Universal Reconciliation and the New Perspective on Paul

In discussing the doctrine of universal reconciliation in Christ one of the objections you often hear is that this doctrine rejects the cross of Jesus, rejects the atoning work of Jesus's death. This is a huge misunderstanding.

The issue, in my opinion, boils down to this: Is forgiveness actual or potential?

Ponder the relationship between God and those who, at this moment, stand in a place of rebellion toward God. Are these people, in light of Jesus's death for them, already forgiven? Or is God currently withholding forgiveness, waiting for the person to respond and repent? In the former forgiveness is actual--the death of Jesus created a new state of affairs, a new reality, a reality where the wall of enmity between God and humanity has been eradicated. In the latter view forgiveness is potential--you're not yet forgiven. The death of Christ, in this view, merely opens up the possibility for forgiveness. But as things stand right now you are not forgiven.

This contrast--Is forgiveness actual or potential?--goes to the heart of the debates of what is called the "New Perspective" on Paul. Some of this debate swirls around how we render Paul's use of the phrase Pistis Christou.

What we all agree on is that pistis means "faith" in Greek and that christou means "Christ." So far so good. But in the Greek there is some genitive ambiguity concerning how the two nouns--faith and Christ--are to relate to each other. Martin Luther, and those who followed him, translated Pistis Christou as "faith in Christ." But a growing number of scholars (e.g., Richard Hays, N.T. Wright) have argued that the proper translation of Pistis Christou should be "faith of Christ."

Theologically, the translational differences go to the issue of the actual versus potential nature of forgiveness. In Martin Luther's rendering--faith in Jesus--forgiveness is potential. Forgiveness is contingent upon the act of faith. You need to believe and then, once you've done that, you are forgiven. By contrast, the New Perspective rendering--faith of Jesus--focuses upon the faithfulness of Jesus in creating a new reality. Because of the work of Christ on the cross the wall of hostility and accusation between God and humanity was finally and decisively broken down. Forgiveness becomes our new reality. A new world has been created. Everyone has already been forgiven in Christ. The call is to recognize this reality and live into it. To trust (have "faith in") what the faithfulness of Jesus has accomplished for us "while we were yet sinners."

All this to say that the doctrine of universal reconciliation is richly informed by the New Perspective in seeing forgiveness as a currently existing reality.

Because of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross forgiveness is actual. Because of the cross a new reality has been created between God and humanity. Faith is recognizing that reality and rejoicing in it.

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47 thoughts on “Universal Reconciliation and the New Perspective on Paul”

  1. Great conclusion, one in which I hope more come to. I always questioned how forgiveness can even be called that if it is conditioned upon belief/faith. In essence it becomes a contractual agreement. Forgiveness is without condition, "undeserved"(which I take to mean these days that I couldnt do anything one way or another to attain it becuase it was freely given and actual) and that it has become real to me. Oh the powers and principalities...

  2. It's been a while since I read Wright's What St. Paul Really Said, but as I recall he doesn't extend his argument so far as universalism. It's an interesting thought, though, which I'll have to take some time to consider. Thanks for this.

  3. No he doesn't. The New Perspective scholars aren't universalists (that I know of). What I'm pointing out his how their work regarding the atonement informs the doctrine of UR.

    Specifically, it is often assumed by people that the saving work of the atonement is the act of faith itself (crudely: atonement = faith). Thus, no faith no atonement.

    The New Perspective makes a distinction between two. The atonement was accomplished by the faithfulness of Jesus "while we were yet sinners." That is, the atonement exists prior to faith and it exists for every person. That is what Jesus accomplished irrespective of our faith. Faith, then, is our response to the atonement.

  4. I like the way the New Perspective (which may not be new per sae) helps us get a clean perspective on all this stuff. I see doctrinal stumbling stones dissintegrating before my eyes. I am currently running a Bible study on Romans using Wright and Barth as my skeleton and bones. So much of what you suggest can be found in a close reading of Romans from this perspective.

  5. Thanks for this! This has been consuming my thoughts for the last two weeks.

    I know a lot of Christians who honestly believe that they do not need to forgive someone unless that person asks for their forgiveness.  This makes forgiveness more reliant on the offender's heart and awareness than on the forgiver's grace. This is especially problematic when the person in need of forgiveness doesn't even realize who (or how) they have offended.  I would argue that if we are not able to forgive (even when it's not asked for), we don't truly understand or appreciate our own forgiveness.If God only forgives us to the extent that we forgive others, then we are totally screwed. Forgiveness is just as much (or more) for me as the one I am forgiving.  The more I am able to forgive (even those that haven't asked for it), the more I understand the scope of God's forgiveness of my own sins.  The more I can let go of the pain that others have caused me; the more I realize that God is in control.Thank God that Christ's forgiveness is actual.  Hopefully I can do a better job appreciating it.

  6.  "If God only forgives us to the extent that we forgive others, then we are totally screwed" ... thats what makes the Lord's prayer kind of scary ...."Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors"

  7. Hi Heath,
    I'd have to argue that a triangulated third party pressuring someone to forgive their offender is often what keeps an abuser empowered. When that offender has been confronted, and knows there's an issue they need to acknowledge, and yet still triangulates others to pressure the target to "forgive," what it amounts to is "let's act like this doesn't matter or never happened." I'd say that the truth has to matter for reconciliation, and forgiveness is just part of the equation.

  8. This matches up well with what Jesus says on the cross "forgive them Father, for they know not what they do".

  9. Hi Patricia.  Lately I've been pondering Jesus' advice that if someone sins against us, we have a path of escalation, starting with one-on-one confrontation, then involving progressively more community members in an effort to bring reconciliation.  I agree that forgiveness is but one part of that overall effort, but an important one nonetheless.  If a person refuses to acknowledge their sin, even after multiple attempts by the offended individual and the entire community to help them see it, then there is not much left the community can do at that point.  Forgiveness can still live in our hearts towards to the person who wounded us, but if they refuse to acknowledge anything, there will be a relational gap there that we can't unilaterally overcome.  Perhaps this is also what God deals with towards us, His forgiveness is never lacking, nor his attempts to bring about full reconciliation with us, but He cannot unilaterally fully bridge relational gaps that are there because we are not yet willing to acknowledge all of our sin, and seek recovery from it.

  10. Hi, Patricia,
    I agree with you that pressuring others to "forgive and forget" is used to empower an abuser.  Forgiveness is not the same as putting up with offense.  Offense should be acknowledged and dealt with.

    I guess I am more thinking about the need to forgive as a means of realizing that God is in charge.  There are people who have sinned against me that have no idea who I am (i.e. a nameless person that raped a family member).  There are plenty of people that have greatly impacted my story or the story of my marriage that aren't even still alive.  How can these people ask for my forgiveness?  But, more importantly, how can I move on and be okay if I don't forgive?

  11. As you see it, does there remain any difference between the Christian and the non-Christian? Forgiveness is only part of the picture. The promise is "remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit." 

  12. Hi Heath,

    I've been thinking a lot about this issue of forgiveness a lot lately too.

    Is it correct to understand forgiveness in terms of absorbing the sins (harm, offense, mistake, etc.) which have been directed at or done to me by another person?

    I can generally begin to think and feel empathy for a person who has wronged me.  What, for example, in that person's life made him/her the way he/she is and do the things that he/she has done?

    But, often, I must acknowledge that there are limits to how much harm/offense that I can absorb.  That's not to say that I glibly shrug it off.  No, I grieve.  And it's a hard material...

  13. Hi, Susan,

    Grief is a huge step towards reconciliation.  We just can't let it end there.  I don't think that when we forgive, grief and the reality of our pain magically disappears.  Sometimes we may need to forgive numerous times for a single offense because it continues to hurt us in different ways.

  14. OK, so now I get it. New Perspective: I have faith IN the faith Of Jesus Christ whose death did it and can really start enjoying a status already obtained and proclaimed. Everybody else, EVERYBODY, has it. They just may not know it. So it's our job to get the word out! Wow!! This really IS good news? Right? Did I get it?

  15. Thanks, Heath.  I agree that forgiveness is an ongoing journey.  It's kind of a Catch-22, isn't it?  I mean, if real harm has been inflicted, healing from that harm is certainly helpful in regaining the capacity to (for)give.  So just exchanging words like, "You hurt me," "I'm sorry," and, "I forgive you," aren't like magic.  Whether a broken relationship is restored depends on both parties' ability to reconcile the damage, don't you think?

  16. Hello Brother Richard
    there is an old Lutheran doctrine...you might be aware of it - Objective Universal Justification (OUJ);
    Simply stated - At the cross God forgave the world, and declared the world righteous with the righteousness of Christ.

    I am not making this up, many years ago, i got exposed to it...i read and re-read their journals, and emailed the son of Robert Preus, just to make sure i am not missing the point....

    after that over the years, i do get doubts as to the veracity of OUJ...i again refer to my notes etc....but its been more than 2-3 years for the struggle to believe OUJ was over...

    Romans 5:18- Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.


  17. As much as I can forgive in my imperfection, I do rely greatly on the other party in order to reconcile a broken relationship.  I need some sort of assurance that they are aware of and remorseful for the damage done in order for me to be willing to be vulnerable enough to continue any sort of meaningful relationship.  Thank God my wife is willing to move forward with me when our marriage is in need of reconciliation.  I'm too selfish to make it work any other way. I think this goes against the call for me to love my wife like Christ loves his church (I think of Hosea), but I am sooooo selfish.

    For some reason, I think of Christ and his apostles. He chose and loved Judas and Peter knowing the whole time the exact ways they would hurt him.  Thankfully, he didn't weigh his decision to go to the cross with how much pain I would cause him in my life.  Christ's forgiveness defies all of our selfish reasoning and understanding of fairness.

  18. As Richard said, " Everyone has already been forgiven in Christ. The call is to recognize this reality and live into it."
    In order for me to have a meaningful relationship with Christ now, I have to understand and appreciate my forgiveness.

  19. "In discussing the doctrine of universal reconciliation in Christ one of the objections you often hear is that this doctrine rejects the cross of Jesus, rejects the atoning work of Jesus's death."

    Even when playing the Substitutionary Atonement (SA) card:
    No cross =  0% of all humanity (sinners) saved.
    Cross (mainline Churchiantiy)  = 3% of all humanity (sinners) saved, 97% of all humanity (sinners) burn. "It is finished" 3%.
    Cross (UR) = 100% of all humanity (sinners) saved.    "It is finished" 100%.  Cross proves to be ALL powerful/effective/victorious.

    Assuming the cross was absolutely mandatory to save, did Jesus Christ go through all of that trouble, only to save a mere 3% of His human creation???   Just asking those who argue that UR nulifies the work on the cross (again, that's playing along with the SA paradigm).
    Gary Y.

  20. Cognitive dissonance.  I simply do not have the mental equipment to process this stuff.  Lord knows, I have tried. 

    These concepts make life itself sound as if there is no (human) cause and effect.  It doesn't matter what we do.  It doesn't matter what we believe.  It doesn't matter how we react or behave, except only on the most superficial level, and then only as we either give or receive joy or offense, experience happiness or sadness.  We are as insects forever trapped in amber.  And we didn't even have any choice in that.  Strings were pulled behind our backs.  We are totally ineffectual. 

    Two thousand years of following the Great Commission, without any real message?  All is forgiven.  All will be saved.  I scream why?  From what?  What's the need?  Justice and mercy are one-in-the-same, indistinguishable.  Ultimately is does not matter.  There is only one path, and we all of us are treading it.  I have no say, and no choice.  Lost or found, saved or damned, innocent or guilty -- they are all the same thing, and thus become meaningless to a human mind.  I don't need to do anything other than breathe and die.  God has already sorted it all out for me.

  21. Interestingly enough, the original King James translated the phrase faith of Jesus Christ. I think many in the NPP are leaning toward the "faithfulness of Jesus Christ"

  22. Hi Heath,
    Thanks for responding. I appreciate  your thoughtful response. You mention a nameless person that raped a member of your family. I'm so sorry for that to be the case. My husband was the product of a brutal double rape by strangers, who were never caught or charged. His mother was just 19, helping to support their family with her mother's sales business because her father was wheelchair bound from polio. For her, forgiveness was in giving a life to my husband and loving him, and not succumbing to pressure from her own mother to abort him, because she had no culpability in the pregnancy.  I guess what I'm saying is that forgiveness may not "look" universally the same with everyone. Again, my heartfelt condolences to your family member.

  23. Hi Chipdex,
    I've thought so, too. It's why I think the truth of how we treat others does matter, and the theologies that promote merely avoiding punishment through a mental checklist ignore repentance as a means to forgiveness in the process of reconciliation. I've never heard Luke 24:47 discussed.

  24. Hi, Patricia,

    Unfortunately we can both come at this from a similar place. I totally agree that forgiveness doesn't have a universal form aside from it being a sort of miracle.  When I realize that God can restore my own life, peacefulness and sanity even through horrible situations, I have a better hope in God's restoration of all things.

    Glad you have your husband in spite of horrible evil.  Sounds like you've experienced the restorative miracle too. :)


  25. "
    Because of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross forgiveness is actual. Because of the cross a new reality has been created between God and humanity. Faith is recognizing that reality and rejoicing in it."

    For me, this sums up the gospel and what Christianity is supposed to be and I think it's exactly what 1 Timothy 4:10 is saying:
    "For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. "

  26. How does Orthodoxy view this?  For me, this is the frirst question that comes to mind.  Any time something comes around as a new perspective, I have learned to view it in relation to the faith of the Orthodox.    Is the new perspective in line with the tradition handed down from the Apostles?  Where do the early church fathers stand on this perspective?  Do they go anywhere near this?

  27. Thanks for this post. It seems to me to be very straight forward that the genitive (possesive) is the Faith OF Christ. Our Faith is a gift (or fruit) of the Spirit not a requirement of salvation. What has man that has not been given him? It is in the Grace of GOD that we believe. We may have faith or faithfulness in Christ as a gift but it is His Faith that saves us ALL! Believing the evangel does not result from some sort of mere human decision, but from the powerful operations of GOD.

  28. I scream why?  From what?  What's the need?  Justice and mercy are one-in-the-same, indistinguishable.  Ultimately is does not matter.  There is only one path, and we all of us are treading it.  I have no say, and no choice.  Lost or found, saved or damned, innocent or guilty -- they are all the same thing, and thus become meaningless to a human mind.  I don't need to do anything other than breathe and die.  God has already sorted it all out for me.
    What do you mean by "need"? Are you saying something like, for example, because there's no potential punishment waiting (i.e., hell, annihilation, etc) there's no reason to do anything? I think that, if that is what you are saying, thinking about it in terms of "punishment" and "reward" is a childish mentality. We discipline children when they're young to help condition certain responses to conditions, behaviors, etc. But we probably all hope that that's not all there is to it. Wouldn't it be sad if the only thing my kid learned was to avoid doing bad things? I mean, it's better than nothing, certainly. But I would hope that while growing up they would learn to do the right thing because it's the right thing, with joy and a good heart, without expecting a reward. In the same way, I think God is inviting us to a certain kind of life - an abundant one - available to us through the revelation of Christ. Not because living life a certain way will get us the "reward" or help us avoid the "punishment," as a means to an end, although it may do that incidentally, but because the life of God a good enough end by itself.

  29. OK so as you put it forgiveness breaks down the wall of enmity between God and us and does so actually and not potentially. In broad terms I agree. But I think it is a little simplistic. Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians) may be enemies of one another, but with us and God it is not quite the same. We are enemies of God, and God is not an enemy of us. God does not have to do a turn around to love us. The wall that has to be broken down is one of our own erection, so surely it is only broken down when we are changed. Forgiveness is an initiative from God, embodied in the faithfulness of Jesus, given to us in his life to the death, again in his resurrection, and again in the gift of his Spirit. This initiates and creates the new humanity and is thus actual, but is surely incomplete and therefore (in a sense) potential (or at least incomplete) as long as the new humanity remains incomplete and we still live in sin perpetuating the enmity. So I guess I'm suggesting that forgiveness is not withheld but is definitely actual (faithfulness of Christ etc) but that does not mean the process of reconciliation is completed with the act of forgiveness. We rely on God to complete the process of reconciliation (through the gift of Son and Spirit), but it is a process in time. Am I right?

  30. Richard, 

    Thank you for this excellent article - informative, encouraging, and insightful.  God bless.

  31. (frm the orig. post):  "Ponder the relationship between God and those who, at this moment, stand in a place of rebellion toward God."

    Who are these people? Isn't this everybody?  Is not this our "sin"?  How are we then to be "disciplined"?  Toward what end?  And how did we become "rebellious" to begin with?  How do we know that this is "bad"?

    "Are these people, in light of Jesus's death for them, already forgiven?
    Or is God currently withholding forgiveness, waiting for the person to
    respond and repent?"

    Why?  I really don't see the need.  According to the author, it has happened anyway.  But he is noting that a "response" is required.  But it's really not.  So it is not for punishment, correction, or reward.  Therefore, both repentance and forgiveness are moot points.  It is only for guidance as you suggest -- a good and godly life.

  32. I like the very clear way you articulate this point!  God acts first, by forgiving. Everything that humanity does in in response to this, rather than humanity doing good work in the hopes that God will respond with forgiveness.  I do find it ironic, however, that you contrast the New Perspectives with Martin Luther, only because I first found myself leaning towards a Universalist perspective because of my Lutheran faith. (I'm not trying to say that your analysis is wrong, by the way! I just wanted to point out something I found rather funny. People coming from all different perspectives, yet arriving at the same conclusion...)

  33. Are there other examples in koine Greek where "faith of"--rather than "faith in"--is generally accepted as correct?
    Also, with regard to Jesus' atoning death, do modern Bible scholars agree Jesus himself said God required him to die for our sins? If so, what is the basis for this consensus?

  34. Dana,
    Thanks for your reply.  Although I do not yet fully understand Orthodoxy - yet - from the little that I have learned I have come to see Orthodoxy as a standard that may be more trustworthy than Protestantism and even the Churches of Christ of which I am a part of.  This is difficult to say because I love the tribe I come from.  I stumbled onto Orthodoxy as a result of reading different blogs from Church of Christ ministers.  I know they didn’t mean to introduce me to Orthodoxy, but they did.  You are right about the liturgy.  The Liturgy is the loudest witness.
    One of the things that has struck me is the response that Orthodox give to the question “Are you saved”, or “Do you know if you are saved or not?”  What I have found in blogs such as “Glory to God for All Things” is the following answer.  No.  I am not yet saved.  But I am in the process of being saved.
    In addition to this, I find that the thought continues as expressed in the blog “Letters on Orthodoxy” and says something like this . . . I cannot say that I am saved because I am always free to choose between Christ and evil.  Life is uncertain, and my choices may lead me to a different destination.  I will not know if I am saved or not until after I die.
    These are the kinds of thoughts expressed by Orthodox priests in the blogs I read.  This has led me to think that Orthodoxy does not hold to the understanding that all are saved.  I’m not sure that ordinary Orthodox priests agree with N.T. Wright.  Of course I have little knowledge - just enough to get into a lot of trouble.  Obviously, Orthodoxy is still very new to me.  But I love what little I do know about it.  Even the icons!  Do you have one yet?
    I have not yet read N.T. Wright, but it is on my list of things to do.  If I could just get out from under the heavy load of my children’s ACU tuition payments (that pays for Richards salary), I might afford to purchase some of Wright’s books.  Ha!

  35.  :)

    We have only 1 child left to get through college - the light at the end of the tunnel!

    You should be able to find at least some of Wright's books available in your library, or in interlibrary loan, or maybe the ACU library.  If you can get hold of the "big books" (Christian Origins and the Question of God series), I would recommend you read them first:  New Testament & the People of God, Jesus & the Victory of God, Resurrection of the Son of God.  Along with "Climax of the Covenant (good and readable as well, but somewhat more densely "academic" than the others), these are what underlie all else he has written.

    As you're reading Wright (and Orthodox bloggers), I find the approach that helped me was to learn to hear the "wrightian" (and Orthodox) vocabulary definitions, because they are different than what is typically understood by Protestants.  It's like when you're learning another language, and have to set aside the concepts and definitions you're used to in your native tongue.  For Wright, those "justification" and "righteousness" words don't have the same definition as you're used to.  Let his definitions be what they are, and use those.  Similarly with "saved" and other Christian terms in Orthodox writing.  You've already experienced that different definition in Orthodoxy.  You have to let it be what it is on its own terms.

    No, Orthodoxy does not hold to the understanding that all are "saved".  But there is the understanding that because of the Incarnation and Passion (Cross+Resurrection) there is now something profoundly, existentially different about what it means to be human.  It is multifaceted; Wright can help with this.

    One thing I very much appreciate about Orthodoxy is the lack of fearful concern about anybody's "salvation".  I am not to judge anything about anybody except myself, and even that's off kilter most of the time; it's safest to see myself as "the chiefest of sinners".  As Bp Kallistos Ware has written (paraphrase):  We have no "certainty" that all will be "saved"; that was a minority view among the Greek fathers.  But we most definitely can pray for it...  because God Is Good And Loves Mankind.

    Letters is a good blog, appeals to the academic and former Vineyardite in me.  But, do keep up with Fr Stephen at Glory to God, no matter what.  Chew on what he has to say, and don't forget some of his best thoughts in the comments sections.  If you don't read anyone else out there on the Internet, read him.

    Yes, I have icons; I had some even before I was received into Orthodoxy
    on Pentecost (7 June) 2009.  I too went to the earliest expositors of
    Christianity at the start of my journey.  I figured since they were
    closer to the beginnings, they would have things to say I should hear, and might have better answers to my questions than what I had been given before. 
    The Apostolic Fathers (pre-200 AD), in particular, blew me away.

    If you want to talk, you can email me at ldames at pacific dot net. (first letter there is an L)  I expect you've "run into" Steve Robinson, too (Pithless Thoughts).

    Best to you-


  36. Thank you Dana.  I will seek out the Wright books (hey a pun!) .  Thank you for your advice and your offer for conversation.  I just may take you up on that one day soon.

  37. Yes to your first question. The genitive construction in ROM 3:26 (ek pisteos Jesou) is exactly the same in ROM 4:16 where Paul is talking about Abraham’s faith (ek pisteos Abraam). The NASB does not translate the Abraham passage as 'our faith in Abraham,' but as “those who are of the faith of Abraham.” If the NASB were consistent, ROM 3:26 would read, “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who is of the faith of Jesus.

  38. Thanks Richard! This resonates with something I heard Greg Boyd preach... namely, that forgiveness amounts to two separate things. The forgiveness of a debt is entirely up to the person owed (in this case God). The debt has been forgiven because of the faithfulness of Christ. The other element involved both parties-- reconciliation. God can forgive, but he does not force reconciliation upon those who determine to reject Him. The are forgiven, but He respects their will to reject Him... which, of course, results in death. Boyd is an annihilationist, so, of course that "eternal destruction" is just that... destroyed completely, not tortured endlessly. Boyd, I believe, says this is a Hebrew concept-- this dual view of forgiveness. Do you know if this is the case? Is there precedence for this dual view of forgiveness in ancient Hebrew texts? Thanks!

  39. Thanks Txian.  I have checked it out and found Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. 

  40. Richard, I appreciate your stress on the atonement, as the basis of UR.  Keep it up, otherwise we become Unitarian.  I like the thought of forgiveness already being actual for all now, but the continual stress in Paul's writings on the need for faith/repentance, plus the indications of the wrath of God, lead me to the perception that forgiveness is not actual until God has finally "brought" or "dragged" or "convinced"  the rebel to repentance/faith, either in this life or afterward.  
      Brother Stumblefoot

  41. The Outcome of Infinite Grace
    Aldie Loudy (l think)
    You can get from Concordant Bible Society

  42. I linked this post on my blog: http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com/2012/05/this-richard-beck-post.html  
    I liked it so much i never wanted to forget.

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