There is a movement today in Christian circles which is attempting to reconcile Universalist ideas and the Christian faith. The basic idea put forward is that continuing to teach that faith in Christ alone is the only way to God is too exclusive, intolerant, or troubling for our conscious. So because of these things, many progressive leaders like Brian McLaren are attempting to offer “new and fresh” perspectives that allow us to believe Universal doctrines are compatible with Christianity.
The alternative – that Christ alone is the way to God and eternal life – is often explained by these progressive leaders as some sort of unnecessary fundamentalist Bible-thumping dogma. To be sure, Bible-belt cultural Christianity has only fueled this idea in recent years. But this issue goes far deeper than just a few Bible verses that could simply be read from different views. The entire Bible falls apart – the entire Christian faith falls apart – if you remove the exclusivity of Christ.
Combining Universalism and Christianity is a terrible and grievous error to make. While I have no doubt that some kind, genuine and well-intentioned Christians believe and try to reconcile these two things, for the most part this teaching leads people astray and outside of Christian faith. Below I have listed 15 reasons (and there are surely more) for why Universalism and Christianity are not compatible and must not be combined.
1. Combining Universalism and Christianity undermines the finished work of Christ.
Scripture is clear that the sacrifice of Christ was the once and for all finished sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:27). When Christ hung on the cross, he did not cry out “It is finished…except for whatever else you want to do to get to God” (John 19:30). Christ and Christ alone has done what is necessary to bring us to God. King Jesus died – DIED – to bring us to God. The tortured, humiliated, and crucified kind of died. Why, why would we want to take away from that by saying that was only necessary for some people but not all people? That alone makes my stomach churn at the thought of diminishing the beauty and glory of Christ’s humiliation.
2. It undermines the eschatological (that is, final) reality of living in between Christ’s two advents.
Christ came once as the sacrifice for sins (1 Corinthians 15:3) and will come again at the consummation of all things. In between these two advents is the church age; in these last days God has spoken to us through the Son (Hebrews 1:2). This message of the Cross is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16) and it is the mission of the church to preach this message to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). But if you believe in a Universal Christianity hybrid, then…
3. There is no need for evangelism.
If people can be saved by Christ but also through their own works, then why evangelize? What if I preached the gospel to someone who was on track to be saved by their own works outside of Christ, but once they hear the gospel they reject it? Well now I’ve just damned them (Hebrews 10:29). The Apostle Paul says that he would gladly trade his own salvation if it meant his fellow Jews would be saved (Romans 9), but there is no reason for him or us to feel that way if people outside of Christ can be saved.
4. Mixing Universalism with Christianity undermines the force, movement and emphasis of the Bible.
Christ himself taught that the entire Old Testament points to him (Luke 4:21, 24:13-35). The Apostle Paul teaches that righteousness has always come through faith in who the Triune God has revealed himself to be. Romans 4 tells us that those who lived prior to Christ were declared righteous because of their faith in the Triune God who saves, Romans 3:21-28 and Romans 5 tells us that we are now saved and declared righteous due to faith in the finished work of Christ. Everything points to and is climaxed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
5. It denies any means to preach assurance to lost and broken people.
When people are facing their own mortality, by what means do I have to preach assurance to them? Only in the gospel can I preach to someone, “Repent of your own sins, put faith in the finished work of Christ alone and subscribe to believing in him alone and you shall have eternal life (John 6:51).” What is the alternative? “Well, you can believe in Jesus, or you can just hope in your own thing, whatever it is, and hope that you’re good enough, that works too. It’s whatever.” There is no power to save and no assurance for the forgiveness of sins without the gospel.
6. It destroys the theological implications of the entire New Testament.
The first half of the book of Romans (which is arguably the theological climax of the entire Bible) is one giant argument for the need for the exclusivity of Christ. The Apostle lays the framework for understanding that no one is good on their own (Romans 3:11), that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standards (Romans 3:23), that all are equally in need of the righteousness that comes through faith (Romans 3:9, 24), that this faith must be in the work of Christ (Romans 5:1), that this faith is not something of ourselves but a divine gift from above (Romans 3:27, Ephesians 2:8-9), and that this faith only comes through hearing and believing the Gospel (Romans 10:14).
Further, every New Testament author at some point in their writing will speak of faith and repentance in Christ and Christ alone. From just a perspective of New Testament theology alone we see that any form of Universalism and Christianity are incompatible.
7. It insults and diminishes the sacrifices of the heroes of our faith.
Peter: crucified upside down
James: put to death
Thomas: killed by a spears, burning plates and then finally burned alive
James Alpheus: stoned and had his brain bashed out
Philip: tortured and crucified
Nathanael: tortured and crucified
Simon the Zealot: crucified
Judas Thaddeus: beaten to death
Matthias: stoned and crucified
Countless early church Christians killed, crucified, burned, stoned…
Countless martyrs throughout the centuries killed for preaching the gospel.
Countless missionaries, such as the Europeans missionaries sent to evangelize the Celts and Vikings were slaughtered by the native people they were attempting to reach.
Did the Apostles and innumerable other Christians throughout the last two-thousand years die because Christianity was compatible with “doing good” or other world religions?
8. Combining Universalism and Christianity denies the power unto new life for the defeat and mortification of sin.
Jesus Christ bore our sins that we might live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24), only in Christ do death and sin no longer have power over us (Romans 6:1-14). The gospel contains the power to set people free from slavery and bondage. Without the gospel, I instead tell people to just try harder and do what they can. Anyone who has tried to escape their own sin knows that this only leads to grief, heartache, guilt, and turmoil.
9. It makes the mistake of teaching that mankind is worth saving.
None of us deserve or are owed eternal life. We are all equally guilt and deserving of God’s wrath. The penalty for our sin is eternal death, but God in his mercy and goodness has saved those who believe in the work of Christ (Romans 6:23). To teach that Universalism is compatible with Christianity is to teach that everyone is deserving of being saved, when God’s Word tells us the exact opposite.
10. It teaches a different kind of God’s love.
The love of God is displayed to us in the death of Christ while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). The greatest love of all is displayed in that Christ would lay down his life for us and call us friend (John 15:13). The supreme love of God is displayed in Christ’s humiliation and his obedience to death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-11). If Christ’s death and sacrifice is not necessary for salvation, then this demonstration of love is obliterated. For that matter, what kind of God would destroy his own Son if it wasn’t completely necessary?
From a Universal Christian perspective, God is a cruel tyrant. From an exclusive Christian perspective, God is an amazing, loving, and sacrificial Father.
11. It denies the severity of sin and depravity of man.
The Bible clearly teaches that all of human kind has fallen and has been tainted by sin (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:11-18). This does not mean that we are incapable of doing “good” things for one another, it means that all of our being is subject to sin and we are incapable of overcoming the guilt and penalty for our rebellion against God. Teaching that people can be saved apart from faith in Christ finds its starting place grounded in the goodness of man, not the sin and fall of man.
12. It denies the words of Christ himself.
Christ himself repeatedly speaks of the exclusivity of faith in him. Here are just a few examples: John 6:51, Luke 24:44, Luke 24:47, Matthew 28:18-20, John 14:6. Many progressive teachers who want to combine Universalism with Christianity consider themselves “Red Letter Christians,” that is, only the words of Christ in the Gospels are supremely authoritative but the rest of the New Testament might not be. Well, even if you just consider yourself “Red Letter,” you’re still stuck with plenty of exclusive claims by Jesus himself. There is no getting out of them.
13. Piety does not diminish the need to believe the gospel.
No amount of piety replaces the need to hear and believe the gospel. Even the supremely pious and outstanding Gentile Cornelius had to repent and believe the gospel. The whole point of God speaking to Cornelius (Acts 10) was to send for Peter, which helped Peter’s realization that the gospel was necessary for Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 11:11-18).
God’s Word is clear, we are saved by grace through faith, not by any amount of pious works so that none can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the beauty of God’s love for us!
14. Teaching Universalism as compatible with Christianity undermines the gospel.
What is the gospel? Simply put, it is the message that Jesus Christ the Eternal Son of God descended to earth, taking on the form of human flesh, to take our place and pay the sacrifice needed for our sins that we might believe and be forgiven of our sins, thus inheriting eternal life. This amazing forgiveness of sins comes completely apart from our own works. If you blend Universalism and Christianity together and say that the gospel or some other world religion can save, then do you really believe the gospel? How can you on the one hand preach a message that says salvation only comes by grace through faith alone and in Christ alone, but then say that someone could be saved by some other means? It simply does not work.
15. It denies the authority of Scripture
If you deny all of these problems by combining Universalism with Christianity, then you are left with a mangled Bible that only makes sense based on how you decide to read it. This is what pastor Tim Keller calls a “Stepford God,” a god that you yourself have created and only agrees and obeys you in your own mind.
Undoubtedly the exclusivity of Christ is a hard doctrine. Our conscious’ bear witness to this fact. After all, countless people die every day without ever hearing or believing in the gospel. But this reality is not a reason to cave in and deny the very teachings that make Christianity what it is. Knowing that people die every day without Christ should cause us to cry out in agony and despair for the lost; not to give up, sit back and do nothing. This agonizing reality is one of our chief motivators for us to reach everyone we possibly can.
The late Christian scholar J. Gresham Machen once said “You simply can’t create whatever you want and call it Christianity. You’re free to believe it, just don’t call it Christianity.” This is true today of the movement which seeks to combine Universal ideas with Christianity. You’re certainly free to believe that Christ is just one way to God (although it makes zero logical or reasonable sense to do so, based on the above). But you can’t go around calling that Christianity, because that’s not what it is. It’s Universal Deism.
Church, let us not neglect this great salvation (Hebrews 2:3). Let us not deny the blood-stained savior who purchased us and ransomed us to himself. Let us be encouraged and spurred on that God would descend and humble himself to take on our flesh that we might be united to him. There is no other message that brings this hope to a lost and broken world!
I recently gave one of the most shaping books for my Christian walk – Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God – to my father for his birthday. This book is a short but powerful exposition of the Parable of the Two Brothers from Luke 15:11-32. As I was flipping through the pages and remembering how fond I was of this book, I was struck by one paragraph that I came across at the end of the first chapter. When comparing the difference between the disobedient younger brother and the moralistic, in-it-for-himself elder brother, author Tim Keller writes this:
“Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect…That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.” (Keller, 15-16)
The climate of the Western Church over the last two centuries has tried two great experiments. The first is the desire to make everything relevant in the church. Exegete and preach the Word, sure, but exegeting and preaching the culture instead is what attracts people, right? On paper, these dear brothers and sisters would still hold to an orthodox Christian faith, but their practice looks much different. A watered-down gospel is preached which lacks the conviction of sin and the grace of our Savior, all-the-while flooding congregants with bright lights and showering them with comfort.
The second experiment has been to reject traditional Christian teachings. If the “dogmatic” authority of the Bible is rejected, if the traditional ethical teachings of Jesus are ignored, if the historic creeds and confessions of the Church are disregarded, then we offer people to come to Christ and stay as they are. If we make Christianity easier for people – so they say – then more people will be attracted to Christ. Yet, these mainline churches are dying just as fast, if not faster, as the first group. There is no gospel-driven power to change in this proclamation. What is sold in these churches is no different than what the world is selling – except the world sells it for much cheaper.
And what is the result of such experimentation? I think author and scholar David Wells puts it best:
“Today, in the evangelical church, there are apparently many who have made decisions for Christ, who claim to be reborn, but who give little evidence of their claimed relationship to Christ. Something is seriously amiss if, as George Barna has reported, only 9 percent of those claiming rebirth have even a minimal knowledge of the Bible, if there are no discernible differences in how they live as compared with secularists, and if the born-again are dropping out of church attendance in droves. If these numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, then the gospel has become a stand-alone thing, and many who say they have embraced it have never entered the Christian life to which it was supposed to be the entry point.” (David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World, 158)
This dilemma is one area where the teachings and emphasis of the saints of our past can greatly correct and aid us. Orthodox Christianity has always emphasized three important aspects to a saving faith, which come from the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ given to us through his Word:
- Knowledge: We need to know rightly who Christ is, that he alone has the power to save (John 14:6). We need to know and understand that he alone takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), that he alone is the eternal begotten Son of the Father sent into the world to save sinners (Isaiah 49:6, John 1:1, Mark 2:17, Mark 10:45). If we say we believe in Jesus but do not understand rightly who he is, that is not faith; it’s idolatry.
- Conviction: It is necessary that we be convicted of our sin. We must understand that faith and repentance go hand in hand (Matthew 4:17). We as sinners must know rightly that we are indeed sinners and where that places us before a Holy God. We must be convicted that Christ knows what to do with our sin when we come to him (John 6:68).
- Trust: Every fiber of our being must places its trust in the grace of Christ and not in our own moralism (John 1:17, Luke 24:47). We must transfer the trust from ourselves and our efforts to earn anything to the once-and-for-all work of the blood-stained Savior.
Both the elder brother and the younger brother knew who their father was (Luke 15:12). Yet, it was the prodigal younger brother who was convicted (Luke 15:17-19) and then trusted (Luke 15:20-24) in his father, which led to the great feast at the prodigals homecoming. The elder brother was never convicted of his dependance on his father and therefore never trusted him, and it is for this reason he remained outside of the great banquet. Despite his good works and high sense of morals, the elder brother never came in to the feast. If we want to see more prodigals come home and more moralistic church attenders come to the banquet, then we must present and live out a holistic gospel.
Church, let us press in to be faithful to the God who has called us home to the banquet feast.
By what do theologians mean when they refer to the doctrine of union with Christ? Simply put, union with Christ refers to the language of “in Christ,” which is common throughout the New Testament. Kevin DeYoung rightly notes that this sort of language is found 216 times in the New Testament. In regards to the relationship between salvation and Union with Christ, John Murray says this, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation…Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of Union with Christ.” Murray here has in mind the language of the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians, where Paul says that God the father has blessed us “in Christ, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). 
The Reformers too understood that our salvation – all spiritual blessings – are only found within our union with Christ. John Calvin says it this way, “…that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly…we are said to be engrafted into him and clothed with him.” Citing Romans 6:5, Calvin rightly understands the direct connection between the salvation of the human race and the blessings which Christ received from the Father. Indeed, we have been “united with him in a death like his” and “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Therefore, we must understand that the totality of spiritual blessings which we receive are our salvation, and can only be found in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Herman Bavinck rightly sums up this concept, “All the benefits of grace therefore lie prepared and ready for the church in the person of Christ…Atonement, forgiveness, justification, the mystical union, sanctification, glorification, and so on – they do not come into being after and as a result of faith but are objectively, actively present in Christ.”
 Richard Gaffin notes that the primary language for union with Christ is found in the “in Christ/the Lord” language, with other variations such as “with,” “for us” and “for our sins.” By Faith and Not By Sight, 41
 Kevin DeYoung, A Hole in our Holiness, 95
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 161
 In another of his writings, Murray notes that it would be “exegetically impossible” to separate the scope of spiritual blessings from those blessing mentioned in the immediate succeeding context – adoption (vs. 5), redemption and forgiveness of sins (vs. 7), the knowledge of the mystery of God’s will (vs. 9) the inheritance (vs. 11), and the seal of the Holy Spirit (vss. 13, 14). Murray, Collected Writings Vol. 2, 126
 In his book By Faith and Not By Sight, Richard Gaffin cites Murray as particularly helpful in understanding Union with Christ. Gaffin summarizes Murray by saying “To sum up: present union with Christ – sharing with him in all he has accomplished and now is, by virtue of his death and resurrection – is, as much as anything, at the center of Paul’s soteriology. Page 45
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1, 349
 Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 523. In agreement with Bavinck, Kevin DeYoung says this, “Union with Christ is not a single specific blessing we receive in our salvation. Rather, it is the best phrase to describe all the blessings of salvation, whether in eternity past (election), in history (redemption), in the present (effectual calling, justification, and sanctification), or in the future (glorification).” A Hole in Our Holiness, 94.
Out of the great 1980’s movie era came what is widely regarded as one of the most iconic films in movie history, The Karate Kid. In this film, the protagonist Daniel-San is perpetually bullied and beat up by the Karate students of the Cobra Kai dojo until the wise sage and Karate master Mr. Miyagi steps in and saves him. Eventually, Mr. Miyagi reluctantly agrees to teach Daniel-San Karate in order to beat the Cobra Kai bullies in a local Karate tournament.
Unbeknownst to Daniel-San, Mr. Miyagi begins teaching him Karate through regular household chores; waxing Miyagi’s car, painting his house and fence, and sanding his wooden deck. Of course without the end result in mind, to Daniel-San this is nothing more than being an errand boy in a feeble attempt to earn Mr. Miyagi’s time so he’ll teach him real Karate. This only lasts for four days, until finally Daniel-San has had enough with the chores and furiously decides its time to go home.
“Daniel-San!” exclaims Mr. Miyagi. “Come here!”
As a martial artist myself, I love what follows in this scene between these two characters. Mr. Miyagi begins to unfold what his plan has been all along. “Sand the floor” is not simply a technique Daniel-San learns to make a deck look nice, but to block kicks coming at his midsection. “Paint the fence” is not only the proper technique for exterior remodeling, but for blocking high and low punches as well. “Wax on, wax off” is another way of saying, “Use correct technique or you’re going to get punched in the face.”
Daniel-San finally gets it; he’d been learning Karate all along.
Sometimes I feel like my attempts at learning theology are much like Daniel-San’s approach to learning karate. I don’t want to know application and wisdom, I just want to know facts and answers. My pride gets in the way and turns theology into an intellectual pursuit rather than worship. It is all too easy for me to turn my studies of the Scriptures into an attempt to tear down other peoples philosophies and worldviews, completely neglecting the fact that I’m supposed to be drawing closer to the holy and loving God of the entire universe. In haste, I determine that people who aren’t teaching me enough facts aren’t teaching me enough “theology.” After all, in order to be the best around you have to know more than everyone else, right?
Take for example when I started my Islam class a couple years ago. I went into the class wanting a five-point systematic discourse on how to tear apart Muslim apologists. Instead, I learned that if I don’t actually love people, I have no business engaging in evangelistic dialogue – regardless of how much I know.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
When I first became a Christian and the majesties of God were opened to me, I bought every apologetic resource I could find hoping to prove to my friends why I was right and they were wrong. I had no conception that a right understanding of God should only lead me to a correct worship of God.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
I think about how often I go into a sermon on Sunday simply looking for new nuggets of information and knowledge, rather than a desire to draw near to the throne of grace through the preaching of God’s Word. Instead of setting myself at the foot of the cross, seeking to have the Word of God pierce my heart, I elevate myself to a place where I feel worthy of picking apart good or bad facts.
Wax on, wax off. Paint the fence, Ben-San.
After every one of these examples, I had a moment where I realized that my original desires weren’t for real theology, but something entirely different. Every time my knowledge and pride puffs me up, like a crane kick to the face I get knocked down and realize I don’t know real theology at all.
The truth is, more often then not I act like one of the antagonist students from Cobra Kai than I do a protege of Mr. Miyagi. My goal is to show no mercy, sweeping the leg of my opponents and humiliating them at whatever cost. Oh Lord, shape my study of you to lead towards praise of you! It has been said that a right theology leads to proper doxology. May my life be evidenced not by how much I know, but by the magnitude of the God I worship. He must increase, but I must decrease.
Being the best around isn’t about how much you know, but instead is defined by being united to a compassionate and loving God through the sacrifice of Christ, as evidenced by your kindness and goodness towards other people. Being the best around means realizing that Christ is Lord over all, and that I am the least of these worthy to be called one of his own.