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The Heresy of Universalism – An Open Plea to Daily Reformation

The Heresy of Universalism – An Open Plea to Daily Reformation January 7, 2022

It was recently brought to my attention that Daily Reformation has taken to teaching Universalism, a theological position condemned for heresy by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 543. The doctrine itself teaches, at its most basic roots, all will be saved in the end. There is no final judgement, where the determination of eternal death will be carried out, but everyone will come to a saving knowledge of the Lord. Think of Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

There have been various others who have popularized the doctrine in recent years, seemingly as a push towards a softer, kinder approach to the Christian faith. The premise though is that if everyone is saved in the end, this is an astounding grace. In other words, grace as is traditionally understood, that yes, some are called to eternal life and others to eternal death, is no grace at all. Remove the more Calvinistic language from my last sentence if you’re tempted to be caught up on that—and simply call it what it is: grace isn’t grace if Hell is an eternal reality.

Not only is this a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of grace (grace is getting what you don’t deserve), it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of justice. More problematic though is that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel. In other words, yes, Universalism is heresy, as it clearly violates first order doctrines of the historic, Christian faith.

I draw attention to Daily Reformation’s departure from the faith, that is, that body of truth from Genesis to Revelation handed down once and for all to the saints, because some have specifically asked that I speak to it. My hope is that this proves helpful to those who have little exposure to these ideas and how to interact with them. Yet it is also my hope that the admin of Daily Reformation would look to the text once again, and ultimately repent of this teaching.

The Universalism of Daily Reformation might be considered a “soft” Universalism, namely because he is still seeking to affirm salvation through Christ alone—but in principle, this is no different than the “soft” Universalism Karl Barth teased out in his own writings. Barth’s writings had a flair of Gnosticism, in that the benefit of those who understand the nature and purpose of salvation in Christ is that they are awakened to this reality, or body of knowledge, currently. They experience the many blessings and benefits of that reality as they navigate life. They are afforded the chance to devote their lives to Christ, by denying earthly pleasures and seeking after His Kingdom. They are united to Christ and His people.

However, the undercurrent of Barth’s “soft” Universalism is that one need not experience this reality in this life to be saved, namely, because they will one day be awakened to the reality of God’s salvation purchased for the whole world through Christ. In other words, on that final day of judgment, they then “taste” and “see” this reality for themselves, as an awareness of the second death (Hell) is brought upon them, and they turn their affections and trust toward Jesus.

The reason why: Barth believed the atonement accomplished something, namely, not the potential salvation of all people, but the actual salvation of all people. He still affirmed salvation through Christ alone; he likewise affirmed the need for living the devoted, Christian life. In the end though, according to Barth, both the believer and the unbeliever will experience the same benefits of forgiveness because Christ’s atonement accomplished universal salvation.

His concepts of living the Christian life and affirming salvation in Christ, if carried to their logical conclusion, are ultimately unnecessary. The reality, according to Barth, is that one day, they will ascertain and apprehend faith as they experience the efficacy of Christ’s atonement firsthand through a “temporary estrangement,” by the grace of God, even if they didn’t in this life. The point being: Barth affirmed that none will be finally condemned to Hell, therefore, the incentive for repentance and faith is not to avoid the wrath of God, at least in the final sense.

While the person behind Daily Reformation may not articulate this with the same depth and eloquence as Barth, his focus on final condemnation is much the same, in that he too affirms that God’s grace wins out in the end. He suggests that a series of passages in Revelation support this, but focuses mainly on Rev. 21:8 and Rev. 21:24-25 to suggest that those who formerly rejected Christ in v. 8, who were consigned to the “second death,” are the same in mind in vv. 24-25, who are those who walk by the light of the glory of Christ and bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem (as they are no longer barred from entering it, upon receiving a [sic] saving knowledge of Christ during the “second death”).

He later provided further clarification that “…I believe that God’s ‘plan for the fullness of time’ is to ‘unite all things in Christ’ (Eph. 1:9-10), to ‘reconcile to Himself all things’ (Col. 1:20), to bring ‘justification and life to all human beings’ (Rom. 5:18) to ‘take away the sins of the whole world’ (John 1:29, 1 John 2:2), to ‘draw all men’ to Himself (John 12:32) and thus to ‘make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5).” As these are the primary texts used to elucidate his understanding of Rev. 21, I will focus my attention below on them.

The problem with citing these passages is not that they cannot be explained adequately in light of their context (which I will do so shortly), but that taken as standalone proof texts, they ignore the tremendous amount of Biblical data that undoubtedly suggests there is final, eternal judgment reserved for a particular group of people, namely, those who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, in this life.

For the sake of brevity, I will highlight only a few passages now that speak toward the eternal nature of Hell:

Matthew 25:41 speaks to the fact that those on the “left hand” of Christ [the unbeliever] will be commanded to depart from Him, for they are “cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels…”

Furthermore, Matthew 25:46 tells us, “These [speaking of “the goats,” or unbelievers] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

Likewise, John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever rejects the Son will not see life. Instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”

Mark 9:44, 46, 48, and 49 all testify of this same reality, namely, that the unrepentant will go to hell, where they will experience the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die.

Daniel 12:2 speaks of the resurrection from the dead, where some will be consigned to either everlasting life or everlasting shame and contempt.

Likewise, the prophets all testify of the coming Day of the Lord, which speaks of this reality of final judgment with incredibly vivid language. It is a day of reckoning for the wicked, but a day of hope for the righteous, being bound up in the reality that those who fail to repent will be consumed in wrath as enemies of God and His people. Joel depicts a Day where many multitudes are gathered in what he calls the Valley of Decision (Joel 3:14), where the verdict of one’s final destiny is rendered by God. Amos speaks of this Day as a day of darkness with no light (Amos 5:18-20).

The apostle Jude picks up on this same theme, to speak of false teachers who have crept in unawares among the people of God, “…whose condemnation was written about long ago,” and who are “reserved for outer darkness.” He likens these false teachers to those who did not believe when God delivered His people from Egypt and were subsequently destroyed. He likewise compares these false teachers to the angels who have been “kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day,” whose fate was similar to those in Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus, he concludes, just as unbelieving Israel, just as the rebellious angels, and just as Sodom and Gomorrah, the condemnation of these false teaches “serves as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:1-7).

There are many, many more passages which speak to the everlasting nature of condemnation, but the simple point is that if we are to be Bible-believing Christians, we must affirm this reality. To deny the everlasting, conscience nature of Hell in favor of this “soft” Universalism, one must start with the fundamental proposition that there is a second chance after death where people can come to faith and repentance (contra Heb. 9:27-28)—yet one must likewise affirm much of the same criteria that Barth leveled in his own propositions. Most clearly, one must affirm a Barthian understanding of the atonement—that it is not a potential salvation afforded to all, but an actual salvation accomplished for all.

As for the texts Daily Reformation uses to support this notion (Eph. 1:9-10; Col. 1:20; Rom. 5:18; John 1:29, 12:32; 1 John 2:2; and Rev. 21:5, 8, 24-25), what follows is a brief exegesis of these passages to do as he coyly encourages, which is to examine these things for ourselves in light of Scripture’s teaching.

“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph. 1:9-10).

For this, one must understand what is meant by the “view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the time,” as this phrase is in apposition to “the summing up of all things in Christ.” In short, Paul speaks to the reality that Christ’s sacrifice (see vv. 3-8 in full) has accomplished, that is, that history has an ultimate goal, which is the New Creation, and Christ’s work on the cross is the central focal point of this. In other words, it was Christ’s work of redemption on the cross that leads into the redemption of all things, whether in heaven, or on earth. To be even more clear, Paul is speaking of the gospel and the hope of God’s final work of redemption in the New Heavens, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem (see Rev. 21).

That which was formerly a “mystery” has been made known through the gospel. No longer is it bound to “things the prophets made careful searches and inquiries into, trying to determine the time and setting to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ, and the glories to follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). Thus, the careful inquiry of the prophets was not merely in the redemption of sinners (though this is in scope), but rather, the redemption of the cosmos—freedom from the curse, through this suffering Messiah.

We ought to also note that this specific promise is given to those whom Paul says have, “listened to the message of truth [the gospel] and also believe.” These are the ones who subsequently are sealed by the Holy Spirit, “who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). In all of this, Paul’s specific referent is the gospel itself—that which has been made known, believed, and carried with it specific promises of an inheritance to come. In no instance does this carry weight for those who have not believed; rather, the opposite is the case.

This is particularly why the apostle Paul continues by praying for a furtherance of this knowledge (Eph. 1:15-17), for the purpose of them knowing the hope of Christ’s calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward those who believe (Eph. 1:18-19a). These things, he says, were made manifest through the resurrection (Eph. 1:19b-21a), ascension, and exaltation of Christ (Eph. 1:21b- 23).

In other words, all of these things lead the apostle Paul to pray for them in a very pastoral manner; his hope is that through a deeper knowledge of the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of Christ, the church at Ephesus would be led to know that Christ not only lives but has the power to defend His people and usher in the fulness of the Kingdom at the end of the age, to which they one day will go. This is not a hope for those who reject Christ and His gospel, but exclusively for those whom He has saved.

“…and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20).

Colossians 1:15-20 has much the same in mind as its sister passage in Ephesians, in that Christ is shown to be the preeminent One over all Creation itself, who is drawing history towards its inevitable end. Yet again, the apostle Paul turns the corner to pastoral application in the following verses—verses which the admin of Reformation Daily conveniently skips over. He speaks of their former alienation from God, their hostility of mind toward Him, yet also their practice of evil deeds (Col. 1:21), yet then moves to explicate the wonderful work of reconciliation accomplished through the cross (Col. 1:22a).

This is the base of the Christian’s hope, for the cross bears specific purpose: that He, being Christ, might present us before the Father holy and blameless and beyond reproach (Col. 1:22b). This is, in one sense, the “first fruits” of the reconciliation of all things to Himself—speaking again of that final Day when the curse of sin, Satan, and death are no more. Yet one cannot ignore the important qualifier Paul gives here. This hope, that is, being presented before the Father as holy, blameless, and beyond reproach, is only “…if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister” (Col. 1:23).

The point of this simply being that once again, we find language which betrays a reading that allows for any hint of Universalism. This hope is given in light of their perseverance to the end in the faith, which speaks not simply of the gospel, but that body of truth contained in the writings of the apostles. Likewise, this hope is given to those who persevere in the hope of the gospel itself, which they have actually heard, and actually believed. In essence, Paul urges his hearers of the same reality we find elsewhere throughout the Scriptures; one must hold fast to the faith and the hope of the gospel to inherit the blessings of the Kingdom and eternal life (Heb. 3:6, 3:14, 10:23; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 15:2). This hope is not for those who reject Christ and His gospel, nor the faith.

“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Rom. 5:18).

Taken on its own, this passage might seem to indicate universal salvation to all (i.e., the efficacy of the atonement accomplishes the justification of every individual). However, as is the case with everything else, the context of this passage is not indicating universal salvation. Rom. 5:18 is a continuation of Paul’s initial thought from 5:12, as a summary then of vv. 12-17. As death is the result for all (in Adam), life is the result for all (in Christ). In other words, it is in and through Christ alone that life, justification, righteousness, and more, and imparted to those who are in Christ.

Paul has made it abundantly clear just previously that these benefits are only for those who believe (Rom. 1:16-17, 2:5-11, 3:21-25). Likewise, this is his emphasis in the context of Romans 5 (see v. 17). Elsewhere, Paul picks up nearly identical phrasing, but places emphasis on those who are His own possession (1 Cor. 15:22-23). Yet I would be remiss to neglect to highlight the fact that Paul uses this framework to draw distinction between those who are in Christ, and those who are not in Christ, which is a theme all throughout the New Testament.

In the book of Romans, this theme comes up again (see Rom. 8:1)—but the particular distinction brought to our attention is that the believer and the unbeliever are in two distinct realms (Rom. 8:8-9a; see also 1 Thess. 4:4-5, where Paul uses a Dative of Sphere to draw distinction between those who are in the “realm” of sanctification and honor and those in the “realm” of lustful passion [literally: vileness and impurity]). Those who are in Christ, he says, have the Spirit of God living in them, but those who are not in Christ do not have the Spirit, and the reason Paul indicates why this is the case is that they do not belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9).

Paul’s instruction in this section undoubtedly holds a specific moral dimension to it, yet it likewise holds practical implications. Those whom the Spirit indwells are obligated to live by the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 8:12). Those who live by the flesh will die, but those who put to death the deeds of the flesh will live and are His children (Rom. 8:13-16). Yet the all-important qualifier Paul brings to the table once again in this section is that “if we are children, then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, so that we may be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).

There is certainly more that can be drawn out from the surrounding context of the book of Romans, but the points I am drawing attention to suffice to show us several things:

  1. There is a stylistic flow to Rom. 5:12-18 that indicates Paul is speaking to those who are in Christ.
  2. Previous and forthcoming context in Romans precludes a reading in support of the idea of universal salvation being in Paul’s mind in Rom. 5:18.
  3. Paul is quite candid in providing qualifiers throughout his writings that speak to the nature of one’s true spiritual condition, through the use of conjunctions.

“The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29).

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32).

“…and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

The next several verses I am going to simply treat in one unit, as they are all Johannine, and Daily Reformation’s use of them is quite similar (i.e., his aim is to show a universal scope of the atonement). The first thing to treat, which is common in at least two instances quoted above, is John’s use of the term “world” (κόσμος). It is not referring to every single person who has ever lived, but rather, in Johannine literature, he uses this word in a technical sense. He refers the whole of mankind that is alienated from God, or more plainly stated: that system of thought in place (i.e. the world) that is opposed to God and His ways (see John 1:9-10, 3:19).

To speak of these verses as if they imply Universalism, one must ignore several other verses within John’s corpus that defy this.

John 1:12-13 speaks of those who receive Him, believe in His name, and were born of the will of God, as those who are given the right to become children of God. Note it is only born of the will of God (those who believe in His name and receive Him), not every single individual that has ever lived.

John 3:15 indicates that those who believe in Him may have eternal life. It should be noted first that the word “for” is simply pointing us backwards, to fill out Christ’s own argument to Nicodemus, where He explicates one must be born again to see the Kingdom (John 3:5). Likewise, the surrounding context of this passage continues to hold in mind those who believe. The ever-popular John 3:16 isolates the “believing ones” (whosoever is a faulty rendering of the present, active participle) as those who will have eternal life. Additionally, the “world” of John 3:17 is qualified by v. 18, in that “whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” This same idea comes up again in John 4:14, 5:24, 6:47, 6:51, 6:58, and 11.26.

When we come to 1 John 2:2, we take into account how John uses the term “world” (κόσμος) here as well, but we must also make a distinction between universal provision as opposed to a universal application. A universal provision is much in line with the statement that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect (those who believe), whereas a universal application would necessitate that every individual who has ever lived would be saved. Unless John is directly contradicting his writings elsewhere in this very same letter (1 John 1:5-10, 2:22-25, 3:14-15, 5:12-13), then one must conclude John speaks of propitiation in a broadly provisional, but not applicational sense.

We find further clarity in 1 John 4:10, where John uses the term propitiation (ἱλασμός) once again. The apostle John tells us, much in the same way he does in John 3:16, that God’s love is shown in sending His Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. This love is born out of God’s initial love for us, being those who are in Christ, and flows then into the moral imperative that we love one another.

But notice the context bears a specific flow of argumentation (emphasis mine):

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this [being God’s love for us] we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (κόσμος). Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this [being God’s love for us], love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:11-17).

In other words, it is a mutual love and abiding between the believer and God Himself that brings every confidence on the Day of Judgment, rather than fear. The “love” of the believer is born out of God’s love for them. The “abiding” of the believer with God is likewise born out of God’s love for them. Yet both terminate in the reality of what the atonement accomplished; just as Christ stands in relation to the Father, so too do those who confess Christ as Lord. As a result of that right standing, the production of “love” and “abiding” brings confidence on the Day of Judgment, namely, in the reality that we won’t fear everlasting condemnation.

 

Once we’ve taken a look at all of the above quotations used to support Universalism, be it “soft” or “hard,” the context of Revelation 21 precludes any such reading that Daily Reformation seeks to use. In fact, I believe the only way to conclude, as he has, that those referred to in vv. 24-25 are the same as those consigned to the “second death” in v. 8 is to inject a Universalist hermeneutic which makes certain, fundamental assumptions behind what the text states, rather than simply allowing the flow of the passage (and surrounding context) to determine the meaning. In other words, it is nothing but a grand exercise in conjecture, conjecture, I might add, that is only teased out due to the implications of reading a Barthian style Universalism into various prooftexts, and especially the extent and purpose of Christ’s atonement.

Taking into account the various texts in the Minor and Major Prophets that describe this same, eschatological reality, the Universalist interpretation of these events becomes even more bogus (see Zech. 12-14 in tandem with Rev. 19:11-Rev. 21, as well as Is. 65-66 in particular).

Thus, in light of all of this, my plea to the admin behind Daily Reformation, any who follow him, and any who are tempted to indulge these tenets of “soft” Universalism, is to stop mounting a defense of such doctrines (or entertaining them), and humbly submit yourself to the teachings of Scripture in their proper context.

These are not incidental doctrines or matters of adiaphora. In other words, we can’t affirm the doctrines of Universalism in whatever form they present themselves to us. This not because of a council in 543 A.D., but that Scripture itself forbids toying with the nature, purpose, and scope of the atonement in such a way as Universalism purports. In other words, we don’t have the liberty of saying all will be saved, even if we seek to couch it in seemingly orthodox language, because Scripture emphatically teaches that all will not be saved, whether in this life, or the life to come. Scripture teaches that only those who believe in Christ prior to the “first death” will inherit eternal life. There are no second chances, there is no mercy or grace after the fact—they must repent and believe today, especially seeing that we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

In particular, to the admin of Daily Reformation, I point you back to the book of Jude. At this point, you are not merely embracing heretical doctrine, you are propagating it to a rather large audience of people. You cannot toy with this, namely, because the outcome is no different than those of whom Jude writes. I plead with you then to repent and renounce the teaching of universalism, not for the sake of your reputation, but your soul. Those who desire to teach will be judged all the more strictly (Ja. 3:1); you are to guard your life and your doctrine, lest you fail to save yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).

Until that point, people will have no other recourse than to warn others to flee from you, lest they too perish under the weight of embracing false doctrines such as these.


As a final aside: I believe this is, at least in part, fruit of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that so many bought into some years ago. My point in saying this is not that I believe the movement to be fundamentally wrong in its tenets, but that many who embraced it did so, not as a result of arduous study of the Scriptures, but as a result of being wooed to it through gifted teachers, the celebrity status “Big-Eva” popularizers, and perhaps even the excitement of being part of something bigger than oneself.

In other words, it was not the Scriptures which brought many to Reformed convictions, but compelling, rational, and reasonable argumentation, notoriety, and emotionalism. I also believe many were “wooed” to these convictions by the appeal of being attached to something historic. More plainly, the modern Evangelical “rootlessness” to the church’s rich theology, traditions, and history has led some to believe that simply because something is “of old,” it is therefore true, or at least more plausibly true. The inherent danger to this should be relatively clear for Christians to see.

If our doctrinal convictions are not thoroughly rooted in Scripture, they will be rooted in what sounds best at that time. In other words: we will be the final standard by which we draw our doctrinal conclusions. One might do this in all sorts of ways (e.g., appealing to the church fathers, the creeds, and even confessions as the ultimate authority for biblical truth). But as any student of church history and historical theology knows, one can appeal to virtually anyone at any point to support their pet theological convictions.

This is what I believe to be at the heart of the phenomena unfolding in our current day. Many have forsaken biblical teaching in order to attach themselves to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc., but also things like the deconstructionism movement, and like I’ve highlighted here, Universalism (or other traditions that depart from the orthodox Christian faith). None of this is to say that an understanding of historic context is without merit, but that rather, Scripture is still the norm that norms all other norms.

In other words, Scripture itself is the final authority. If we appeal to the Scriptures, yet neglect their full context, it cannot be said of us that we are truly appealing to Scripture. Rather, we are simply subjecting it to a form of tokenism that betrays its teachings in favor of another authority we deem supreme. We may use the Scriptures, but we are simply letting these theological, historical, and cultural persuasions be retrojected into the Biblical text, rather than letting the Scriptures inform how we view these ideas.

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