Are all included, really?

This blog occasionally receives comments objecting to our statement that, "all people are included in God's love and life." Some objectors claim that this statement is tantamount to teaching universalism. Though that is not what we mean by the statement, it is understandable that some misconstrue it that way, given differing viewpoints concerning the doctrine of salvation.

As Trinitarian theologian Gary Deddo commented to me recently, those who object to a trinitarian, incarnational understanding of salvation tend to view salvation as a steady state of individuals that is effective in a mechanical (instrumental) way, whereby individuals either are in the “on” (saved) position or in the “off” (unsaved) position. This mechanistic view of salvation comes from thinking that God operates upon individuals as a causal force, either in a deterministic way (as in Calvinistic double predestination), or (as in Arminianism) by creating a universal potential that becomes actual only when the individual makes a certain response.

In contrast, the incarnational Trinitarian theology represented on this blog views salvation in accordance with the following points:
  • In and through Jesus Christ, God has established a reality that is true in relation to all humanity. That reality is that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all.
  • That reality calls for a response from individuals.
  • That individual response either affirms or denies the reality, but it does not and cannot change the reality of who God is in Christ in relationship to all. 
  • Personal denial (rejection) of the reality of who God is in Christ does have consequences for the individual. However, those consequences do not undo the reality, nor do they create an alternative reality.
The key point is the understanding that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all is a statement concerning who God is and what he has done for all in the person and work of his incarnate Son. This is a theological statement; it concerns the purpose, character, heart, mind and achievement of God. It testifies to the reality of who Jesus is in relation to all people, whether or not any person accepts or rejects that reality (truth). The statement, in itself, says nothing about human response and thus nothing about the final state of any individual persons in either accepting or denying that reality. Thus, when we speak of God as having "included all in his life and love," we are speaking about who God is and what he has done, not about human response.

Thus, when we say that "all are included" we are not speaking of "included" in a mechanical, causal, static, non-relational, anthropocentric way. Rather we mean it in a realist, onto-relational, Christ-centered way. What we mean concerns how God, apart from human response, views all people because of who he is and what he has done (and is doing) in the person and work of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This being the case, we declare that all people everywhere are included in Christ (i.e. they belong to Christ) by virtue of creation (Christ is Creator and Sustainer of all) and redemption (Christ is Savior of all). From the cross and empty tomb forward (and reaching back in time as well), all people no longer are beholden to the first Adam, but are included in the new humanity forged by, in and through the new (and final) Adam, Jesus Christ. He is the new head of all humanity. None of these statements speak to human response to these realities except to the response the man Jesus has made for us all as the "vicarious human" who stands in and represents us all.

This onto-relational perspective, admittedly, differs from that of contemporary Calvinism, which sees Jesus as Lord and Savior of only some; and Arminianism, which sees Jesus as potentially Lord and Savior of all (or some, depending on personal response). Those who object to our statement that "all are included" typically hold to one of these two views, and in doing so tend to view salvation in a anthropocentric, non-relational way, assigning to the word "included" a meaning that we do not intend. Such are the complexities of communication, which is a reminder that we need to be clearer in our communication.

In evaluating our statement that "all are included," please evaluate it as we define it, not in some other fashion. Let us hear and understand each other, even if we end up disagreeing (and, please, let's never be disagreeable).

Click here for a short article on the GCI Weekly Update blog on the related topic of universalism, 


Jerome Ellard said…
Amen to the call for better communication! I think a lot of oppostion comes from misunderstanding. Semantics can trip us up. Thanks for this post, Ted.
David Cartledge said…
Thank you for this post. I want to start by affirming all that you have written. I must say a big YES to the reality that God has established for all humanity in Jesus.

In your post you say that we need to be clearer in our communication over all being included. If we are not clear we cause misunderstanding and even misrepresentation. It is this concern for clarity that has prompted my own comment on your post. My understanding is that God has indeed established a reality in Christ that is true for all humanity in him. All God’s salvation is found only in him for all. He is indeed, the universal and inclusive man in whom are found all God’s blessings.
However, only when the Spirit brings each of us into living and personal union with Christ does this reality come to realisation in relation to us as individuals. That means I would only speak of a person being included following faith and the Spirit’s engrafting into Christ. I do find that those who present inclusion for all in Christ fail to enlarge on the Spirit’s part in bringing us into living union so that we actually participate in all that Christ is for us. In my view this is not sufficiently Trinitarian. The view you express focuses fully on Christ as the reality but not at all on the Spirit creating realisation of the reality through living union with Christ. This may result in confusion for many over what is meant by inclusion.

Would you say that I hold to this because I am still being causal and anthropocentric rather than realist and onto-relational? I am more than willing to concede that I am missing something because I still carry baggage from my past causal and anthropocentric theology. I am humbly seeking light.

I hope this does not come across as disagreeable. My only intention is to grow in my understanding of all that the Father has accomplished in his Son and by his Spirit.
Unknown said…
Thanks Ted. Your main point appears to be summed up in a single verse: 1 Tim 4:10 "That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe."
Believers are singled out for special mention because of their present faith and faith works, but are clearly not alone, in terms of their standing in Christ.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks David for your helpful comment. I think we are in substantial agreement.

If at times I emphasize the completed universal/objective work of the Father, Son and Spirit in reconciling all people to God (and thus including them in God's life through the representative, substitutionary death and new life in Christ, it is because this aspect of God's work is often minimized or entirely overlooked. However your cautionary comment is a helpful reminder that we must not minimize the personal/subjective response. As you note, the Holy Spirit has a particular ministry in bringing illumination and the gift of faith to a person. As I often say, "what is universally given must be personally received." It is not an either/or but a both/and.

As you know, I prefer to emphasize that all people are universally/objectively included in God's life and love before there is any personal/subjective response. Saying it this way emphasizes the finished work of the incarnate Son of God, through the Spirit, on behalf of all. Indeed, in Christ, all are included already. However that inclusion must be personally received/experienced for it to become complete. Thus as Paul says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world (cosmos) to himself…” So, “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20, NASB).

Thus we note that our personal response has no meaning if the objective reality is not first true for ua all (non-believers who have not yet responded and believers who have).
David Cartledge said…
Thank you for your response, Ted. In your reply, you say my “cautionary comment is a helpful reminder that we must not minimize the personal/subjective response”. I must answer this by making it clear that my concern was not over minimizing personal response. I am in total agreement with you that personal response does not change in any way the objective reality of Christ.
My concern was that you did not emphasise the Spirit’s part in engrafting us into living union with Christ so that the reality of all that Christ is for us comes to realisation. Everything is in Christ but we do not participate in anything if we are not brought into union with him by the Spirit.
In Romans 17:7 Paul writes, “Greet Andronicus and Junia...they were in Christ before me.” In what sense were these people in Christ before Paul if all people are already in Christ? I suppose that they were in Christ before Paul in the sense that the Spirit had joined them to Christ so that they were now in union with Christ personally.
This suggests two senses in which we are “in Christ”. We are all in Christ because he united himself with us in our humanity making him the universal and inclusive man. At the same time, only those who are brought into living union with Christ by the Spirit are in Christ as participators in all that he is for them. My concern is that this second sense of union with Christ was missing in your post.
I am concerned about this for two reasons.
First, while your post focuses fully on Christ it appears to diminish the Spirit’s role to merely enlightening us so that we may respond personally. A fully Trinitarian way of viewing union with Christ for salvation will see all of salvation in Christ for all people and the Spirit engrafting people into Christ for participation in the reality of Christ
Secondly, if we speak of all humanity being in Christ or included in him and his life within the Triune God we bring confusion into many minds. You said that we must take care to communicate clearly without confusion. My question is, doesn’t failure to speak of inclusion in terms of the whole rather than in part confuse?
At the moment, I prefer to simply stress the reality of Christ as Lord and Saviour of all and only speak of those engrafted into union with him by the Spirit as included.
I say “at the moment” because I do realise that I may need to change the way I think and speak. And that my reluctance to speak of all as included may be due to faulty thinking on my part. I am looking for light.
Nevertheless, on the basis of your post I do think that we disagree clearly about inclusion. You focus on the reality of Christ as Lord and Saviour of all and say all are included. I focus on the same reality of Christ as Lord and Saviour of all but I highlight the Spirit’s part in joining people to the reality of Christ for realisation of all that is in Christ. And so I go on to say that only those people that the Spirit has joined in union with Christ are included. That is quite a different perspective or do you still think that we are in substantial agreement?
Ted Johnston said…
Hi David,
I certainly agree with you concerning the importance of the person and work of the the Holy Spirit in our salvation. And, indeed, part of his work is to unite us to Christ. That work is multifaceted and includes the issue of our personal (some call it "effective") call to Christ, which does involve an opening of our minds and hearts to receive Christ-this is sometimes referred to as his work of "illumination."

I think that the issue you're wrestling with is whether or not this union with Christ is accomplished by our personal believing (as though there is no union prior to our personal belief), or if that union is accomplished before we believe, and now, through belief it becomes known to us and thus effective in our lives.

My understanding is that our union with God is accomplished in the person of Jesus himself who is fully God and fully human. This union involves the work of the Father and the Spirit and is "located" in the life of the incarnate Son who is our representative and substitute. In Christ, God has reconciled himself to all humanity. In and through the vicarious humanity of Christ, all humanity is included in God's love and life.

Is that universal union/inclusion experienced by everyone? The answer is no, for what is true for all in Christ (the objective/universal reality), must be personally experienced (the subjective/personal reality). That personal experience is also God's work for us and in us--and here, as you rightly note, the Spirit has a particular ministry. Why does that Spirit not open everyone's mind now to that universal reality? That, in itself, is a mystery, however we can surmise that there is an issue of God's perfection of timing--he knows when the time is best for each person.

What I object to in saying that a person is "included" in Christ for the first time when they respond to the Spirit's call (i.e. "come to faith") is that his suggests that a union of that person with God is created for the first time--that it is thus "actuated" by one's personal belief. But this viewpoint "gets the cart before the horse" so to speak. The union of humanity with God was accomplished in Jesus--in the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of the eternal Son of God. Indeed, in Christ, God has reconciled all people to himself. As a result, our true selves (as children of God) is "hidden with God in Christ"--a non-believer does not see it at all; and even believers get only a glimpse (albeit a growing one) of that stunning reality.

Peter proclaimed at Pentecost that the Spirit has been "poured out on all flesh"--apparently a reference to the new work that God, in Christ, through the Spirit was doing with all humanity by virtue of the Christ event--all humanity having been transferred from its ground in the first Adam to the new creation forged in the second (final) Adam who is Jesus Christ. That is an accomplished reality, that then is being experienced personally one person at a time.

It is on this basis that I speak of *all people* as included already. And thus to a non-believer the evangelical invitation is this: "You are included--forgiven, accepted, reconciled to God in Christ--now believe it: repent [change your thinking about who God is and who you are]--pick up your cross and follow Jesus." Being able to hear this invitation and then respond affirmatively is, indeed, the work of the Spirit in that persona' life.

Hope this helps.
David Cartledge said…
I don’t think I am connecting with you over what I want to say. Maybe if we were in face to face conversation I would do better. So I am going to press the pause button and ponder how I can better communicate my point. Maybe you will hear from me in a few days.
Ted Johnston said…
Sounds good David. Perhaps one more thought would be useful here. You seem to want to locate the point of union with personal belief. What I am saying is that union precedes belief. What then does belief accomplish? A great deal, because as we respond to the Spirit who leads us to belief (a sharing in Jesus belief for us), we follow the Spirit into ever deepening communion with God, in Christ. And thus I speak of the journey "from union to communion" with God.
Unknown said…
Thanks Ted
What good news and thank you for being so reconciling in your write.
When you are face to face with the truth it is freeing and restful. It is in this freedom that I am being, being saved in the here and now (Romans 5:9-10)
The indicative, the promises of Father, Son and Holy Spirit have been finished for all humanity. We are in union! The imperative, the action or the communion, do I trust in His obedience, as I truly am in Him in space/time.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Richard for this comment. I think 1 Tim. 4:10 is indeed relevant concerning the issue being addressed here. Thanks for adding to the conversation, noting that we must not overlook the importance of personal belief. Note my comment on David's comment above.
whatthehellbook said…
God is love and love never fails. His love and mercy endures forever. Does it really endure forever or only in this finite life? He says to repay evil with good and to love our enemies, will He not do the same? Does evil win out in the end or does God get what He wants?

1 Timothy 2:3-6- This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time.

1 Timothy 4:10- This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers.
Lee said…
How does personal belief begin? Why do we think it begins at one point?

The Holy Spirit isn't any less active in our lives when it begins the process of laying the groundwork for our faith before we are even born. Maybe he works in the lives of those before us, to have conditions ripe for us as we grow up? We limit the Spirit's role when we assume it to be only that of two-way relationship.

I have a difficult boss, at least for me he is. I have struggled with intense feelings of hatred for this guy. It has really helped to recognise him as included in Christ. He is my brother, and even when he attacks me, (because he doesn't yet know any better), I must refuse to throw away our relationship. When I rest in the peace of knowing that Jesus has everything handled, I can forgive, forget, and treat him with respect and kindness. People sense acceptance, and there is no way to fake it. It works wonders.

We are time-bound creatures, so it's hard for us to think outside our fishbowl. God lives in eternity, where he already experiences what remains for us, the future. Remember that Christ was "slain from the foundation of the world", and the Father "has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ".

Now, I dare you to think of our Big God as much bigger than you may! I say he will have his full will, and none will be lost. I am a dedicated universalist! This isn't to say that any will be allowed to tarnish the Kingdom with inferior standards, or failure to see their need for forgiveness. God's love can administer painful correction to those who must experience it.