It is taught that the salvation of God through Christ is a gift available to all, free of all charge. However, it is also taught that this very salvation will not be experienced by all. Can something be so free yet so disastrously conditional?
No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. At every church altar call you will hear that the gift of everlasting life is free to all thanks to the grace of God. You will hear that it is not established upon your works but on the finished work of Christ. You will hear that God welcomes all as they are and that no one will be left out.
Why then, with these wonderful promises being proclaimed in every church and temple, is Universalism thrown out like a cat in a kitchen? No one answer fits all responses, and some are evidently more antagonistic than others (i.e. Unbelievers don’t deserve eternal life. Why should we share salvation with an enemy? If all will be saved then there is no justice for sin.), but gracious speculation would lead us to an innocent misunderstanding of what constitutes salvation, eternal life, and works.
The central question: does receiving the gift of grace count as work? For clarity, we’ll take a look at Ephesians 2:8-9, the oft-quoted foundation upon which new covenant salvation teaching rests. It is often understood that faith (i.e. belief in and the receiving of the gift of salvation) does not equal work. Let’s clear up a misunderstanding by quoting the verse from two sources of translation.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV bold mine)
For the most part, the NIV’s interpretation is accurate, however, it egregiously includes one word that betrays its preciseness: “Gift.” As a result, the inclusion of this word has led to immense confusion and wonky exegesis. What is the gift? Is it grace or is it faith? If it is faith, can it be rejected or thrown away, like how one can throw away or reject, from the heart, a Christmas gift? If the gift is grace, can the same apply? Can we scoff at grace and therefore never experience the joy and life it brings?
Because of how the verse concludes, religion states that faith is therefore not labour, but a gift one can (freely) reject. Let’s next examine the verse from the Concordant Literal Translation.
For in grace, through faith, are you saved, and this is not out of you; it is God’s approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting. (Ephesians 2:8-9 Concordant Literal New Testament bold mine)
In examining the most literal Greek-to-English translation without grammatical incoherence available, one can see that all ambiguity from the more liberal NIV translation is lost. There is no gift at all, just as there is no work to receive it. It is the approach of God Himself, imparting faith upon His chosen for His eonian purpose. It is not out of us or through us, it is God “….Who is operating in you to will as well as to work for the sake of His delight” (Philippians 2:13). This can be said to be like a gift in the way that it is a blessing to receive it, but God’s “approach present” is not itself a gift that can be, like the analogy reads, thrown away. One cannot throw away God. This reading also fits contextually with what Paul states earlier in Ephesians,
To have an administration of the complement of the eras, to head up all in the Christ — both that in the heavens and that on the earth — in Him in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand according to the purpose of the One Who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will, (Ephesians 1:10-11 CLNT bold mine)
The certainty of Paul’s statement is striking. He leaves no room for doubt concerning God’s sovereign purpose and ability. God will do all He has planned (to head up all in Christ) and no one can thwart it (Job 42:2).
There is another trail of thought I’d like to explore concerning the nature of belief that aligns with common Christian teaching (à la the actualization of salvation being reliant on the recipient). Can the flesh choose faith? If there is no good in us (Romans 7:18), and no one does righteousness (Romans 3:10), how can the heart decide to receive Christ? If faith and the choice thereof is not defined as work (that being something defined in the Oxford Dictionary as any “mental or physical effort done to achieve a purpose or result”), then is it as lowly as deciding between fish or bread, sleep or sex? With all that our bodies delight in and naturally require every day, do these include receiving the gift of salvation?
If the above is true, the gift of salvation would be as much of a “worldly” thing as eating, drinking, sex or pleasure. The difference between spirit and the flesh, whether vice or virtue, would be theoretically nonexistent. Is there any Christian who would accept such a notion?
If accepting the gift of salvation is something inherently opposed to the flesh, yet still reliant on us, then salvation is not based on grace (Romans 11:6). This is so because we must, for a moment, consciously reject our sinful nature to make this decision we are naturally opposed to.
The religious insistence on having to choose to receive the gift of salvation is, in fact, a conscious rejection of it. They are telling congregants that one has to do something specific for the gift to apply and become real: choosing to “receive” it. This teaching is antithetical to the heart and soul of the Gospel of Grace and the sovereign character of God.