Hypothetical Universalism in Paul’s Epistles

About eight years ago, after decades of affirming the “limited atonement” which John Owen had defended at length, I became convinced that the “hypothetical universalism,” which was espoused by the classic moderate Calvinist contingent of the English Reformed delegates to the Synod of Dort, better represented biblical teaching. I believe that this still makes me a five-point Calvinist, even though I reject the “L” of TULIP. I explained my rationale in a blog post: “’Four-point’ and ‘five-point’ Calvinism defined.”

I have been rereading G. R. Beasley-Murray’s book on Baptism in the New Testament, with great benefit and pleasure. He was Principal of Spurgeon College in London, and he lays out a splendid case for believer-baptism. In a section on “Infant Baptism and Dying and Rising with Christ,” Beasley-Murray expertly distinguishes between three aspects of the apostle “Paul’s doctrine of the believer’s dying and rising with Christ in baptism” (pp. 362-64). [In the quotations below, you’ll observe that Beasley-Murray was writing in a time when third person masculine forms were widely used generically for human beings. I chose not to revise this, but I thought it was worth mentioning.]

First he becomes ‘united with the form of Christ’s death’, or with Him as the Crucified, to become ‘united with the form of his Resurrection’, or with Him as the Resurrected (Rom 6:5). That is to say, he participates in the death and resurrection that Jesus himself suffered and experienced. Baptized to the Christ who died and rose as his Representative, the believer dies and rises in Him. Secondly, in baptism the believer suffers a death like Christ’s and rises as He did. The old God-estranged, God-displeasing life in the flesh is ended, and in Christ the believer is a new creature living in the new creation. Baptism is for the believer a transition from the old aeon to the new. Thirdly, the believer in baptism renounces the sinful ways in which he formerly lived, henceforth to set his affection on things above and live according to the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising. ‘We were buried with him through baptism . . . that we might walk in newness of life’ (Rom 6:4). ‘You stripped off the old nature with its practices and put on the new, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’ (Col 3:9ff). At this point it is important to grasp that in each of these aspects the grace of Christ is active in a responsive believer.

In expounding the first aspect, Beasley-Murray very nicely enunciates the hypothetical universalism of Christ’s redemptive work, in his role as the Second Adam:

Under the first aspect the crucial matter is Christ’s solidarity with men as the Second Adam. Because of his unity with the race, all men are involved in his redemptive action: ‘As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men’ (Rom 5:18). Yet other utterances of Paul presuppose within the universal solidarity of Christ with mankind a narrower solidarity with those in whom his death and resurrection have unique power. For example, ‘If because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of Grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’ (Rom 5:17, see also 2 Cor 5:14-17). In virtue of his incarnation, death and resurrection, the whole race is included in Christ’s redemption; in virtue of grace and faith, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection attain their purposed end in his people; they enter a koinonia with the Lord such as the world does not know, for they are ‘in Christ’—and they are in Christ through baptism in faith (Gal 3:26ff).

In this short passage, Beasley-Murray neatly sums up the two-fold intent of God in the Son’s redemptive work, a broader and a narrower intent. Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), but only those who respond to him in faith are actually redeemed by his death and resurrection. The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was two-fold: to offer a redemption which is sufficient for all humankind, even though it would be efficient (or effective) only for those whom God chose and to whom he effectually gives faith to appropriate Christ’s saving work. The Synod of Dort acknowledged this in its affirmation of a phrase common before that time, namely that the death of Christ was “sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect.”

Well-spoken, Brother Beasley-Murray!


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Hypothetical Universalism in Paul’s Epistles”

Here’s a quick thought I had while reading your post. Paul states “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” (Rom 10:9). Later, he quotes Isaiah, “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” (Romans 14:11) It seems to me that Paul was using Romans 10 as the basis for not judging. Since, all would confess then we shouldn’t judge because they would receive the same reward that we received. (c.f. Matt 20:1-16).

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