Progressive Proof-Texting: Did Jesus Come to Judge or to Save?

triumphal entryby John Ellis

If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” John 12:47

In the West, claims to exclusivity in reference to religion are one of the quickest ways to engender cries of disapproval from the curators of society. In fact, the concept of exclusion has been relegated to the closet of offensive by many progressives who claim to be Christians. The notion that anyone should be required to recognize that something is broken inside of them, find a new identity, and come to God on God’s terms may be the one and only heresy in the progressive church. During the Easter Prayer Breakfast, declaiming the thesis statement of progressive Christianity’s soteriology, Vice President Joe Biden said, “We all practice the same basic faith but different faiths.”

It’s been over twenty years since I first heard the platitude that religion should be thought of in terms of God sitting on the top of a mountain. According to this view, there are many different paths for humans to reach God; we can’t see the other paths because the mountain obstructs our view. And, good news, everyone will eventually reach the top. All humans will eventually find themselves welcomed by a loving God. Within Christianity, this belief has been codified as a doctrine called Universalism.

Universalism is, by no means, a new concept; the heresy first made a public appearance in the late eighteenth century, and quickly grew. Christian Universalism has several iterations, but all have basically the same end-game – all of humanity will be reconciled to God. Many self-professing Christian Universalists believe that God’s love precludes any eternal judgment and He will welcome all into His loving arms. To be fair, not all progressives who claim to be a Christian self-identify as a Universalist[1]. I won’t speculate as to why they resist the label, but their belief that a loving God wouldn’t condemn someone to eternal punishment aligns them with Universalism. Their discomfort with the term “Universalism” aside, however, most of them would whole-heartedly agree with Vice President Biden that “We all practice the same basic faith.” And that belief is diametrically opposed to the traditional Christian belief that there is only one way to have a right relationship with God, and those outside of a right relationship with God will be punished for all eternity. In other words, traditional Christianity is a religion of exclusivity; progressive Christianity is a religion of inclusivity. And they’re not the same religion.

The story of the Bible is very clear that the divide between humans and God is the fault of humans. Thankfully, through the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, God has provided a way to bridge that divide created by humans. But, and the Bible is very clear on this, there is only one way to restore a right relationship with God. Further, anyone outside of a right relationship with God is under His divine wrath and coming judgment. The way to enter into a right relationship with God was explained by King Jesus when he told the twelve disciples that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”[2] In other words, unless your mountain path runs through Jesus, you’re never going to reach God. That’s a pretty exclusive claim.

Unfortunately, many progressives who claim to be a Christian subsume the story of the Bible into verses that they rip out of context in order to promote their agenda. In the above paragraph, I briefly exposited the Bible’s narrative (at the beginning of the above paragraph, I’ve provided a link to a fuller explanation of the Bible’s story), and then moved to the specific verse, allowing the full context of the Bible to interpret John 14:6. Of course, many progressives who claim to be Christian deny the authority of the Bible to begin with.

Inerrancy is another dirty word within the lexicon of progressive Christianity. Claiming that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God that has authority over all human conduct and opinions is a quick way to have your voice relegated to the progressive gulags of scorn, shaming, and attempted silencing. When done openly, that’s fine, or, rather, to be expected; King Jesus told us that the world hates his followers. As Christians, our job is to share the gospel and trust that the Holy Spirit will do with it what He wills. However, in my experience, many progressives who claim to be Christians utilize a form of rhetorical espionage. During dialogue, they interact with conservative Christians as if everyone playing, so to speak, adheres to the same doctrine of the Bible. This allows the progressive who claims to be a Christian to move the dialectical goal-posts around in a dizzying fashion. I mean, they don’t even recognize the boundary markers of the field on which conservative Christians believe that the game is being played. When one side plays by rules and the other side knowingly yet secretly plays by other rules, the object of the game for that second side is probably confusion.

The previous paragraph is to say that many progressives who claim to be Christian hold to a doctrine of the Bible that allows for proof-texting. They don’t really care what the Bible says to begin with; they have very little reason to not rip verses out of context in order to propagate their aberrant theologies. This holds true for their proof-texting and eisegesis of John 12:47.

Jesus’ claim in John 12:47 that, “I [Jesus] did not come to judge the world but to save the world,” is often used to support the belief that all of humanity will one day be reconciled to God. It’s one of the verses used to justify the progressive view that the teachings of Jesus stand in contradiction to the religious beliefs of conservative Christians, including an exclusive soteriology.

But, as is the case with most proof-texting, it’s the immediate context, which is rarely quoted, that is the most damaging to the inclusive soteriological claim about John 12:47.

And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, I say as the Father has told me.”[3]

Verses 44 – 50 of John chapter 12 are sandwiched between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus at the Last Supper – two events with incredibly different imagery.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus constantly and quietly battled his followers’ notion that he was a conquering king who was going to overthrow the Roman rule and set up the Davidic kingdom. The crowd’s response as Jesus rode into Jerusalem betrayed that they had yet to understand. In fact, the Apostle John writes, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”[4]

A few verses later, John records the crowd questioning Jesus about his claim that the son of man was going to be lifted up. The phrase “lifted up,” is directly connected to Jesus’ death, but also has reference to his ascension to heaven. The confusion about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah continued in the crowd’s mind as they recoiled at the thought of the son of man being lifted up. Whether they understood that idiom to mean Jesus’ death, being lifted up on the cross, or the son of man being taken back to heaven, or both, the crowd revealed their expectation that the Messiah was to remain and rule and reign over the earthly kingdom of Israel. D.A. Carson explains that “What is clear is that the Palestinian Judaism of the time expected the Messiah to be triumphant; most expected him to be eternal.”[5] Flashing forward, and past John 12:47, the reader is confronted with the Messiah as a humbled servant when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples.

John 12:44-50 serves as a transition, a bridge, between the joyful expectations of the first century Jews who believed that Jesus was going to lead them to victory over Rome and the degrading[6] foot washing episode. Leading into the Last Supper and his crucifixion, Jesus was reiterating his specific purpose for that time and place – first century Israel. Jesus was reiterating that the purpose of his first advent was not to remain as the conquering king; he came to earth as the suffering servant in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.

Verse 47 isn’t a blanket statement meant to apply to Jesus for all time, otherwise verse 48, which spells out “The one who rejects me and does not receive me has a judge, the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day”[7]wouldn’t make any sense. Especially in light of the fact that throughout the last seven verses of John 12, Jesus very clearly identifies himself and God the Father as one. And the story of the Bible leads the reader to the last day when sinners will be judged by a righteous and perfectly just God.

The Apostle Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, doesn’t leave any wiggle room for Jesus’ role on that last day when those who rejected Jesus and his word will be judged. According to Paul, Christ Jesus “is to judge the living and dead.”[8] Those who reject Jesus and his words will be judged on the last day, and judged by Jesus. The only way to escape that judgment is to believe in Jesus – to place your faith, hope, and identity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, repent of your sins, and submit to Jesus’ authority over your entire life. Lifting John 12:47 out of context to support claims of an inclusive soteriology is the exact opposite of submitting to Jesus; it’s the rejection of his words that Jesus claimed will be judged on the last day.

It’s little wonder that in his second letter to Timothy, Paul continues his thought by warning, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth.”[9] Those who preach universalism or any form of inclusive soteriology with the claim that all of humanity will be reconciled to God are part of the group of teachers that Timothy was warned about by the Apostle Paul. Progressives who claim to be Christians may believe that they love their neighbor by denying the exclusive claims of the gospel, but, in reality, they are tickling the ears of their hearers as they lead them to hell.


 

[1] Some may claim a position of Annihilationism

[2] John 14:6, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2050.

[3] John 12:44-50, ESV Study Bible, 2050.

[4] John 12:16, ESV Study Bible, 2048.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 445.

[6] Degrading from a human standpoint, particularly the standpoint of first century readers.

[7] John 12:48, ESV Study Bible, 2050.

[8] 2Timothy 4:1, ESV Study Bible, 2342.

[9] 2 Timothy 4:3-4, ESV Study Bible, 2342.

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One thought on “Progressive Proof-Texting: Did Jesus Come to Judge or to Save?

  1. […] For many in our increasingly pluralistic world, the only acceptable form of judgment is that of judging Christians wrong for proclaiming God’s judgment on sin. I squared up against that irony by exegeting one of Progressive Christians’ favorite proof-texts – John 12:47. You can read my exegesis here. […]

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