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The Judge is the Savior: Towards a Universalist Understanding of Salvation by Jean Wyatt… Haddon Willmer shares his thoughts

24 June 2018

Jean Wyatt, The Judge is the Savior: Towards a Universalist Understanding of Salvation

Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock, 2015 (xviii + 223 pp)

Here is a book that comes from decades of caring thought and spiritual wrestling. Jean Wyatt begins with a story from 1974 when she and her family were worshipping in a friendly Baptist Church. The worship and preaching were dynamic and the fellowship warm, but there was one drawback: the church had a formidable doctrinal basis to which all members should assent. It was the last statement that I found so difficult: We believe in the judgment by the Lord Jesus Christ at His coming again, of all men, of believers to eternal blessedness, of unbelievers to eternal condemnation.

That provoked years of study out of which this well informed, sensitive book, rich in story and quotation, comes to us now. It could help many kinds of people to think again. Some say there is no God, who calls us to a final accounting for ourselves, with possibly serious consequences.    Some are confident that, because God is love, God will not be hard on us so no one need worry. A few still believe God is holy and just and cannot tolerate any shortfall, which implies that sinners may deservedly be sent to eternal punishment. Other Christians hold that faith in Christ assures them of escape from deserved punishment, while those who don’t believe are excluded. And maybe that leaves a lot of people who are confused and don’t know what to think, although they have an uncomfortable feeling there might be something important here, if only they could get a grip on it. 

Jean Wyatt argues in a constructive way, from the Bible and theology, that God’s judgment is not condemnatory or destructive of God’s own creatures, but that it is disciplinary and restorative.  It consistently aims at what is good, however badly things have gone.     So God’s Judgment is God’s salvation – there is not a simple Either-Or.   And this salvation-judgment is revealed and worked out in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, God in human being, for human being – ‘Oh, generous love! That he who smote/ in man, for man, the foe….’   God does not leave the crucial task of achieving salvation to human beings in their self-deceiving sovereign apart-ness:  God takes the business in hand without emptying human action and responsibility of meaning.  

As I now understand the good news of Jesus Christ, it inescapably involves the quest for a ‘universalist understanding of salvation’ which is not careless about human sin and judgment.   It is good to say clearly, The Judge is the Saviour.  It is also foundationally good to say, The Saviour is the Judge. That means judgment is finally, decisively executed in the realisation of the salvation God is working at and will complete rather than in the dismissive condemnation of sinners.   Jesus, God in humanity, received sinners and outsiders into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.  He ate with them, concretely showing God did not exclude them according to some readings of the law.  And then he said to his critics, this is what the salvation of God is like:  the blind receive sight, the hungry are fed, the poor have good news given to them, the estranged and humiliated and fearful people come in.  Critics, insulated by in their own sense of goodness, were called to notice and understand what was going on in these feasts from which they excluded themselves. Jesus said, with the ultimate seriousness of final judgment,  there was no hope for such people unless they liked what God was making of, and for, the people they despised and feared. The well-off, who need no physician for themselves, are called to be glad that those they looked down upon were being included in God’s welcome. People with pride and confidence in any superior quality or achievement are not saved by virtue of what they are in themselves, but only by giving up self to find themselves with, in and through  the salvation God brings to the humble, by his own humility. 

That is how the father appealed to his older son, when the wayward younger brother returned, a broken and disgraced man.  Could the older son not see the goodness in his brother’s being found, coming to life out of death?  What does it reveal about him that he refuses to share in the joy of it, because he has ‘standards’ which prevent him seeing goodness in his brother’s recovery? Whatever his other qualities, he lacks love which rejoices in the good (I Cor.13. 6). The story in Lk 15 is left hanging at the end as the father tries to persuade his son to love generously and to have convincing reasons within his own mind for loving even this brother.  

Such a salvation enacted and displayed brings us into the place of searching and being judged.  So the Saviour is the Judge. 

As Jesus said, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him….This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light… (John 3.17-21). 

Haddon Willmer

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