Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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*****= An all-time favorite
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****If Grace Is True

Why God Will Save Every Person

by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland

Reviewed January 10, 2005.
HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.  225 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #3, Christian Nonfiction

I read Philip Gulley and James Mulholland’s recent book, If God Is Love, and was delighted to discover modern authors who believe that God will save every person.  That book focused more on the consequences of such a belief.  This book, If Grace Is True, talks about why they came to believe God will save everyone, presenting a case for Universalism.

I read this book along with The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott.  Talbott’s book was better for me, since it presented a Bible-based, intellectual, logical and philosophical argument in favor of Christian Universalism.  This book is better for those who enjoy a more anecdotal argument, or who don’t necessarily believe the Bible is infallible.  It might give people who had given up on Christianity a reason to take another look.

Thomas Talbott mentions that the Bible has many verses that seem to support the contradictory ideas that God loves everyone and wants to save everyone, that God has power to carry out anything he wishes, but that some sinners will never be reconciled to God.  Thomas Talbott goes to great lengths to show that the Bible does not, in fact, teach that some sinners will never be reconciled to God.  Gulley and Mulholland simply believe that the Bible is contradictory.  They point out the many verses talking about God’s universal love, and simply dismiss the rest.  This is why I liked Talbott’s book better.

However, Gulley and Mulholland do present well the positive side of the case for Universalism.  They point out the many, many verses that talk about God’s love for everyone and God’s ultimate triumph.  If you do take the Bible seriously, you need to consider these verses.  (Some examples are:  Isaiah 25:6-8; 45:22-24; 49:6; Jeremiah 31:33-34; Zephaniah 3:9; Matthew 18:14; Luke 3:6; 15:4; 19:10; John 1:9; 3:17; 12:32, 47; Romans 3:23-24;5:8,18; 8:38-39; 11:32; I Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 1:9-10; 4:6; Philippians 2:10-11; Colossians 1:19-20; I Timothy 1:16; 2:3-4; 4:9-10; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 5:13; 21:25.)

They also mention early church leaders who preached Universalism, including Clement, Origen, Didymus, Diodore, Macrina, Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret the Blessed, and Peter Chrysologus.

Gulley and Mulholland don’t feel the need to reconcile every word of Scripture with their views.  “I used to believe the Bible was the ultimate source of authority.  In so doing, I elevated Scripture to a status equal with God.  It eventually occurred to me that my ultimate allegiance belonged, not to the Bible, but to the One of whom it testified.”  They talk about how the apostle Peter was given an experience (a dream) to show him that what he had been taught by religious leaders was wrong—that he should, in fact, be willing to eat with Gentiles and share the good news with them.

They say, “Peter’s attitude toward Gentiles was not altered by reasonable arguments.  It wasn’t changed by his study of the Scripture.  I wasn’t even transformed by three years with Jesus.  Ultimately, it took a powerful experience with God for him to turn a new way.  Trusting our experiences with God will always change us.”

I’ve been taught that you simply can’t trust experience.  However, the story of the healing of the blind man in John 9 is a powerful story of experience shedding light where religious teaching caused darkness.  The Pharisees could prove to the blind man from Scripture why Jesus was not from God.  The man who had been born blind said he didn’t know about that.  “One thing I do know:  I was blind, but now I see!”

The authors say:  “This is the God I have experienced.  God loves me unconditionally, guides and teaches me, and encourages me to be my best.  God sets boundaries for me and yet gives me freedom to explore and even to fail.  God picks me up when I fall and holds me when I am in pain.  God believes in me when no one else does.  God is willing to claim me even in my moments of shame.  God is a father who can succeed where all other fathers fail.”

This book is more readable than Talbott’s book, since it does provide arguments for God’s love for every person, but all of the arguments are backed up with anecdotes and personal experiences.  When they talk about the views of those who believe God won’t or can’t save every single person, they mention that they once believed that themselves.  “Even though I’d experienced the persistence of God’s grace, I adopted elaborate schemes for why some would resist God’s love and be damned.  Even as God’s love was transforming my life, I doubted its power in other lives.  Although I insisted grace was a divine gift, I thought it a temporary dispensation.  God’s love did not endure forever.”

He talks about his own struggle to love a seemingly unlovable person.  “God responded to my disobedience with gentle and gracious guidance rather than destruction.  My study of Jesus’ life and words convinced me grace was the heart of his message.  He came not to condemn the world but to proclaim God’s salvation.  My experiences as a pastor persuaded me of grace’s power to save and transform.  They also exposed the ugliness of graceless religion.  Those in my congregations most obsessed with holiness and justice were the least attractive Christians.  I found myself hoping God wasn’t like them.”

When I was a kid, I used to wonder why God didn’t just put “the Sinner’s Prayer” in the Bible, so everyone would know the exact words you needed to say to become a Christian.  I didn’t understand that that wasn’t the point of Jesus’ message.  “Jesus was equally skeptical of our efforts to save ourselves.  He didn’t come to disclose a secret formula whereby some might be saved.  He came to proclaim the Lord’s favor, the good news that all are loved and accepted by God.”

The authors use the example of parental love.  Probably every parent has heard the words, “I hate you!” from their kids.  When one of the authors was a child, his mother answered back, “Well, I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  How much greater is God’s love for us?  As it says in Romans 5:8, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

“Hate is impotent in the face of such love.  When slapped on one cheek, it offers the other.  When forced to walk one mile, it gladly walks another.  It may be nailed to a cross, but it cannot be destroyed.  It can be attacked, but it cannot be ignored.  Love bears all things.  This unconditional love will not let us go, even though we would wrench ourselves from its grasp.”

Jesus reminds us that the love of the Father is the sort of love that reaches out to your enemies, not only to your friends.

“I believe our resistance to grace is not proof of God’s inadequacy but evidence of the very real obstacles within us to experiencing his grace.  Salvation is not the rescue of those who are most responsive.  God does not call off the search after finding those in a yellow lifeboat shooting off flares.  God seeks those tossed by the sea and clinging desperately to debris.  God continues the search long after others have given us up for dead.”

“Only after I abandoned my post as a gatekeeper did I begin to understand salvation differently.  No longer was salvation about finding the key or learning the magical password to the locked gates of heaven.  Salvation became a process rather than an event and a means rather than an end.  It was a journey toward gates that will never be closed.”

“God’s love is eternal.  It does not end at our death.  God’s patience is infinite.  It is not merely for this life.  God’s grace is persistent.  It endures beyond the grave.  I believe God is, has always been, and will always be gracious.”

“Jesus believed in a God who seeks the lost until he finds them.”

With the authors, I have to say that believing that God will save every person has transformed my outlook.  I still go to a church that doesn’t teach this, because I still love Jesus and want to praise him with others who love him.  I personally think that they are missing out on some glorious truths about God, but I’m sure that God will show them these things in His time.  Meanwhile, the point isn’t a list of facts to believe about God.  Jesus told us to love God and love our neighbor, and I have a long way to go learning to do these things.

For those interested in Universalism, I do suggest looking at the books If Grace Is True and The Inescapable Love of God, as well as the writings of George MacDonald.  I hope that with my reviews you can get a taste of the writing styles of the authors and whether their words would speak to your heart.

Reviews of related books:
If God Is Love,  by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland

Exploring Universalism

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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