Many years ago (Ok, say thirty—to my kids, that’s many) I challenged the orthodoxy of a young man who was preparing for ordination in the denomination I served at the time. This was a mainline denomination moving more toward the left each year and my guard was up. The young man had said during his examination that he believed all people would eventually be saved. The idea of universal salvation is a historical heresy in the church and I felt strongly that his views needed some clarification.
When I raised the issue, an older man challenged me. He believed that I had heard the young man incorrectly. He thought the candidate had said that he would like everyone to be saved eventually. The older man pointed out that there was nothing wrong with wanting everyone to be saved.
Well, to make a long story short, I asked for the young man to be called back and asked him a couple more questions. I asked him who would be saved at the end, when all things were complete. He said that all people would be saved. I asked him if this was what he wanted or if this was what he believed to be true. He assured us all that this was what he believed to be the eventual reality. I asked him if he understood that was an old heresy in the Christian church. He said he was willing to accept that. At that point the vote was taken and the young man was welcomed into the denomination with an overwhelming majority support.
I have learned many things through my study of grace and the love of our Lord. One thing that has been of great significance in my life has been to begin to feel the Lord’s great love for those who are lost. It doesn’t matter to Him where a person has been or what the person has done, He came to save them because He loves them. Increasingly, it doesn’t matter to me either. As the heart of Jesus becomes more and more the operative heart in me, I find myself to be ever more willing to accept people who are different from me or even outcast from most of my circles. Homosexuals, beer-drinking rednecks, liberal agnostics, adulterers—Jesus loves them all and offers any of them the way home. I find that I truly desire for all to be saved.
But another thing I have learned through grace is that I am not the one who gets to determine the way things will be. From the foundation of the world, God allowed the people of His creation to choose. Motivated by His love, He allowed Adam and Eve to choose to obey—or not—and when they chose to sin, His great plan of salvation would be available for those who would choose to return to Him. His desire was not really that we would not sin, but that we would see and accept His love. The choice was allowed because love, as the Scripture says, does not demand its own way. Differences and divisions are acceptable because we are truly persons, made in the image of a creative and willful God, who wants us to be ourselves as we choose Him. The result of that freedom, that responsibility, to choose is that not all will come to the Lord for salvation. There is no way to avoid that fact as we understand the heart of God or the plain teaching of the Scripture.
I find often that the difference between what I desire to happen and what will happen is simple reality. There are people in my life I want to see come to Jesus. They need Him and He loves them. I don’t want them to die without Him. But I cannot avoid the fact that they must choose. No matter how much I want it to be true, the Lord is not going to make them join with Him in eternal glory. I can redecorate the doctrine, make it sound more welcoming; I can avoid talking about hell or condemnation; I can say that Jesus accomplished everything they need on the cross; but they still have to choose. And, I fear, some will choose to stay where they are. They think they don’t need a Savior and they don’t want what He offers. Just because it breaks my heart doesn’t make it less right for them to have that choice.
To take away the most important choice of human life, the one choice that lies at the core of all that is humanity, is not love. Grace allows us to accept that.