The Way of Salvation Part III: The Problems of Universalism -- By: J. I. Packer

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 130:517 (Jan 1973)
Article: The Way of Salvation Part III: The Problems of Universalism
Author: J. I. Packer


The Way of Salvation
Part III:
The Problems of Universalism

James I. Packer

[James I. Packer, Associate Principal, Trinity College, Bristol, England.]

[Editor’s Note:This is the third in a series of articles entitled “The Way of Salvation,” which were the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures given by James I. Packer at Dallas Theological Seminary on April 11–14, 1972. Scripture passages are translated and/or paraphrased by the author.]

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved,” said Paul to the Philippian jailer. What if he had added, “And if you don’t believe you will be saved anyway, but it will hurt badly, and I would like to spare you that”? This would have been an assertion of universalism in the terms adumbrated by such writers as J. A. T. Robinson1 and the late Nels Ferré.2 Had Paul said this, would it have been true?

A Major Issue

Contemporary universalism, defined somewhere by C. H. Dodd as the belief that “as every human being lives under God’s judgment, so every human being is ultimately destined, in God’s mercy, to eternal life,” expresses the conviction, not that no man is bad enough to be rejected, but that God’s power and love are such as will secure the salvation of all sinners eventually. It is thus an optimism, not of nature, but of grace, and it presents a strong challenge to evangelical faith today.

For, in the first place, the universalist position, asserted as either very probable or quite certain, is rapidly advancing throughout the

Christian world. Whereas till recently its status was that of a discredited speculation,3 nowadays, it is widely regarded as belonging to orthodoxy. Missionary leaders and major theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, assert more or less explicitly that all will be saved, or at least that the question of their salvation should be left open with the scales of expectation tilted in the universalist direction,4 and those who question the scripturalness of this find themselves looked on with increasing disfavor. Universalism, it seems, has come to stay; but should such a guest be welcomed?

Boldly and without hesitation, the protagonists of universalism make a most momentous claim:namely, that they alone do justice to the reality of God’s love and Christ’s victory on the cross. Belief in any form of the doctrine of eternal loss and punishment for some (so they say) makes God out to be a failure, if not indeed a devi...

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