Belief in universal forgiveness without believing in universal salvation is a strange anomaly that many evangelicals embrace and do so evangelistically and zealously.
Early in February I posted an entry titled, "The Sin of 'Unconditional Forgiveness.'" I completely rewrote my essay with the intention of publishing it, which I still plan to do once I can take time to do so. I presented my rewritten essay, titled "A Biblical Primer and Grammar on Forgiveness of Sin", at our Faculty Scholarship Symposium at Northwestern College.
My presentation sparked some folks (whose zealous disagreement with my essay greatly exceeded their admitted lack of actual study of the biblical teaching on the issues) to engage in a short-lived discussion with me. Their fundamental assumption is that Christ's words from the cross, "Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), mean that Jesus Christ forgave the sins of his assailants quite apart from their repentance. I sufficiently address this passage and the issue in both versions of my essay. So, I won't revisit this passage.
Nevertheless, I found an intriguing article, "Most Evangelicals Need Evangelizing," in the March/April 2009 issue of Grace in Focus, published by Robert Wilkin of the Grace Evangelical Society. Robert Wilkin makes the following statements in his short essay.
Most Evangelicals believe that the lost are barred from heaven because of their sins. That is why most Evangelicals indicate that the sinner must somehow deal with his own sin problem via repentance, commitment, and perseverance in good works.
The reality is that Jesus has already dealt with the sin problem (John 1:29, 35; 3:14-16; 19:30; 1 John 2:2). He didn’t show us how to handle our sin problem. He took away the sins of the world when He died on the cross for the sins of everyone. Not a single person will be condemned because of his sins (see Rev 20:11-15). The cross takes care of the sin problem even for the atheist or people of other religions.
As Lewis Sperry Chafer used to say, “Because of Calvary, unbelievers don’t have a sin problem, they have a Son problem.”
Of course, unbelievers are still spiritually dead and on their way to the hell if they do not believe in Jesus. But what keeps them from eternal life is their unbelief, not their sins. The most sinful person who believes in Jesus has eternal life. The most wonderful Evangelical who does not believe in Jesus in the Biblical sense doesn’t have eternal life.
The notion that all humans have already received forgiveness of all their sins is altogether too widely embraced and preached, even among evangelicals. For example, in Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell states, ""Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God's" (p. 146).
How could Lewis Sperry Chafer make such a foolish assertion as, "Because of Calvary, unbelievers don’t have a sin problem, they have a Son problem"? I've read his systematic theology. I know that he believed this strange teaching. But, still, how could he or Bob Wilkin or Rob Bell or others hold to this belief that is so transparently contrary to all things Scriptural, at least to many of us? If everyone has already received forgiveness of all their sins, why preach the gospel? Why preach repentance? Why preach the necessity of belief in Messiah Jesus? Why decry sin? Why preach the necessity of holiness?
The notion that God has granted forgiveness to all people everywhere for all of their sins is incoherent with preaching the gospel and has the added disadvantage of being contrary to Scripture, if we are to regard such a letter as the apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians as Scripture.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Ephesians 5:3-6).
God will banish humans to eternal perdition on account of their sins? Yes, this is precisely what the apostle says and means. Hence, banishment to perdition for immorality, impurity, greed, idolatry, etc., etc. puts the lie to the claim that God has already forgiven every sin that every human has committed except the singular sin of unbelief.
Of course, this is hardly the only passage that contradicts belief that God has already forgiven every human sin. It is, perhaps, the passage that most explicitly ruins Robert Wilkin's claim shared by so many others.
Another passage that is rather clear is Revelation 22:14-15.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
This passage makes it rather obvious that people are excluded from having the right to the tree of life and entrance through the city gates because of their sins, not merely the sin of unbelief in Jesus Christ, but sins such as practicing (1) witchcraft, (2) sexual immorality, (3) murder, (4) idolatry, (5) falsehood. Of course, the list is but a sample; it is hardly exhaustive. Yet, one thing is entirely clear: human sinfulness excludes people from paradise. Expressed another way: human practice of all varieties of sinning damns people to perdition.
At another time I will address misunderstandings of John 3:18 that lead to the notion of universal forgiveness of sin and that the only sin for which humans will perish eternally is unbelief in Jesus Christ.