What’s the scriptural basis for calling all people “God’s people”?

By Jack Gillespie, priest in The Lindisfarne Community. The following is a compilation of four posts originally published at Jack’s blog Celtic Oddysey.

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A dear friend recently asked me, ‘What’s the scriptural basis for calling all people “God’s people”?’ This is a major sticking point for many, based on the scriptures in the New Testament that seem to indicate that only believers in Christ are children of God.

It’s a great question for which I don’t have a direct answer. I’ll have to see if I can find any “proof texts” that says such (LOL)! Seriously, though, there are several different biblical themes that contribute to my belief in this so this might be a little dense and complicated (In my head, it’s a lot simpler)! To try and help with this, I’ll do a small series of posts that addresses this question.

Well, of course, there aren’t any verses that come right out and say, “all people are now God’s people because of the work of Christ.” If there were, the conversation would be over. But I see it throughout the New Testament (and even suggested in the Old Testament; e.g., Psa. 86.9) in the same way some people see Jesus “on every page of the Bible” or the way Paul saw Christ as the rock that Moses struck (1 Cor. 10.1-11).

So what do I “see” that makes me think that “all people are now God’s people because of the work of Christ”? There are several things I see. First and foremost is that, “God is Love” (1 John 4.8). Second is that God (Yahweh), through Jesus, created all that is seen or unseen (Gen. 1-2; John 1.1-5; Heb. 1.1-2; Col. 1.16). Next, I see the call of Abram (Abraham) to be a grand promise for all people, not just his progeny, Israel, or those who believe in Jesus (Gen. 12.3; see Luke 3.6 and the list below). This leads me to see two things about Israel: covenant and “shadow”.

Covenant

First is the idea of covenant. In the Old Testament (or “Old Covenant” as it’s sometimes called) Yahweh’s covenant was with the nation of Israel and them alone. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 17), he sacrificed a goat for the sins of Israel. If Yahweh accepted the sacrifice, the high priest would then return to the people, bringing forgiveness and rescue from their sins…for another year, at least. Note that: the people weren’t rescued from their sins until the high priest returned to the them. And another key point: it didn’t matter if people “believed” this or not. That is, if there were Israelites who didn’t “believe” in Yahweh or that Yahweh had forgiven their sins or not, their belief or unbelief didn’t change the fact that they were Yahweh’s covenant people and that their sins were now forgiven because Yahweh had accepted the sacrifice offered by the high priest. Their belief or unbelief didn’t change that; it was a fact of their covenant with Yahweh.

Shadow

Second is the idea of “shadow.” This means that Israel was the “shadow” of God’s intention for creation (Heb. 8; 10; Col. 2; Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture). They were the rescued people that were (on the one hand) a symbol of what God would (eventually) do with the rest of creation and the agent (on the other hand) through whom God would rescue creation—what God does for Israel, God does for the world (Wright, How God Became King; The New Testament and the People of God). In the New Testament we see this understood in the way the first followers of Jesus turned to the “nations” or the “world” (Gentiles) with the gospel. They realized being rescued from sin and death wasn’t just for Israel but for the rest of humanity, too (and, by extension, creation itself). They understood that the “nations” were to be part of God’s family (Acts 15; Rom. 8-11).

Eschatology

A third element to all of this, of course, is eschatology. As you know, soteriology (the study of salvation) is tied to eschatology (the study of last things) and it plays a heavy role in my understanding of the New Testament. This is a three stage process: proclamation; inauguration; establishment. Think about it like a presidential campaign: The candidate makes promises about her presidency (proclamation); she wins the election and becomes the president-elect (inauguration, though this isn’t the best word for this example; but this is the time when there are two administrations—the current one of the existing president and the soon coming one of the new president); and then, after some time, she actually becomes president (establishment). God’s Kingdom worked the same way. Starting with the New Testament (although, we could start with the Old Testament promises), God’s Kingdom was proclaimed to be coming soon by Jesus (Mark 1.15), inaugurated or began at the resurrection (John 20), and established when the old (Jewish) age ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans (Heb. 8). The way Jesus tells the story (Matt. 23-25; cf., Luke 21), the Romans would be God’s “rod of anger” against Israel like Assyria before them (Isaiah 10). Maybe this quick list might be helpful:

One of the key components in the last two places of this list is the “already/but not yet” of the New Testament. Over and over again they believed and taught that Jesus would (“must”; Rev. 1.1-3) come back “soon” or “shortly.” For example, Jesus said he’d return while some of his disciples were still living (Matt. 16.28). This is all tied together. And since I’ve written extensively about it before, I won’t go into it any further here.

Limitation

The “limitation” of belief in Christ in the New Testament, then, is tied directly to God’s coming wrath against Israel. Think of the “shadow” of the passover in Exodus—when the angel of death (or God) swept through Egypt, killing all the firstborn, he would “passover” the home that had blood on the door frame (Exodus 12). Likewise, when God’s “rod of anger” (the Romans) was used against Israel, it “passed over” those who believed in Christ. Eusebius stated that not a single follower of Jesus was killed in the war (Eusebius, Book III, 5.4).

Or think about the “shadow” of the wilderness wanderings of the Exodus. Those who moaned and complained died in the wilderness while those who remained faithful entered the promised land (Exodus 17; cf., Heb. 4). Likewise, Paul saw the time between the resurrection and “the end of the age” as the true Exodus (1 Cor. 10.1-11). Therefore, those who rejected what God was doing through Jesus suffered God’s judgment while those who remained faithful entered into God’s fully established Kingdom. Oh! And by the way, the “shadow” wanderings lasted roughly forty years as did the true Exodus.

Or, think about this “shadow,” albeit a bit backwards—the “mark of Yahweh” contrasted with the “mark of the beast”. As we know, the “mark of the beast” represented one’s allegiance to the enemy of God and Christ. Those with the “mark” were judged (Revelation 13; cf. John 19.15). Conversely, in Ezekiel, God’s messengers were sent out among the people of Israel and anyone found repentant of their sins and that of the nation were given the “mark of Yahweh.” Then the angels of God’s wrath were sent out and whoever was unmarked was killed (Ezekiel 9).

One last point in this section: There’s also a “shadow” regarding when people were rescued. As we noted above, Israel’s rescue from sin wasn’t fully accomplished until the priest returned to the people after offering the sacrifice (Lev. 17). Furthermore, according to the book of Joshua, Israel was not fully rescued from Egypt until the men born during the Exodus were circumcised (Joshua 5.1-9). Note that. Israel was not fully rescued during the Exodus. Likewise, as we saw above, Paul believed he and his contemporaries were living in the true Exodus (1 Cor. 10.1-11). And the New Testament states that the followers of Jesus weren’t fully rescued until Jesus returned. Jesus said to the disciples, “Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near” (Luke 21.28). And Paul wrote, “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13.11; cf., Heb. 9.28). Those who followed Jesus were given the Holy Spirit as a promise of their coming salvation (Eph. 1.13-14; 2 Cor. 1.22; 5.5). But this coming salvation, this complete rescue, was contingent at the time on the faithfulness of those who trusted in Christ. Just as ancient Israel would only see the promised land if they remained faithful to Yahweh during the Exodus, so also only those who remained faithful to Christ during the new Exodus would received the coming salvation, their complete rescue (Matt. 10.22; 24.13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Heb. 13.4; Rev. 2.10; etc.).

All of that to say this: The reason there were warnings about faithfulness in the New Testament was because God’s Kingdom hadn’t been fully established yet! But, like those born in the promised land didn’t need the same faithfulness and warnings as those who were wandering in the wilderness—because they were already living in the promised land—those of us who’ve come after the establishment of the Kingdom, the New Covenant Age, don’t need to have that same type of faithfulness as those living during the true Exodus; we’re already living in the New Covenant Age!

God’s Promise of Rescue

There are several passages in the Bible that speak of God’s promise to save “all” and restore creation. Here are but a few:

1 Tim. 2.3-6: God our savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There’s one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free. (The Greek word translated here as “wants” is θέλω (thelō) and it means to exercise the will.)

1 John 2.2: He’s God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world (cf. John 1.29).

1 Tim. 4.10: We work and struggle for this: “Our hope is set on the living God, who is the savior of all people, especially those who believe.”

John 12.47: “I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it.” (Jesus is literally saying, “I came to save the world.”)

John 4.42: “…we’ve heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

1 John 4.14: We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world.

John 12.32: “…When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”

Romans 5.18, 21: Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone…So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus the Christ our Lord. (The question is: “God’s ‘wonderful grace” now rules over who? Well, ‘just as sin ruled over all people…now God’s wonderful grace rules’ over all people.”)

1 Cor. 15.22: In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ.

I could go on and on. The testimony of Scripture is twofold—those who believe now, and everyone else believing later. This is how I can say that everyone is now God’s children. It’s the same way that the Calvinist can say with absolute certainty that “all the elect” are God’s children. While she doesn’t know who the elect are, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still God’s children, even if they don’t yet know it themselves.

Calvinism

This last bit leads me to Calvinism and my issues with it. But I’ve been wrestling with the acronym, TULIP, for some time now. I do take comfort in some of it but other parts of it either go too far or not far enough. Let me explain.

I completely reject Total Depravity (the “T”). While I understand Calvin doesn’t mean that people are completely or absolutely depraved, I reject the idea that they’re depraved at all at their deepest level. At humanity’s deepest level is the image of God and the Light of God that darkness (sin) can never eradicate (Genesis 1.26ff; John 1.4-5).

Concerning Unconditional Election (the “U”), I have to say I agree with the notion that God chooses whom God wants to and that it’s not based on any merit within the individual, but election is not unto salvation alone but unto service (1 Pet. 2.9; Rev. 1.5-6). Again, this ties into the idea that people who follow Jesus in this life are priests. Their called to believe now for the sake of others and creation. It’s a real change in the way we think of priesthood but models itself after Israel and their priests.

And here’s my biggest issue—Limited Atonement (the “L”). Let me plainly say: There’s no limitation to the atonement. What’s limited is our interpretation of the atonement. This is where both the Arminian and Calvinist systems fail. They fail because they start from the standpoint that God sends people (or people send themselves) to “hell” where they’ll be consciously tormented for all eternity. Both camps hold this as absolute truth. And, therefore, since that’s (supposedly) true, they both had to do something with the other truth—the atonement actually and thoroughly saves people. So, as you know, the Arminian stated that one’s salvation was based on one’s freedom to choose it while the Calvinist stated that one’s salvation was based on God’s freedom to choose who’s saved. But they’re both wrong. Just as the blood of the goat took away the sin of ancient Israel so, too, did the blood of Christ take away the sin of the world (John 1.29; 1 John 2.2; see my list above).

However, I don’t really have a problem with Irresistible Grace (the “I”) or Perseverance of the Saints (the “P). It’s because of Calvinism, of God’s Sovereignty, that I thoroughly believe that all people are now (mystically) God’s people and that one day all people will come to God and actually be God’s people, whether in this life or the next. That the Grace of God is mightier than any sin that so easily besets us. And, more importantly, I believe God’s Love has already won!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little mini-series. I’m sure it will probably spawn a whole lot of questions! I just hope I explained myself well enough. It’s the first time I’ve really tried to put into words what’s going on in my head on this subject.