Every Knee Shall Bow: Was Paul a Universalist?

Romans 14:11

Here’s a verse to fire the imagination:

It is written: “As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “Every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.” (Rom. 14:11)

What picture comes to your mind when you read these words? Some see this verse as pointing to universal salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:13), and this verse says everyone will acknowledge God.”

Could it be true that the Apostle Paul was a universalist?

Before you answer that, here are three things to consider. First, calling on the name of the Lord is not the same as acknowledging God. One is an appeal – “God have mercy on me! Jesus save me!” The other is merely an acknowledgement. Even the demons acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 8:29). Are demons saved? Of course not. Paul is saying that when the Lord returns, everyone will acknowledge and bow before God. Like turning one’s eyes away from the midday sun, it will be impossible not to. When God shows up in glory, BAM! Our knees will buckle.

The second problem is the context: In Romans 14 Paul is not discussing salvation; he’s saying we ought not to be critical and judge people.

Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat… So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (Rom. 14:10-13)

Put it together and Paul is saying something like this: “Since one day we shall be judged – on that day when Jesus returns and every knee bows and every tongue acknowledges God – let us not play judge now.” Judging is the Lord’s job.

The third problem is that Paul is quoting Isaiah – “It is written” – and Isaiah was no universalist:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by myself… that to me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear. (Isa. 45:22-23)

Through the prophet God was speaking to refugees and idol-worshippers (see Is. 45:20). Gentiles, in other words. He was offering salvation to the ends of the earth, meaning not just the Jews. How is this salvation obtained? By “turning to me.” And who will be saved? “All the offspring of Israel” (Is. 45:22), meaning the true Jews or the church (Rom. 2:28-29). Those who share the faith of Abraham will receive Abraham’s inheritance. Isaiah was not prophesying universal salvation but salvation for all, Jew and Gentile alike.

There is one more “every knee” passage we should look at, and it’s the best one of all.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:9-11)

Two new covenant truths are illuminated in this passage: First, God is our heavenly Father. (Before Jesus came and taught us how to pray, no one saw God as their Father.) Second, Jesus Christ is Lord or kurios, supreme above all. (Before Jesus ascended, few people saw Jesus as anything other than a rabbi or a man from Nazareth.)

Is Paul saying that one day everyone will confess Jesus is Lord and consequently all will be saved? No. He’s not saying all will but all should honor Jesus as Lord because Jesus is Lord. Here’s the same passage in another translation:

…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:11, NKJV)

Acknowledging God is one thing; confessing Jesus as Lord is another. The Jews did the former, but only the Christians did the latter. This is why the apostles had to preach, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). Some were cut to the heart and repented; others picked up stones.

Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. (John 5:22-23)

Plenty of people worship something they call God. It may even be the God of the Bible. But you can’t honor God by dishonoring his Son. Jesus is the only way to connect with the heart of the Father.

If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

All will bow and acknowledge God, but not all put their faith in a risen and glorified Christ. This is why we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mark 1:1). We don’t preach the gospel of God or the gospel of universalism, but the Gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord and God’s Son. All are not free but all can be and all should be because Jesus died for all of us.


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24 Comments on Every Knee Shall Bow: Was Paul a Universalist?

  1. Very good. A much needed Word. Thanks Paul.

  2. Great article! Thank you

  3. Another correct interpretation of the Word, Paul truly was not a universalist nor the other Apostles, nor our Lord Jesus himself. Thanks a lot Paul.

  4. I still feel free to take that as Universalist, and here’s why! Your point about ‘should’ stands only if one speaks American English – in British English and even the New Zealand English of 25-30 years ago, ‘should’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘obligation’ but could/can mean intention.

    • Thanks for your comment. Since there is no should or will in the original, you can take it any way you like. I certainly wouldn’t draw a definitive conclusion from a missing word. My point is that Paul is not saying “all will bow.” Whether you wish to insert will or should or may (as it appears in some literal translations) depends on your prior conviction. My conviction is that all may and many will but some probably won’t.

      • Deb Kean // June 21, 2018 at 1:34 pm //

        Logically, you are probably right. Universalism is madly optimistic, but I can’t be sure it’s right.

    • “Should” isn’t even the most accurate translation. The NASB, which is widely regarded by scholars as the most accurate translation, uses “will”.

  5. To all who may be concerned,

    When we make a point to infer words that aren’t there is one thing [creating conversation]. Our dibbling around with words isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    The basis of our suggesting (AP) Paul’s position here, is surely seated in the truth.

    Are we truly “born again” [first of water; followed by Spirit]? These few Followers of in this passage – were they not being taught – the what of why we do not judge one another. Yet, making sober judgements concerning one another is not omitted either – it’s taught in the Letters.

    Nicodemus was told he doesn’t believe; Jn 3: 12. Then he was told, being born of a woman is was earthly words. Jn 3: 8 speaks to the key, faith before spiritual understanding – a hearing in the spirit verse. The picture of wind blowing points to faith given on Yahushuwah (Jesus) – the result of being given the gift of Adoption in to the Kingdom of Yahuah (God). When we don’t understand spiritual things, we don’t get it.

    The possibility of Universalism… wouldn’t one have to be born again to know? HalleluYah!

  6. John W Reed // June 23, 2018 at 12:32 pm // Reply

    Excellent post. Good to point this out. All my Christian life, Phil 2 and Romans, to me never conveyed universal salvation. To me, it was simply reassuring news that one day all humanity saved or not will acknowledge that God is who He said He is. Acknowledging His Lordship isn’t a belief in His as personal Savior, and also doesn’t mean a desire to have a relationship with Him.
    That said, it’s wise to look beyond our own understanding and answer possible questions some may have, or clear up any confusion or misapplications of God’s Word. Great post.

  7. Great article Paul!
    I agree with everything you said exept for the last few 7 words “because Jesus died for all of us”. Not only salvation is not universal… furthermore, it is for a limited number of people “ the elected”. Limited attonment… more

    • Great comment! I agree with everything you said except the last sentence. 🙂

      There is a difference between what Christ did (propitiation) and how you respond to what he did (with faith, leading to salvation). The scriptures are very clear that Jesus is “the propitiation for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The Lamb of God bore the sins of all us (John 1:29) whether we believe it or not, but it won’t do us any good unless you believe it.

      • Those who never hear the gospel that you are teaching will be condemned in hell , according to your own teaching. Therefore God’s salvation through Jesus is available only to those who have the opportunity to hear it. Even if people hear and yet do not believe the same way you do are still condemned , which implies that God’s grace has limitations, and therefore not an all graceful God. You may say you serve an all powerful and merciful God, yet you put restrictions and limitation to God. Almost like creating God in our own image.

      • Everything you have assumed about my teaching is incorrect. (I guess you created a Paul in your own image, huh.) If you are interested in learning what I have to say about those who never hear the gospel, you could start here.

      • This link emphasizes more on children and babies, which was not what I was talking about. However, the article does imply that everyone can be saved regardless of faith. It seems that we agree about God’s inclusivity. My whole point was to emphasize that, if God is truly great and all powerful, then there would be no limitation to his grace and mercy. His love would not be limited as that of a human .

  8. Richard F // July 6, 2018 at 4:46 am // Reply

    Paul hi

    The greek words ‘hilasterion/hilasmos’ appear four times in the NT and are variously translated ‘mercy-seat’ or ‘propitiation’. They are obviously linked with the concept of ‘atonement’

    Propitiation is a dangerous word because it conjures up frightened pagans appeasing an angry God often with human sacrifice, and sometimes with their own children when appeasing Moloch.
    Whether or not one believes Yahweh is like Moloch in this respect, we cannot get that notion from mercy seat which is very specifically the cover of the box that contained three reminders of God’s covenant promises to his people – primarily a promise to care and protect, not a promise to cut down and punish.

    ‘Atonement’ is Tyndale’s English translation of the Latin word meaning reconciliation. The cross is about reconciliation. How that reconciliation is achieved needs to be argued carefully from scripture, I know you would agree, rather than deduced from poor English translations

  9. Redemption won’t do us any good unless we believe it? This sounds like ‘light switch’ theology. You can just turn the historical fact of Redemption ‘on ‘ or ‘off’ just by choosing to believe or not to believe. Look . . . the purchase of Mankind is a done deal. Get over it! Don’t try to divide God’s precious creation. He isn’t a segregationist. Ephesians 2 says He brought down the middle wall between the Jew and the Gentile, creating ‘ONE NEW MAN’ in Christ. The power of Redemption is in the Cross – not in ‘belief’. You can’t raise that middle wall again! Separating Humanity on the basis of ‘belief’ is bigotry and prejudice of the most despicable kind!

    • Have you not just separated humanity into those who share your beliefs and those who don’t? And doesn’t this division mean you are, by the judgment expressed in your last line, a bigot of the most despicable kind? It seems you have proved the point you are trying to dismiss: our beliefs matter. The irony.

      The gospel declares that Jesus did everything that needed to be done to secure our freedom. He is the Great Redeemer. Yet you have to believe it to experience and enjoy it. This is why Jesus said he came with a sword to set sons against fathers and daughters against mothers (Matt. 10:34ff). Truth is divisive because not all believe. Hence the need to preach the good news.

  10. Paul, I can’t believe that a person of your intellectual acumen would parse my words in such a manner. I wasn’t expressing a belief. I was stating a fact. Ephesians 2 explains …

    • I am always been happy to publish the comments of people who disagree with me (including universalists), but only if those comments pertain to the article being discussed. Ephesians 2 is not the subject of this one.

  11. Paul…. is Paul the apostle saying that we’re all going to be judged? Even those in Christ? I don’t understand. Can you help?

  12. And what if an unbeliever finds faith in Jesus Christ after death? As I understand the all reconciliation, God (because he is love) goes after the lost even after death….
    … and didn’t Jesus preach the gospel in the realm of the dead?

    • This is what the universalist pins his hopes on, but the Bible is largely silent on what opportunities may present themselves after death. The apostles preached for a verdict in this life. “Now is the day of salvation.” It would be wise to follow their example.

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