justification by grace radiates the love of God, especially when we consider, as did Paul, the basis on which such justifying grace is possible. The reason the ungodly, the unrighteous, can be justified by grace is because someone paid the penalty for their sin. That someone is none other than God’s Son. We are justified by grace “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (3:25). Never was there a greater picture of love than this: the Father gave his only begotten Son over to a cross and for our sake. His condemnation is our justification.
Yet Paul’s testimony to the gratuity of divine love is not—as it so often is today—a cheap love. Divine love is not segregated from all else that is in God, remote and isolated, a catch all category whenever we mortals cannot explain where the world is going or where the world will end up. No, in Paul’s mind, divine love is never expressed towards us in a way that might compromise divine holiness. Better said yet, divine love can only be expressed in such extreme gratuity—as it was at the cross—if the righteousness of God is at play.
The universalist demands a choice: divine love or divine righteousness. But the dichotomy is fallacious. It is only on account of divine righteousness that God’s love can be so bold. By offering his own Son to bear the divine judgment we deserve, God delivers justification by means of his own justice. He is both just and the justifier (3:26). He is not our justifier despite his justness; he is our justifier because he is just. Divine love loses its gratuity if God cares not about the loveliness of his infinite holiness.
But notice, he is just and the justifier of the “one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Divine love is not cheaply tossed on anyone and everyone, as if God could care less about who he is (righteous) or who we are (idolaters), or the remedy therein. Unlike us, he is no whore. Particularity—faith in Jesus—signifies the significance, the costliness, of divine love itself. And not just love, but divine righteousness as well. Without faith in Jesus, it matters not whether God is both just and the justifier. Our faith, in other words, is the reception of a God whose own character is the reason for our salvation, and the reason to rejoice in our salvation. Apart from faith, God remains just but not the justifier, lest the blood of his beloved Son be trampled by our presumptuous entitlement to a heaven we insist we deserve.
In the end, the particularity of Christianity is best served to the world with the full picture of God on display, each of his divine attributes in union with one another. We need not hide this God, as if the particularity of his gospel reveals a deformity in his character. His gospel alone reveals a compassion this world can never know in and of itself, a compassion that sets our wrongs right by the dying cries of his own beloved Son: “It is finished.” Universalism is caught in the cross-hairs of the cross: it cannot fathom the just simplicity of his divine gratuity.
*Read the entire issue of the latest Credo Magazine: Will all be Saved?