Is God engaged in a desperate struggle against the devil to save the world—to save souls from hell before it is too late? It’s a common, if not always openly expressed, belief.
For many in the Christian world, this translates to an urgent sense that they must join the battle on God’s behalf. They must do all they can to convert unbelievers to Christianity to help them escape purgatory or eternal damnation. Underlying the desire to bring people to Christ is the belief that this life is our only opportunity for salvation or redemption, a belief that has spawned missionary activity, evangelical outreach, soul-winning, revival campaigns, neighborhood Bible studies, personal testimonials and so on.
But where did the idea that God is trying to convert the whole world today come from? What does the Bible say?
The Day of Salvation
Why do so many Christians believe that this age is people’s only chance for salvation? The apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians offers a clue: “We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1–2).
Is this a mandate to convert the whole world now?
The first thing to observe is the context. Paul was applying a scripture in Isaiah 49:8 to a situation among followers of Christ in the Greek city of Corinth. This letter was a follow-up to his earlier epistle in which the apostle addressed the Corinthians as a congregation with problems, a group of people in need of a change of heart. When Paul said what he did in this passage, he was correcting them with regard to a local problem, and he was reminding them that they needed to take their calling more seriously and not to take the grace God had extended to them for granted. An important detail is that these were people who had already been “converted.” As such, his words are equally applicable to Christ’s followers today.
If we go back to the original verse in Isaiah, we can see from the context that Isaiah was likewise addressing a specific set of issues that the nation of Israel faced at the time. It is not a statement about God trying to convert the world in that time, which clearly did not happen. Had an all-powerful God been trying to convert the whole world in the time of Isaiah (or Paul), would it not have happened?
Another scripture that’s often cited is Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” On the face of it, this appears to validate efforts to convert the whole world. But Mark’s parallel account puts it this way: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul demonstrates his zeal to obey Christ’s command: “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” he says. “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (verses 16, 22). But was his primary purpose to convert as many as he could by preaching the gospel wherever he went? Once again, a simple test is to determine the degree to which he succeeded. In terms of numbers of people who were converted in the first century, the apostles and even Jesus were certainly unsuccessful; only a small number became followers at that time, and a significant number of those early converts apparently relinquished their faith later (see, for example, John 6:66; Acts 1:15; 2 Timothy 4:9–10, 16). If God had intended to convert the whole world, would it not have happened? The facts demonstrate that it did not. What did happen is that they all very effectively preached the gospel (see Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Luke 9:6; Acts 8:25; Romans 15:19), with the result that some became believers (Acts 2:41; 14:21; 1 Corinthians 9:22).
“Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.”
The words “make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28 are in themselves not very clear as translated into English. By definition a disciple is a student, a follower, one who learns from a teacher or leader. In that light the King James Version and a few others, which translate the Greek as “teach all nations,” are perhaps clearer.
But what is it that’s to be taught? Christ’s instruction in Matthew 28 was to teach people “to observe all things that I have commanded you” (verse 20). According to other scriptures, that would include obedience to God’s law (see, for example, Matthew 23:23), yet this is not typically part of the message of those who try to convert people to Christianity. Instead, the need for keeping the law is often expressly denied on the grounds that the law was nailed to the cross; Christ kept the law for us, and we fallible beings needn’t bother trying to keep it. But Jesus also said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17–18). As chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew go on to show, He actually expanded on that law, adding a more exacting spiritual element to the physical.
How does Acts 2:21 fit into the discussion? “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”? Doesn’t this suggest that everyone has access to God today, if only they’ll profess Jesus’ name? That would seem to be reason enough for Christians to proselytize.
Again, the context is key. Peter, who quoted this from the Old Testament book of Joel, was speaking on the Day of Pentecost. He had begun by quoting, “It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh” (verse 17). Peter went on to speak of Christ’s first coming, and of His sacrifice and resurrection. On this Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to His followers, a very small group. A multitude of people who were in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (verse 5) then listened intently as Peter explained that this man, the Christ, was the one they had murdered several weeks earlier. When they heard this they were “cut to the heart” and asked what they should do. Peter replied: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38–39).
There were conditions here. First, people had to “repent,” to change direction and willingly follow God’s direction—to adhere to His law. Second, Peter said the Holy Spirit would be granted to “as many as the Lord our God will call.” On this occasion, “about three thousand souls were added to them” (verse 41). This was still a relatively small group in the greater scheme of things. Even with three thousand being added at once, one would not conclude that God was trying to convert the whole world.
Peter recognized Jesus’ death and resurrection as a pivotal moment in the plan of God, that now was the time when Joel’s prophecy—“whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32)—would begin to be fulfilled. The opportunity would be extended to both Jews (“to you and to your children”) and non-Jews (“all who are afar off”); even so, he understood that this was not the final act in God’s overall plan, because even then the offer would be limited to “as many as the Lord our God will call”—a relatively small number, as it turned out. The total fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy would not take place until “the last days,” the yet future “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:17, 20; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10).
“The promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
To put Acts 2:21 in context we also need to recall Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 7:21–23: “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws’” (New Living Translation). So once again we see that a true disciple or follower of Christ will carefully observe all the laws of God.
A Matter of Time
In Paul’s first letter to a young minister named Timothy, we read that God “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3–4). This is, of course, a true statement; but when they will “come to the knowledge of the truth” is entirely in God’s hands. This is a critical piece of understanding.
The apostle John quotes Jesus as saying, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). This refers to a future time and a resurrection (a reviving, or restoring to life) of the dead.
In verse 65 Christ reiterates: “I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” This perfectly accords with what Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, that the moment or day of salvation is entirely down to “as many as the Lord our God will call,” according to His timing.
The net effect of this is that we do not need to be anxious. God, who is merciful, will ensure that everyone’s time will come. There never was any requirement to try, humanly, to convert the whole world now. Such an effort would surely be to assume God’s role of deciding how and when to draw someone to Himself.
In fact, we can be very confident of the fact that God is not trying to convert the whole world now based on Christ’s explanation of the purpose of parables. It is a common misconception that He spoke in parables to make His meaning clearer to His audience—to somehow package the gospel message in simple language that the largely agrarian peoples He addressed could easily understand so their lives might be transformed.
In fact, His purpose was precisely the opposite: to disguise the meaning for those whose eyes the Father was not opening at that time: “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them’” (Matthew 13:13–15).
Yet when Christ spoke to His disciples, He spoke plainly and openly: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (verse 11).
“Assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
So it is a gift that is given to some and not to others. We learn from Paul that it is God’s desire to give it to all, but that it is He who decides when to give it. All will have their chance according to God’s timing.
In Christ’s lifetime this gift was not given to all. A very few received it; most did not. Prior to His first coming, how many millions had never heard of Jesus Christ? Are they all condemned? Following His first coming, how many people in far flung corners of the world have still to hear of or know of Him?
God Has a Plan
God, who is defined as love (1 John 4:8), does fully intend to offer salvation to all who have ever lived. He has had a clearly ordered plan in place since the beginning: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Corinthians 15:22–24).
Paul understood that God has a plan for “each one in his own order.” He likened it to a harvest that is accomplished in stages: some fruit, called the “firstfruits,” is harvested before additional fruit ripens. The rest will be harvested too, but not before it’s ready. By far most of this metaphorical harvest will take place at a later time. Everything will happen in God’s timing and according to God’s ordering.
The apostle John likewise understood that God has an ordered plan: “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:4–5).
This indicates that there is more than one resurrection of the dead. God made provision for “the rest of the dead,” and their opportunity will come.
Today is not the only day of salvation. God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Thus everyone will be offered an opportunity to come to know their Creator, not by self-will, nor by the will of others, but in God’s own perfect timing.