Universal Atonement — what can the Church say?
February 27, 2008
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.