Claim the promises. You hear it a lot these days. The promises of God are all the rage. It is the very lynchpin of the evangelical movement, the impetus for the altar call. God has promised that if you come, he will in no way cast you out. And so they go in droves to the altars to claim the promise.
But what is the promise, really? And how is it claimed? And what is the evidence that it has been claimed successfully? Well, it depends on who you talk to. Each denomination seems to have a different version. Catholics regard salvation as a lifelong process, wrought out under the guidance and care of the church, who work as instruments of grace, which is dispensed through the sacraments. A person who faithfully submits to this process is likely to be saved. The evangelical Christian is likely to frame salvation more as a transaction between an individual and God and more as an event than a process. The Arminian will stress man’s will and works as essential components in securing salvation, whereas the Calvinist will insist it is purely a work of grace.
Among Calvinists, there are those that maintain a tension between God’s sovereignty and his love, insisting that he loves all and died for all, and yet has elected only some. Proponents of this system will offer their congregants a method for appropriating God’s favor that is similar to that of the Arminian. Other Calvinists will insist on double predestination, declaring that God has elected some to salvation and others to damnation, and often state, in effect, that there is nothing man can do to work out his salvation. They may, however, add the caveat that God has given us the privilege of crying out for mercy and that we ought to do this even though it will contribute nothing to salvation.
Needless to say, all of these factions interpret the promises of the bible in different ways. Take a verse like Romans 5:18, for instance: “Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”
The Arminian will see the justification of life as a promise by God that all have been given a chance at salvation; it is up to them to take it. Calvinists will see the justification applying only to the elect. The Christadelphians see it as a promise by God to physically resurrect all men, after which some will become saved and others will be annihilated in the second death.
For all the differences, however, all parties agree on two things: First, the verse does constitute a promise of some kind, and secondly, the promise will not result in the salvation of all men. Even so, every denomination finds some promise in the verse to claim. They all find in the verse a promise that extends up to certain point, but no further. Each draws the line at a different place; each has a different take on this seemingly universal verse. But we all know it can’t be universal; hence the need for the various ways of limiting the scope--all of which seem rather contrived and even a tad childish. But why do they seem so contrived? Could it be because the premise under which the various factions are operating--that the promise is not to all--is wrong?
The problem is one of antecedent opinions. We all have them. And we all read certain verses in light of other verses. The thing is this: Certain verses, taken in their most natural sense, seem to imply eternal damnation, and others seem to imply universal salvation. The Universalist reads the threats in light of the promises, and the traditionalist reads the promises in light of the threats. The thing is this: In the event of a tie, mercy triumphs over judgment. This is clearly taught in Galatians 3:13-17:
"Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect."
The problem is that the traditionalist cannot understand the fact that the bible actually does contain verses that promise Universal Salvation. He can never actually read what the verse actually says apart from his antecedent opinions. So how to resolve the stalemate? I propose the following thought experiment: Simply read what the verse actually says in its most natural meaning and take it as literally as possible. You will then wind up with one set of verses that promise Universal Salvation and one set that deny it. But here’s the rub: You will wind up with certain verses that you will have to admit are promises. And then you will have to admit two other things: The bible teaches that a threat cannot annul a promise and it is an accepted fact that a promise binds in a way that a threat does not. Moreover, you will find instances where eternal destruction--or something close to it--was threatened on certain cities and nations (Moab, Ammon, Egypt, Assyria, Sodom, Israel), and yet those nations were also promised restoration.
Now let’s try this experiment as it applies to one verse: “As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Now at this point a flood of objections are flowing through your mind. But all doesn’t mean all because… Stop right there! We have already agreed not to do that! We are not interpreting this verse in light of other verses. Yes, the bible says to compare scripture with scripture, but for the purposes of this experiment we are not doing that. We are taking the verse to mean exactly what it says in its most natural sense. Plain and simple. The most natural sense of this verse does not accord with the common interpretations, namely:
As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall those in Christ be made alive.
As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be given enough spiritual life to either accept or reject Christ, and those who do the latter will be damned.
As in Adam all will be made physically alive, some to be saved and others to be damned.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you can’t find support for all of these interpretations from other verses. Indeed you can. Lots of support. But that’s the whole point. We can always read one verse in light of other verses that require that we understand the original verse as saying something that it is not saying in its most natural context.
Take another example. He “will have all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4) and he “works all things after the counsel of his will.” (Eph. 1:11). Add those two verses together--taking each one in its natural context--and you have an ironclad promise of Universal Salvation. It is essential, therefore, that the traditionalist deny one of those verses. The Calvinist denies the first; the Arminian the second. The Calvinist reads the first verse this way: He wills that all be saved that he will save. This is a very bizarre interpretation. Who talks like that? It goes without saying that he wishes to save those that he actually saves; did anyone think he didn’t will to save those whom he saves? Or they say the verse means that God wills for all kinds of men to be saved--some whites, some blacks, some men, some women, etc… But this is almost as bizarre as the first interpretation. First of all, it’s self-evident; did anyone think God was restricting salvation to chubby Swedish fiddlers? Or svelte Italian hand models? Secondly, it ignores the previous verse, which implored that prayers be made on behalf of all men (or did that all also mean all kinds of men?)
The Arminian, on the other hand, accepts that the first verse means what it says, but insists that the second means that God tries to work all things according to his will, but just can’t in the case of certain stubborn souls who are somehow able to override his will for them. Take both verses, however, for what they actually say, and you have Universal Salvation. And unless God is a liar, that’s a promise that no threat can annul.