The world sure is a strange place. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, something new hits you on the side of the head. When I was growing up, the number one theological question was this one: “Once saved, always saved?” People who asked this question wanted to know whether it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation. Well if bullfrogs and butterflies can turn back into tad-poles and caterpillars, then I guess it’s possible.
But now there’s a whole new question being asked, which is this: Is everybody saved? Many are saying yes: “Jesus is the Savior of the world. Therefore everyone is already saved, they just don’t know it.” Now before you write this off as universalist heresy, let me add that those who preach this brand of historical reconciliation do not believe everyone is going to heaven. It’s just that everyone is in until unbelief kicks them out.
Since this is a popular teaching today, I think it would be good for us to take a closer look. Let’s start with an oft-heard statement:
“All are forgiven, reconciled, and saved.”
To these three points I respond: (1) it’s true (we are forgiven), (2) it’s sort of true (God has reconciled the world but you still need to be reconciled), and (3) it’s not true (not all are saved).
You are forgiven
The reason why forgiveness is a done deal and salvation is not, is because forgiveness is a game that requires only one player. God doesn’t need your permission to forgive you. In our puny human minds we find this hard to grasp because we are not natural forgivers. We keep long records of wrong done to us. But God is not like us. He loves us with an unconditional love. He forgives us without any regard for our behavior and in accordance with the riches of His grace (Eph 1:7). Agape-love keeps no record of wrongs which is why God can choose to remember our sins no more. This is wonderful news! When you know His forgiveness, you are empowered to forgive yourself and others.
Yes, we still need to receive His forgiveness just as we need to receive His grace. If you don’t believe that you are forgiven, then you will act like an unforgiven sinner. But we need not ask God to do what He has already done. Forgiveness, along with all the benefits of salvation, comes to us in Christ.
I have written more about forgiveness than just about any other aspect of God’s grace, so if you need further convincing that you are eternally forgiven, start with this post.
You are reconciled; be reconciled
Reconciliation, unlike forgiveness, is a two-player game. Both sides need to play. Consider the husband who wishes to be reconciled with his estranged wife. He loves her with an unconditional love that keeps no record of wrongs. In his mind there is no hurt or offense that has not been forgiven and forgotten. So in his love he has come to the table of reconciliation declaring that all is well from his side. Would you say they have been reconciled? Well that depends on the wife. Unless she chooses to be reconciled, there is no reconciliation.
Now let’s imagine that the wife is so damaged by an unhappy childhood that she unfairly projects her brokenness onto him. Even though he is a perfect gentleman and beyond reproach, in her mind her husband is an angry and violent man. This is how fallen humanity relates to our loving Father in heaven. Even though God has been unfailingly good to us, in our fallen state we think the worst of Him. We imagine Him to be angry and violent.
For as long as we are separated from the life and love of God by our imagined offenses, are we reconciled? Of course not. If the man in our story went around telling others that he and his wife were reconciled – even as she continued living with another man – they would think he was nuts. Yet this is exactly the message that many are preaching.
Has the world been reconciled to God? Paul’s answer was “Yes and no.” From God’s side, reconciliation is an historical event. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ…” (2 Cor 5:18). God has come to us with open arms. He holds nothing against us – not our sins, not our past, not anything. “While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Glory to God!
However, there is no reconciliation in fact unless we respond to His overtures. Hence Paul’s exhortation, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). God loves the world so much that He came and died for us. His heart yearns for the lost and broken. He does not want an historical reconciliation that is not presently true. He wants His kids!
Those who preach historical reconciliation argue that fallen man’s estrangement is based on a lie. Men fear God needlessly and I agree. God is not angry with us. He really does love us. And it is certainly not wrong to preach that God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ since this is what Paul preached. But with equal passion we must also preach the other side, as Paul also did: We implore you – be reconciled to God.
Are you saved?
I’ve heard some claim that the whole world is saved as if this declaration would somehow cause the unsaved to come to their senses and start acting saved. So far I haven’t seen that happen. The Father loved the prodigal at all points in the story, but he never chased his son into the city telling him “You’re mine! Come home.” If he had, his cries would have fallen on deaf ears. Now the son was the son for the entire story, but separated from his dad he was very much a lost son. He wasn’t “saved” until he turned back and found himself in his father’s embrace.
So is the whole world saved or isn’t it? Well if the answer is yes, then why are there so many scriptures indicating that God wants us to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and that He now commands people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and believe in the name of His Son (1 Joh 3:23) in order to be saved (Mk 16:16), etc. By my count there more than two dozen scriptures specifically exhorting people to be saved and literally hundreds more exhorting them to repent, believe, receive, have faith, trust in God, etc.
As far as I can tell, there is not one verse in the Bible that categorically says all humanity was saved at the cross. Certainly, Jesus has provided for our salvation – His is a finished work. Certainly it is the Father’s will that all should be saved and that none should perish. But His is not the only will in the equation. It takes two people to make a relationship and this is why the New Testament writers repeatedly say that all are not saved. I don’t have time to delve deeper here, but if you’re interested or are wondering about a particular scripture, I encourage you to check out my easy-to-read study notes.
Does it really matter if we tell unbelievers that they were reconciled and saved 2000 years ago? It surely does! I have heard those who preach historical reconciliation say, “Jesus has established a relationship with all of us.” This is simply not true. Although He surely desires it, Jesus has no relationship with those who are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God” (Eph 4:18). The light of men has come into the world but some men prefer the darkness.
If Jesus had a relationship with everyone, why would Paul exhort us to preach the message of reconciliation? Why would John proclaim “what we have seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us and the Father and the Son”? What kind of husband are we portraying when we tell sinners that Jesus married them without their knowledge or permission?
Tell a sinner that they are saved and already in a relationship with Jesus and they will look at you sideways. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is not a part of their life. So don’t tell them that He is. Instead tell them that the Lover of their Souls is standing outside their door holding a big bunch of flowers, knocking, and waiting to be invited it. They may hesitate in the belief that God is angry with them or wants them to get their lives sorted out before they come home, but it’s not true! Their heavenly Father longs for them with unconditional love and eternal forgiveness in His heart. He has already shown us His love through the cross and countless other ways. Now He waits to see how we will respond. Will we stay in the pig pen? Will we come to Him looking for a job? Or will we lose ourselves only to find our true selves in His wonderful embrace?