We live in a time between the resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead, between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and our full participation in it. The new age is here now—for Christ has been exalted and the Spirit has been poured out—but we still await its complete arrival.
This tension between now and not-yet permeates NT teaching on universal salvation. On the one hand, in the person of the risen Christ everyone is already redeemed. God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:19–20).
On the other hand, only those who have been united to Christ by the Holy Spirit now participate in that salvation (and even then, only in an anticipatory way, until the general resurrection). So the actual existential participation of all people in salvation is not a present reality, it lies in the future: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).1
So is everyone currently justified? Yes and no. In that Christ has been raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25), we are all already justified in his resurrection. However, it is only as we respond in obedient trust to the gospel, and are united to Christ by the Spirit, that we participate subjectively in this justification.
This now/not-yet tension is seen throughout Paul’s letters. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, Paul addresses the issue of the universal significance of Christ’s work. We read that “one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14) and that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). From this perspective there are no insiders and outsiders—everyone is an insider. And yet Paul still issues the imperative, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). A Spirit-enabled human response to the gospel is still required if people are to share in the salvation already achieved in Christ. And right now many live outside the gospel community. So Paul makes a very clear distinction in all his writings between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not, the church and the world, believers and unbelievers, the elect and those who are not elect. The former are “being saved” while the latter are “perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3).
It is critical to note, however, that for Paul the dead in sin can become those alive in Christ, children destined for wrath can become children of mercy (Eph. 2:1–11).2 This is relevant because we cannot assume that just because Paul sees a current divide between those being saved and those perishing, that this divide will remain in place eternally. Romans 9–11 makes this point well.3
1. For a defense of a universalist reading of this passage, against its critics, see TEU, 84–90.
2. I do not have time to explore the important notion of election. For my understanding of it, see TEU, 222–42.
3. It seems to me that underpinning much NT ecclesiology is the vision of Israel’s prophets that in the last days Israel would be restored, the Spirit poured out, and the nations would come in pilgrimage and worship the God of Abraham alongside Israel (e.g., Isa. 2:1–4; 11:10–12; 18:7; 60:1–16; 61:5–6; 66:12, 18, 23). To NT authors, this vision is coming to pass in the ekklesia—the Spirit is poured out, and Jews and people from among the nations are united as equals, worshipping the God of Israel together. However, we make a mistake if we lose sight of the now/not-yet tension. The church in the present is only a prophetic foretaste of the fuller reality to come—an anticipation of the grander fulfillment in the new creation, when “all Israel” is saved (Rom. 11:26) and all the nations and the kings of the earth bring their tribute into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24–27).