by Peter Maiden
Peter served as International Director of Operation Mobilisation (OM) for ten years, and had a ministry of teaching, preaching and writing. Peter was called Home to be with the Lord on 14 July 2020. Read a tribute from OM here.
I would certainly like to think so! It would make life much more bearable and the work of mission a completely different ball game. Some theologians have argued for this position, called ‘universalism’, throughout the history of the church. Their basic argument is focused around the idea of universal reconciliation, meaning that all human beings will be restored to a right relationship with God.
Today, a very popular idea in our culture is the idea that all religious roads lead to God and I am sure that few, if any, reading this article accept that position. However, one view that is gaining traction in some parts of the Church, where people would consider themselves Evangelical, might be called ‘Christian universalism’. They would insist that, somehow, through Christ all will be saved. A popular idea is that of ‘the Anonymous Christian’. Its proponents insist that Christ is the Saviour of the whole world. Non-Christians therefore can receive salvation through faithfully practising the rites of their own religions, even though they have no interest in Christ.
In 1967, Jim Packer wrote, ‘over the past century, the status of this belief [universalism] has advanced from that of an idiosyncrasy to that of a respectable theological option, favoured by many leading scholars and it continues to make great strides throughout the protestant world’.
More recently, the Evangelical Alliance in their report ‘The Nature of Hell’ concluded ‘in an increasingly multicultural, pluralistic society, the universalism which now underlies most forms of liberal Christianity is likely to present an even greater challenge for evangelicals’.
There are three things that cause me real concern today. Firstly, the danger that a steady creeping universalism is impacting the evangelical church, helped along by a viewpoint called the ‘Ethics of Civility’, which argues that the number one rule is ‘Do not offend people.’ The traditional view of the God who deals with sin, with hell awaiting the unrepentant sinner, is deeply offensive to many people. Yet, we are such nice people, not wanting to upset anyone, and therefore we remain silent on these crucial issues. If we add to that the increasing popularity of universalism today, how long before some form of this doctrine becomes acceptable in many of our fellowships?
A second concern we might call ‘practical universalism’. We say we believe that Jesus is the only way to God and people need to hear this good news, but do our lives show any indication that we believe this?
Recently I received a serious cancer diagnosis and the possible imminence of death has sharpened my focus. I always thought that witnessing and mission were high priorities in my life, but they have jumped up the priority list since this diagnosis. What about our church programmes? If you examine them, are they the programmes of people who believe they have found the only answer to eternal life in Jesus Christ?
A third concern is the impact this growing belief is having on Christian mission. Our primary motive for mission is that we want to see people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshipping God. Belief in the lostness of the lost has always been a great mission motivator. Where and when that conviction is questioned, it is not long before the fire of mission burns low. I believe we are in great danger of that becoming a reality today.
Let me draw your attention to two Scriptures. In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul describes people outside of Christ. He begins by saying such people are ‘dead in [their] transgressions and sins’ (v1). Paul could not have chosen a more telling word. People outside of Christ are spiritually dead. There is as much chance of a person outside of Christ doing anything for his or her salvation as there is of a corpse jumping to life. This is where most systems, which look for salvation for people in other ways than through personal faith in Christ, fall tragically short. They fail to appreciate the depravity of humanity, failing to see that, left to themselves, people will not seek for God and that unless God gives them life, they have no hope. Scripture clearly teaches that God has chosen to give life only through Jesus Christ. Paul goes further. He writes, ‘Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath’ (v3). A very important statement. All people are born in sin and they are by nature, not just by practice but by nature, objects of wrath. It is a desperate picture for humanity. Outside of Christ, people are dead, without hope, and by nature and practice they come under the threat of God’s wrath. This statement is about humanity in general, people worldwide; Paul gives no exceptions.
Our primary motive for mission is that we want to see people from every tribe, tongue and nation worshipping God.
The second passage is the first three chapters of Romans. Paul is here addressing, among other things, the question, which must have come to your mind many times – what happens to those who haven’t heard of Christ and His salvation? His answer is that they will not be judged for rejecting the gospel they have not heard. People will be judged according to the light they have received. Light or understanding comes to us in several ways. Take creation. Paul argues: ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Rom. 1:20). Or take our conscience: he notes that sometimes our thoughts accuse us and sometimes they defend us (Rom. 2:15). In other words, there is a sense of right and wrong that all people experience through the operation of their conscience and ‘God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 2:16). Then, Paul turns to the religious Jew from verse 17 onwards. He has the law, circumcision and all the other things that accompany his religious devotion. But look how Paul lays out his argument at the end of this section: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away’ (Rom. 3:10‐12). Everyone will be judged according to the light they have received. The light for some is creation and conscience, and for others it is centuries of religious tradition and considerable religious knowledge, but Paul’s conclusion is plain: no one lives according to light they have received – ‘there is no one righteous’ (v10). A righteousness from God therefore, apart from the law (v21), is essential if anyone is ever to be saved. Wherever could such a righteousness be found? The wonderful news of the gospel is that, ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (v22).
That’s why Jesus said, “No man comes to the Father but by me” (Jn 14.6). It’s why Peter proclaimed, ‘Neither is there salvation in any other’ (Ac 4:12), because He is that righteousness apart from the law. A righteousness that cannot be found in religious practices or in any other religious leader. It is only found in Jesus.
But what of those who say, ‘I agree – I’m with you all the way, but people can receive that righteousness without realising it’ – our friends who present the idea of the Anonymous Christian. Surely the whole emphasis of Scripture is that saving faith is faith in a person. It’s not faith in the religion of Christ but in Christ Himself that saves. How can people sustain from the Bible the idea that people can come to salvation through religions without any knowledge of the person of Christ?
Other Scripture passages teach the necessity of hearing the message of Christ: “Whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned” (Jn 5:24), and “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Paul asks four vital questions in Romans 10. After the great gospel statement that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v13), he asks:
- How then can they call on the one they have not believed in?
- How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?
- How can they hear without someone preaching to them?
- How can they preach unless they are sent?
These questions leave little room for any idea of Anonymous Christians! May these four great questions of Paul confirm conviction in the lostness of the lost, and the reality of salvation through a personal response to the person and work of Christ. But may they do much more than that – may they impact our lives, affecting the way we spend our time and money, the content of our prayer lives, the programmes of our churches and the strategy of our mission involvement.