Below you will find commentary by Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon, an associate professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, explaining how universalism is not Biblical. (the information below comes from Dr. Gagnon's facebook page here) Read it and then try to explain how any ELCA leader in their right mind could teach that everyone will be saved.
- Robert A. J. Gagnon Russ , the problem with the universalist view is that it is anti-scriptural. Jesus, Paul, John, Luke, the writer of Hebrews, John of Patmos, etc. all indicated that most go to destruction, that only those who believe and confess Christ will be saved. The judgment sayings of Jesus alone appear in about a third to half of all his sayings. See pp. 7-12 of this article http://robgagnon.net/Reviews/homoWinkRejoinder.pdf where I gather such sayings of Jesus without even touching sayings found only in Matthew (where the rate of judgment sayings doubles) or only in John. Paul referred to unbelievers as those who have no hope and at the Lord's Supper abuse told the Corinthians that they were being disciplined in the hopes that they might not be condemned with the world. Paul frequently warned believers about not inheriting the kingdom of God if they continued in their sins. The writer of Hebrews went even further, claiming that those who departed from the Christian faith could never return. In Acts even the Godfearer Cornelius is told by God that he will hear the message of the gospel by which he will be saved if he believes, presuming that all his sincerity and goodness without Christ avail nothing unless he accepts the gospel.
- Instead of making it easier to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus demanded that his followers deny themselves, take up their cross, and lose their life (Mark 8:34-37); cut off any body part that threatens their downfall lest their whole body be sent to hell (Matt 5:29-30; Mark 9:43-48); and fear not humans but God who can send both body and soul to hell (Matt 10:28 // Luke 12:4-5 [Q]). Jesus compared those who did not manifest transformed lives to salt that, when it loses its taste, is good for nothing and gets thrown out (Luke 14:34-35 // Matt 5:13 [Q]; cf. Mark 9:49-50). Only those “who endure to the end,” he insisted, “will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Far from proclaiming a broad entrance into the path of salvation, Jesus proclaimed the exact opposite: “Enter through the narrow door [or: gate], for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it” (Matt 7:13-14 // Luke 13:23-34 [Q]). Not only will those who make no pretense to following Jesus be in dire straits, but so also will be many who claim to know Jesus: “When the master of the house gets up and shuts the door and you . . . [say], ‘Lord, open for us,’ . . . he will say . . .: ‘I do not know you; stand away from me, you who work lawlessness’” (Luke 13:25-27 // Matt 7:13-14, 22; 25:10-12 [Q]). Jesus condemned in the strongest possible terms several towns near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida) for refusing to accept his message: “As far as Hades you shall come down” (Luke 10:13-15 // Matt 11:22-24 [Q]). Indeed, he referred to his contemporaries as an “evil generation” and an “adulterous and sinful generation” that will face great judgment because of their refusal to repent in response to his proclamation (Luke 11:29-32 // Matt 12:39-41 [Q]; Mark 8:38). Moreover, Jesus told his own followers to make similar assessments about the destruction to befall places that reject the gospel. He considered the reception of his messengers to be determinative for reception of himself and ultimately of God. Although Jesus emphasized reclaiming and restoring the lost in his message and ministry he still set this leitmotif against the backdrop of warnings about, and images of, coming judgment.
- Every assurance of eternal life in the Gospel of John falls only to those who believe in Jesus, including the famous John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life” (see also, for example, 3:15, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47, 54, 68; 11:25-27). The text doesn’t say: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, in order that believing in Christ might be merely the preferred means by which someone is saved, lest anyone restrict the wide grace of God and presume to determine for God who will belong to his people.” In fact, John’s Jesus goes on to say to Nicodemus quite the opposite: "The one who believes in [the Son] is not being judged, but the one who does not believe has already been judged because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. . . . The one who believes in the Son has eternal life but the one who disobeys the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (3:18, 36).
- Not coming to faith in Jesus means remaining in the condition of darkness and judgment in which one already existed before Christ came (1:5). Thus: “I have come as light into the world, in order that everyone who believes in me may not remain in darkness” (12:46). “I told you that you would die in your sins; for if you do not believe that ‘I am’ [or: I am he; i.e. the Son of God sent from heaven] you will die in your sins” (8:24). John’s Gospel even singles out faith in Christ and in his redemptive work, not just the redemptive work itself, as “the” one and only essential response to God that remedies the universal condition of being without eternal life:
"This is the work of God [i.e. the work that God requires to have eternal life]: that you believe in the one whom [God] sent. . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood (i.e. believe in him and him alone), you have no life in yourselves." (6:29, 51, 53)
Similarly, in the discourse following his healing of a lame man, Jesus says:
"The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Amen, amen I say to you that the one who hears my word and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life. . . . And [my Father’s] word you do not have remaining in you because the one whom That One sent, this one you do not believe. . . . And you do not want to come to me in order to have life. . . . If you believed Moses you would believe me, for that one wrote about me." (5:23-24, 38, 40, 46; cf. 8:42-44, 47)
Transitioning from death to life is thus marked by, and only by, believing in Jesus. Before belief, one’s condition is one of “death,” not “life.” Coming to Jesus alone brings life. Even a Jew who follows Moses, but not Jesus the Messiah, is separated from God—how much more a Gentile who follows anyone or anything else. To the formerly blind man Jesus asks one simple question, the answer to which will determine whether he truly “sees” or belongs with those who remain spiritually blind: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (9:35-41).
The Gospel at an earlier stage of its history closed with the words: “Now I have written these things in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and in order that, by believing, you may have eternal life in his name” (20:31). This note forms an inclusio with the prologue of the Gospel: “As many as received him, he gave to them authority to become children of God, to those who believe in his name” (1:12). As with the New Testament generally, this faith in Christ is neither a one-time act nor a merely intellectual assent to prepositional truths about Christ. It is rather a genuine, lifelong trust that results in transformation. If it does not result in a transformed life lived for God, then the one who is joined to Christ becomes like “a branch in me that does not bear fruit,” which is “removed” from the vine and “thrown into the fire and burns” (15:1-6).
More could be said about the Gospel of John, to say nothing of the Johannine Epistles, but this is enough to establish a consistent presumption on the part of the Fourth Evangelist: Faith in Christ is necessary for inheriting eternal life and entering into the Light. Not even the exercise of faith in God within the context of early Judaism was enough to avert judgment, to say nothing of faith in the context of “pagan” religions. How then could the “anonymous Christian” model work for John’s Christology and soteriology? If such thoughts presumptuously limit God’s sovereign freedom, restrict God’s grace, and substitute God’s determination of the redeemed for a human determination, then the Fourth Evangelist, along with Paul and Luke, is profoundly guilty on all counts. This is not such bad company for the church to keep, is it?
- That Paul worked with an operating premise that all unbelievers would perish is clear, and not only from the discussion of Israel in Romans 9-11 broached above. Paul comforted his converts at Thessalonica with the assurance that they had a resurrection hope, unlike the rest of the world that had “no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). To the Corinthians he declared that divine chastening for their abuse of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was intended to have a reforming effect, “in order that you might not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor 11:32). Paul could make such remarks almost as asides because they were not controversial views of the early church.
- Paul saw a strong dichotomy between those who received the gospel in faith and were being saved, on the one hand, and those who did not believe and were perishing, on the other hand. “The message of the cross,” he noted to the Corinthians, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Paul, noting that he and his coworkers “make apparent the smell of the knowledge of [Christ] in every place,” added: “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing: to the latter a smell of death leading to death, but to the former a smell of life leading to life” (2 Cor 2:14-16).
Even for his Galatian converts to take on circumcision would have meant being “discharged from Christ” and “falling out of grace” (Gal 5:4). When Paul laid out again the core gospel in 1 Cor 15:3-4, he prefaced it by asserting that this is “the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, through which you are also being saved . . . if you are holding firmly to it—otherwise you believed for no reason” (15:1-2). Once again, it is not even enough to have believed the gospel at one time, to say nothing of never having believed it. One must also continue to “hold firmly” to it if one is to be saved.
Some might argue in the face of such texts that condemnation awaits only those who hear the gospel and reject it. However, if that were so, then bringing the gospel to unreached people-groups would be more bad news than good, for it would put large numbers of people at risk for not accepting the gospel—people who otherwise would not be at risk. Paul started with the assumption that the entire world was enslaved to sin, justly deserving of God’s sentence of death (Rom 1:18-3:20). Only believing in the gospel of what Christ had done for us, with an accompanying transformation of life, could bring a deliverance leading to eternal life.
“The gospel,” Paul stated in his opening theme statement to his magisterial letter to the Romans (1:16-17), “is God’s capacity (or: power) to effect salvation.” Yet it is so only “for everyone who believes” the gospel. This is “first” and foremost true “for the Jew” but also “for the Greek” or Gentile. “God’s righteousness,” that is, God’s faithfulness and truthfulness to his promises of old to bring salvation to the redeemed of Israel and of the world, “is revealed from faith to faith” (i.e. on the basis of faith, from first to last). God’s righteousness is disclosed to, and takes effect for, only those who put their trust in the good news about God’s long-awaited salvation.
The same point is made by Paul all over again in Rom 3:21-26 when he defines for the first time in the letter what the content of the gospel is. “The righteousness of God has been manifested . . . through faith in Jesus Christ for all who are believing (the gospel),” without any distinction being made between Jew and Gentile (3:21-23; cf. 10:12). God’s redemption in Christ is “through faith” such that God “justifies the person whose existence is based on faith in Jesus” (3:24-26).
Paul nowhere implies in Romans or anywhere else that God has some other option for the world—an extraordinary omission, if omission there is, for someone who viewed himself as apostle to the entire Gentile world. Surely he thought about the fate of Gentiles that he did not reach. The operating premise of Paul and of the rest of the New Testament witness is not: If people do not hear the gospel but seek God in the only way they know how, they too will be saved. That is the life that Paul lived before coming to faith in Christ. It was a life full of personal religious attainments and full of “zeal for God” (Phil 3:4-6; Gal 1:13-14; cf. Rom 10:2). Given too parallels in Qumran literature it was also a life that fully recognized his own personal shortcomings in relation to God and daily sought forgiveness for such shortcomings—not a stereotypical life of legalism. Yet it was a life that Paul, as a believer, could only characterize as a “loss,” as “excrement,” in comparison with “knowing Christ.” Even his new life in Christ consisted of an earnest quest to “gain Christ” and to be “conformed to his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:7-11)—how much more precarious the former life?
In 1 Cor Paul warned the Corinthians that going to idol temples and engaging in sexual immorality could get them excluded from the kingdom of God (chs. 5; 6:9-20; ch. 10). He even indicated that he himself could be disqualified if he did not engage in rigorous spiritual discipline like an Olympic athlete (9:24-26).
- Luke presumes everywhere in Acts that believing in Jesus Christ is a necessary precondition for salvation (a precondition, of course, that is in no way personally meritorious).
Even the Godfearer Cornelius, a righteous Gentile, is not assured of salvation on the basis of life of conscience. He is rather told that he will hear from Peter the gospel message, “words to you by which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). That message is the very message of salvation through faith in Christ: “To this one [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Note carefully the operating premise of Acts 10-11: Cornelius, though already a Gentile who was “devout and fearing God . . . , making many charitable contributions to the [Jewish] people and praying to God constantly” (10:2), was not saved and had not yet received forgiveness of sins—things that would only come about when he came to faith in Christ.
- Surely if any Gentile could have received forgiveness of sins and be saved apart from hearing the gospel message, it would have been Cornelius. And yet the requirement placed on him differed in no way from the requirement placed on the probably less devout Philippian jailer, who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s response to the jailor is the same as Peter’s response to Cornelius: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (16:30-31). Paul and Silas did not say to the jailor, “Well, normally, believe in Christ, but we wouldn’t want to claim to be the determiners of who belongs to God or in any way restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith.”
When Peter (as depicted by Luke) spoke to fellow ordinary Jews at Pentecost he assumed that they would all perish unless they heeded the command to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (2:38), which Peter later connects with “faith in his name” (3:16, 19).
Likewise, when Peter proclaimed to the Jewish “rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem” he declared that “there is not in any other person [than Jesus Christ] salvation, for neither is there another name [than the name of Jesus, 4:10], which has been given under heaven among humans, by which we must (dei) be saved” (4:12). His hearers did not understand him as saying that it was not necessary to “profess explicit faith in Christ” to be saved. They understood him as saying that the only certain way that even they, Israel’s high-priestly family (4:6), could be saved was by believing in this Jesus of Nazareth as God’s sole redemptive agent.
We see the same thing going on throughout Luke’s depiction of Paul’s missionary journeys. When Paul entered the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, he likewise assumed that forgiveness of sins for all his Jewish and God-fearing hearers was contingent upon believing in Christ: “Let it be known to you, men, brothers, that through this one [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, and from all the things you could not be justified [or: made right, acquitted] in the law of Moses, by this one everyone who believes [i.e. in him] is being justified [or: made right, acquitted]” (13:38-39). The implication is clear: those who do not believe in Christ are not absolved from the law’s condemnation. Those who reject the message show themselves “to be unworthy of eternal life” (13:46).
Similarly in a Gentile context, when Paul and Barnabas arrived back in Syrian Antioch after proclaiming the gospel of salvation in Christ to the Gentiles in southern Turkey, “they related . . . how [God] had opened for the Gentiles a door of faith” that made it possible for the Gentiles to be saved (14:27).
Shortly after the incident in Europe with the Philippian jailor (cited above), they arrived in Athens. Even when Paul spoke before a philosophical crowd he told them that though God formerly “overlooked the times of ignorance,” he was “now,” since the coming and resurrection of the judge of all humanity, “command[ing] all people everywhere to repent” and (this is implied) receive Christ (17:30-31).
To the Ephesian elders gathered at Miletus Paul declared that he was innocent of the blood of every person inasmuch as he had “testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus” (20:21).
Paul recounted before Agrippa the revelation of Christ to him on the road to Damascus, in which Jesus told him: “I am sending you [to the Gentiles] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:19). Again, the assumption here is that the entire Gentile world is in darkness, under the power of Satan, and bereft of both forgiveness and a place in God’s kingdom—all of which can only be rectified by the proclamation of the gospel and a response of faith in Christ.
Finally, when Paul arrived in Rome and proclaimed the gospel to “the local leaders of the Jews,” with some convinced but “others refus[ing] to believe,” he declared that “this salvation of God” would be “sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (28:24, 28). Once more we see the clear operating premise: apart from believing in Christ your situation is a desperate one of ‘un-salvation.’
Everywhere in Acts and to all whom the two great pillars of the church, Peter and Paul, encounter, whether ordinary Jews or the highest Jewish religious officials, whether pious Gentiles or immoral pagans, whether philosophers or idolaters, the operating premise is: If you don’t believe in Christ you will not be saved.