by Edmund P. Clowney
Man fights to lose his lostness without being saved. The scientific optimist would settle the matter by dismissing God from his universe. The scientist will grant that the human condition has its problems, but they are all solvable.
Man fights to lose his lostness without being saved. The scientific optimist would settle the matter by dismissing God from his universe. The scientist will grant that the human condition has its problems, but they are all solvable. The tools are now on hand to produce almost any desired change in human behavior. All that is needed is agreement on which tools are to be used and what changes are desired.1
The existential pessimist regards such human engineering as a kind of blasphemy against man. Any man whose existence is authentic must see the tragedy of human life. Man indeed is lost. But the "lostness" of existentialism is only another rebellion against God’s judgment. The absurd hero is Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain as it ceaselessly rolls again to the pit. But Sisyphus is tragic because he is conscious. He is stronger than his rock. As Albert Camas puts it, "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn."2 Man’s hopeless struggle is his glory-against God.
Jesus said, "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lk. 19:10) . The salvation of the gospel has meaning only if the wrath of God proclaimed in the gospel is man’s eternal doom.
This issue cannot be evaded, although deliberate or unconscious evasions color contemporary theology. To note some of the evasions and denials may help us grasp the nettle of the issue.
One path of evasion is concentration on secondary problems. Among these are problems of communication. Let it be granted that traditional vocabulary and rote formulas have muted the gospel trumpet. Yet the offense of the gospel does not arise from outlandish words but from outlandish ideas. Improved communication may be expected to bring sharper offense. Here is a passage from "Good News for Modern Man," the New Testament in Today’s English Version. Modern man can understand it all too well:
"I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot afterward do, anything worse. I will show you whom to fear: fear God who, after killing, has the authority to throw into hell. Yes, I tell you, be afraid of him!" (Lk. 12:4, 5).
Appeals for greater evangelistic involvement may also prove to be a path of evasion. New structures may advance evangelism; certainly the leavening activity of the kingdom requires Christian participation in the new forms of metropolitan living. But the new emphasis on social structures does not come as a corrective to evangelical isolation. It comes as the form for a secularized message concerning man’s condition and its remedy. It is so easy to smooth this over, to say, "Billy Graham wants to save individual souls, and the National Council of Churches wants to save a society. Obviously both are rightlet’s have more of both."
The fact is that, so far from complementing each other, these are two different religions, using the term "save" in radically different senses. The whole issue of the new worldliness as an approach in evangelism is secondary to the issue of the new worldliness as a definition of the gospel.
Perhaps we ought not to call the many varieties of current universalism an evasion of the issue of man’s lostness. In some cases this universalism is not evasive but dogmatic. Sectarian universalism in particular attacks the orthodox creeds with no uncertain rejection.
Sectarian universalists have this in common with orthodox believers: they seek to ground their arguments on the Bible. They appeal to texts that appear to predict the salvation of all men (e.g., Acts 3:21; John 12:32; Rom. 5:18) , or to declare God’s intention of saving all (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) , or to assert the universal efficacy of the cross (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:19; Tit. 2:1l; Col. 1:20; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2).3
Such appeals face an evident difficulty. You just cannot press the general statements about salvationinthe Bible to mean salvation to every creature individually without ignoring the explicit statements predicting the eternal woe of those who share the judgment of Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:41, 46; 13:49, 50; Mark 9:43; Rev. 14:10; 21:8) . The redemption of a new humanity in Christ does not in itself mean that there cannot be divine judgment determining those who compose the new humanity. The Bible clearly teaches the reality and finality of that judgment (Rom. 2:4-16; Eph. 5:5, 6; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
The difficulty, indeed, the impossibility of presenting a clear case for universalism from the Bible has forced the advocates of this position to speculative ground. They must support a viewpoint that not only goes beyond the Bible but contradicts and corrects the Bible. The rejection of the authority of written Scripture in contemporary theology offers the necessary background for contemporary optimism about the future of the unconverted.
Liberal universalism took this path long ago. The enlightened liberal looked down from the height of the centuries at the primitive views of the biblical waiters. He was pained that they had not perceived either that man is too good to be lost or that God is too good to condemn anyone.
Dr. James I. Packer has observed that contemporary universalism is a universalism of grace rather than of nature.4 Formally, at least, it grounds its hope in a triumph of God’s grace rather than in a denial of man’s lost condition. The plea for this new universalism is that it is demanded by the Word of God in the dynamic sense, even if certain biblical expressions may fall short of it or deny it.5
The Barthian foam of this universalism insists that God’s election is qualitative not quantitative. That is, Jesus Christ is the one elect man and also the man who was rejected. Every man is in Christ, and reprobation cannot be final for any man because it is overcome in Christ. Pronouncements of divine wrath must therefore be directed to Calvary. Hell, having triumphed over Christ, cannot triumph over another-not even over Judas.6
Recent studies in the World Council of Churches have raised the question of universalism explicitly and have also assumed the universalist position: "By the raising up of the New Man, Christ Jesus, every man has been made a member of the New Mankind."7
The missionary structure of the church must be revolutionized by this mew conception. The church is no longer to be understood as a company of the saved in a lost world, but as a representative portion of a redeemed humanity. The church is distinguished from the world not by its inheritance but by its awareness of the world’s inheritance. From such convictions comes the "new worldliness." The church must shun structures that distinguish it from the world and "get lost" in the world, joining those worldly endeavors that advance humanization.
As the goals of humanization are stated, it becomes plain that the new universalism has a different view of what salvation is. Humanization is a social process. The "shalom" of the kingdom is not a personal possession to be received but a social event to participate in. This state of affairs comes about through secularization. Men are freed from the bondage of a sacralizing of nature, history, and society. Salvation is corporate, social, secular. There cannot be salvation for one until there is salvation for all, because salvation is public and not private.
The new universalism could develop only after the authority of the Bible had been surrendered. It must reject at least those texts that teach eschatological condemnation. But it also rejects the basic message of the Bible regarding salvation. Instead it holds that the dislocations of society, not the guilt of the sinner, present the problem that is overcome by salvation. Social action rather than gospel preaching is the means of grace. The grace that triumphs is justnotsaving grace in the New Testament sense. Neither is the lostness of man’s condition the dreadful state presented in the Bible.
To reflect on man’s lost condition is a fearful work. We are unprepared for what the Bible says. What do we know about man’s lostness from the Bible?
We know that men are "children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). How much does Paul summarize in that dreadful phrase! The wrath of which he speaks is not man’s but God’s. It is true, of course, that men direct their wrath against God. They are not just aliens but "enemies with weapons in their hands."s (cf. Col. 1:21; Rom. 5:10). The wrath of the rebellious kings of the earth is directed against the Lord and against His anointed (Ps. 2). The wrath of men sought to fling Christ from the cliff at Nazareth (Lk. 4:28) and seemed to prevail in nailing Him to the cross.
But the wrath of which the apostle speaks is the divine wrath that is stored up for sinners. In this Hebraistic expression we are reminded of the way in which a man doomed to die is spoken of as a "son of death" in the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Sam. 12:5; Ps. 102:20) . Christ condemned tile proselytizing of the Pharisees, declaring that when they had made a convert he was "twofold more a son of hell" than they themselves (Matt. 23:15).
The children of wrath are those who are appointed to wrath in the righteous judgment of God. Paul makes the category to cover all humanity. In this passage he has described the former life of his readers as apostate heathen. They once "walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience." Then he adds, this was the story of my life, too. "Among whom we also all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest . . ." Paul’s use of "we" here may refer to Jewish Christians specifically, or more generally to the apostles and preachers of the Word as those who had "before hoped in Christ" (Eph. 1:12 ) . In any case, all stand under the same condemnation. You, we, the rest -all men are children of God’s wrath. In this confession Pau sums up his argument in Romans. All are under sin and the wrath of God which is the curse upon sin. There is none right eous, no, not one, and all the world is brought under the judg ment of God (Rom. 3:10, 19).
As heirs of wrath men are ruined, doomed. The wrath of God is the infliction of His curse. God’s blessing is eternal life His wrath is eternal death. The accursed do not see life, for the wrath of God abides on them (John 3: 36 ). We rejoice in the beautiful Old Testament picture of God’s breathing into man’s nostrils the breath of life, but we shrink back as the Old Testament pictures the kindling of the wrath of God and the blast of His nostrils as breathing destruction and death.
The children of wrath are not only without God and therefore without hope (Eph. 2:12) : they are bound over to the infliction of God’s judgment, they live under a "fearful expectation of judgment and a jealousy of fire which shall devour the adversaries …. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:27, 31). "For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29).
The utter condemnation of God’s abiding wrath shuts men up to misery here and judgment hereafter. Man mourns in his misery; even the people of God cry out in a world of the curse. Consider the dirge of the generation perishing in the wilderness in the lament of the Ninetieth Psalm. Destruction, vanity, death-and behind the misery is the power of God’s anger (v. 11), for it is by His wrath that the wilderness wanderers are troubled (v. 7).
Yet God’s wrath is never capricious. It is never malicious, never arbitrary. God is slow to anger (Ex. 34:6). The wrath ofGodis never visited until it has been more than merited by human sin. The Psalmist, therefore, reflecting on God’s wrath, perceives its cause: "Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance" (v. 8).
Men are children of wrath because they are sinners. The fearful position of men, created as children of God but become children of wrath-that state of doom is brought about by initial rebellion and multiplied iniquity.
Paul himself, reflecting upon the course of sin in the world, is at pains to trace it to its source. Where death is brought upon men, there sin is being judged. The death-knell tolls through the genealogies of Genesis: and he died . . . and he died . . . and he died. Those who died were judged as sinners. Before ever the law was given to Moses, before its precepts could call sin to account, men were guilty and liable to death. At what point, then, did sin enter and death through sin? Evidently in the first sin of the first man, Adam. Death ruled over many through one trespass (Rom. 5:17). The sentence of death was pronounced upon man because of the sin of the first man, the representative head of the human race (Rom. 5:19) . Paul, of course, presses onto the saving parallel. As one act of sin made men guilty, caused sin to be charged against them-for all men sinned in Adam ( Rom. 5:12, 18), so one act of righteousness brought justification and life to the new humanity in Christ.
In our day evangelicals may need to review the apostle’s reasoning in reverse. We understand that Christ was our representative who stood in our place as the head of the new humanity. We may need to understand afresh the role of the first Adam in relation to the Second. All die in Adam (1 Cor. 15: 22). The guilt and judgment of Adam’s transgression is shared by those who are united to Adam their head by God’s creative appointment.
The fall of man in Adam resulted in both deprivation and depravity. The righteousness of the obedient son was gone and man was corrupted in his inmost nature. He was dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). No, he was not as bad as he could be. God’s restraint of evil has held men back from the hellish fury of their own corruption. Yet there is no part o£ man unaffected by the corruption of sin. His "heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9). Jesus himself testified, "For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings . . ." (Matt. 15:19).
This indictment is in Paul’s phrase: we "were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (Eph. 2:3). Man’s inmost nature is the seat of sin. His mind is at enmity with God "for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be: and they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:7, 8). Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).
Further, man the sinner is in bondage not only to evil but to the Evil One. He is taken captive by his snares (2 Tim. 2:26) and walks according to the prince of the powers of the air, the Evil Spirit that works in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2) . The children of wrath are sons of the Devil, doing the works of their father, the liar from the beginning (John 8:44) . Indeed, it is striking that Paul joins these thoughts, for it is the doom prepared for the Devil and his angels that becomes the retribution for those who share his lusts (Matt. 25:41, 46).
But Christ came to reveal the saving as well as the condemning righteousness of God. God’s wrath is the consuming zeal of His holiness. Christ came not only as the Lord but as the Servant, not first to wield the axe of judgment but to bear the stroke of death. The Judge who is pictured in the Book of Revelation as treading the winepress of the wrath of God first enters into that winepress as the object ofthewrath and curse of divine justice. By His blood we are saved from wrath (Rom. 5:9). Christ was made sin for us, bore the curse for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Only so can God be just and yet be the justifier of him who believes on Christ.
Paul therefore proclaims the revelation of the wrath and the saving righteousness of God, for it is through outpoured wrath that we are given mercy.
We learn of the depth of human lostness and the height of divine holiness at the cross of Christ. Gather all your doubts about the reality of man’s evil and the justice of God’s wrath and come to the cross. But be prepared to stay. Stay till you sense something of the love of the Father for his only begotten and beloved Son. Stay till the cry of the abandoned sufferer breaks out of the scabbard of familiarity and pierces your heart, "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?" "Why?" He cries. "Why, my God, hast thou forsaken me?" He had prayed that the cup might pass from Him. Now He drinks it. He is accursed and forsaken. The soldiers hear and mock: "He’s calling for Elias!"
The Father hears. What is His answer? That was the hour in history when it appeared that God was dead. The promises of the covenant seemed to fail for the one who had fulfilled all righteousness. Who can enter here? We cannot taste the cup Christ drank, but we know that He had to drink it. Neither can we conceive of those heavenly realities that are so dimly foreshadowed by the grief of Abraham in offering up his beloved son. But we understand that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Were perishing not what it must be, there could have been another answer to Christ’s "Why?" But there is no other answer. Christ’s death measures the deep hell of human guilt, exposed to the wrath of God. The zeal of Gads holiness consumed Him.
God’s righteousness was revealed on Calvary. This is the day when the long-suffering of God waits. But the day of wrath will come, for Christ will come as Judge. Then there will come the full outpouring of wrath in perfect justice: to them that "obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil . . ." (Rom. 2: 8,9).
Our Lord has warned us of the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41, 46), the lake of fire which is the second death (Rev. 21: 8).
Symbolical language? Of course, but symbolical of realities that are past conceiving-the fixed and final state of the children of wrath when God’s holy presence is finally revealed. The coming of the kingdom in consummation power means the "revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of leis power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might . . ." (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
The issues are eternal; today is the day of salvation. "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment," but "so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him unto salvation" (Heb. 9:27, 28).
The righteousness and wrath of God have been revealed in Christ and will be manifested on the last day. This is the gospel that we preach; anything less mocks the cross and the crown of the Savior. We are not sufficient for these things, but remembering how our Lord shrank from the cup we must never be ashamed of the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.
An essential part of that gospel is the unflinching presentation of the lost condition of all men: not possibly lost, or both lost and saved, but children of wrath. This is the doom from which Christ saves those who come unto Him. Often we will be overwhelmed by the responsibility of gospel stewardship. To be a savor of life unto life and death unto death-who is sufficient for these things? Often we will be amazed at God’s choice of us in Christ before the world began. Often we will weep over those who oppose themselves and rush on to destruction. But if we hold to the gospel, we hold to the sovereign word of the sovereign Lord of salvation who gives repentance and remission of sins, who makes those who are no people to become the people of God that no flesh should glory in His presence. The Judge of all the earth does right, and if we imagine a more merciful God than the Father of the crucified Savior, we have yet to understand the depth and the height of salvation. It is easy to play at being God-easy but perilous. Let us be content with the "Why?" of the abandoned Christ, and trust as He did in the perfect righteousness, justice and mercy of the Father who gave Him a people, a treasure people of His own possession forever.
1. Gardner C. Quarton, "Deliberate Efforts to Control Human Behavior and Modify Personality." Daedalus, 96:3, Summer 1967, pp. 837-853.
2. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (New York: Vintage 1955) p. 90.
3. See the article, "Universalism and Evangelism," by Dr. James I. Packer presented as a study paper to the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin, 1966.
4. See the article referred to above.
5. So Brunner speaks of "the unmistakable ground-tone of Biblical revelation" that relativizes the unequivocal expressions of damnation in the Bible. See Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957) p. 106.
6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (New York: Scribners) II:2, p. 496.
See, for example, the statement in Thomas Wieser, ed., Planning for Mission (New York: The U.S. Conference for the WCC, 1966) pp. 54, 55.
8. Dr. Stuart B. Babbage quoted this phrase from P. T. Forsyth in a paper on "The Fallenness of Man" read at the World Congress on Evangelism.
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