Universalism in the Reformed Churches

Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, by Jan Bonda. Tr. Reinder Bruinsma. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Xxv + 278 pages. $25 (paper).

The one purpose of God referred to in the title of this book is God's alleged desire to save every human without exception. The author, a minister in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, supposes that this is the meaning of I Timothy 2:4: "Who will have all men to be saved." Interpreting "all" in this text, in Romans 5:18, in I Corinthians 15:22, in Romans 11:32, and in other places in this way, Bonda contends that God will eventually save every human without exception. The book is a daring, bold affirmation of universalism. By virtue of this fact, it is a denial of hell as everlasting punishment. 

Ominously the book begins with a quotation of the early theologian Origen.

Eventually, all those who died in unbelief will be converted to Christ and be saved. This will take place by means of their suffering for a limited time the anguish of hellish judgment. In the case of many, what the gospel could not accomplish—their repentance—temporary "hell" will bring about.

This salvation of all without exception will occur only by way of and in connection with the future salvation of all physical Jews, those who have died in unbelief as well as those then living. With appeal to Romans 11, Bonda insists upon the continuing significance of "Israel," which he understands as the totality of physical Jews. The importance and place of the Jews yet today in God's scheme of salvation is the other side of the book's central theme.

Paul also writes about this judgment—the day of God's wrath, when "he will repay according to

each one's deeds" (Rom. 2:5-6). The judgment is the beginning of the great deliverance. Under Christ's kingly rule God's children—those who are Christ's—will lead lost humanity back to God. All who ever died will be made alive in Christ, and at last God will be all in all (Rom. 8:14-21; I Cor. 15:20-28). So there will be salvation for those who died in a state of unbelief; salvation after the judgment. There will also be salvation for those who rejected the gospel. The majority of the Jewish people did that, but all Israel will be saved.... God (in the judgment—DJE) makes evil fall back on the heads of evildoers. He does not have in mind their destruction, however, but their redemption and healing; they will be ashamed and loathe what they did, and return to God. Eventually all will, with their whole heart, choose for the good for which God initially created them. Israel will do so first. Then all nations will join redeemed Israel (p. 258).

Does the Reformed man or woman incredulously object on the basis of the book of Romans with its clear teaching of predestination? Most of The One Purpose of God consists exactly of an interpretation of the entire book of Romans that rejects predestination, limited atonement, and particular grace (pp. 74-255). According to the exegesis of Bonda, admittedly following Karl Barth, the book of Romans proclaims the final salvation of every human by a grace of God that embraces all. The chapter with which Bonda begins his exposition of Romans is titled, "God Wants All to Be Saved."

That a minister in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands pointedly and publicly assails basic doctrines in the Reformed confessions, as Bonda does, comes as no surprise. It is startling, however, to find Christian Reformed theologian Sierd Woudstra doing this in his enthusiastically favorable foreword. Woudstra unequivocally underwrites Bonda's radical heresy. Woudstra charges that in their teaching of eternal punishment the Reformed creeds are "seriously flawed" (p. xx). The Christian Reformed theologian expresses agreement with an implication of Bonda's universalism, namely, that the cross of Christ was not "satisfaction," that is, was not "a price paid to God": "that death, as Bonda points out, was not a price to be paid to God" (pp. xx, xxi; cf. pp. 86, 87). Woudstra once vowed to uphold the Reformed creeds and never to criticize them, whether publicly or privately. But why concern oneself with lying to the Holy Ghost in the church, if there is no hell anyway?

The fundamental assumption of the book is that God has a purpose, or desire, of saving every human without exception. The biblical basis is a reading of I Timothy 2:4 and similar texts that explains "all" as referring to every human. The predestinarian texts are made to harmonize with the passages that speak of a desire of God to save all. From this desire of God to save all, Bonda concludes that all will, and must, be saved, if not before death, then after death. 

Woudstra outlines the argument:

The title of the book, The One Purpose of God, succinctly captures the point Bonda tries to make on the basis of meticulous biblical exegesis. This title is based on Paul's words in I Timothy 2:4 that God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." The book's subtitle, "An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment," follows from that text. Once we accept Paul's conviction here at face value, the doctrine of eternal punishment becomes at least problematic. For it raises such questions as, Will God achieve his desire? Will there be an end to God's desire of salvation for certain individuals? Particularly the question, Is a person's eternal fate irrevocably sealed at his or her death? (pp. xix, xx)

The book, therefore, does not permit itself to become a handy sword with which the "conservative Calvinistic" theologians and churches can slash the "liberal" Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and, perhaps, the Christian Reformed Church in North America to their own advantage. This is what they will do, gasping at and fulminating against gross heresy. But the book is a sword that, as soon as they try to wield it, pierces the heart of their own "conservative" theology. For the universalistic, hell-denying book rests squarely—and immovably—on the notion that God has a purpose to save every human without exception inasmuch as He loves them all. And this is the theology of all who maintain the theory of the "well-meant offer of salvation." The agreement of most "conservative Calvinists" with the "liberal" Bonda and Woudstra is evident in their interpretation of Bonda's basic text, I Timothy 2:4 and, by necessary implication, verse 6. They too explain that God wishes to save, and that in some sense Christ gave Himself a ransom for, every human without exception. 

The issue is God's purpose, God's desire, God's sincere wish, that is, the purposing, desiring, sincerely wishing God. If God has a desire to save all without exception, born of His love for all without exception, but some of these perish everlastingly, God will suffer everlasting misery. Just as the believing parents of nine godly children grieve daily over one ungodly child, insomuch that the grief over the one bids fair to overwhelm the joy over the nine, so God will forever grieve over the eternal perdition of those whom He once loved and sincerely desired to save, and still (being unchangeable God) loves and desires to save. Heaven will be an everlasting hell for God.

This is impossible.

If God does, in fact, have a purpose in love to save all, all must, somehow, be saved in the end. For God's sake! To this the "conservatives" are committed with their "well-meant offer." Time will show it! Time has shown it! Universalism in the Reformed churches has shown it!

The issue in the Reformed churches today, as ever, is predestination: election and reprobation.

Either the Canons of Dordt, wholeheartedly, honestly, unabashedly, and consistently maintained, or Jan Bonda's The One Purpose of God. 

Either the one eternal purpose of God in love to save a certain, definite number of the elect in Christ, accompanied by an eternal rejection of the others unto everlasting damnation, or an eternal desire of God to save every human without exception (I Tim. 2:4 on the reading of many "Calvinists"!), which explodes predestination, denies the cross as satisfaction, and abolishes everlasting hell.

Bonda's book should make for some theological soul-searching in the Reformed community.