Does God Save Everyone He Can?
This is a question for Christians and evangelical Christians in particular.
A friend recently asked me a theological question. He knows I am a Christian theologian in the evangelical tradition. His question was “Does God save everyone he can?”
I don’t recall ever being asked that before, so I reflected on it in the light of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).
Many questions must be parsed out and examined in light of the possible meanings of the words. In this case, because both the question-asker and I are evangelical Christians there is little concern about the meaning of “God.” We both mean the God of the Bible and especially the New Testament (but not at all to exclude the Old Testament which for both of us is also inspired scripture).
What does “save” mean in this question? Both the question-asker and I agree that “save” in this question means redeem and reconcile, forgive and ultimately bring to heaven forever. Of course there are other meanings of “save,” but this is what the question-asker meant.
Then there’s the trickiest question of all—what is meant by “can?” A simple interpretation is “able to.” I am confident that the question-asker did not mean to imply that there are any physical limitations on God. He was asking me about God’s will, intentions, spiritual abilities in relation to sinful human beings who have sinned.
This is a deeper question that it appears on the surface. For example, when I was growing up in an evangelical church and denomination I learned two songs: “My God can do anything” and “Nothing is impossible with God.” However, I was also taught that God cannot save sinners who refuse to repent.
So, I grew up with a bit of cognitive dissonance about what God “can” and “cannot” do. I suspect most evangelical Christians did.
So, the word “can” is the main problem in this question.
But, let’s back up a bit and ask if the Bible says anything about this question.
An underlying question that needs to be answered first is “Does God want to save everyone?” Another underlying question is “Is God willing to save everyone?” Here are some relevant scripture passages: Ezekiel 18 and 33 (verses in both chapters), John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:6, 2 Peter 3:9, and Titus 2:11.
An uninformed Calvinist might say these verses do not prove that God wants to save everyone or is willing to save everyone. However, leading Calvinist Lorraine Boettner said that God saves as many sinners as his nature allows him to. In other words, yes, even for the Calvinist, God wants to save everyone and is willing to save everyone, but something in his nature requires that he not save everyone. (There are universalist Calvinists, but I leave them aside here as they are not usually considered evangelical Christians.)
For the Calvinist, then, the word “can” is problematic and needs explanation. One way of expressing it is that God could save everyone if his purpose in creation, the full expression of all his attributes without prejudice to any, would allow it. But it doesn’t. Therefore, for the Calvinist, God could but can’t.
The Arminian agrees with the Calvinists (strangely). God could save everyone, but he can’t. Why can’t he? Because his nature will not allow it UNLESS everyone repents. God’s nature does not allow him to save sinners without their repentance. (Arminians disagree among ourselves about what “repentance” necessarily looks like and when it must occur—during earthly life or possibly after death.)
The answer to the question then, for both Calvinists and Arminians, is that God could save everyone, but he can’t save everyone. So the answer to the question for both types of evangelical Christians is “yes,” God saves everyone he can.
However…the agreement isn’t as clear as it seems on the surface. For the Calvinist, God saves everyone he has unconditionally elected to save and no one else. Strangely, however, for most Calvinists, the indiscriminate offer of salvation to everyone (e.g., in an evangelistic campaign) is a “well-meant offer” even for God. Some consistent Calvinists have drawn back from that and forbidden (among themselves) indiscriminate evangelism. Those are the ones called by others “hyper-Calvinists.”
The Arminian means that God saves everyone his holy love will allow him to save and that does not include sinners who refuse to repent. (Again, Arminians disagree about what “repent” necessarily includes. There are restrictivist Arminians and inclusivist Arminians).
So, yes, the answer is that God saves everyone he can. But, as is so often the case, a seemingly simple answer (in this case “yes”) really means different things—especially to Calvinists and Arminians (and here I include Wesleyans as Arminians whether they like that or not).
Theologians are notorious for asking follow-up questions such as “What do you mean by ‘can’?” And “Why doesn’t he?”
Now, to head off confusion here, the question this blog post is about is “Does God save everyone he can?” And not “Can God save everyone?” But I can’t discuss every cognate question in one blog post.
My evangelical Arminian answer to the question “Does God save everyone he can?” Is yes, unequivocally yes. But not in the way an evangelical Calvinist means it. Thanks be to God.
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