The Gospel: A Message for Every Person / Adam Harwood, Ph.D.
Ed’s note: On April 11, Dr. Adam Harwood preached a sermon at Truett-McConnell College’s chapel service that was based on the manuscript below.
To watch a video of the service, click HERE.
Download the manuscript.
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by Adam Harwood, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
McFarland Chair of Theology
Director, Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry
Editor, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
All comments initially moderated.
What I say this morning may kick up some dust. That is not my goal. Instead, my goal is to advocate for three simple claims from the Bible which undergird evangelism and missions. I will make my case only from the Bible, not from systematic or historical theology or philosophy. Those fields inform our understanding of the Bible, but clear statements from the Bible always trump those other fields. The claims I make, although consistent with historic Christian teaching, will challenge the claims of certain Christian pastors and leaders–including several professors at one of our SBC Seminaries.
Now, for my thesis. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message for every person because:
— God loves every person
— Christ died for every person
— God wants to save every person
If you take away nothing else from this message, please remember this:
The gospel is for you.
Some Christians differ on these points. How should Christians discuss their differences? Theological discussions should be peaceable, public, and particular.
Peaceable. It’s appropriate and permissible to differ with Christian brothers and sisters on particular theological questions. This is the nature of theological discourse. What’s unnecessary is a divisive attitude. It’s healthy for believers to hear the case for different views from the Scripture. It’s possible that all the views being considered are permissible and within the bounds of orthodoxy. Even so, discussing the differences is not being divisive but an attempt to articulate the truths of Scripture and interact with the views of other Christians.
Public. According to Matthew 18, confronting brothers about sin should occur in private. If this were a matter of sin within a local church, this principle would apply. But this is not a matter of sin. Christian leaders are publishing books and attempting to persuade people of their theological view. It’s appropriate for those views to be fairly summarized and critiqued before the audience they’re attempting to persuade.
Particular. It’s necessary to name particular advocates of the view in question. Why? It’s poor scholarship to engage a viewpoint without establishing its advocates. Listeners can simply say, “Who holds this view? No credible theologian makes this claim.” I could be accused of building a straw man. For example, if I say: Some people claim Julius Caesar was a woman, then the claim should be dismissed as unsupported. This question should be asked: Who claims that Julius Caesar was a woman? There’s a need to support the claim. Theological discussions must be particular. I’m not engaging all Christian views, but particular views. The goal is to gain an accurate understanding of one another’s views.
Believers in Jesus Christ are indwelt by the Spirit of God. We are called and empowered to be witnesses of Jesus (Acts 1:8). And we can declare the message of the gospel to any person on the planet because:
God loves every person.
Anyone who has watched a pro football game has seen the address, John 3:16. It’s not the only place in the Bible where this claim is found but it’s the best known. It states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV, emphasis mine).
God so loved the world. The subject of the sentence is God, who is the father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The main verb is loved, which is from a form of agape. This isn’t the only Greek word for love, but it’s the best known. The word means what you would think it means. Love. I could list synonyms, but it seems unnecessary. This verb isn’t the question. Instead, the object of the verb is the question for some people: kosmos (Greek, “the world”).
“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Kosmos doesn’t refer in this context to the physical universe (as in Acts 17:24) or to the system opposed to God (as in 1 John 2:15). Instead, this word refers in John 3:16 to all people. John used the word in that sense elsewhere in his Gospel. As examples:
— John the Baptist declares of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
— Jesus is called “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
— Jesus says He is “the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).
— Jesus will give His flesh “for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
Clearly, “God so loved the world” means God loves every person.
The implication is that we can say to any person on the planet: God loves you.
Surprisingly, some Christians deny that “the world” means every person. Instead, they claim “the world” could refer to only some people.
Francis Turretin (1623–87), a 17th-century systematic theologian, writes that John 3:16 “cannot be universal towards each and everyone, but special towards a few.” The love mentioned in that verse refers to “only those chosen out of this world.” Turretin interprets John 3:16 to say that God loves only some people.
Consider also John Owen, famous for his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. In that book, Owen provides his interpretation of John 3:16. He explains that “it cannot be maintained that by the world here is meant all and every one of mankind, but only men in common scattered throughout the world, which are the elect.”
These statements are deeply problematic. They set aside the clear and plain meaning of the verse for a view not found in this verse. Perhaps their position can be established from other texts. But proper exegesis rules out these interpretations of Turretin and Owen. D. A. Carson, like them, is a Calvinist. But Carson disagrees with their interpretation of John 3:16.
I know that some try to take kosmos (world) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s gospel is against the suggestion. … God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.
The Bible does not teach that God loves only some people. Instead, the Bible teaches that God loves the world.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message for every person because:
God loves every person.
Christ died for every person.
Some Christians teach that Jesus died only for the elect. Is this true?
It’s true that some Christians make this claim. Last fall, a collection of essays was released by Crossway which argues for such a view. It includes chapters written by nearly two dozen professors and pastors, including three professors who teach at one of our SBC Seminaries: Tom Schreiner, Stephen Wellum, and Michael Haykin. They claim that Christ died only for the elect. The view is known as definite atonement or limited atonement or particular atonement.
In reply: No Bible verse states that Jesus died only for the elect. There are references in the New Testament to Jesus’ death for some people. Consider:
— Jesus came to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21b).
— Jesus gave His life as “a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).
— Jesus lays down his life “for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15).
— “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10: 27).
— Paul describes “the flock” and “church of God” as that which Christ “obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
— Paul explains that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25b).
But none of these verses say Jesus died only for some. And none of these statements invalidate the other declarations that Christ died for the sins of the world.
Many texts state that Christ died for every person, such as
Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b).
God sent His Son “in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17b).
Paul declares that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
Jesus became flesh so “he might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9).
“We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of everyone, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10b).
Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Consider this picture.
Christ died for the world (all), which includes a smaller group (some). This relationship between all and some is not contradictory. Christ died for all, which includes some.
Affirming that Christ died for all is not a denial that Christ died for some (the sheep, the elect, and the church of God)—it is a denial that Christ died only for some.
In a recent article, David Allen, Dean of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, “Limited atonement is contrary to the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith.” He then quotes Article 3 of the BFM 2000, which states: “The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”
Allen continues, “The use of the word ‘man’ in context clearly indicates ‘mankind’ as a whole. The BFM does not limit the death of Christ to the elect but to the same group which is made in his image, man.”
Southern Baptists can believe whatever they want regarding the doctrine of atonement. But Southern Baptist seminary professors are bound to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Baptist Faith and Message. If David Allen is correct that limited atonement is contrary to the BFM, then all Southern Baptist seminary professors who teach that Jesus died only for the elect are advocating a view which is contrary to the convention’s statement of faith.
One objection is: The reason only some are saved is because Jesus “paid” for the sins of only some on the cross.
In reply: This view is not stated in the Bible. Instead, this double payment argument was made famous by John Owen. Recall that he interpreted John 3:16 to say that God loves the elect. The double payment argument was used more recently by Wayne Grudem, whose books I used as textbooks in several of my theology courses at The College at Southwestern and here at Truett. There are many commendable aspects to Grudem’s work. But even as I used his books, I would ask students to reconsider some of the views he advocates in his books. This is one of those instances. Grudem writes: “Did Christ pay for the sins of all unbelievers who will be eternally condemned, and did he pay for their sins fully and completely on the cross? It seems that we have to answer no to that question.” In reply, the Bible states that Christ died for the sins of the world–this is not a claim that Christ’s death paid for the sins of unbelievers. At this point, Grudem has confused the intent of the atonement with its application. All Christians should affirm that only those who place faith in Jesus will be saved; but that is consistent with the view that Christ died for the sins of the world. First John 2:2 says this about Jesus: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.”
Grudem explains that the Reformed (his term) emphasize the actual payment of sin and the non-Reformed mean that “salvation is available for everyone and that payment of sins is available for everyone.” According to Grudem, I am non-Reformed because I affirm that salvation is available to everyone. Exactly! And Grudem is correct in stating that Reformed theologians teach that salvation is available only to some people and payment of sins is available only to some people.
Instead, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message for every person because:
God loves every person.
Christ died for every person.
God wants to save every person.
Surprisingly, some Christians deny that God wants to save every person. They say that people who will spend eternity apart from God will do so because God did not choose them to be saved.
The founder of Southern Seminary, James Boyce, authored a systematic theology. In his chapter titled “Reprobation,” he mentions, “The decree to reject some.” Boyce clarifies, “This is involved in the doctrine of election. The choice of some and not of the whole, involves the non-election and thus the rejection of others.”
Tom Nettles, Professor of Baptist History at Southern Seminary, writes: “In short, the doctrine of election states that—before the foundation of the world—God chose certain individuals to salvation and ordained the means by which they are saved.”
In a recent booklet titled Does God Desire All To Be Saved?, John Piper writes, “God deemed it wise and good to elect unconditionally some to salvation and not others.”
According to James Boyce, Tom Nettles, and John Piper, those who will spend eternity apart from God will do so because God did not choose for them to be saved.
This is a foundational and historic belief of Calvinism. Some Calvinists give qualified answers when addressing whether God loves all people and desires all people to be saved. Bruce Ware, Professor of Theology at Southern Seminary, explains that there are: five loves, two wills, and two calls. Consider his explanation.
Ware suggests that God’s love should be understood in five senses, including a “general” love for all people and a “particular” love for his own people “that moves him to save them.” Ware provides examples of God’s particular love for His people, such as the love of a husband for his wife. Ware writes, “Just as ‘husbandly’ love is destroyed altogether if a man were only capable of loving all women (including his wife!) equally and exactly in the same way, so here God’s love for his own people is lost when the distinctiveness of this greatest of God’s loves is denied.”
Ware’s analogy accounts for a husband’s love for his wife, but fails to describe the sense of love for the non-chosen. Exactly what kind of love leads God to exclude some people from the atoning work of Christ and to withhold a special calling, which necessarily seals their judgment? Ware does not describe this type of love.
The Bible does not teach that God loves in five different senses. Instead, the Bible calls the cross of Christ an expression of God’s love for “the world” (John 3:16) and for “mankind” (Titus 3:4). When asked, “Does God love the world?” Ware seems to reply, “Yes, but.” He means God loves the non-chosen enough to bless them with rain. But the Bible says much more about God’s love for all people. If John 3:16 and Titus 3:4 mean that God loves all people, then what is the confusion? In what sense could it be said that God loves all people if He doesn’t desire their salvation?
Ware explains that “the Bible presents God’s saving will in two ways, not one.” Ware appeals to the writings of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Piper to explain that God has two wills regarding the salvation of all people. God’s revealed will is revealed in the Scriptures. His secret will is hidden from us. Piper, for example, argues that God desires all people to be saved, but His greater desire (secret will) is to be glorified. In this way, many Calvinists claim that God has two wills regarding the salvation of all people–one will is to save all and the other will is to save only some.
Also, there are two types of calls, general and special. According to this view, hearing the gospel is not enough for a person to be saved; a person can only be saved if God extends a special call. Ware explains that God does not offer all people a special call by which they can be saved. Ware writes that “the calling of God to be saved here is extended only to some and not to all.”
His view could be illustrated like this:
In this view, it’s not enough to hear the gospel to be saved; the people in the gray spectrum hear the gospel but God does not desire those people to be saved. Ware concludes that since not all are saved and the Bible refers to believers as “called,” then this must explain why only some people are saved.
But the Bible reveals that God has one will regarding all people: that none should perish but all would repent and be saved. According to some theologians, though, God has two wills––one (revealed in Scripture) in which He desires to save all people and another (hidden and not revealed in Scripture) in which He doesn’t desire to save all people.
Concerns about the Revealed/Secret Wills
I have learned and benefitted greatly from the writings of Calvinist brothers. I am thankful for their contribution to gospel ministry. But they are not infallible. This view that God has both a hidden will and a revealed will is deeply flawed because these wills affirm contradictory claims. The implications for the present topic are: God says He loves all people and says He wants to save all people but secretly He doesn’t.
This revealed/secret will undermines any confidence we can have in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. What if we applied this method of dividing God’s will to other teachings of the Bible? Consider, for example, the return of Christ. Would we say that God’s revealed will is that Christ will return but His secret will is that Christ will not return? We would consider such a claim to be absurd. Rather, we say we can only know with certainty about God what He has revealed in the Bible. Nevertheless, a similar claim is made which contradicts clear statements in Scripture that God loves all people and desires all to be saved.
Ken Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, raises six concerns about this revealed/secret distinction. For the sake of time, I’ll quote only three of them.
“Christ manifests the revealed will of God, but the revealed will is not always done because it is supplanted by God’s secret will which lies hidden in the Father. This leads to the disturbing conclusion that Jesus does not present God as He really is.”
“It seems to make the preacher appear to be hypocritical… who preaches the revealed will while quietly adhering to a hidden will.”
“The question is not, ‘Why are the lost lost?’ but ‘Why aren’t the lost saved?’ The nasty, awful, ‘deep-dark-dirty-little secret’ of Calvinism is that it teaches there is one and only one answer to the second question, and it is that God does not want them to be saved.”
Objection: But what about the doctrine of election?
What about the doctrine of election? In the Old Testament, God chose Abram to build a nation and God chose Israel in order to reach all nations. God chose kings and prophets for service. The Messiah is called the chosen one. And the people of God are called the elect in both the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the Bible, God chooses or selects. But none of those occurrences of choosing or election in the Bible require us to affirm the extra-biblical presuppositions of decretal theology and covenantal theology. And none of those occurrences of choosing or election in the Bible require us to jettison the clear claims in Scripture that God loves all people, Christ died for all people, and God desires the salvation of all people.
In fact, the doctrine of election—as defined by the biblical authors rather than systematic theologians—is consistent with the view that God wants to save every person. In Gen 12:3, God selected Abram and promised: “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, 2 Chron 6:32–33, Solomon prays that “the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel” would pray. And Solomon asks God: When the foreigner, the non-elect, prays, “then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel.” God didn’t limit His love to Israel alone but extended it to foreigners–those who didn’t belong to the nation of Israel, such as Ruth the Moabite (see the book of Ruth) and the people of Nineveh (see the book of Jonah). In Isa 49:6, God called Israel to be “a light for the nations.”
In the Old Testament, election wasn’t about God choosing to save some people and not to save others. In the Old Testament, God chose one nation, Israel. Why? God elected, or chose, Israel to reach the other nations so those non-Israelites might repent and turn to Yahweh and worship Him as the one true God.
Many nations refused to repent and God raised up pagan nations, such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, to judge His own people. But even in the midst of judgment, God remembered mercy and desired that people repent. Why? Because in the Old Testament, God declared His love for all people and His desire for all people to be saved. This can be heard in Ezekiel’s declarations: “‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?’ This is the declaration of the Lord God. ‘Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?’” Also, “‘For I take no pleasure in anyone’s death.’ This is the declaration of the Lord God. ‘So repent and live!’” (Ezek 18:23, 32). In the Old Testament, God loved all people and desired all people to be saved.
The New Testament reveals God expressing the same desires. According to Luke 19:10, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. According to John 3:17–18, 36, Jesus came to rescue people who were already condemned because of God’s wrath over sin. John describes the self-giving love of God for the world, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son” (HCSB). In Rom 5:8, Paul explains that the death of Jesus on the cross was a demonstration of God’s love.
Consistent with the teaching in the Old Testament, we see in the New Testament that God loves every person.
And consistent with the teaching in the Old Testament, we see in the New Testament that God desires to save every person. After calling believers to pray for those in authority, Paul writes in 1 Tim 2:3–4: “This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” When warning about the future day of judgment, Peter writes, “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). In these texts, Paul and Peter clearly state that God “wants everyone to be saved” and “all to come to repentance.”
A question might be raised at this point: If God loves all people, Christ died for all people, and desires all people to be saved, then why aren’t all people saved?
The Bible is clear that only some people will be saved (Matt 7:13–14; 23:33; John 5:24). But Christians differ as to why this is the case.
Many Christians, and I include myself, say the reason some people are not saved is that either: Reason #1, they never hear the saving message of the gospel (Rom 10:14, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”); or Reason #2, they hear the gospel but never repent and believe in Jesus. But I reject the view that some people are not saved because God, from eternity, did not select them to be saved. Neither the Bible nor the Baptist Faith and Message compel me to affirm decretal theology. In fact, a recent consensus statement on Calvinism rules out this decretal interpretation of election.
From the fall of 2012 to the summer of 2013, 19 Southern Baptist leaders met to discuss Calvinism. They released a non-binding report titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension” (also called T5). The document provides a unifying statement on the topic of Calvinism. One of the points of agreement, according to the document, is: “We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.” This is consistent with points 1 and 3 of today’s message. The T5 statement affirms that God loves all people and desires all people to be saved. This is the way forward in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The tragic reason some people die in their sin and are separated eternally from God is either they never hear the gospel or they hear and reject the gospel.
My spirit was overwhelmed with joy when I read this article about 80 Truett-McConnell students, administrators, and faculty who will share the gospel on mission trips in 2014. Why will Drs. Caner, Reynolds, Pruitt, Sanders, and other faculty, coaches, and students talk about Jesus with people in Cleveland, Helen, Clarkston, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Argentina, Belize, Canada, Honduras, Hungary, India, Kenya, Rwanda, Thailand, East Asia, and other places around the globe? Why do you want to saturate the workplace with believers who serve in business and education and medicine? Why do you want to be faithful, Spirit-empowered witnesses of Jesus?
Truett-McConnell, your actions are consistent with the belief that every person needs to hear the gospel and that God loves every person, Christ died for every person, and God wants to save every person. Further, your actions are consistent with the view that God draws all people to salvation (John 12:32) by His Spirit so that any person who hears the gospel can call on the name of the Lord and be saved (Rom 10:13).
Any theological system which fails to affirm God’s love for every person, Christ’s death for every person, and God’s desire to save every person is not an antinomy or a paradox or a mystery, but a direct contradiction to clear statements in the Bible. Truett-McConnell family, May God richly bless your faithful witness of Jesus Christ.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:405–08; in Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 49.
John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647), 328, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/deathofdeath.i.x.ii.html (accessed April 7, 2014).
D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 17.
David and Jonathan Gibson, ed., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).
David L. Allen, “Commentary on Article 3: The Atonement of Christ,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 9.2 (Fall 2012): 48.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 601.
James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006), 358.
Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life (Lake Charles, LA: Cor Meum Tibi, 2002), 267.
John Piper, Does God Desire All to Be Saved? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 47.
See, for example, Synod of Dort, “Election and Reprobation,” Article 15: “…not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree.”Bruce Ware, “Divine Election to Salvation,” Perspectives on Election: Five Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 29; Ware draws at this point from the work of D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.
John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved,” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, ed. Schreiner and Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 107–24.
Ware, 16, emphasis his. Also, Ware explains, “One passage that shows with unmistakable clarity that the ‘special’ or ‘effectual’ call of God is taught in Scripture is Romans 8:29–30.”
Ware supports this view by quoting 1 Tim 2:4, which states that God desires all to be saved, but he cites a verse from the next Bible book to make a contrary claim. Second Timothy 2:25, he explains, indicates that unless God grants a person repentance, the person cannot be saved. Ware clarifies, “God wills that all be saved, but unless God wills to grant repentance they cannot be saved.” Ware, 13. In reply to Ware’s interpretation, 2 Tim 2:25 refers to God granting “repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” But the people referenced in the verse are known only as those who opposed Christian instruction; it’s not clear from the text whether they are unbelievers or believers.
Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 54–58.
As an aside: It’s possible to affirm two wills in God without those wills being these contradictory, hidden/revealed wills. Ken Keathley and Tom Oden, building on Aquinas, suggest the will of God is antecedent and consequent. See Tom Oden, The Transforming Power of God’s Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993). God antecedently (lit., “going before”) wills all people to be saved; God consequently (following as a result) wills that all people who do not repent and believe in Jesus will be condemned. So, the problem isn’t in affirming two wills, but in affirming two wills that are contradictory, such as the supposed hidden and revealed wills of God.
“Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” SBCLife http://www.sbclife.org/Articles/2013/06/sla5.asp (accessed April 7, 2014).
“Truett-McConnell Lives its Mission Statement,” http://www.truett.edu/article-list/984-truett-mcconnell-lives-its-mission-statement.html (accessed April 7, 2014).