Was the Apostle Paul a Universalist?2
Some people have drawn a false and unbiblical conclusion from something Paul says in Romans 5:18. There the apostle says that “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Did you see that? “All men.” The conclusion some draw is that Paul is teaching universalism, the notion that when all is said and done, every single human being will be saved. Just as every single human being was condemned because of what the first Adam did, every single human being (“all men”) will be justified because of what the last Adam did. Is this what Paul is saying?
First, all through Romans up until now Paul has made it clear that only those are justified by God who have faith in Christ. We see this in Romans 5:1 – “since we have been justified by faith.” Justification does not come by any other means. See also Romans 1:16 where salvation comes only to those who “believe.” In Romans 5:22 he speaks of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The same thing is said again in 3:26, 28; 4:3, 5, 16, 22.
Second, we also see in Romans that there will be eternal and irreversible judgment under God’s wrath for those who refuse to embrace Jesus as Lord. We see this in Romans 1:18, 32; 2:2, and especially Romans 2:5 – “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” The same truth is found in Romans 2:8-9. Paul speaks of God judging the world in 3:5-6, and this only accounts for texts in the first four chapters of Romans.
Third, in Romans 5:17 Paul speaks of those who “receive” the grace of God, as over against those who do not. Those who do not receive it but reject it in unbelief are eternally lost. Again, justification is never automatic simply because you are a human. It is a status that God confers only to those who believe.
Fourth, Paul’s point is that the obedience and righteousness of Jesus Christ come to all who are connected or related to him just as judgment comes to all who are connected or related to Adam. Whereas every person is “in” Adam, only those who have faith are “in” Christ. Adam acted sinfully and, because we were connected to him, we were condemned in him. Christ acted righteously and because we are connected to Christ we are justified in Christ. Adam's sin is counted as ours. Christ's righteousness is counted as ours.
Fifth, we must also reckon with what Paul says later in Romans, after chapter five. He speaks of “death” coming to those who live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:13). In Romans 9:23 he speaks of certain individuals as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” If Paul believed all would eventually be saved, why does he pray fervently for the salvation of his Jewish kinsmen in Romans 9:1-5 and 10:1?
Sixth, we should never read what Paul says in one passage without considering what he says about the same subject in other places in his letters. And in numerous others texts he speaks of eternal condemnation for those who reject the gospel of Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 11:32; 2 Cor. 11:15; Gal. 1:8; 5:19-21; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:5-12; 2:9-12; among others).
Seventh, and finally, I cite the words of Doug Moo:
“Paul's point is not so much that the groups affected by Christ and Adam, respectively, are coextensive, but that Christ affects those who are his just as certainly as Adam does those who are his. When we ask who belongs to, or is 'in', Adam and Christ, respectively, Paul makes his answer clear: every person, without exception, is 'in Adam' (cf. vv. 12d-14); but only those who 'receive the gift' (v. 17; 'those who believe,' according to Rom. 1:16-5:11) are 'in Christ.' That “all” does not always mean 'every single human being' is clear from many passages, it often being clearly limited in context (e.g., Rom. 8:32; 12:17,18; 14:2; 16:19), so this suggestion has no linguistic barrier. In the present verse, the scope of ‘all people’ in the two parts of the verse is distinguished in the context, Paul making it clear, both by his silence and by the logic of vv. 12-14, that there is no limitation whatsoever on the number of those who are involved in Adam's sin, while the deliberately worded v. 17, along with the persistent stress on faith as the means of achieving righteousness in 1:16-4:25, makes it equally clear that only certain people derive the benefits from Christ’s act of righteousness” (343-44).
Merely being human does not qualify one for eternal life. Merely dying physically does not usher one into the presence of God. There is not escaping the fact that forgiveness and the assurance of life in the new heaven and new earth comes only to those who in this life put their conscious trust in Jesus Christ.