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Calvinism and Universalism: A Follow-Up

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Calvinism—and a partial response to Anglicans Ablaze’s Robin Jordan—I wanted to supply more details on my contention that Calvinism “…is the fastest road to universalism in Christianity.”

Following is a part of Robert Morey’s Death and the Afterlife, where he discusses and ultimately refutes universalism.  I heartily recommend this book for its discussion of the subject its title indicates; it is a classic in that regard.

Turning to Universalism and Calvinism, the following part (pp. 225-227) discusses Charles Finney’s refutation of Universalism, which, as Morey notes, forced Finney (and many who have come after him) to reject the Reformed view of the atonement.  By doing this, Finney not only refuted Universalism, but undermined Calvinism as well.

In this context, Universalism is a “hack” to Calvinism, or more elegantly turning Calvinism on its head, just as Marx turned Hegel on his.  It is only possible to withstand this in a Calvinistic framework if one is willing to accept the consequences of those essentially chosen to be lost.  That takes some stern stuff—maybe too stern of stuff—but then again you can’t accuse serious Calvinists of being made of anything else.

The Universalist movement grew as more and more people abandoned their Calvinistic heritage. Chancy’s The Salvation of All Men (1784) sparked a debate which produced over seventy-five books and articles before it ran its course. Not even Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight were able to stop the tide of Universalist theology.

The evangelist Charles G. Finney was forced to debate Universalists on several occasions. His answer, which many evangelicals today still think to be the best defence, was to reject the Reformed concept that Christ actually accomplished atonement on the cross by infallibly securing salvation for the elect, and to posit in its place the idea that Christ made salvation “possible.” Christ did not secure salvation for “the elect,” as the Calvinists claimed, or for “all men,” as the Universalists claimed. Finney saw that Universalism made use of the Reformed view of the nature of the atonement as its own basis. By attacking the Calvinistic concept of the atonement, Universalism was refuted. Finney relates one such incident in his memoirs where he was asked to refute Universalism.

In this state of things, Mr. Gale, together with some of the elders of his church, desired me to address the people on the subject, and see if I could not reply to the arguments of the Universalist. The great effort of the Universalist was of course to show that sin did not deserve endless punishment. He inveighed against the doctrine of endless punishment as unjust, infinitely cruel and absurd. God was love; and how could a God of love punish men endlessly?

I arose in one of our evening meetings and said, “This Universalist preacher holds forth doctrines that are new to me, and I do not believe they are taught in the Bible. But I am going to examine the subject, and if I cannot show that his views are false, I will become a Universalist myself.” I then appointed a meeting the next week, at which time I proposed to deliver a lecture in opposition to his views. The Christian people were rather startled at my boldness in saying that I would be a Universalist if I could not prove that his doctrines were false. However, I felt sure that I could.

When the evening came for my lecture, the house was crowded. I took up the question of the justice of endless punishment, and discussed it through that and the next evening. There was general satisfaction with the presentation.

The Universalist himself found that the people were convinced that he was wrong, and he took another tack. Mr. Gale, together with his school of theology, maintained that the atonement of Christ was the literal payment of the debt of the elect, a suffering of just what they deserved to suffer; so that the elect were saved upon principles of exact justice; Christ, so far as they were concerned, having fully answered the demands of the law. The Universalist seized upon this view, assuming that this was the real nature of the atonement. He had only to prove that the atonement was made for all men, and then he could show that all men would be saved; because the debt of all mankind had been literally paid by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Universalism would follow on the very ground of justice; for God could not justly punish those whose debt was paid.

I saw, and the people saw-those who understood Mr. Gale’s position-that the Universalist had gotten him into a tight place. For it was easy to prove that the atonement was made for all mankind; and if the nature and value of the atonement were as Mr. Gale held, universal salvation was an inevitable result.

I then appointed to lecture on the Universalist’s argument founded on the Gospel. I delivered two lectures on the atonement. In these I think I fully succeeded in showing that the atonement did not consist in the literal payment of the debt of sinners, in the sense which the Universalist maintained; that it simply rendered the salvation of all men possible, and did not of itself lay God under obligation to save anybody; that it was not true that Christ suffered just what those for whom He died deserved to suffer; that no such thing as that was taught in the Bible, and no such thing was true; that, on the contrary, Christ died simply to remove an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of Cod’s forgiving sinners, so as to render it possible for him to proclaim a universal amnesty, inviting all men to repent, to believe in Christ, and to accept salvation; that instead of having satisfied retributive justice, and borne just what sinners deserve, Christ had only satisfied public justice, by honouring the law, both in his obedience and death, thus rendering it safe for God to pardon sin, to pardon the sins of any man and of all men who would repent and believe in Him. I maintained that Christ, in His atonement, merely did that which was necessary as a condition of the forgiveness of sin; and not that which cancelled sin, in the sense of literally paying the indebtedness of sinners.

This answered the Universalist, and put a stop to any further proceedings or excitement on that subject.

Note: the passage from Finney was taken from his autobiography.


3 Replies to “Calvinism and Universalism: A Follow-Up”

  1. As I recall, Charles Finney has been roundly criticized for asserting that humankind did not need the help of God’s grace to be saved. Indeed he has been described as the father of easy decisionism. In his views he goes well beyond scholastic or evangelical Armininianism.


  2. A correction–I meant easy believism, not easy decisionism. Finney’s revivalism would produce “converts” whose “conversion” lasted little longer than the revival at which in midst of the excitement that typically accompanied such gatherings they made “a decision for Christ.” The excitement of the moment, what nineteenth century Anglicans–both Evangelical and High Church– rejected as “enthusiasm,” is no substitute for God’s grace.
    An appeal to the teaching of Charles Finney is not the best support for your contention that Calvinism leads to universalism. Are you extrapolating to outside North America what you are asserting happened in North America? If so, on what basis? Have you considered the other factors that contributed to the development of universalist thought in North America such as Socianism?


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