Reformed theology is under reconstruction, so much so that avant garde Reformed theologians should take a hint from GM and advertise their sleek product to Unchurched Harry with the pitch; “This is not your Father’s theology.” One of the major ways that Dad’s theology has changed is with the ambitious combining of Reformed Soteriology with Universal Soteriology. Let’s call it Re-versalism.
Re-versalism seeks to soften the particularism that has always been part of Reformed thinking, while avoiding the postmodern ugliness of full blown univeralism. In short Re-versalists want to avoid the “all roads lead to heaven theology,” but allow for more roads than the Reformed church has historically taught. Given their pre-suppositions, re-versalists are bright, sincere, creative, and no doubt have the best of intentions in their attempt to construct a soteriology more suitable to the kinder and gentler age we live in. Unfortunately the attempt to meld two antithetical systems results in a design that is confusing, abiblical, and satisfies only half of the equation.
Re-versalism desires to be sympathetic to the consumer who finds distasteful the truth that those who have never heard the gospel will be eternally lost. No doubt, polling data reveals that this truth leaves many people’s innate sense of justice sorely grieved. Now of course it stands to reason if we want to succeed in hawking our Reformed soteriology, we had better nuance our soteriology to make sure nobody is grieved. The problem though is not classical Reformed soteriology, but rather people’s innate sense of justice. Re-versalism is catering to our sinful nature. Our sinful nature always suggests that God is not fair (Romans 9:14). It is not fair for God to decide in His providence who will hear the gospel and who will not (compare Acts 16:6). It is unfair of God not to give everybody the gospel. It is unfair that God would save some and leave others to their own defiance of God. Of course the problem here is that Reformed doctrine has been forgotten. Re-versalism forgets that God by definition is fair (Deut. 32:4). Re-versalism forgets that justice would be best served if all men were left eternally lost. There was no need for God to bring the gospel message to anybody, and no need for anybody to be regenerated. God didn’t owe rebellious fallen man any favors. The marvel is not that people “don’t get to hear” the gospel; the marvel is that anybody does. Do we dare to think that God is unjust because He is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4f)? Do we dare believe that changing our soteriology to pacify the whims of our sinful nature allows the gospel to be the gospel? Does this change let God be God?
One proponent of Re-versalism, seeking to widen the narrow gate, states that “he does not believe that all those who have lived and died without hearing a single word of the Biblical message are eternally lost but only those who, in addition to their sin in Adam, willfully and finally reject or remain indifferent toward the revelation God has given them are eternally lost.” Before examining this, it should be noted that the language here seems somewhat imprecise. Since nobody is saved by revelation alone, we believe the writer is suggesting either that those who have never heard a single word of the gospel are lost because they rejected the special grace that is related to general revelation, or they are lost because they rejected the common grace that is related to special revelation. Meanwhile the saved, who never heard the gospel, are saved either by embracing the special grace that was related to general revelation, or they are saved by embracing the common grace that was related to special revelation. Now if Alice in Wonderland makes sense to you I am sure this makes for a perfectly logical arrangement; but for the rest of us, alas we are mere mortals. If Re-versalists are relating special grace to general revelation they are implying that the hypothetical saved who have never heard the gospel are saved by a special grace without the propositional revelation of Christ that comes in special revelation. If they are relating common grace to special revelation they are implying that those who are saved without hearing the gospel are saved without special grace and by revelation alone. This strikes me as strange and unorthodox.
For the sake of discussion let us grant theoriginal supposition that those who have neverheard the gospel aresaved by embracing some kind of grace that is related to some kind of revelation. If that is what is suggested here, it sounds like a mutated form of the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace. The non-mutated form of that doctrine teaches that grace which precedes potential conversion can be accepted or refused as the individual chooses. The problem from an Arminian standpoint is that these noble pagans are saved by a lesser revelation that is related to a prevenient grace which has swallowed whole the need for the greater revelation that is related to a grace that saves. Most Evangelical Arminians would blanch at the thought that the revelation that is required for initial prevenient grace is the same as the revelation required for the more mature grace that is related to salvation. In this mutated form, prevenient grace and the lesser revelation that travels with it have been stretched out to the point of obviating the need for greater revelation and a more mature grace. This lesser grace and the attendant revelation therefore become saving in themselves.
Now, if this constitutes moldy Arminianism, it makes for rancid Calvinism. From the Reformed standpoint, grace which comes to us that is related to general revelation is not sufficient for salvation, no matter how we respond to it. General revelation can convince us that there is a God, it even can convince us we are sinners of some sort but it cannot lead to the salvation that comes in special grace for there is nothing of the Savior in it. Special revelation and special grace stand in a unique relationship to one another. The Reformed standpoint declares that the revelation that is related to God’s common grace does not imbue men with enough truth to lead to conversion, no matter how we respond to it. Common grace may yield to us certain talents and gifts; it often causes us to see general revelation but it can not by definition save, for there is nothing of the Lord Christ in it. The suggestion that those who never hear the gospel are saved requires us to confuse the proper positing of general revelation with common grace and special revelation with special grace.
We also must recognize that it is precisely because we are in Adam that we will always willfully and finally reject God’s revelation and the grace that accompanies it (Eph. 2:1). The unregenerate is at enmity with God and will not do anything but curse God and His special grace and special revelation. If he is unregenerate it does not matter whether he hears the gospel 932 times or none at all; he does not and will not see, and so he is lost (II Cor. 4:4). On the other hand, if we believe in election and irresistible grace we will be confident that if God starts something in any cognizant person’s life by His general revelation and common grace with the intention of it flowering into salvation by the Holy Spirit’s usage of special grace and special revelation, that person will eventually be confronted with and bow the knee to the Christ (Acts 8:26–39; Acts 13:48; Acts 16:13–14).
Another implied aspect of what has already been said is the impossibility of two realities living in one person. The unregenerate spend their lives constructing a reality that is falsely related to the God who is. Starting from themselves as the center of the universe (which reveals the epitome of self-centeredness), they construct a reality at warfare with the reality of the God who is. To suggest that God saves those who have created a reality opposed to Him (egocentric vs. theocentric) is to suggest that God saves those who are currently denying and defying Him. To suggest, as the Re-versalists do, that man can somehow be religiously neutral or can somehow mix and match his egocentric reality with a theocentric reality is plainly misguided. This view completely lacks any insight into the meaning of the carnal mind being at enmity (warfare) with God. Re-versalists need to hear Van Til when he observes:
Man as sinner is an ally of Satan in that he basically hates God, whatever may appear on the surface as the fruit of non-saving grace.2
Individuals past and present simply cannot be saved until their reality (worldview) is altered. This cannot happen without special revelation, irresistible grace, regeneration and justification, that is to say, the fullness of Christ crucified.
Re-versalism tends at times to play with logic. They may say things like: “Just because Scripture teaches that whoever confesses Jesus as Lord and believes in his heart that God raised Him from the dead will be saved, does not necessarily mean whoever does not fulfill these conditions will be lost.” D.A Carson in his book, The Gagging Of God reveals the problem with their torturing of logic:
At the level of logic…this conclusion is normally justified. Statements of the sort, “If A, then B,” do not guarantee the truth of “If not A, then not B,” and that is what exclusivism demands. But there is one important exception. If all the members of class A are precisely identical to all the members of B, then if the conditional statement “If A, then B holds,” so also does the conditional statement, “If not A then not B.” In other words, if all those who confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him constitute class A, and all those who are saved constitute class B, then if the members of the two classes are the same, it is precisely true to say that, “if you do not confess Jesus as Lord and do not believe that God has raised him from the dead you are not saved.”3
Of course one should be gentle with one’s opponents (remember Paul’s gentleness with the Judaizers in Galatians 5:12), but at this point Re-versalism becomes a chic Universalism. What started out as a concern for a wider gate has, by way of necessary implication, been transformed into a deconstruction project for the elimination of gates The simple fact is that Scripture does teach that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved: and only those who do not believe in Jesus will be lost. It seems almost pedantic to cite passages like John 14:6, Acts 4:12, Romans 10:14–15, and I John 5:12; yet increasingly it appears that we have fallen so far that what was once certain is now pitied as being anachronistic.
This kind of thinking in addition to being non-biblical (as if that isn’t tragic enough), also eviserates our compassion for the selfish, a key secondary reason for missions. We exhibit no compassion for the present selfish who have never heard the gospel when we suggest that the rebel of the past who never heard the gospel was not in reality a selfish God-hater, insisting on enthroning themselves as their own deity (Does anybody remember Romans 3:9–20?). Scripture, speaking rhetorically, asks, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” The clear answer is: They won’t. If we really wanted to show compassion for those who hate God we would work callouses on our knees praying that God’s glory would be displayed in their salvation. If we really wanted to show compassion for those who hate God we would quit trying to work off all God’s “edges” and preach the unvarnished truth that God hates the workers of sin (Psalm 5:5, 11:5, Eph 2:3); yet even when He hated us He loved us. If we really wanted to show compassion for those who hate God, we would be better stewards of our monies so that we could be better givers for God’s work of missions, both local and international. If we were really compassionate as we like to consider ourselves, we would have compassion for God. Every time we rearrange things to fit our current sensibilities we reveal a harshness toward God. Every time we are content with Re-versalism coming from our pulpits we reveal a hostility towards the cross. Every time we put up with Re-versalism being expressed in our publications as a valid opinion we are in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Re-versalistic ideas are uncompassionate, mean-spirited, and God dishonoring; and those who believe and promulgate them should beware. We esteem compassion so highly that we dare not allow false compassion to be a smokescreen in the ongoing attempt to create a “deity du-jour.”
Re-versalists contend that much of Reformed soteriology twists Scripture when it places too much emphasis on the imputational aspect of Adam’s sin to his posterity. Some Re-versalists demand that damnation is only related to the expression of our inherent nature and not the result of Adam’s sin imputed to us. This seems fuzzy because little time is spent teasing out the relationship between imputed sin and inherent sin. We would only comment that there must be some relationship between these two lest we fall into the Pelagian doctrine which teaches that we are able not to sin. This would be to deny both our federal relationship to Adam, and our sinful nature, and thus deny key foundations of the gospel.
Another technique used to confuse the matter in the minds of people is to underscore the sinfulness of God’s people. The logic goes something like this: God’s people sin, the unreached sin; God’s people have heaven, the unreached responding to their measure of revelation therefore can have heaven. It is a kind of a sophisticated version of the, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone” argument. Re-versalists would no doubt ask: “How dare we suggest that unreached peoples are eternally separated from God when we have so much sin in us?” The Reformed position grants that all of God’s people are sinners, but also insists they are at the same time saints. This is something that can not be predicated about the lost; they are always only sinners, and this is the problem with the above logic. God’s people do sin but they have an advocate with the Father. The lost, reached or unreached, past or present, have never had this blessed advocate.
Re-versalists also have latched onto the “all” and “world” passages of Scripture as proof that more will be saved than we think. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine these passages individually but the simple truth is, this reasoning proves more than what most Re-versalists want to prove. This reasoning is unattached to the Sola Scriptura principle of reading less clear passages in light of the more clear passages and ends up proving an unvarnished Universalism not a Re-versalistic position. To insist the “all” and “world” passages are proof that more will be saved than we think is to ignore Calvin’s observations that:
No worship has ever pleased God except that which looked to Christ.4 (And) surely, after the fall of the first man no knowledge of God apart from the mediator has had power unto salvation. For Christ not only speaks of his own age, but comprehends all ages when he says: “This is eternal life, to know the Father to be the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” [John 17:3 p.]. Thus, all the more vile is the stupidity of those persons who open heaven to all the impious and unbelieving without the grace of him whom Scripture commonly teaches to be the only door whereby we enter into salvation.5
In their hearts Re-versalists genuinely believe their position is a Biblical halfway house between Universalism and Classical Reformed Soteriology. Their halfway house though is like a California hotel dislodged from its mountainside perch by a raging mudslide; it is not at the bottom yet, but there is no place to go but down. We need to remember that Arminianism used to be thought of as the halfway house between Reformed Soteriology and Universalistic Soteriology. Reversalism is the mansion sliding even further down than that position. Re-versalism sounds more like a halfway house between Universalism and Arminianism, and if that’s the case, then what are allegedly Reformed people doing there?
In conclusion, if all this were about is what happened to the lost of the past who never heard the gospel then I might be far less vehement. That is not what it is all about. This is about redefining what the gospel is. And the gospel is now exactly what it has always been. Nothing has changed! God as sovereign creator is still God. Man as dependent creature is still dependent. Dependent man still will not choose God without God changing man’s nature. The changing of man’s nature is still related to the Spirit’s harmonious work of applying special grace and giving special revelation. Man besotted through and through with sin still must find perfection in order to approach this majestically Holy God. God’s wrath is still revealed from heaven towards all unrighteousness. Man by nature is still a child of wrath. God still upholds His holiness having spent His wrath on His Christ at Calvary. God still displays His love to His people by providing His Christ at Calvary to be His people’s perfection. God still displays His love to His people by sending forth His Spirit to apply the benefits of salvation. God still intends to glorify His people when He gathers them to Himself. To nuance any of these truths changes all of these truths and all the other ones that comprise the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is precisely because the Re-versalist’s rearrangement of parts of the gospel would be a going backwards into heresy that we should forswear its teaching and chide it’s proponents.
1. Neal Punt, “Wondering Who Is Saved” The Banner (133/1 January 5, 1998) 18.
2. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.1974), pg 134.
3. D. A. Carson, The Gagging Of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), pp 312–313.
4. John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 (Edited by John T. McNeil, Westminster Press. 1960), pp 341–342.
Rev. Bret McAtee is evangelist at the Charlotte (MI) CRC.