The universalist demands a choice: divine love or divine righteousness. But the dichotomy is fallacious. It is only on account of divine righteousness that God’s love can be so bold. By offering his own Son to bear the divine judgment we deserve, God delivers justification by means of his own justice. He is both just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). He is not our justifier despite his justness; he is our justifier because he is just.
In the twenty-first century, affirming the exclusivity of the gospel sounds downright harsh, lacking in compassion. To say, as the Christian should, that salvation is particular, and not universal, is to appear inhumane. That stereotype is only perpetuated when the best defense of the heaven-hell divide we have is to shout out John 14:6 or Mark 9:42-48, but more out of dismissive condescension than theological perceptivity. I have met more than one Christian with such an attitude, but it fools no one in the end, coming off as a cover for an otherwise superficial defense, much like an overpriced Christmas tree all bushy in the front but bare naked in the back.
Don’t misunderstand me: textual engagement is key and indispensable, for ultimately our case rests on what scripture says about God and salvation. But my concern is different: dismissiveness in the form of a quick proof-text more often than not neglects the heart of the matter: the character of God himself. More than a debate over this text or that text, Christianity and its claims to exclusivity and particularity are first and foremost a doctrine of God issue. Even the most decided universalist knows that, which is why most conversations, lay or academic, almost always turn to the love of God as the ace card in the deck.
But what if the average Christian was taught by the average pastor to defend the particularity of the gospel theologically, even systematically? Perhaps, just perhaps, those go-to proof-texts might shine, even sparkle, grounded as they are in the very attributes of the God we worship.
Is this not Paul’s approach in Romans 3? Paul refuses to dispense with divine justice in the name of compassionate (universal) love. Nor will he disregard the extreme benevolence of divine love in the name of a cold, apathetic righteousness. Presupposing divine simplicity, Paul’s view of God is far too holistic to rest his entire worldview on just one attribute at the expense of so many others.
To begin with, Paul stresses the outrageous gratuity of grace. Although none is righteous, and all have sinned, falling short of the infinite, impeccable glory of God (3:10, 23), God has given to the ungodly a gift they never could deserve: grace. Yet not just any generic type of grace, but a grace that justifies, declaring the unrighteous righteous in his sight, granting them a new status by means of his definitive and forensic declaration.