Mike recently asked on Facebook, “Steve, if u don't mind me asking, what made u not believe in the Universalist view, but the Trinitarian one instead? What is the major difference in their views? Thanks! God bless!”
Like Mike, many have asked and many more wondered about the teachings I’m doing these days. I believe my teachings now are simply a greater and more finely tuned expression of the grace I’ve taught for the past twenty years. I'd hope that anybody who teaches will have seen their views and content evolve over two decades. I will always teach grace and hope that, like my personal life, my teachings show a growth in grace over time. The Apostle Peter admonished us to, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Growth equals change. If we never change, we never grow. There’s no arguing that fact. Here’ my response to Mike’s question:
Thank you for the question, Mike. I realize that many people are wondering about some of the things I’m teaching these days. I’m happy to clarify here what I am and am not attempting to say through my teaching.
First, it is important for me to state that I can’t attempt here to speak as a representative of Trinitarians as a whole. Truthfully, I’m among those who aren’t wild about labels for the reason that seldom can anybody’s viewpoints be adequately defined by a label. I don’t call myself a “Trinitarian” but rather have said that these days I find myself more closely related to that position labeled “Trinitarian” than other positions that label themselves by name within the Christian community. I have learned much from Trinitarian writers like Thomas Torrance and his brother, James Torrance, Baxter Kruger, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Elmer Coyler, Robert Capon, NT Wright, Brad Jersak, Robert Sherman, and others who don’t come to mind right now. I’ve also benefited greatly from some of the early church writers like Saint Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. I’ve particularly appreciated many of the guests on Mike Feazell’s program “You’re Included” on Grace Communion International’s web site. While I find that I don’t agree with some things said or written by some Trinitarians, it’s the group I “feel most at home with” these days.
Over six years ago, I was introduced to Baxter Kruger’s book, The Dancing God. I was intrigued by his writings and found them to challenge my thinking. His book began a journey that led me to read everything I could get my hands on by both Trinitarian and Christian Universalist writers. (Not to be confused with “Unitarian Universalists” who don’t believe in the necessity of Jesus and His finished work.) I have probably read more books by Christian Universalist authors than some who identify themselves as Universalists. While I am not a Universalist, I have found many good things with which I agree among Universalists writers. In my opinion, Tom Talbott’s book, The Inescapable Love of God, is probably the best book on universalism that has ever been written. I read George MacDonald, Phillip Gulley, Gregory MacDonald, Martin Zender, Clyde Pilkington, Jr., Gary Amirault, Gerry Beauchemin, F.W. Farrar, and others. (In my opinion, one of the great causes of stagnation in growth in the church world today is our unwillingness to read those with whom we may think we will disagree or have been told by our peers that they are “wrong.” Have we become so insecure in our beliefs that we are afraid to be exposed to other views? It seems so.)
Comparing the writings of Universalist authors with the position of Triniatrian authors, searching out the Scriptures for myself, praying earnestly to “see the light,” and seriously grappling to know the truth (staying up all night many times, as my wife can attest), I came to see that, at the least, my understanding thus far had been incomplete. I knew that the Spirit was pulling me forward in my understanding of grace but didn’t know where I would find myself when the dust settled. To be honest, I was afraid because I knew that some wouldn’t like it when I shared with others the pathway down which the Spirit was leading me, but the reality is that when He leads us, we simply go. We don’t ask where we’re going and then decide whether or not we want to go forward. Nobody will ever progress that way. We just “forsake all and follow Him.” I simply want to understand God’s truth as He reveals it to me. To do that always requires an open mind and willingness for Him to change us.
Mike, you asked about the differences between Universalism and Trinitarianism. I’m not one who could do the best job answering that, since I’m still a neophyte when it comes to Trinitarianism. I will answer your question by giving you the reasons I am not a Universalist.
First, and foremost, I am not a Universalist because I have a difference with them concerning the matter of reconciliation. Many of the Universalists I have read suggest the idea of “ultimate reconciliation,” means that ultimately everybody will be reconciled to God the Father. Contrary to that viewpoint, my position, and that of Trinitarianism, is that everybody has already been reconciled to the Father through the finished work of Jesus on the cross. I understand the biblical teaching to be one, not of an ultimate reconciliation of humanity, but rather one of historical reconciliation - one that happened already. Paul wrote, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” When and where did this happen? The fact is that it really happened “before the foundation of the world” but it found its expression in time 2000 years ago at the cross. It isn’t something yet to happen. It is something that has happened. See Romans 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:20; Col. 1:22. The reconciliation isn’t an ultimate reality. It’s a done deal or, to put it another way, “It is finished.”
Mankind’s problem isn’t that we aren’t reconciled to the Father. It’s that they don’t know. That’s why Paul said that God has “committed to us the word (message) of reconciliation. "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ be reconciled to God.” In other words we proclaim, not a potential gospel but a pure gospel that “It is finished!” It isn’t being finished when you believe. You can believe it because it is already finished! You have been reconciled! Now be reconciled! In other words, "believe it!" (Like telling a guy, “You are a man. Now, be a man!")
The gospel isn’t some sort of existential news that becomes true because somebody believes. We believe it because it is already true. A blind man may not see what’s around him but it’s there whether he sees it or not. His subjective experience of blindness doesn’t negate the objective reality around him. A lost man had to be home to begin with or else there would be no reference point to give the word “lost” its meaning. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!”
A second thing about Universalists (generally speaking) that doesn’t resonate with me is their continuous focus on heaven and hell, to the exclusion of every other aspect of our faith. I readily admit that I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there is more talk about our ultimate destination than about our here-and-now destiny in Christ.
I understand the Universalist passion for inclusion and share 100% in their enthusiasm for that reality, but that inclusion is much greater than simply what happens when we die. Being joined together in the communal Life of our Triune God has staggering implications for all aspects of life in this space-time dimension in which we now live, however temporary it may be. I like how Trinitarianism focuses on the supreme importance of our sharing in the perichoresis(interpersonal dance) of the Father, Son and Spirit here-and-now.
A third thing about Universalists is that I don’t see the place for the kind of absolutism they, generally speaking, hold in their viewpoint about who ends up in heaven. I was a hardcore, nonnegotiable Calvinist for almost 30 years and I see the same kind of resolute insistence on the position of most Universalists that I saw and held as a Calvinist.
I understand that we all passionately believe what we believe, but many biblical topics aren’t as clear-cut as those who hold various viewpoints would have us believe. Immaturity causes a person to argue that he “just believes what the Bible says.” We all could say that, but the more pertinent question is, “What does the Bible mean by what it says?” That question is not as easily answered as rabid proponents of any position would have us believe. Maturity recognizes that Bible believers who show a high level of intellectual honesty, who skillfully use exegetical tools of interpretation and who trust the Holy Spirit to guide them still come to different conclusions.
I was a Calvinist because I could “prove it” from the Bible. I have seen the “Biblical proof” for Universalism and will say that both viewpoints are very compelling purely from an exegetical standpoint. (I am sure Arminianism has an equally strong biblical argument, but that’s one I haven’t studied in depth as I have the two I’m discussing in this article.) What are we to do when the Bible seems to clearly present more than one way to understand a matter? Do we go to war with each other in an attempt to see who can pile up the highest stack of verses? Do we argue that my verse has greater weight than your verse?
It seems that the better way would be for us all to hold our views with humility. There are indeed nonnegotiables in the Christian faith, but much of what we argue about doesn’t fall in that category. As Brad Jersak pointed out in one of his books, it’s not that the Bible tells us too little about some topics to form an opinion. To the contrary, it seems to tell us too much. We all tend to zero in with a hard focus on the verses that support our underlying position while the verses that would contradict our views seem to become a part of the fuzzy background of Scripture. It’s not that we ignore them, it’s that we honestly don’t see the verses that contradict our existing views.
I hope the Universalists are right that everybody ends up in heaven. Wouldn’t every Christian want that? “God is not willing for any to perish but that all should come to repentance.” Is it wrong for me to want the same thing that my Father wants? Does that make me a Universalist? Hardly. I suggest that perhaps a greater problem than the Universalists adamant insistence that everybody will go to heaven is the angry reaction from many Christians over the very idea.
There are texts that appear to stand in tension on this subject. In my opinion, that leaves us at the place where we may hope but would be presumptuous to insist that we know with certainty what happens with anybody after they breathe their last breath. Who knows what happens in that transient moment as one passes through the veil from this life to the next? There is no time with God, so how can we say what takes place in that moment when the spirit is separating from the body?
Who am I to think that I have such perfect understanding of Scripture, of the mind of God, of the heart of a man, or of how the eternal plan of the Almighty will unfold to brashly state how it will be – end of discussion.
I remember struggling with the Scripture and the Spirit very, very early one morning when I first began to examine the possibilities on this topic. I prayed in frustration, “Lord, why didn’t you make this easier to understand???” I sensed a gentle word that literally came into my mind answering, “I am not a puzzle to be solved. I am a Mystery to be explored.”
Therein, lies the answer. The flesh insists on definitive answers. The Western World thrives on them. But our God transcends our rational minds and refuses to be perfectly understood and rejects our insistence that we have indisputable answers to every question.
What are we to do then? The answer is to love. We are not to be known by our theology. We are not to be known by our answers to questions of soteriology, eschatology or any other biblical topics. And we certainly are not to be known by labels. They will know we are Christians by our love.
So that’s what I want to do. I want to love. I am not a Universalist but nobody would be happier if they’re right. While my views many not perfectly align with every Trinitarian, I love their proclamation of all of mankind’s inclusion in the finished work of the cross, a teaching I believe is completely biblical. They don’t, however, push further than Scripture warrants by insisting they infallibly know the eternal outcome of that reality for humanity.
All mankind is included in the finished work of the cross. That I believe. Beyond that, dogma becomes presumptious and not warranted. Love hopes all things. However, when any topic is riddled with biblical ambiguity, as I believe this topic is, humility must be the Siamese twin of hope. If that approach is wrong, just say I'm nuts.