Here’s a verse to fire the imagination:
It is written: “As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “Every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.” (Rom. 14:11)
What picture comes to your mind when you read these words? Some see this verse as pointing to universal salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13), and this verse says everyone will acknowledge God.
Could it be true that the Apostle Paul was a universalist?
Before you answer that, here are three things to consider. First, calling on the name of the Lordis not the same as acknowledging God. One is an appeal – “God have mercy on me! Jesus save me!” The other is merely an acknowledgement. Even the demons acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 8:29). Are demons saved? Of course not. Paul is saying that when the Lord returns, everyone will acknowledge and bow before God. Like turning one’s eyes away from the midday sun, it will be impossible not to. When God shows up in glory, BAM! Our knees will buckle.
The second problem is the context: In Romans 14 Paul is not discussing salvation; he’s saying we ought not to be critical and judge people.
Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat… So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (Rom. 14:10-13)
Put it together and Paul is saying something like this: “Since one day we shall be judged – on that day when Jesus returns and every knee bows and every tongue acknowledges God – let us not play judge now.” Judging is the Lord’s job.
The third problem is that Paul is quoting Isaiah – “It is written” – and Isaiah was no universalist:
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by myself… that to me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear. (Isa. 45:22-23)
Through the prophet God was speaking to refugees and idol-worshippers (see Is. 45:20). Gentiles, in other words. He was offering salvation to the ends of the earth, meaning not just the Jews. How is this salvation obtained? By “turning to me.” And who will be saved? “All the offspring of Israel” (Is. 45:22), meaning the true Jews or the church (Rom. 2:28-29). Those who share the faith of Abraham will receive Abraham’s inheritance. Isaiah was not prophesying universal salvation but salvation for all, Jew and Gentile alike.
There is one more “every knee” passage we should look at, and it’s the best one of all.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:9-11)
Two new covenant truths are illuminated in this passage: First, God is our heavenly Father. (Before Jesus came and taught us how to pray, no one saw God as their Father.) Second, Jesus Christ is Lord or kurios, supreme above all. (Before Jesus ascended, few people saw Jesus as anything other than a rabbi or a man from Nazareth.)
Is Paul saying that one day everyone will confess Jesus is Lord and consequently all will be saved? No. He’s not saying all will but all should honor Jesus as Lord because Jesus is Lord. Here’s the same passage in another translation:
…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:11, NKJV)
Acknowledging God is one thing; confessing Jesus as Lord is another. The Jews did the former, but only the Christians did the latter. This is why the apostles had to preach, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). Some were cut to the heart and repented; others picked up stones.
Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. (John 5:22-23)
Plenty of people worship something they call God. It may even be the God of the Bible. But you can’t honor God by dishonoring his Son. Jesus is the only way to connect with the heart of the Father.
If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
All will bow and acknowledge God, but not all put their faith in a risen and glorified Christ. This is why we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mark 1:1). We don’t preach the gospel of God or the gospel of universalism, but the Gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord and God’s Son. All are not free but all can be and all should be because Jesus died for all of us.
~ Paul Ellis
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