Universal Atonement — what can the Church say?

 Crucifixion by Saugerties

Q. When were you saved?

A. Two thousand years ago on the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Apparently T. F. Torrance would always say something along this line whenever he was asked that question. It’s a crucial point, especially for those in the Evangelical and/or Reformed segment of the Protestant world. I need not detail the adverse effects of the “altar call” in much of Evangelical Christendom, with its focus on the person’s particular coming to faith as decisive for her salvation. While this is well and good, the “born again” experience is often enough abstracted from the Christian confession that our salvation was once and for all effected by the obedience unto death of Jesus Christ, in his becoming sin on our behalf and offering of himself to the Father so that we might become fellow heirs with the Son.

I must say that this issue has personal bearing on my own dealings with those within or without the church, especially the latter. If I am presenting the gospel to someone, my approach should be that I come bearing good news, to wit, you are saved! Now believe! The opposite, however, is most often the case in the church, i.e., “believe and then you are saved.” Now, of course, both are true. Salvation is not effected in a person’s life until she comes to the obedience of faith, but this faith is not the ground upon which the person is saved — but in what sense? — in the sense of having any claims or rights before God. If the doctrine of Original Sin (however you rework it in light of contemporary science) is to teach us anything, it is that all we have we receive from God as gift. At no point in our existence, even in our coming to faith, do we have a claim on God and his plan for communion with his creation. So, if every person who receives the gospel is to do so in recognition that salvation lay wholly on the side of God and his initiative (the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost), can the church confess that all will be saved? No. But I say, “No,” because it seems particularly nefarious to say, “Yes,” for the simple reason that we (the church) put ourselves in a position of claim to salvation. So, there’s an obvious tension: I want to say “All are saved” but not “All will be saved.” I really can see no other way around it, and I’m not especially disturbed by it — in fact, it is quite freeing as I stand and kneel before a God who wholly gives himself so that I may give all. You must lose your life in order to gain it. To confess that “all will be saved” appears to me as an attempt to preserve your life, and thus to lose it.




  1. I tend to wonder whether keeping the Spirit’s role front and center wouldn’t be helpful. For you’re right that faith does not effect salvation, even though one is not saved until she finds the obedience of faith. If faith is considered a kind of firstfruits of the Spirit and the Spirit itself is the ground, then would that change the objection?

    I am confused, though, as to why would you say that “all are saved”. Why wouldn’t Jesus’ saving work for all be a perfect anticipation of the final “all will be saved”? How does the former salvation differ from the latter? If the former doesn’t map to the latter, then how are they at all connected?

  2. Hey Nick,

    Yeah, certainly the role of the Holy Spirit is central as the very working of God in the individual’s life, in the reordering of the desires, strengthening of the will, and, of course, the gift of faith. I don’t know, however, how it would help out the particular issue involved here. I’m not willing to do the whole “irresistible grace” move and say that all those who come to faith do so because God made them do it. In this regard, I’m on board with the larger Christian tradition (contra Dordtian Calvinists) that sees grace as necessary but not “sufficient” in the strict sense as not requiring a real movement of a truly free will (i.e., a will that could choose otherwise). Of course, here we are dealing with how someone comes to faith and appropriates the unearned gift of salvation, which is different from the question of what is the ground or source of that salvation. My point is that salvation is already effected for all people by Christ’s sacrifice, thus “all are saved.” However, we can have no claim on this salvation, so at all points in our relationship with God it is received as gift. Of course, not all receive it, so not all are saved; however, such nonbelievers stand in a contradiction to the true or real ontological state of humanity, which is saved. This leaves open the question of whether those who do not receive salvation before their death can do so in the hereafter or at the eschaton. Here we must only hope for such a further possibility that the hardness of all hearts will be turned from darkness and the illusion of self-constitution, and receive the inheritance won by Christ for all men. There is still a strangeness in leaving open the possibility that not every human will be saved even though they are saved. Regardless, I have to claim that each person is saved, but nonetheless a person can choose to live (for a time or eternally) a lie and, perhaps we could say, be something other than human. It is a rejection of creaturehood, since the purposes for God’s creation, including ourselves, is rejected. The result, as I understand the doctrine of reprobation/damnation to teach, is that the human creature becomes something less than (or other than) “human” in any true sense, just as the demons were once angels in the perfection of purity but are now something other than angels as properly constituted by God. Obviously, there’s much more that needs to be said (e.g., what exactly is sin and evil?), but I hope that the bits that I’ve laid out are coherent starting points. Though I welcome any criticisms.

  3. Did Jesus say “It is finished” meaning steps 1-11 are finished and the last is up to your “free will”? Was the free will preserved or corrupted after the Fall? I think what you’re saying is a nicer way of saying, “Jesus didn’t save anyone on the cross, He just made men savable.” The moment I attribute anything to choice, I don’t understand grace. There is reason to boast in choices. There is no reason to boast in our salvation…other than what Jesus accomplished.

    I may have misunderstood you.

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