From last week’s post:
It is dangerous exegesis (or “isogesis”) to just pull a verse out of a passage and build on it in isolation without realizing what the context is (ie. what the words around this passage are saying).
In I Corinthians 7 when Paul (being unmarried) is speaking about marriage he says, “It is good for them (unmarried and widows) if they abide even as I” (v. 8). Is Paul teaching celibacy to all the unmarried? Is he saying that all missionaries or clergyman should remain unmarried? Certainly not; the context needs to be examined. He is speaking about himself, about the sanctity of marriage, and about being married at a time when severe persecution raged against the church. With regard to himself, it is better that Paul is not married since he is away much of the time in his travels and faces the danger of imprisonment. How could he be a good husband and father? In regard to the sanctity of marriage he says that it is better to marry than to be consumed with lust for a partner. And Paul is also speaking about the difficult times of testing for Christians. He is extending a warning to those who may be tempted to care more for their spouse than for the faith (vv. 23, 29-35). The context surrounding v. 8 must determine how this verse is interpreted.
In a similar way, we must see the context of the so-called “universal” passages using the words “all,” “all men,” and “world.” In the New Testament there was a constant need to address the false Jewish notion that they were the only ones God was determined to save. The New Testament writers correct this error by saying that Christ’s death was intended for people of all nations, not just Israel. Christ died for all men without distinction (both Jews and Gentiles). But this does not mean that Christ died for all men without exception. The teachings, parables, and even the miracles of Jesus point to the fact that His saving work was intended to have a scope much larger than just Israel, but in no place do we read that Christ died to save all men. If he did, then His sacrifice was a failure.
The following texts speak of Christ’s work being for the “world.”
- John 1:9, 29 “That was the true Light which gives light to every man who comes into the world. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
- John 3:16, 17 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
- John 4:42 “Then they said to the woman, Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
- II Cor. 5:19 “… that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”
- I John 2:1, 2 “My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
- I John 4:14 “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world.”
The following texts contain the word “all” in reference to the scope of Christ’s work:
- Romans 5:18 “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.”
- II Cor. 5:14, 15 “For the love of Christ constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”
- I Tim. 2:4-6 “… who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
- “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.”
- II Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
While at first glance these passages would appear to teach a universal atonement or at least a universal intention, yet in their context they clearly refer to the fact that Christ died for men from all over the world, as opposed to just Israel (John 3:16, etc.), for all classes of men (I Tim. 2:4,6), and for all believers (Heb. 2:9; II Pet. 3:9), but never for every single human being.
We confess that we believe in a “Holy Catholic Church” in the Apostle’s Creed (see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 54). Some have replaced the word Catholic with the word “universal” to avoid confusion with the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” refers to a church which encompasses believers from all over the world and throughout the history of the world. It is this sort of “universalism” that the Scripture refers to in the above passages.
Arminians cannot be true to their own position without saying more than they want to. If John 1:29 is taken universally (“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world”), then there would be no more sin in the world, or at least that every human being eventually would be saved. Actually, John the Baptist here is making reference to Isaiah 53 where in v. 8 Isaiah speaks of Christ being “stricken” for “My people” (a covenantal term used in regard to Israel). At that time, reference was primarily thought to be exclusively for the Jews. Therefore, John the Baptist does not say that Jesus came to lay down his life for the Jewish people alone, but for those who were Gentiles too. Therefore he uses the word “world.”
In John 12:32 Jesus says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” Did the Lord say that every individual in the human race would look to the cross of Christ for salvation? Certainly not. If he meant this, then it is obvious that Christ was wrong and his crucifixion a failure.
I Corinthians 15:22 tells us, “… for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” This passage is far from teaching universal salvation. It does tell us that since Adam represented all men – all died because of his sin. To say that in Christ “all shall be made alive” does not mean that Christ will make, or intended to make, every human being alive. Rather, this verse is universal as it applies to Adam, but limited as it refers to Christ. All men are, by nature, fallen in Adam. All who are “in Christ” (that is, are ingrafted into Him by true faith – see John 15:1-8) are given life. Adam is the head of the whole human race, and Christ is the head of His Body, the Church. All who are in Christ were once in Adam; but all who are in Adam are not in Christ.
For us, living in the twenty-first century, we must understand that the Jews of the first century had mistakenly assumed that only their nation would be saved by the coming of the Messiah, even though the Old Testament prophesied the day when the Church would extend into all the nations of the world (see Gen. 12:3; Psalm 72:8-10; Ps. 86:9; Ps. 87; Daniel 2:44; Zech. 8:23, etc.)
Acts 13:48 indicates that among the Gentiles, there was a faithful response to the gospel: “Those who were ordained to eternal life believed.” This was according to the plan and purpose of God. The atonement of Christ, in its scope and purpose, applied to both Jew and Gentile – to all who believed.
The context of every passage of Scripture is important. We may not pick and choose certain verses that happen to say the words we want them to, without taking Scripture as a whole. We may not deduce any doctrine that clearly contradicts the predominant teaching of the Bible elsewhere. Scripture must be compared with Scripture. We must carefully determine the writer’s purpose and audience when God inspired him to pen those words.
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.