In this post Chad Holtz, pastor of Mountain View UMC in Dayton, TN, and who blogs at Desire Mercy and at umc holiness, explains why he no longer believes in Christian universalism: that everyone will be saved. He says that this idea has present day implications: “… in making God so big that he saves everyone I unwittingly created a God who saved no one.”(I attempted to use the WordPress reblog feature to post this, but it didn’t work. So, I pasted it here from umc holiness.)
In his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ, Peter Gomes shared a story about an interview he did alongside Rick Warren. During the interview he chided Warren for not having a big enough God who would one day save everyone. The implication Gomes made was that if God could not or would not save every human being then this God was rather small.
Several years ago I read Gomes’ book with admiration, nodding my head and amen’ing my approval. I, too, thought the God I served was bigger than the God of my youth and of most Christians I knew because I was convinced that one day all would be saved. I spent a lot of time and energy (even costing me my job as pastor) trying to convince others that my God was bigger than your God.
But in making God so big that he saves everyone I unwittingly created a God who saved no one.
It’s ironic, really, that those who lean towards universalism (that God will save all in the end) tend to bemoan those who talk about heaven and hell, charging that all we talk about is eternity, yet when you think about it, the sort of salvation Peter Gomes held out for the masses was a salvation of the future. By insisting God will save everyone in the end relieves me of the anxiety over my life today because one day, after death, God will embrace me regardless.
But I think we have many people crying out for salvation now. I think the world is full of people, myself included, who need to be saved today, not later. I know that was true for me. A few years ago, when I looked in the mirror at my inner world I had no hope for eternity unless God saved us all. The assurance I offered to myself and to others did not depend on a transformed life, one growing in holiness, bearing fruit worthy or repentance (Matt. 3:8). Rather, it depended on my prideful hope that my God was bigger than your God.
But the God whom Gomes spoke of and the one I once thought was big, while being extremely benevolent after death, now seems very small and incapable of helping me put to death that which is killing me, or you, today. That God held out promise for a future but lacked the power to give me a present. What I really needed was the holy, awesome God Isaiah saw, making him undone, yet transforming him with a touch, making him clean and new (Isa. 6). I needed the Jesus whom John the Revelator saw on Patmos, with feet of burnished bronze, holding seven stars in his hand, eyes of flaming fire, a sword for a tongue, and a voice of roaring waters, causing John, the beloved disciple, to fall as though dead at his feet (Rev. 1:9-17). There was a time in my life when my God was not big enough to render my inside world as undone or dead.
I don’t need a God who promises to create a new heaven and a new earth yet can’t seem to create in me a new heart. I don’t need a God who promises to extend grace to me once I die but can’t change me by grace while I’m still alive.
And thanks be to God, that’s not the God we got! The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is one who has come to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He is a God whose power at work within you will change your will and desires to be more in line with His own (Phil. 2:13). This God’s will for you and I today is our sanctification, or holiness (1 Thess. 4:3), and the good work He has begun in you today will be seen through to completion (Phil. 1:6)! The God revealed to us in Scripture is the God who makes “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17), taking a person who was dead in their sins and blinded by the ways of this world and makes them alive and empowered to walk in the Spirit (Eph. 2:1-10).
Praise be to God! The God we serve is a big God, not because He will one day save everyone but because He has the power to save you, and I, today!
The more I see my inner world changing the more I trust that the other world must be true. The more I see sin being defeated in my life and in the lives of others the more I believe that death is defeated, too. The more I see lives that were once focused on self become focused on others and desires of the flesh replaced with desires of the Spirit the more convinced I am that heaven is real and that I am being prepared for it, like a bride being made ready for her groom. That is an assurance I never knew until seeing God as big enough to make even these dry bones live.
May we be a church who points not only to the God of our eternity but the God of our present reality, who has the power to transform our darkness into light, our unholy desires into holy ones, and order our loves away from self and onto Him alone. He is big enough to do that and more. Praise be to God!