Some Thoughts on Pinnock’s ‘A Wideness in God’s Mercy’

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At the heart of Pinnock’s theology is a belief in the ‘unbounded generosity’ of God, and he sums up his understanding of this generosity with 2 Peter 3:9. (pg. 18) Pinnock emphasizes the universality of the gospel with John 3:16 being central to the gospel message: God loved the whole world. Christ died to reconcile the world to God.

Pinnock places a strong emphasis on the doctrine of general revelation, that is, that God has revealed Himself enough in the world that even those who have not seen the special revelation of Jesus are able to make a choice to worship and follow God. Thus, God will take into account how people have responded to the knowledge of God they have received in their context. This is a strength in Pinnock’s book, for he rightly argues that we are ‘saved by faith’ and that there are numerous examples of people being accepted by God apart from the OT law (e.g., Moses, Job, Melchizedek etc.).

Second, Pinnock emphasizes the theme of corporate election in Scripture. He sees a continual pattern of ‘a choosing of some on behalf of the many’ (pg. 25), where because of the obedience of one person (Abraham, Noah, Jesus), God’s mercy is extended to many. Thus, election is not about God choosing who will be saved and who will be damned for all eternity, but rather, election is about being called to be witnesses and to proclaim that “God is healing the nations through the mediation of his son, rather than in some other way.” (pg. 49) The nation of Israel was to be this for the ancient world, and Christians are to be this for the world today.

Another reason to be hopeful for the unevangelized is that, through the Holy Spirit, God continues to work to redeem all of creation. He is “everywhere active in pursuing the plan of redemption disclosed in the gospel.” (pg. 103) And while God may be working to redeem social structures, including religion, it does not mean that all religions are therefore equally valid paths of salvation. (pg. 109) Indeed, Pinnock acknowledges that some religious structures are more opposed to God’s good purposes than others, and that religions are not immune from the work of Satan. Even if a religion is not effective for salvation, it does not mean that God is unable to call people from within that religion to Himself. (pg. 110)

Pinnock is correct that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus is not a ‘miser’ who delights in sending people to hell. (pg. 154) But this does not mean that everyone will be in heaven. Indeed, Pinnock affirms the need to retain humanity’s right to say ‘no’ to God.

The attractiveness of Pinnock’s hopeful theology is unfortunately complicated by Pinnock’s use of Scripture. As was discussed numerous times in class, Scripture proof-texts that Pinnock uses to support his argument do not always actually do that. One example would be his interpretation of Rev 7:9. Pinnock suggests that, because people from every tribe and tongue will be surrounding the throne of the lamb, this is evidence of a “substantial number of unevangelized.” (pg. 153) Another interpretation could be that the saving work of Christ is not limited to an ‘elect’ people like Israel alone. Instead, the good news is for all the nations, and there will be people from different walks of life who will respond to and choose Jesus as Lord.

Twenty years after the publication of A Wideness in God’s Mercy, the conversation continues. Whether it is books aimed at the general public, like Rob Bell’s Love Wins and Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town, or academic discussions like this year’s conference topic at the Evangelical Theological Society, the question of salvation among the nations is still being explored. And I as attempt to navigate the theological waters of this topic, I find myself wanting to make sure that both God’s and humanity’s freedom are central. Are we free to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation? I find myself leaning towards C.S. Lewis’ portrayal of hell: that all those in hell have chosen to be there. (the Great Divorce) Is God free to do what He wants? A universalist approach to salvation restricts God’s freedom just as much as a theology of double predestination does.

Ultimately, as a Christian, my job is to preach the good news: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I trust in a good and faithful God, and I know that one day every knee will bow at the name of Jesus. My hope is that those who have not heard the gospel, when confronted by Jesus in glory, will choose to bow and worship and that Jesus will stand beside them as mediator before the judgment throne that we all must face. But this hope does not mean that I am released from the calling to be a light to the world, and to proclaim the good news; nor does this hope reflect what will actually happen.

While the fate of the unevangelized can be an important topic, I find that that isn’t my biggest concern. My heart breaks for those who have heard the good news and have turned away, or those who do not even see the need for the good news in their lives. These are the people that I interact with daily. These are family and friends whom I love dearly. They’re good people. In many ways they are nicer, more compassionate, more loving and more self-sacrificing than most Christians I know (myself included). These are the people that I thank God for every day. Without them my life would be less. These are the people that I lay before the altar of prayer and cry out to God to send his Holy Spirit to soften their hearts. I cry out for God’s mercy and for his grace to cover their lives. And yet, at the same time, I respect their choice to say ‘no’ to God’s good gift.

  • I often go back to I Peter 1:10 “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.” As you indicate, Christ’s salvation may extend further than we think. However, if we are supposed to make it “sure” then there must be a reason. I also come back often to the parable of the rich man and Lazurus. While it is a parable, I think Jesus is trying to represent reality in the process.

  • It’s been a couple of years since I read this book. I cited it in a research paper called “General Revelation: Engaging Culture at the Intersection of Lewis, Jung, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

    I remember being excited about certain insights, but, like you, hesitant about some of his exegetical assumptions. If I recall, I also thought he made some huge, unwarranted leaps of logic regarding Melchizedek.

    Excellent insight that universalism restricts God’s freedom as much as double predestination restricts man’s. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

    I’d love to have this in my library, but I’m waiting for it to be 3.99 on kindle.

    • Leslie,
      I’d love to read that paper!