Philip Gulley and
224 pages, $22.95
After graduating from eighth grade at a small Lutheran school (I was a Baptist, but they had let me in anyway), I entered ninth grade at a large public junior high. Early in the year, I made friends with three guys: we ate lunch together, exchanged books (one of them introduced me to author Leon Uris), joined the debating team. But I didn't know they were Jewish until one day, as the four of us were walking along, I heard someone say, "Here come the Jews" (and grasped that I had been taken for a Jew).
Why hadn't I realized sooner that my friends were Jewish? Ridiculous as it sounds, the thought had never occurred to me. Until that point, I had virtually no firsthand acquaintance with Jewish people. As the year progressed and I got to know my friends better, I learned a little more about their families, which ranged from thoroughly secular to moderately observant. And I began to brood.
According to all that I had been taught and readily believed, they were doomed to hell unless they accepted Christ as their Savior. It was one thing to say that in the abstract, and quite another in the case of particular individuals—friends to whom the world I was raised in, the world of evangelical Christianity, was utterly foreign.
The questions that began then tormented me for many years. At first glance, If Grace Is True, the new book by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, would seem to be just the ticket for me and countless other Christians who have wrestled with such matters. If Gulley and Mulholland are right, I needn't have brooded. "If grace is true," they write, "it is true for everyone" (their italics).
Gulley is a Quaker minister best known for his tales of small-town life; Mulholland, who pastors an American Baptist church, has written a book called Praying Like Jesus, in part a response to the Jabez phenomenon. Their tone in this new book (which is confusingly written in the first-person singular, though it's a collaboration) is pastoral throughout.
Gulley and Mulholland argue from what might be called the logic of grace as they construe it. Since grace is unmerited, it must be equally available to all. And not merely available, for the God they envision regards even a single lost soul as a defeat to his relentlessly loving will. Hence, in the words of Madeleine L'Engle quoted at the end of the book, "All will be redeemed in God's fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones."
From the time of the Church Fathers to the present, there has always been a minority tradition arguing for universalism. Note that there's a significant distinction between universalism—the view that all people will be saved, indeed, in some versions, that Satan himself will one day be redeemed—and the position often called "inclusivism," according to which people who have not knowingly accepted Christ may nevertheless be saved by his sacrifice on the cross, for God can read their hearts. (Remember the climactic scenes of C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle?) Gulley and Mulholland write in the universalist tradition.
Clearly there is an appeal to this account of the "great banquet" that awaits everyone who has ever lived, joyfully assembled in the presence of the God of grace. Yet there are two reasons why many Christians will not be able to accept it. First, as Gulley and Mulholland readily acknowledge, there is much in Scripture—not just an isolated passage here and there—that flatly contradicts their understanding of grace, salvation, and judgment. It is Jesus himself who speaks of souls condemned to "outer darkness," where "there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Second, in their desire to emphasize the power of God's grace, they end up trivializing human freedom. Talk about irresistible grace! If you reject grace in this life, Gulley and Mulholland promise, God isn't finished with you yet—what they call his "infinite patience" guarantees that sooner or later in your posthumous existence, you will see the light. Ultimately theirs is a world in which human action has no real consequences, a distorted mirror image of Calvinist predestination.
But Gulley and Mulholland have done what many evangelicals and orthodox Christians more generally have failed to do: they have honestly faced the church's traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice, even if only to reject them. In many congregations, these teachings are emphatically affirmed on paper yet rarely preached or even discussed. There's a deep double-mindedness at work here.
For my part—as for many others, I suspect—the questions that tormented me so many years ago were never completely resolved. What gave me a measure of peace was the faith that God is both just and merciful, that he can be trusted. I couldn't answer all the questions, but I could turn them over to him.
To testify to salvation in Christ and Christ alone, then, needn't be an arrogant yet insecure act of religious imperialism, "salvation as recruitment," as Gulley and Mulholland depict it—though it can be that, alas. Rather, in our confusion and uncertainty, this much we can be sure of: Jesus is our Savior.
"Without any doubt," the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy almost 2,000 years ago, "the mystery of our religion is very deep indeed: He was made visible in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed to the gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory" (1 Tim. 3:16, New Jerusalem Bible). Proclaimed to the gentiles, be-lieved in throughout the world: the surpassingly generous offer is extended to all, without exception. It remains for us to respond.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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