Previous article in this series: March 15, 2017, p. 274.
We have been considering an erroneous view of God’s kingdom that is being taught by some of the professors at Calvin College, Dordt College, and some others. These colleges describe themselves as institutions designed to train students to be “agents of renewal in the world,”1 and exhort us to join them in an effort to improve “the world.” To assure us that we are called to do this and that our efforts will not be in vain, they point us to God’s promise to renew all things.
Yet the renewal of which the Scriptures speak is quite different from the “renewal” these instructors seek. Although they frequently speak of the renewal of “the creation,” they have their eye on human society outside the church. This society, they maintain, can be morally improved, and Christians, they say, are to be working with this world toward this goal.
Over against this view the previous articles in this series have set forth the following:
1. God’s kingdom is the church. The citizens in God’s kingdom are the same as the members of the church. To be outside the church is to be outside God’s kingdom.
2. When Scripture speaks of Christ as “the King of all the earth,” that does not mean that unbelievers are citizens of His kingdom. Rather, it means that Christ’s kingdom consists of the elect gathered out of all the nations of the world.
3. Christ does indeed rule outside the church, but there He rules with a rod of iron, dashing His enemies to pieces.
4. Passages that speak of God uniting in Christ “all things in heaven and earth” are not calling the church to unite with the world, keeping our minds focused on earthly things. Rather, they are referring to the fact that believers on earth are united with those in heaven. Together with those in glory we have our minds and hearts set on heavenly things, not earthly things.
5. To be renewed is to be freed from corruption and conformed to Christ. The church in Christ is the only renewed human community that there will ever be.
It is the church and not this world that is being renewed. To be renewed, after all, is to be saved. If those outside the church are being renewed, that would imply that even those outside of Christ are being saved. Not surprisingly, some who hold to this erroneous view of the kingdom use God’s promise concerning “the restitution of all things” to teach precisely that: the doctrine of universal salvation.
Soon after Christ ascended into heaven the apostle Peter spoke of how Christ would one day return and restore all things:
And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began (Acts 3:20-21).
Peter is speaking here of the day of Christ’s return, when all things will be made new. At that time the wicked will be forever cut off from the earth, the believers will be completely freed from sin, and the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption. Yet some say that the “all things” spoken of here may include those who die unconverted, and perhaps even the demons.
This is the position of three Calvin College professors who together wrote An Introduction to Christian Theology. In this book they speak enthusiastically of those who have held to such a view:
Whatever the form, this universalistic hope has been a minority but persistent voice in the history of Christian theology, embraced by a litany of notable theologians. Its first major advocate was Origen, who tentatively proposed the possibility of an apokatastasis, a final restoration of all things (cf. Acts 3:21), including even the devil. Origen was followed in this inclination by both Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, among others, as the notion of universal reconciliation found greater play in Eastern Orthodoxy. Represented by the Anabaptists and pietists in the West, this universalistic strain was renewed by Schleiermacher, and even seems to be an implication of the theology of Karl Barth. Whether liberal, neo-orthodox, or otherwise, one can find many hopeful advocates of apokatastasis in contemporary theology.2
Having spoken positively of those who have held to this “universalistic hope,” the authors encourage us to do the same:
But as regards the scope of salvation, which extends to all of creation, including in principle both Christians and non-Christians, we lean in an inclusivist direction. Such a universal scope currently remains a matter of Christian hope…. But since universal salvation remains a possibility, it is something we can hope for….3
Such is where this erroneous view of the kingdom leads.
This quote also serves to point out that there are those who use the phrase “all creation” to mean “Christians and non-Christians.” It sounds better to speak of God saving “the creation,” and so they prefer to use that phrase. Only occasionally, as in the quote above, do they make known that they entertain the notion that those who die unconverted and even the devil may be included in that “creation.”
It is forbidden and indeed impossible for us to hope for what God has told us is not His will. Desiring the repentance and salvation of a wayward child who is still alive is far different from hoping that even those who die unconverted will be saved. We must reject the latter idea. In fact, we must preach that such will not be the case.
In Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that the unconverted will not be saved:
Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?
A. By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolator, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
The “all things” that will be restored
God does not leave us in doubt about what is included in the “all things” that shall be restored. Repeatedly He has told us that only those who believe in Christ will receive everlasting life. Those who reject Christ and despise His kingdom will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). The earth itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption (Rom. 8:21), and there will be both animals and plants with us when we dwell in the new earth (Is. 11:6-7); but the ungodly will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
We sing of this in the Psalms. We speak of God’s tender mercies being over all His works, and then we confess that the unbelievers will be excluded:
The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works (Ps. 145:9).
The Lord preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy (Ps. 145:20).
In other words, the ungodly who reject Christ are excluded from “all his works.”
What will happen when Christ returns was illustrated by what happened when God sent the great Flood. Righteous Noah, his house, and the animals with him were preserved. So was the earth itself and the plants. But the ungodly perished. As it happened then, so will it happen again. Trusting in Christ just as our father Noah did, we patiently wait and look forward to our Lord’s coming, comforted in knowing that we are safe in the Messiah with whom God has established His everlasting covenant.
1 From Calvin College’s webpage that summarizes “who we are,” https://calvin.edu/about/who-we-are/, accessed September 19, 2017.
2 Richard J. Plantinga, Thomas R. Thompson, and Matthew D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 409-410. The term apokatastasis is a transliteration of a form of the Greek word translated “restitution” in Acts 3:21.
3 Christian Theology, 372, 410. The emphasis is in the original.