Is Christian Universalism Alive in Your Church (HC LD 7, QA 20-23)?

I recently listened to a short online interview of an author who wrote a book on Universalism. The author shared a story about meeting with a man from his church who was trying to convince their pastor of Christian Universalism. He was rightly concerned for this man, and it was a personal story. What is Christian Universalism, and is it in your church?

I think the term Christian Universalism has been used since the early 19th century. It is the belief that every single person without exception will be saved in the end through the work of Christ alone. In other words, everyone goes to heaven. Unlike some Universalists like Oprah, Christian Universalists affirm John 14:6 where Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Christian Universalists say, “That’s right! Absolutely. No one is saved apart from the redemptive work of Christ.” However, they also say that every human being that ever existed will be saved and reconciled to God through Christ. All will be saved. None will perish. While embracing eternal life with God in heaven, Christian Universalists reject the idea of eternal punishment in hell.

I’ve been to many funerals and memorial services in my life, and through the years, I’ve encountered religious people who give off the impression that they believe everyone goes to heaven. Culture gives the same impression. Words give people away. The deceased person may not have received Christ by faith, may not have gone to church, may have even lived an unrepentant and selfish life, and some people still seem to assume they went to a “better place” or went to heaven. Might Christian Universalism be more prevalent than we think?

But what about the holiness and justice of God? What about the seriousness of sin? What about the cross? What about the many things Jesus taught about hell, God’s wrath, and judgment? What about how Jesus delineated between children of the devil and children of God? What about lines like “whosoever believes in him shall not perish” (Jn. 3:16)? What about the urgency of preaching to lost sinners? What about the Scriptures describing Judas as “the son of destruction” (Jn. 17:12)? What about 2 Thessalonians 1 which says that those “who do not know God . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (vv. 8-9)? What about Jude talking about the “gloom of utter darkness” being “reserved forever” for blasphemous people? What about Jesus saying that the dead will hear his voice and come out of the tombs “those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29)? Now, I can’t address all these topics in one podcast episode, but please understand that Scripture is unmistakably clear about God’s judgment and eternal hell.  

But what about a passage like 1 Corinthians 15:22 which seems to teach Christian Universalism? In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul says plainly, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” If you detach this verse from many other clear texts on salvation and judgment, it may sound like Paul is advocating Christian Universalism.

The key to understanding 1 Corinthians 15:22 is understanding the preposition “in” and the two groups of people Paul is talking about. When Paul says “in Adam all die,” he’s saying that all sinners who remain in solidarity with Adam remain guilty under the law and condemned to death. Indeed, all in Adam are dead in sin. To remain in Adam is to remain condemned in sin. But then Paul said, “in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Christ is union language. We are united to Christ by faith alone and are by faith alone in Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). God graciously and sovereignly puts sinners in Christ through faith in Christ which He grants. But many people die without true faith. Of course they do because they remained in Adam and dead in their sin and condemnation under the law. So it is right to say that all who are in Christ are made alive in Christ. Who is in Christ? Everyone who is genuinely regenerated and who thus trusts in Christ.

I think Dr. Ciampa and Dr. Rosner are helpful at this point. They write about 1 Corinthians 15:22:   

the particular human beings are named (Adam and Christ), and it is made explicit that they bring other human beings into the death and resurrection that they themselves experienced . . . To be in Adam is to be part of the group which finds in Adam its representative and leader, which finds its identity and destiny in Adam and what he has brought about for his people. To be in Christ is to be part of the group which finds in Christ its representative and leader, which finds its identity and destiny in Christ and what he has brought about for his people. All humans who have not yet found redemption through faith in Christ remain in Adam. Those who have entered into the promise of new life, the life of Christ, are in Christ, and will find that their initial experience of the newness of life was but a foretaste of the ultimate restoration of life that awaits them in the resurrection. [1]

So the comfort of 1 Corinthians 15:22 is that all those who turn from their sins and trust in Christ alone for salvation are inseparably united to Christ by true faith and are therefore in Christ and are no longer in Adam. Every unbeliever who remains in Adam remains in his or her sin and misery. So everyone throughout history was and is either in Christ or in Adam. Believers are in Christ and no longer in Adam, and unbelievers are in Adam and not in Christ. Those in Christ are justified and alive; those in Adam are condemned and dead in sin. It’s one or the other. 

Scripture does not allow for Universalism of any kind, pluralistic or Christian. Though our emotions may tempt us to waver at this point, the truth of God’s Word grounds us in the realities of heaven and hell. And these truths solidify the necessity of true faith in Christ. It does matter what we believe in this life, for what we believe or trust is the difference between eternal life and eternal destruction. Christian Universalism promotes false hope and reckless indulgence in sin – for what do repentance, faith, and holiness matter when we’re all eventually saved through Christ! Christian Universalism leads to antinomianism and hedonism.

Heidelberg 20 asks, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?” And the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully expresses the testimony of Scripture and church history, “No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all His benefits.” It is clear, not all men are saved; only those who receive Christ by true faith are saved.

Where is the comfort? The comfort is found in belonging to Christ by grace through faith. As you trust in Christ, beloved, you are inseparably connected to him and secure in his grace and love, and he is your confidence. God has a particular love for you, His church, His beloved, His people. Because of your Father’s mercy, compassion, and goodness, your union with Christ is unbreakable and you possess all the covenant promises of God’s favor and blessing. And the fruits of your faith are comforting as well. He is working in you because you belong to Him.

Christian Universalism is a false hope which misleads and hurts people. The uncorrupted gospel alone gives deep comfort and joy for those who are in Christ. Look to Christ and cherish the fact that you have been inseparably united to him.

[1] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 763–764.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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