A new boldness has come over me since I turned 50 the other day! So on Sunday I preached my first openly universalist sermon to about 120 people at St George’s Barcelona (having previously only shared the idea one to one or in small groups). The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with only a few good-natured expressions of disagreement. I gave away 2 copies of The Evangelical Universalist and 2 Love Wins to people who were interested in some further reading.
So far so good, but please pray for me and my congregation! I’m just posting the text of the sermon on my blog and the Church website, as well as here below for any who are interested…
Sermon by Rev Andrew Tweedy
St George’s Church Barcelona, 26th June 2011
Many thanks for all the birthday greetings, to all who came to my party and to all who gave me gifts or contributed to the beautiful new Ashbory bass guitar. I am very grateful and very blessed to have a gorgeous, yet devious wife, who managed to hide all the preparations from me and an amazing church family which is a blessing beyond anything I have experienced in my life. A big thankyou from the bottom of my heart!
But now I have reached a funny age (50), there will likely be consequences. Men of my age often begin to do strange
things. Perhaps I will dye my hair green, buy a motorcycle, start wearing an earring or tattoos. Anything could happen!
One thing I am resolved to do is to engage in discussions about controversial issues, the kinds of things that Christians disagree with each other about, as well as disagreeing with other people in society. I intend to do this not because I enjoy starting fights or being difficult, but because I think conversation with people of different viewpoints is healthy and is part of the way in which we learn and in which God reveals the truth. Some of these discussions will be on separate “discussion group” evenings, some in a special Sunday morning sermon series later in the year, others will just come up when certain readings appear in the Church calendar.
Context – universalism?
Today’s reading from Romans gives me an opportunity to mention a belief I have arrived at which, although a minority view in evangelical churches, has always been accepted by some Christians since the earliest days of the Church and has been an allowed belief within the Church of England ever since Queen Elizabeth I’s days. It is a belief which a growing number of Christians around the world in all kinds of Churches are coming to accept, especially since Rob Bell’s recent book on the subject, “Love Wins” came out. It is the belief that in the end everybody without exception will be saved and reconciled to God, so that hell whatever hell is, will in the end be empty. The name for this is Evangelical
Universalism or Universal Reconciliation.
People react to this idea in a range of different ways, and that’s understandable. You can use the Bible to make a case for or against it, and whilst I personally believe the evidence in favour is far stronger than the evidence against, you don’t have to agree with me!
Now, much of the biblical evidence in favour of universalism is in the writings of St Paul and one of the places he states it most clearly is in Romans 5.12-21 where he contrasts Adam and Jesus. In verse 18 for example he says:
“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for ALL men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for ALL men.”
The majority view is that the second ALL cannot mean ALL because we know that universalism is not true, that some people, perhaps most, will be in hell forever and what’s more, we know that Paul was not a universalist. Well I disagree with that majority view (and I’m not alone in this). I think Paul was making a clear universalist claim and one piece of evidence to support this is the argument he presents in Romans 6.
Romans 6 - Paul responds to his critics
Let’s start by looking at 6.1 and 6.15; verses which indicate what Paul was arguing against in chapter 6:-
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means!
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
I can only think of two reasons why Paul would write in this way:
1.Perhaps he was being accused of being a libertine or hedonist, someone who was teaching “Anything goes for Christians. We are free from the law and any other kind of moral restraint.”
But how could anybody think this of Paul? In all the descriptions of his life and teaching throughout Acts and his Letters, Paul never advocates anything like a libertine or hedonistic lifestyle. On the contrary, he teaches the exact opposite, urging his readers to live holy and Christlike lives marked by self-control and unselfish love.
2.His universalism was raising objections. This makes sense because the most common objection to universalism is this (quoting a friend who I recently discussed this with):
“So you are saying that the way we live this life and what we believe do not ultimately matter, because we are all going to heaven anyway.”
I think this is the accusation Paul was rejecting so clearly in Romans 6. I believe they could only conclude this from his universalism, clearly expressed in his letters and perhaps most clearly in Romans 5. And Paul rejects this criticism very strongly, “By no means!” His opponents have misrepresented his gospel message and have completely misunderstood God’s grace.
Paul answers in two stages. In verses 1-13, bearing in mind he is writing to baptized believers, he uses the imagery of baptism to emphasise that Christians have DIED to the old (sinful, libertine) way of life and have been RAISED to new life in Christ.
So he says “Count yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. DON’t let sin reign in your body and obey its desires. DO offer your body to God. Live a new way. Don’t let the old way control you.
Then in the second half of the chapter, the bit we are concentrating on today, Paul uses the imagery of slave ownership, something his Roman audience were very familiar with.
Whose slaves are you?
Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6.14
Don’t be like a driver who looks only in his rear view mirror. He will inevitably crash and may harm others. Don’t be like a football player who has transferred to a new club, but continues to follow the instructions of the coach of his old club.
Paul knew that in fact many of his opponents were legalists. They held to a treasured system of rules which enabled them to decide who was in and who was out. This is why, llike Jonah and like the prodigal son’s elder brother, they found God’s universalist tendency so offensive. Everybody will be in eventually, so what’s the point of living by the rules?
But like Jesus, Paul was aware of the hypocrisy of many legalists, who piled burdens on others whilst allowing loopholes in the law for themselves. Like Jesus, Paul hoped they would see their foolishness and change their ways.
Verse 15 anticipates the legalists’ objection that Paul was supposedly advocating a “lawless” lifestyle (implied by his universalism). By no means!
People, he argues, are obedient to whoever we offer ourselves as slaves. And there are essentially only two choices. We can be slaves to Sin (personified as a slave owner, but this will lead to the “death” of a fruitless, pointless life.
Or we can live in obedience to God, in response to God’s grace (love undeserved but freely given). This way leads to righteousness, to right-living, to LIFE.
Now a joke from the Apostle we probably picture as being serious and miserable. Look at verse 17. He’s saying “Come on guys! You’ve already shown how good you are at being obedient. Remember how obedient you were to your previous master, “Sin”. Now show that same commitment to obedience to your new master, God. Come on, you can do it, I know you can!”
A Personal Challenge
Now I want to make a personal challenge to nobody in particular, or rather to everybody in particular (myself included). In 25 years as a Christian, almost 10 as an ordained minister, if one thing has surprised and amazed me even more than the transforming grace of God, it is this:
…the capacity of Christians to self-deception and compromise. The ability we have to compartmentalise our lives so that this part is yielded to God but that part is not. Sin is allowed to control these other parts of oour lives. Can you see how foolish this is? Because you can fool me and you can fool your family and friends but you can’t fool God. God is not pleased by outward allegience, he wants your heart. Right now, not just at the end of your life when you are full of regret and fearful of what is to come. He wants your loyalty and commitment now.
When a house changes ownership, it still needs redecorating and furnishing so that the new owners can live in it and enjoy it. We are like that house, and all of us are work in progress, none of us is perfect yet.
When we move to a new country, we have to adopt at least some of the laws and customs of the country we have moved to. For instance, when I moved to Spain from England, I stopped driving on the left side of the road and started driving on the right. I could have continued driving on the left but it would not have gone well! I’ve also tried to learn Spanish so I can understand and make myself understood.
The cell doors of the fear of death are burst open. How sad it would be if we just stayed in the cell, as if locked in, our wrists together as if still handcuffed.
We need to live now, free from the rule of sin and the fear of death – like our mission partner Sister Pilar who spoke to us last week.
Paul’s universalist claims triggered a reaction from those who were scandalised by the extent of God’s grace which he was teaching. But Paul showed that, far from promoting a sinful, libertine lifestyle, his gospel leads to a beautiful new life which answers God’s love with an obedient, grateful, fruitful and unselfish life.
How you live and what you believe are intimately linked. You can’t live a double life.