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Four Kinds of Universalism

Category Articles
Date August 21, 2003

it is argued that if God’s redeeming purpose is universal in scope, why should we any longer accept Christianity’s arrogant claim to be the one true religion?

by John M. Brentnall

From time to time the question is asked as to how many shall be saved. Shall all, regardless of their creed, worship, character and life-style? Or is this glorious privilege reserved for only some? The current claim that God gathers up all creation into His loving purpose should make us reconsider the question. For it is argued that if God’s redeeming purpose is universal in scope, why should we any longer accept Christianity’s arrogant claim to be the one true religion? Since there are many windows onto God’, why should we continue to support Christian evangelization of the nations? As we are all ‘going to heaven’, why may not each of us go there in his own way, and leave others to go there in theirs? Such universalistic claims voiced by religious pluralists call for a Reformed response.

In general, we may identify four kinds of universalism. Three of them are false, while only the fourth is true.


John Hick, the author of such ‘give-away’ titles as God and the Universe of Faith, and God Has Many Names, argues that as there is only one God, who is accessible to all religions, the universe of faiths must not focus on any particular religion, even Christianity with its superior credentials, but on God Himself.

To some, this view may sound very plausible. Yet clearly Hick can reach such a conclusion only by mis-reading Holy Scripture, removing every distinctive tenet of the Christian Faith and rejecting the unique claims of Christ. Is it not expressly written that Holy Scripture was written to be believed (John 20.31), that Biblical Christianity should regulate all our faith and conduct (John 5.39; Eccles 12.13), and that Christ is the only Mediator between God and men, and therefore the only way to God (1 Tim 2.5; Acts 4.12; John 14.6)? On this ground alone Radical Universalism is to be rejected.


Under the influence of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, Vatican II and the papal encyclical Redemptor Hominis affirm that non- [Roman] Catholic religions reflect ‘a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men’, and that since Christ redeems mankind by virtue of His incarnation, all men shall ultimately be saved. Karl Rahner and Hans Kung adopt a similar approach, stressing like de Chardin the cosmic centrality of Christ.

Such avowed Protestants as Karl Barth and William Barclay also embrace universalism, one on the grounds that all are condemned in Christ’s death but accepted in His resurrection, the other on the basis of the alleged universal Fatherhood of God and the universal scope of the Love of God in Christ.

Suffice to say that Holy Scripture expressly teaches the salvation of only the elect (Eph 1; Rom 9), and clearly implies that few will be saved (Luke 13.23-24; Isa 1.9). Along with Radical Universalism we must therefore reject Liberal Universalism.


Recently some writers who profess to believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture and to uphold the uniqueness and finality of Christ have popularized a brand of Evangelical Universalism that is more Arminian than Arminius. Clark Pinnock, in A Wideness in God’s Mercy, and John Sanders, in No Other Name, are typical. Pinnock claims that certain Biblical pagan saints’ (eg Jethro, Rahab and Cornelius) all received salvation through their own religions. For his part Sanders believes that the unevangelized may benefit from Christ’s saving work without even hearing of it.

What shall we say to these things?

1] Firstly, Paul clearly states that faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God’, and that while whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’, yet ‘How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?’ (Rom 10.17,13-15).

2] Secondly, Peter expressly says of Christ: ‘Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.’ (Acts 4.12).

3] Lastly, our Lord Himself authoritatively claims: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’ (John 14.6). It is therefore impossible to be saved without hearing the Gospel, receiving Christ as the only Mediator and going to God only by Him. At root this Evangelical Universalism is no better than its Radical and Liberal counterparts, and should be rejected as much as them.


In contrast to these erroneous forms of universalism, the Bible teaches a true universalism. It repeatedly states that God’s saving purpose is universal in scope in that the ‘elect from every nation’ are embraced by it. As Geerhardus Vos says in his Biblical Theology, even the particularism of the Old Testament merely serves and leads up to the universalism of the New.

Hence John 3.16, both misunderstood and misapplied by Arminians, refers to the truth that God’s love for our corrupt world (and not merely for the Jews) is so great that He is willing to save whoever believes on Christ from any and every part of it.

This too is why the apostles went at their Lord’s command to ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’, preaching the Gospel of redeeming grace to all without exception, both Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, old and young. (Acts 1.8; Matt 28.19-20; Rom 10.12-13; 11:11-25).

Finally, when all the redeemed are assembled around the throne of God and of the Lamb, they shall have been gathered, not from this or that particular country, but ‘out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation.’ (Rev. 5.9).

Here is a universalism that is thoroughly Biblical. It embraces all who are sovereignly chosen by God the Father, lovingly redeemed by God the Son, effectually called and sanctified by God the Spirit, graciously invited to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, invincibly made willing to receive Him, freelyjustified and adopted into God’s family by His grace, kept firmly by His power till their sanctification is completed, and joyfully welcomed into glory

They shall be brought with gladness great
And mirth on every side
Into the palace of the King,
And there they shall abide. (Psalm 45.15. Metrical Version.)

This is a universalism that leaves nothing to the vagaries of ‘chance’, the misplaced optimism of religious dreamers, or the ‘free-will’ of man, but which secures the salvation of God’s chosen with absolute certainty. Oh may it be ours!

John M. Brentnall

‘Peace and Truth’ 2002:3, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union

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