James Relly: The Great Salvation Contemplated, epistle I+II

“There are but few individuals, so crucified to system, so detached from party, as to see and confess this truth much less can they perceive, how those doctrines, so seemingly contradictory, and opposite to each other, should yet be one in Christ, and preaching the same salvation, in the same language. Yet in this light I view them, and hope to speak intelligibly of the matter.”

“There are but few individuals, so crucified to system, so detached from party, as to see and confess this truth much less can they perceive, how those doctrines, so seemingly contradictory, and opposite to each other, should yet be one in Christ, and preaching the same salvation, in the same language. Yet in this light I view them, and hope to speak intelligibly of the matter.” (James Relly)

As readers of this blog have probably noticed I am quite fond of James Relly – the 18th century radical universalist theologian, whose whole theology revolved around the union of Christ and humankind.

I am currently in the process of transcribing his Epistles: Or the Great Salvation Contemplated (which is fairly easy as the OCR has already done most of the job). Below follows the first two letters.

In the first letter, Relly introduces his theme by presenting the traditional alternatives of arminianism and calvinism, as well as universalism. According to Relly most people are too attached to “system” and “parties” to be able to see how these seemingly opposite doctrines are all one in Christ.

In the second letter, Relly presents his take on conditional vs. unconditional salvation. There is an unconditional salvation wrought by Christ for all in eternity, says Relly, but also a conditional salvation depending on faith and obedience in time. This distinction is, in fact, most important for Relly’s arguments in the letters that follow.


By James Relly


Dear Brethren,

It grieved me to hear that there were disputings among you, being aware of their evil tendency, but, when the fruit appeared in the loss of your christian simplicity, it made me unhappy indeed. Alas! how destructive to the pure and peaceable spirit of the gospel, is fleshly opinionative knowledge!

More than twelve months are elapsed, since I was first informed of your mutual heats, and trials of skill, respecting knowledge, argument and orthodoxy; during which, I have written sundry letters to you, without taking the least notice of your dissensions in opinion.

From knowledge of human nature I was aware, that my interfering in your disputes at that time would be adding fuel to fire, and would operate as an inflammative in a fever: hence I waited for a favorable crisis, for a happy period, when I might interpose with advantage but this I could not expect, until both parties were reduced to reverence truth alone, though at the expense of the darling, and to the notorious mortification of the selfish principle.

I thank God our Savior, I have not waited in vain: I have now the pleasure to find you united again in that one grand and only interesting subject, Jesus Christ and him crucified: and that you are mutually influenced to lay aside such peculiar tenets or dogmas, as have, for some time past, distinguished your parties; joining in Christian sincerity, to worship God in the Spirit, to rejoice in Christ: Jesus, having no more confidence in the flesh. Under this influence may your souls abide, as they will prosper.

In your last letter, unto which you all subscribed, you assure me, that you are perfectly satisfied with the great salvation, rejoicing in its freeness and fullness: intent alone on knowing and enjoying your personal interest and happiness therein, without the inquiry, Lord, what shall this man do? I cannot but applaud your spirit and conduct; may you persevere therein to the end.

In reply to your desire (that I would give you my thoughts, according to the scriptures, on the subjects which so lately distracted you) I have no objection to communicate to you all that is in my heart concerning these matters. But are you prepared to hear it ? Are not your late divisions on these accounts rather too recent ? May not the former spirit and temper, in some measure, recur, from my attempting a solution of what formerly gave birth to them? You tell me, that your satisfaction and rejoicing in Jesus Christ is such, that whether all, or only a part of the human race, shall be saved, is a point now of the uttermost indifference to you; and that the lights which the scriptures throw on these doctrines, will not again confound nor dazzle your christian eye.

Be it so. But in speaking of the fullness, freeness, and extent of the great salvation, let me premise, that the two former are more immediately necessary to be known and believed by us: for on the belief and experience of these depend our consolations; whereas, whether all mankind will be saved, or not, is, among Christians, rather a question of curiosity than of necessity. Hence, I declare, that the rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus, neither depends on, nor connects with, either side of the question; but hath its foundation, rise and support, in the report and testimony of the Spirit, speaking by the prophets and apostles, concerning Jesus Christ, and his free and full salvation. Therefore, should I be mistaken in my ideas, respecting the extent of the salvation of Christ, yet, this mistake cannot in the least affect my own interest or rejoicing in that salvation nor can I be distressed, or greatly disappointed, at the detection of error in such opinions, as I neither derived nor expected comfort from.

On the face of the letter, there are, in the holy scriptures, three doctrines, which, to a literal view, are notoriously repugnant to each other; and these occasion no small bustle and deputations among the religious part of mankind: for when men are influenced by either of these doctrines, they conclude themselves under obligation to militate against the others; and this is one of the principal causes of altercation, and of dissensions so prevailing among Christians.

First, there is a conditional salvation, dependent on man’s repentance, faith and obedience. Secondly, there is a free and unconditional salvation of mankind, not dependent on works of righteousness, as wrought by them; but this, from God’s absolute will and pleasure, is limited to a few only whom he has loved and made choice of for that purpose; while the others, which are by far the greater part of mankind, are, by the same will and pleasure, rejected, and excluded from that salvation. Thirdly, a general or universal salvation, where all, who died in Adam, shall be made alive in Christ.

To such, who, in simplicity and christian candor, are conversant with the sacred book, I need go no further for proof, than barely to mention it; that these doctrines, so apparently contradictory, so diametrically opposite, are, nevertheless, contained in that book; and to this, the different professions of Christians bear witness: for, while in particular they explode and deny my assertion, yet, as they are Calvinists, Arminians, or Universalists, they confirm it: and, with a general voice affirm, what, as particular sects, they deny with abhorrence.

Notwithstanding which, there are but few individuals, so crucified to system, so detached from party, as to see and confess this truth much less can they perceive, how those doctrines, so seemingly contradictory, and opposite to each other, should yet be one in Christ, and preaching the same salvation, in the same language. Yet in this light I view them, and hope to speak intelligibly of the matter to you in my next; recommending myself to your esteem, I conclude, with assuring you that I am, in sincerity,

Your affectionate Brother and Servant,

(for Christ’s Sake)

J. R.


Dear Brethren,

CHRIST Jesus, our Lord, is, in the holy scriptures, eminently called the Truth. Every work and word of God, are only shadowy of him: Christ, as the one only truth, is the consistence and harmony of all the seeming contradictions contained in the scriptures: he hath believed and obeyed, and therefore inherits the promise: — While the people, as united to him, as gathering with him, are, with him, partakers of the same salvation: — All the promises of God being, in him. Yea and Amen, to them: — Jesus, as our fore-runner, is the elect, precious, the predestinated to eternal life; and such are the people in him: He took not on him angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham: This is their election. Christ also sustained the reprobate character, when made sin for us, and when encompassed with the sorrows of death, and the pains of hell.

And as to universal salvation: He is also the truth of that. For, though we see not yet all the individuals of Adam’s race, as such, brought up, through the knowledge of Christ, to the great salvation; yet, in him, all flesh have seen the salvation of God: in him, all are taught of God: in him, all know God, from the greatest to the least. In him, the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.

But, to explain this more according to reason and argument, I would observe; that not only the term Salvation, but every other term relating to the thing itself, has divers significations in the scriptures: yet, with consistence of matter, and harmony of spirit. To instance — by salvation, we understand that state and condition in which Jesus Christ, by the purity of his life, the intention of his death, and the power of his resurrection, hath placed mankind before the face of God. This state is called in the scriptures, an everlasting salvation; the great salvation; eternal salvation; and is defended as wrought in the Lord; independent of knowledge, faith, or obedience, on the part of the saved, individually considered; ”God was, in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” In this salvation, God beholds us without spot, or blemish, or any such thing: Our iniquities are pardoned, our warfare is accomplished; so that the Lord beholdeth no iniquity in Jacob, nor perverseness in Israel. This is the salvation, in which God ever beholds his creatures, and which the gospel preaches to them as glad tidings, that faith might come by hearing.

Again, Salvation, sometimes in the scriptures, is made to depend on our repentance, belief, and obedience. This I might explain in a twofold sense; either as the voice of the law, in contradistinction to the free unconditional gospel-salvation, spoken of above; or, as relating to the knowledge and joy of that free salvation; a proper explication in either sense, would be true: But, to abide by the subject in hand, I wave the first, and adhere to the second.

This salvation distinguishes the person who believeth on Jesus, from him who believeth not; and, in a gospel sense, is described, as the happy consequence, the only and blessed fruit of believing the report concerning Jesus Christ: i. e. that he is, before God, our free, perfect, and eternal salvation. It consists in a peculiar state of mind, an exemption from guilt, sin and fear, a possession of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. This is not only to have bread enough in our Father’s house, but to sit down at his table and eat: This salvation may be instantaneous or gradual, as it pleases God to reveal his Son in us.

This salvation, as I hinted before, is obtained, on condition of believing and obeying the truth: nor does it follow, that because faith is the gift of God, and obedience the influence of his free Spirit, that these are not conditional; since we are active in both, our faculties are in exercise in believing and obeying: Hence, “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation.” And, until we have this belief and confession, we attain not to salvation in the above sense.

In a first sense, Repentance, faith and obedience, are what constitute the everlasting righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ: his repentance confided of strong cries and tears, of the broken heart, and contrite spirit: his deep inexplicable humiliations — such as were heard in that he feared — such as were rewarded with the highest name, and the most glorious exaltation: his faith consisted in believing the promises, which were all made to him: and these he believed, through all the most discouraging scenes of life and death; even when the terrors of death encompassed him, and the pains of hell gat hold on him: And when his faith was perfected by his works.

The obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, is usually distinguished into active and passive. The one implying his immaculate life, and the other his submission to sufferings, and his obedience to death: all which infinite purity approved of, justifying him in the spirit of holiness, and declaring him the Author of salvation.

These, the Savior, from the success of his undertakings, and his exaltation in consequence thereof, hath full power to reckon over, impute or give to the children of men; “for him hath God exalted with his own right hand, to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance unto Israel, and remission of sin.” Our Savior’s repentance, faith, and obedience, are perfect and permanent: but our repentance, faith, and obedience, are neither perfect, nor permanent. But, as that which is perfect, is necessary to give us confidence towards God, he gives us his repentance, faith, and obedience: and when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part only is done away. We no longer depend on or gather with our own repentance, obedience, and faith. The utmost that our faith, or the faith which is in us, can attain to, is to believe, receive, and appropriate, according to his will, the faith, repentance, and obedience of Christ; and in these we find salvation.

But, though it be true, that we know in part, see but in part; yet to experience and rejoice in this salvation, it is necessary that we should know and see in our measure. For it is easily seen, that, except we are personally possessed of faith, we can neither believe, know, nor appropriate the faith of Christ. Hence the necessity of faith in us to this salvation; as there is of eating, to the man who (having bread in his house) would fill his belly therewith.

Repentance, as it respects the exercise and feelings of the human heart, consists of conviction, compunction, and renovation. Light breaks in upon the mind, discovering to us the error of our ways, and the insufficiency of all our own righteousness: Compunction of heart follows, for the deception we have been under, and for the yet corrupt bias of our spoiled nature: we loath, abhor, and detest ourselves, for what we feel: more especially for that vile propensity which is in us (notwithstanding the viciousness and poverty of our nature) to trust in ourselves, and in our own righteousnesses; in opposition to the free-grace and salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ; whom now we languish for, and pant to have every thought brought into captivity to his obedience, counting all things as loss, yea, but dung, that we may win Christ, and be found in him; not having our own righteousness. These particulars manifest a change, a renewal; but this change, this renewal, withstands and over-rules our original bias, not permitting us to look for righteousness and strength into ourselves, but inclines us to Jesus, in whom we have everlasting righteousness, and invincible strength.

In brief, the salvation promised in the scriptures, on condition of believing, obeying, &c. is, that blessed and happy state of mind, which is the assured fruit and consequence of knowing, believing, and obeying Jesus Christ, as the great, finished, eternal, unchangeable salvation: which state consists of righteousness, parity, peace, joy, and full assurance of everlasting life. This is a salvation: for we are here saved from sin, guilt, war, distress, and fear: not physically, as though we were not yet men subject to like passions with others, but legally and imputatively, as the man is saved whole debts are paid, and whole crimes are cancelled, by an equal chastisement; and withal, conscientiously: for the gospel teaches, and we believe, that Jesus Christ, through the whole of his obedience, active and passive, and in all that he obtained thereby, was Hill considered as those whom he came into the world to save.

Hence we have an undoubted right to believe, that we are freed from sin and condemnation; and that he hath presented us to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that we should be holy and without blemish. If our heart live in contact with this truth, we have, in perfect peace and purity, complete salvation in Jesus; without works of righteousness, as done by us, individually considered; as saith the apostle, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that juftifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Obedience here, consists in an entire submission to the will of God, as thus revealed and executed in Christ Jesus; without attempting, by what we may do or suffer, to recommend ourselves to the divine favor, or to qualify ourselves for the reception of it, or to make adequate returns for the blessings received. Thus is Christ the author of eternal salvation, unto all them that obey him. — Of ourselves we are nothing, we have nothing, we can do nothing — but, eating him, we live by him. On the above condition, we have, we inherit, we enjoy the salvation of God, by Jesus Christ.

Thus would I understand and explain conditional salvation, as taught in the scriptures; as what respects the state of believers only, in the ages of time; and not that rest which yet remaineth for the people of God, that final determinate salvation, which God has decreed, and which Jesus has perfected, and ordained, to be the eternal state of man. What influence this salvation has on the mind, is better felt and enjoyed, than explained; nor are there any other means of attaining to it, than the faith and obedience already described: May the testimony of Jesus, by the hearing of which they come, produce and maintain them in all your hearts. This is the prayer and desire of

Your Brother and Servant,

(for Christ’s sake)

J. R