Christ Carrying the Cross — Painting by El Greco. Remember: Christ actually looked like a Middle Eastern guy.

Romans 3 and the Faith of Christ

Universalism in Paul, Part 1

Abjan van Meerten
9 min readJul 15


Christian universalism is the belief that, in the ultimate end, all human beings (or all creatures more broadly) will be saved through Christ. Since this conviction carries with it certain presuppositions and implications, universalism could also be called a theological system. Recent years have seen an uptick in universalists due to the publication of books such as Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade 2012 [2nd ed.]) and David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved (Yale 2021). However, its adherents are often dismissed for being heretical, driven by emotions, antinomian, naive, speculative, and more; those mischaracterizations will take another article.

In this series of articles, I want to argue that universalists are, in fact, worthy of the epithet biblical, that is, drawing their theology from Scripture, or at least striving to do that — how successful they are, that is for you to decide. In particular, I will highlight six important Pauline passages that arguably endorse universalism: Romans 3, 5, 11; 1 Corinthians 15; Ephesians 1; Philippians 2, and Colossians 1. It is true that Paul cannot be prioritized over and against other biblical authors, but he is arguably the major ‘Christian theologian’ in the Bible, and, well, we have to start somewhere.

Along the way, I will highlight important historical, often patristic, arguments for universalism that are arguably derived from (not imposed on) these texts. Moreover, certain hermeneutical issues will arise which a subsequent article series will cover. But first, Romans 3.

A. Romans 3

21 But now, apart from Torah, the deliverance of God has been apocalyptically revealed, attested by the Torah and the Prophets, 22 the deliverance of God through the fidelity of Jesus Christ [Gk.: πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ] for all who trust. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God 24 and [all] are now delivered freely through his gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a mercy seat by his blood, through fidelity [Gk.: διὰ τῆς πίστεως], to be a proof of his deliverance for the sake of the release of previously committed sins in the respite coming from God; 26 and to be a proof of his deliverance at the present time, so that he is righteous in that he delivers the one who is from fidelity, Jesus / the one who is from the fidelity of Jesus [cf. 4:16] [Gk.: τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ(ν)]. (NRSVUE, heavily modified)

There are many exegetical issues surrounding this passage which I will not get into here. This passage is not so much a ‘clear’ text on universalism (though see verse 23!) as a good place to discuss the role of ‘faith’ in the broader soteriological debate.

1. The Traditional View

The typical Protestant construal of faith can be summarized as follows:

  • Voluntarist: believing is primarily an act of the will; humans have direct voluntary control over it, that is, they can choose at any given moment to do or not to do it. (This presupposes ‘direct doxastic voluntarism’, which gets more complicated still when the notion of ‘trust’ is introduced.) For this reason, humans can be (and are) held responsible for it. This is also why the emphasis in evangelism is on making a decision, i.e. to believe or not to believe. Salvation lies in the hand of the individual; it is fundamentally a human possibility (see here).
  • Rationalist: believing seems to primarily concern intellectual convictions, i.e., about God, Christ, and/or the gospel, based on certain information conveyed in the gospel message. This explains why traditional church boundaries are often maintained by means of creeds and confessions: you belong if you hold certain intellectual convictions. It also entails that the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (see Rom 3:22, 25, 26 above) is interpreted anthropologically as ‘faith in Christ’, and not Christologically as ‘the faith/fidelity of Christ’ (see further below).
  • Receptive/appropriative: crucially, believing is construed as the opposite of doing ‘works (of the law)’, another Pauline phrase, which is interpreted as human effort misdirected toward trying to achieve ‘righteousness’ apart from Christ. Faith, it is said, does not try to achieve, but receives and appropriates what Christ has achieved in their place (see below). It must be noted that the word πίστις in antiquity often denoted a virtue, i.e., fidelity, loyalty, faithfulness, which seems to speak against this ‘non-virtuous’ construal. Moreover, as Louis Martyn frequently notes in his Galatians commentary, a Christological rendering of πίστις Χριστοῦ, where πίστις is the virtue of Christ’s fidelity, makes for an even starker contrast with ‘works (of the law)’: it is not about two different human courses of action, but about a divine action and human activity.

This traditional view of faith is based on broader theological presuppositions regarding salvation:

  • Retributive justice: God can only give people what they deserve; this is the driving principle throughout this theory of salvation and faith (although its application is somewhat muddled). God can only love and save and show kindness and gentleness etc. if the demands of justice are met (cf. discussion here). This goes hand in hand with a contractual soteriology and therefore theology: God only loves you if you do something, that is, fulfill the law perfectly. However, humans are inherently sinful, so they cannot ever meet God’s standards (which are thereby also called into question). Love is primarily a reward, but no one deserves it.
  • Substitutionary atonement: there is one exception, of course: Christ, who became fully human, only somehow without ‘original sin/guilt’, to live the perfect life humans should have lived. Now, if humans believe in Christ/the gospel, his meeting-God’s-standards (‘righteousness’) is ‘reckoned’ to them, and their not-meeting-God’s-standards (‘unrighteousness’/’sin’) is ‘reckoned’ to him on the cross. (How this is retributively just is unclear; moreover, for scrutiny of the exegetical basis, see here.)
  • Individualist, capable and self-interested anthropology: throughout this soteriological argument, humans are primarily viewed as individual entities who are inherently capable of accurate self-reflection regarding their sins, correct processing of information from the gospel message, and making the right decisions, that is, whatever serves their own interest. Accordingly, the reason why people choose to believe is for themselves to be saved, that is, to escape God’s wrath in Hell (and not, say, love and thankfulness toward God). (For problems in relation to total depravity, see here.)

All of these (problematically Modern) presuppositions, and more, are dissected extensively, and laid to rest, in Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013). Suffice it to say that this is a powerful construct but with too many difficulties on all levels: intrinsic, systematic, empirical, hermeneutical, exegetical, etc (to be explored in future articles). Do yourself a favor and read the book (or his forthcoming Beyond Justification: Liberating Paul’s Gospel [Wipf & Stock], a shorter version of the argument written with Jon DePue).

2. The Alternative View

The problems of the old view become apparent when we contrast it with Campbell’s alternative ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘participationist’ construal of justification and faith in Paul, which can be summarized as follows. ‘The righteousness of God’ refers to the saving deliverance of God, that is, him setting us free (‘justifying’ us) from the evil cosmic powers of Sin and Death that imprisoned and enslaved us (cf. Rom 6:7; 8:2). This salvation could not be occasioned by any human action, since humanity was marked by ignorance, deception, incapability, sinfulness, and overall slavery. Rather, this invasive cosmic (‘apocalyptic’) event happened ‘through the fidelity of Christ’, which refers to his obedience to death on the cross (cf. Phil 2:6–8).

This rendering of πίστις is corroborated by the fact that in Romans more broadly, fidelity/faith and obedience are used interchangeably (cf. Rom 1:5; 1:8 with 16:19; 10:15, 21; 16:26; also 6:17; 15:18). [1] The phrase ‘(justified) through the fidelity of Christ’ is therefore equivalent to phrases as ‘(justified) through his blood’ (3:25; 5:9), ‘through the death of [God’s] Son’ (cf. 5:10), ‘through one righteous act’ (5:18), and ‘through one man’s obedience’ (5:19), and, more broadly, ‘by his grace/gift’ (3:24; 5:15–17, 20–21), i.e., by the loving giving up of the Son by the Father (8:32) or the loving self-giving of the Son (cf. Gal 2:20); and, even more broadly, ‘through Jesus Christ (our Lord)’ (passim). [2]

Humans are saved through Christ’s fidelity, not through their faith in Christ’s fidelity.

So, humans are saved by a divine action, not by their own activity — that is, through Christ’s fidelity, not through their faith in Christ’s fidelity. Nevertheless, this does not mean that human faith/fidelity is insignificant. On the contrary, humans, once they are delivered from the reign of Sin, Death, and the Flesh and transferred to the reign of Christ (cf. Col 1:13), the Spirit, and Grace, come to participate in the fidelity of Christ, becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10), being crucified with him (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20), completing his afflictions in their bodies (Col 1:24), etc. That is to say, faith/fidelity is not the condition for but the fruit of salvation and union with the crucified and faithful Christ. Humans are united to Christ and thus to the Christ-community (the ‘body of Christ’), where the Spirit of Christ dwells and is at work to create the image of Christ in them, including fidelity and cruciform obedience to God. Thus, fidelity is part of the singular ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22).

Moreover, this ‘seal’ of the Spirit, marking humans as God’s own, is also a ‘guarantee’ of their future deliverance (see Eph 1:13–14; also 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; more broadly, Rom 8:15–17; Gal 4:6; Phil 3:10–11). Human fidelity is a sign of assurance for believers that they will also participate in the final deliverance that is to come. When they share in Christ’s sufferings (Phil 2:6–8), they will also share in his glory (Phil 2:9–11) (cf. Rom 8:17b). This is a statement of fact: when you participate in his downward trajectory (cross = fidelity), you will also share in his upward trajectory (resurrection = deliverance). But this cannot be turned into a condition, as people cannot and do not ‘decide’ to participate in Christ and ‘co-crucify’ themselves! Participation is not a choice; it requires an unconditional liberative and incorporative act of the Triune God: liberation from participation in Sin, Death, and the Flesh, and into participation in the Triune God.

Human fidelity is a sign of assurance for believers that they will also participate in the final deliverance that is to come.

This construal of faith and salvation makes Paul and his texts much more coherent and ‘simple’. Also, and importantly, it is much more robustly Christological and Trinitarian; it’s all about what God is doing in Christ through the Spirit in, with, and for us. Lastly, it is not dominated by Modern anthropological assumptions but allows for Paul’s own participationist view of humanity to speak up: humans are who they are in relation.

Thus, returning to the text with which we began, we understand what Paul means when he says: “the deliverance of God has been apocalyptically revealed (…) through the fidelity of Jesus Christ [Gk.: πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ] toward all who trust” (3:21–22). At this moment, not all seem to trust, but this does not mean that they are not included in God’s deliverance, nor that they won’t believe, in this life or the next. As all have sinned, so all are justified (3:23–24) “from fidelity unto fidelity” (1:17).

In the next article, I will be discussing Romans 5:12–21 and the relation between Adam and Christ in Paul’s gospel.


[1] The parallels can be shown as follows:

See also my future article on Romans 10.

[2] These parallels can be tabulated as follows:

Cf. also Eph 2:8: “For [A] you have been saved [B] through generosity, [B] through fidelity, and this is [B] not [through] your own doing; it is [B] [through] the gift of God.” In fact, Eph 2:1–10 as a whole is largely parallel to Rom 5:1–11, especially in emphasising the incongruity of God’s love.

Further Reading

  • For good starters on Christian universalism (also called ‘apokatastasis’, a Greek word used in Acts 3:21 meaning ‘restoration [of all things]’), see the two books mentioned in the introduction; also David W. Congdon (ed.), Varieties of Christian Universalism: Exploring Four Views (Baker Academic 2023) and especially Andrew Hronich, Once Loved Always Loved: The Logic of Apokatastasis (Wipf & Stock 2023), which seems like the most thorough treatment out there.
  • On universalism in Paul, see Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love, ch. 18; and Christopher Tuckett, ‘Paul and Universalism’.
  • For exegetical treatments of ‘faith’ in Paul, see Campbell, Deliverance, ch. 13–21, esp. ch. 18 on Romans 4 and Abraham, and the references there; also Chris Tilling (ed.), Beyond Old and New Perspectives on Paul: Reflections on the Work of Douglas Campbell (Cascade 2014), ch. 14–15.
  • For an intro to the interpretive school ‘Apocalyptic Paul’, see Beverly Gaventa (ed.), Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5–8 (Baylor 2013). Regarding its anthropology, which it primarily draws from Ernst Käsemann, see ch. 6, ‘Double Participation and the Responsible Self in Romans 5–8’ by Susan Eastman, who has also written a monograph on the topic: Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Eerdmans 2017).



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God