The Christian message, taught in the church today, is an agreement between two parties: God and the human race. But what if the cross changed that? How would we view atonement differently?
Ever since I began writing on this site back in May of 2014 I have been steadily and consistently learning, ruminating, and sharing. When God lead me to Paul’s evangel last year I took a few months off of writing to soak in it, so to speak. This year I have done the same, not only to believe this truth intellectually, but to learn what it means to live and walk in it. This truth that, in twenty five years of church-going, I had only heard the antithesis of. This truth that suddenly filled me with peace and made everything the modern church stood for and believed in ugly and contemptible.
This truth has been designated as Universalism in theological circles, as though it were a suspect outlier to orthodox theology. But if orthodox theology proclaims that Christ is not the saviour of all, as I know Paul tells us He is (1 Timothy 4:10), then give me the outcasted thought. If orthodox theology proclaims that Christ is only your saviour if you believe that He is your saviour, then He is no saviour at all, because truth stands independent of man’s belief in it. If it were not then it could not rightly be called truth.
This evangel that I have been excitedly sharing this past year can be summed up in one beautiful certainty: Christ is perfectly sufficient.
Allow me to take you to the book of Acts, where the first revelation of this secret was revealed.
In Acts chapter ten, Peter receives a vision that begun to shake his entire worldview. On a rooftop in Joppa, hungry and yearning for food, Peter sees,
….heaven open and a certain utensil descending, as a large sheet, with four edges, being let down on the earth, in which belonged all the quadrupeds and reptiles of the earth and the flying creatures of heaven. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter! Sacrifice and eat!” (Acts 10:11-13 CLNT)
Peter, as a law-abiding Jew, reacted to this in an expected manner,
Yet Peter said, “Far be it from me, Lord, for I never ate anything contaminating and unclean!” (Acts 10:14 CLNT)
God responds with insistence,
And again, a second time, a voice came to him, “What God cleanses, do not you count contaminating!” Now this occurred thrice, and straightway the utensil was taken up into heaven. (Acts 10:15 CLNT)
Personally, I would be quite embarrassed if God had to show me something three times before I got the point, but I jest. What God showed Peter next would pave the way for him to accept the murderer known as Saul of Tarsus as a light to the Gentiles and the nations.
Interestingly, whilst Peter was experiencing this vision, a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius was experiencing a vision of his own,
Now a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of a squadron called “Italian,” devout and fearing God with his entire house, doing many alms to the people and beseeching God continually, perceived in a vision manifestly, as if about the ninth hour of the day, a messenger of God entering to him and saying to him, “Cornelius!” Now he, looking intently at him, and becoming affrighted, said, “What is it, lord?” Now he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms ascended for a memorial in front of God. And now send men to Joppa, and send after a certain Simon, who is surnamed Peter. (Acts 10:1-5 CLNT)
The timing of God is impeccable, because without Peter’s vision of the sheet and the animals he would not have been prepared for what he was about to witness.
Now as Peter came to enter, Cornelius, meeting with him, falling at his feet, worships. Yet Peter raises him, saying, “Rise! I myself also am a man.” And, conversing with him, he entered, and is finding many come together. Besides, he averred to them, “You are versed in the fact how illicit it is for a man who is a Jew to join or come to another tribe, and God shows me not to say that any man is contaminating or unclean. (Acts 10:25-28 CLNT)
As a Jew, Peter was forbidden to enter into the fellowship and home of a non-Jew. This was why he chose to take friends with him. He was going where no Jew was lawfully permitted to go, yet because of his vision he knew God was telling him otherwise. He could no longer say that a man was “contaminated or unclean.”
Cornelius tells Peter of his vision of the angel. Afterwards Peter begins stating his gospel message,
“….Of a truth I am grasping that God is not partial, but in every nation he who is fearing Him and acting righteously is acceptable to Him. Of the word He dispatches to the sons of Israel, bringing the evangel of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all), you are aware, the declaration coming to be down the whole of Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John heralds: Jesus from Nazareth, as God anoints Him with holy spirit and power, Who passed through as a benefactor and healer of all those who are tyrannized over by the Adversary, for God was with Him. (Acts 10:34-38 CLNT)
Peter’s gospel message to Cornelius comprised of two things: the fear of God and righteousness. He relates his message to the declaration of John the Baptist. What was the declaration of John the Baptist? It is the first thing we read in the Gospel of Mark,
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4 ESV)
Repentence and baptism. Those were the keys for Peter and the Israelites. That was their gospel message.
Now Peter is averring to them, “Repent and be baptized each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins, and you shall be obtaining the gratuity of the holy spirit. (Acts 2:38 CLNT bold mine)
Notice what Peter says there. Experiencing the outpouring of the Spirit succeeded repentence and baptism. This is the way we see it in the church today. Come to the alter and then your sins will be pardoned. Come to the alter and then you will experience the love and gratuity of the Holy Spirit.
Turning back to the story of Cornelius, something happens that wipes Peter off of his feet,
To this One are all the prophets testifying: Everyone who is believing in Him is to obtain the pardon of sins through His name.” While Peter is still speaking these declarations, the holy spirit falls on all those hearing the word. And amazed were the believers of the Circumcision, whoever come together with Peter, seeing that on the nations also the gratuity of the holy spirit has been poured out. For they heard them speaking in languages and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, “There can not be anyone to forbid water, so that these are not to be baptized, who obtained the holy spirit even as we.” (Acts 10:43-47 CLNT bold mine)
Why was Peter amazed at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto this Gentile? This happened well after Pentecost, so they were not unfamiliar with an outpouring of the Spirit. Peter and his friends were bewildered because it happened without baptism and the cleansing of sin. There had not been any rites that brought about Cornelius’ salvation and deliverance/pardon from sin.
Let me put this into perspective. To Peter, this was the equivalent of the drug-addict experiencing the love and salvation of Christ before he even took a single step inside a church, let alone a knee at the altar. The significance of Cornelius’ story is that this was the first time The Holy Spirit had been poured out onto a person without the rituals or ceremonies of the church to sanctify him. Peter couldn’t comprehend this because rites and ceremonies were all he knew. To paraphrase Peter’s reaction I imagine it would have been something like, “Uh, um…. quickly get this man baptised! I don’t know how he obtained the Holy Spirit like we did but let’s do it to make sure.”
Because of this story we can understand why Saul was chosen to be the bearer of the new message of grace. Paul, the murderer of Christians and a man whose heart was wholly opposed to the man they called Jesus, experienced, like Cornelius, a divine outpouring of grace and mercy that preceded any act of baptism, repentence, or belief. Martin Zender puts this into perspective beautifully,
There was coming a time in the not-too-distant future when any good and worthy thing a human did would occur after God’s acceptance of him or her, not before it. This was unheard-of. We need to appreciate that. It was completely unheard-of and undreamed-of that God would accept into His bosom unrepentant, hardened, self-worshipping devil people.
Zender, Martin. The First Idiot in Heaven: Secrets of the Apostle Paul (And why the meek merely inherit the Earth) . Starke & Hartmann. Kindle Edition bold mine.
The experiences of Cornelius and Paul share a profound truth: Christ alone was sufficient. The confession of the mouth, the washing away of sins through baptism, even the belief in Christ as saviour? All insufficient compared to the objective, finished work of the cross and the grace of God. Our salvation absolute does not depend on human hands and I, for one, could not be more grateful.