The gospel is simply the good news that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, that he died for all, and that all has been and will be made righteous by his death. Theological ideologies, ’-isms’, are the attempts of human beings to impose limitations on the gospel, making it true only for some.
I don’t usually describe myself as a “universalist”. Here are some thoughts on why that is.
The gospel not an “-ism”
We are often quick to define the Christian message in terms of one of the many theological systems that have been developed by theologians throughout history with the purpose of explaining how exactly it is that people are saved by Christ.
But the Christian message, the gospel, is not in itself a ”system” – not an ”-ism”, as in ”Pelagianism”, ”Augustinianism”, ”Lutheranism”, ”Arminianism”, ”Calvinism”, ”Methodism”, and so on. The gospel is not one ’-ism’ to be pitted against other ’-isms’, but simply the message that God in Jesus Christ has died and become alive in order to save humankind from sin and death.
To be a Christian simply means to confess Christ as the son of God and risen savior, not to adhere to this or that theological system.
Most theological systems, however, attempt to limit the gospel, by claiming that it is only partially good news, or only good news for some. Theological ideologies typically start out with the good news, but then add one or more conditions that must be fulfilled for the gospel to be true – e.g., ”…if you believe” or ”…if you are among the ’elect’” or ”…if you do certain things right”.
In either case the gospel is said to be limited by something other than the gospel, i.e. by the will of human beings or, perhaps, an obscure election and predestination made by some ’hidden God’ with ’two wills’ (Luther, Calvin). But ”the word of God is not chained” (2 Tim. 2:9). The good news cannot be limited by our theological systems.
What is the gospel?
The gospel is – to put it shortly – that God is ”light” and ”love” (1 John 1:5), that the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15), that God himself have become one of us in Jesus Christ (Luke 2:10) and that Jesus died as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2) in order to make our entrance into his kingdom possible – even if it is impossible for us as human beings (Matt. 19:26).
The gospel is that God has reconciled the whole world to himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:19). By his death Jesus has destroyed the power of death (Heb. 2:14).
But what about faith? Are we not required to willingly accept salvation in order for the gospel to be true ’for us’? Yes and no. We are freed from the fear of death when we believe the gospel and confess Jesus Christ as risen lord and savior. This is salvation here and now.
But as James Relly pointed out, even if we don’t believe, the gospel is still true for us, which is exactly why it should be believed. It is Jesus Christ alone that makes the good news true for all those for whom he died, not our decision to confess Jesus as lord. We can confess Jesus as lord because he already is lord.
The gospel does not in itself contain conditions that limit its scope. Universalists have claimed that the gospel is true for all human beings. But the gospel rightly understood isn’t for that reason ”universalism”, if by this we mean a theological system designed to convince people, that all will be saved eventually, etc.
Saying that ’all’ have been reconciled to God through Jesus’ sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, is not automatically ”universalism”. The gospel is not a theological system comparable to other theological systems like ”particularism” or ”conditionalism”. Elhanan Winchester clearly saw this when he exclaimed “O the mischiefs of bigotry, prejudice, and vain attachment to system!”. For Winchester it was our human systems that limited our experiences of the universal love of God, the theme of the gospel.
That God out of love has reconciled the world to himself through Christ, leading to acquittal and life for all human beings who became unrighteous in Adam (Rom 5:18-19), is simply the gospel, nothing more, not a theological system, an -ism or an ideology.
From this perspective there is something problematic in the formation of “universalist” denominations or churches based upon certain “universalist” theological systems. The gospel should be preached in all churches and all denominations, even those trying to limit its scope.
Is it still the gospel when limited?
The important thing is who you say Christ is. Being a Christian is first of all a matter of who you confess Christ to be: ”Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15). That’s why all creeds for the first four or five hundreds years were all about who Christ is, and don’t even mention how many will be saved.
The fact that we are simultaneously sinners and justified (simul peccator et justus) does not first of all show in flawed morality or bad habits, but in our bad theology. No one has a pure faith and understanding of the gospel without flaws and influences from human ideology.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus is the savior of the world, but most people have a narrow and limited conception of what that means. This is only natural, however, as God has only revealed the truth in fragments for them. We still see in a mirror, darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).
Most Christians do not perceive the radicalism of the gospel. But those who hold to the unlimited gospel of infinite grace need not for that reason distance themselves from Christians with more limited conceptions of the gospel.
The gospel might still be the gospel even if expressed in a way that seems to limit its scope. What matters is whether the preacher cherishes the gospel or what limits the gospel most. If someone affirms the gospel as the core of Christian preaching, but also for some reason believes there to be limits to the gospel, then this might be excused as a result of a limited understanding of the gospel.
But if someone knowingly values the ’ifs’ and ’buts’ against the infinite character of the gospel and for this reason constantly tries to limit the gospel, then we might ask ourselves if we are not dealing with someone who does not believe the gospel at all? Only then is it time to leave and find a different church.