Paul among the Evangelicals, §3: The Argument (3.2.1)

3.2.1. Does Paul Really Mean “All”?

Commenting on the parallel structure of Rom. 5:18-19, Talbott writes what serves as a unifying theme among proponents of universalism in Paul:
The whole point of such a parallel structure, so typical of Paul, is to identify a single group of individuals and to make two parallel statements about that single group of individuals, and the effect is therefore to eliminate any possibility of ambiguity. The very ones who came under condemnation, as a result of the first Adam’s act of disobedience, will eventually be brought to justification and life, as a result of the second Adam’s act of obedience.[17]
The heart of the universalist case rests in the parallel between the protasis and apodosis in each of the two verses. There have been a number of various strategies used to attack this admittedly plain reading of the text. I will summarize the strongest counter-arguments, while providing the responses by defenders of universalism. First, one of the stronger counter-arguments is that Paul means by the term “all” the fact that condemnation and justification apply to both Jews and Gentiles without distinction. The strength of this argument rests in the fact that it does not force a change in the referent between the first “all” and the second “all.” Each time Paul uses “all” or “many” (at least in Rom. 5), he simply means to say that Jews and Gentiles (i.e., all kinds of people) are both included, though of course the emphasis is slightly different. Thus, Paul means to emphasize in the protasis that Jews are just as much under condemnation as Gentiles, whereas in the apodosis he means to emphasize that Gentiles are just as much justified as Jews. According to MacDonald, “this claim has considerable plausibility,” in light of the context of Paul’s argument thus far.[18] In his arguments against universalism in Romans, I. Howard Marshall, a defender of the Arminian position, writes:
The one/many contrast is used of both Adam and Christ to show that both affect the whole human race and not just the Jews. So Paul’s aim is not necessarily to assert that all will be saved but that the work of Christ is for all, and that he alone is the Saviour in virtue of the one saving event of his death.[19]
The point in this argument is that Paul does not mean to say that every individual will be saved, but that the extent of salvation is as wide as the extent of condemnation. Jews and Gentiles are equal in both sin and salvation; neither has an advantage over the other, so there is no cause for boasting. As Paul himself states: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22b-23).

Clearly, no defender of universalism in Romans 5 will deny this argument. A “multiracial universalism” of this sort is certainly a necessary implication of Paul’s overall argument in Romans; it is about the least one could say on the basis of these verses. The question, then, is whether such an interpretation is sufficient. At this point, MacDonald raises the simple objection that Paul’s use of πᾶς does not preclude the inclusion of every individual Jew and Gentile. He bases his argument on Rom. 3:9b-12, where Paul—arguing for a universal unrighteousness among Jews and Gentiles both—declares on the basis of Eccl. 7:20 that “there is no one righteous, not even one.”[20] MacDonald thus reverses the flow of Paul’s logic: the primary notion in Paul is not that both Jews and Gentiles are equal in relation to sin and salvation, though we cannot speak on an individual level; rather, it is that each individual is equal in relation to sin and salvation, which then implies an equality among Jews and Gentiles.[21] At the very least, it is obvious that Paul does not intend his argument to leave open the possibility that some individuals may actually fall outside the scope of Adam’s condemnation. If we thus grant that “all” in the protasis means “all who have sinned,” then we still have grounds for a universalist interpretation. Richard Bell notes that unlike in Rom. 11:32, the context in Rom. 5 is not concerned with the question of two groups (Jews and Gentiles) but with two realities (condemnation and justification) and two representatives (Adam and Christ).[22] A second major counter-argument interprets the “all” as “all in Adam” and “all in Christ,” and thus the word “all” must be conditioned by what it means to be “in Adam” or “in Christ.” The assumed implication of this argument is that while all humanity is “in Adam,” only believers are “in Christ.” There are various strategies for arguing this point, though it is worth noting that all of them require looking at some text other than vv. 18-19. (1) The initial basis for interpreting “all” as “all in Christ” is found not in Romans but in 1 Cor. 15:22, where Paul makes a similar parallel: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” The counter-argument of the non-universalists thus reads 1 Cor. 15:22 back into Rom. 5:18-19. The validity of this reading has been cogently rejected by MacDonald by demonstrating that “in Christ” adverbially modifies “will be made alive” rather than modifying the “all.”[23] Christ is the means by which “all” are made alive; he does not limit who will be made alive but how.

(2) A second strategy argues that justification and righteousness in Romans is dependent upon faith in Christ, and thus we must read Rom. 5:12-21 in light of, say, Rom. 4:13-25. This argument is perhaps the most popular, and its persuasiveness rests in its canonical approach and in the use of Rom. 5:17. If the universalist argument is dependent upon vv. 18-19, then the non-universalist argument depends on v. 17, where Paul speaks of “those who receive (λαμβάνοντες) the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.” Douglas Moo in his commentary on Romans then writes:
But in the apodosis (“how much more . . .”) “the many” must be qualified by Paul’s insistence in v. 17 that only those who “receive” the gift benefit from Christ’s act. Here it refers to “a great number” of people (but not all of them) or to “all who respond to the gift of grace.”[24]
In a forum discussion on inclusivism, Scott Hafemann follows Moo by adding:
Romans 5:17 reminds us—lest we have forgotten Romans 1-4!—that righteousness and life are for those who respond to God’s grace in Christ and that they are only for those who respond. When we ask who belongs to, or is “in,” Adam and Christ respectively, Paul makes his answer clear: Every person, without exception, is “in Adam” (cf. vv. 12d-14); but only those who “receive” the gift (v. 17; those who “believe,” according to Rom. 1:16-5:11) are “in Christ.”[25]
And of course this argument is not original to contemporary American evangelicals, but has its basis in the Reformers themselves, as the Calvin quote above demonstrates. Luther also spoke of the “free gift” as “that which Christ pours out from His Father upon those who believe in Him.”[26]

Proponents of universalism generally respond in two ways. The first is a grammatical point and simply notes that the participle λαμβάνοντες[27] is being used in the passive sense of “receive” rather than the active sense of “take.”[28] According to John Murray, the “word ‘receiving’ . . . does not refer to our believing acceptance of the free gift but to our being made the recipients” of this gift.[29] A non-universalist might respond that one only receives the gift on the basis of some prior act of faith, while a universalist might respond that we need to read v. 17 in light of vv. 18-19 and not the other way around, so that the “all” is not qualified by “those who receive” but rather “those who receive” is qualified by the “all.” The second possible response by universalists is concurrence with non-universalists that only those who have faith in Christ receive justification. Talbott and MacDonald are in agreement on this point: “Paul taught that justification and life come only to believers and . . . that not all are believers. . . . Paul needs only to believe that one day all will believe,” for which MacDonald goes on to argue.[30] This argument demonstrates the close affinity between universalist and non-universalist evangelicals: both believe that salvation is only by faith—i.e., salvation is primarily an anthropological reality. The central difference is whether faith is limited between cradle and grave, or whether there is an ongoing eternal possibility for faith. The acceptance of the latter leads MacDonald to accept hell, but on a provisional basis, not unlike a version of purgatory. Talbott, for his part, reads 1 Cor. 15:23-24a as support for a three-stage progression in salvation history: (a) Christ is raised as the first fruits, (b) followed by those “who belong to Christ,” and finally (c) at “the end” Christ will raise the rest of humanity, who by then will have become believers.[31] Regardless of the merit of these proposals, all sides agree that salvation is by faith alone—by individual, human faith alone, that is.

To see the outline of the series with links to the other posts, click here.


17. Thomas Talbott, “Christ Victorious,” in Parry and Partridge, 19. It should be noted that not all agree with Talbott (or MacDonald) that justification and life is a future reality (“…will eventually be brought to justification and life…”), in the sense that for those who do not acknowledge a belief in Christ in this life still have a future ahead of them in which God’s salvation will at some point reach them as well. Richard Bell, for example, thinks that justification is a present-only reality, and so the future tense can only be a logical and not a real future (424). I will return to this argument later.

18. MacDonald, 81.

19. I. Howard Marshall, “Does the New Testament Teach Universal Salvation?” in John Colwell, ed., Called to One Hope: Perspectives on the Life to Come (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 20.

20. MacDonald, 81.

21. Ibid., 81-82.

22. Richard Bell, “Rom 5.18-19 and Universal Salvation,” New Testament Studies 48 (2002): 427.

23. MacDonald, 86.

24. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 336.

25. Scott Hafemann, “Forum Discussion on Inclusivism,” in Paul R. House and Gregory A. Thornbury, Who Will Be Saved? Defending the Biblical Understanding of God, Salvation, and Evangelism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 155.

26. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, trans. William Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 174; commentary on Rom. 5:17.

27. Cf. Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 155-56: “The λαμβάνοντες are undoubtedly believers. . . . [But] it is doubtful whether one should (with Bultmann) understand the participle in terms of a decision and choice and see in Christ the possibility opened thereto (Jüngel is right). For Paul the reign of Christ replaces that of Adam. The ontological structure of his anthropology remains determined by lordship as in the old aeon. Analogy can arise between Adam and Christ only because both establish dominion over existence and the world.”

28. MacDonald, 80-81; Talbot, “Reply to my Critics,” in Parry and Partridge, 252-53; Bell, 429. See also M. Eugene Boring, “The Language of Universal Salvation in Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986), 287.

29. John Murray, Epistle of Paul to the Romans, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 198. Also qtd. in Talbott, “Reply to my Critics,” in Parry and Partridge, 253. It is interesting to note also that, in commenting on v. 17, Moo translates (paraphrases?) the contested phrase: “all who respond to the gift of grace.” The word “respond” is a more active verb than “receive.” Hafemann, for his part, equates “receive” with “believe,” also a more active verb. Each author minimizes the force of Rom. 5:17-19 by introducing concepts either foreign to the text (“respond”) or found elsewhere in Romans (“believe”). A more persuasive response by a non-universalist would be to note that the verb “receive” is itself not an entirely passive verb but requires the action of openness to the Other, to what is outside oneself (extra se). This, of course, still does not rule out the universalist scope of the passage, since it is conceivable that all will receive the gift of grace. Even though Paul does emphasize the importance of faith elsewhere, it is not present in Rom. 5:12-21. Does Paul intend the reader to fill in the gaps? Or does Paul intend a distinction between faith as an anthropological reality (by faith) and faith as a christological reality?

30. MacDonald, 80.

31. Ibid., 85-86.