Pope Francis and Theological Clarity


Pope Francis created quite a stir recently when he made the following statement:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”   Someone then asked the Pope if this statement applied to the atheist.  The Pope responded, “Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class!”

Now there has been a lot of hairsplitting about what the Pope intended to say, so let’s start by looking at the following three statements:

1. “Jesus Christ died for the elect, and all the elect will finally be saved.”
2. “Jesus Christ provides redemption for all (even the atheists).”
3. “Jesus Christ redeems all, even the atheists.”

The first statement reflects Reformed theology, especially the doctrine of unconditional election and limited atonement (The “U” and “L” in the famous TULIP five points of Calvinism).  This first statement affirms that Jesus Christ died only for those who have been elected unto salvation.  Those who are elect will be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and given the grace to respond in repentance and faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second statement reflects Wesleyan theology which affirms universal provision, without diminishing or neglecting the role of human agency.  In fact, in Wesleyan theology, prevenient grace “frees” the human will from bondage to sin so that a real response to the gospel is possible.  The human will or agency is actually two-fold.  It refers to those who make real decisions to share the gospel (through word and deed) as well as the real decisions people make in responding to the gospel in repentance and faith (or rejecting the gospel, thereby, preserving the dignity of unbelief).

The third statement is the one the Pope made.  It is a statement of Christocentric universalism, sometimes known as inclusivism.  This notion entered some Roman Catholic seminaries in the 20th century through the writings of the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner in his Theological Investigations.  Inclusivism was primarily used to comfort those who may never have heard of Jesus Christ but who sincerely seek after God (which is why the question about atheists was asked to the Pope).   The Pope’s reply seemed to push the theological envelope even beyond the inclusivism of Vatican II, but to develop this point would be to miss the central point of this blog. Let’s return to the three statements.

There is a big difference between saying “Jesus Christ provides redemption for all” and “Jesus Christ redeems all.”  Why is this so important?  This is important because to simply say that Jesus Christ redeems everyone robs the human race of the dignity of participation in the divine work.  The gospel is proclaimed, and men and women either repent and believe or they reject the gospel.  These are powerful human agencies which the Scriptures unleash:  the agency of those who preach the gospel and the agency of those who respond to the gospel, either through repentance or unbelief.  To rob humanity of human agency in responding to God’s work in Jesus Christ and make salvation simply a matter of divine fiat cuts to the very heart of biblical Christianity.

Conservative Roman Catholics were scrambling to “help” the Pope to more theological clarity by stating that some Roman Catholic theologians allow for the distinction between “redemption” and “salvation.”  In other words, the Pope saying that “the Lord has redeemed all of us” might not be the theological equivalent of saying, “The Lord has saved all.”   If this is possible, then Pope Francis could have been speaking of universal provision, while still allowing that one would not receive “salvation” unless he or she responded and received the redemption.  One conservative Roman Catholic even chided the press for not understanding Catholic teaching and the importance of such a distinction.

Please, forgive me for not being persuaded.   Can we really expect the largely unbelieving media corps to understand possible nuances in Roman Catholic theology?  No, the impetus is on us to make ourselves clear when we speak to the world.  Pope Francis is, after all, the Pope.  If he cannot be theologically clear then we all have reason to be nervous.  We must be crystal clear when speaking with the media, and to our own congregations.  We must make it very clear that there is a BIG DIFFERENCE between affirming universal provision and affirming universal redemption.  The former simultaneously affirms the remarkable work of God in Jesus Christ and the importance of human agency in responding to the gospel.  The latter affirms God’s work, but cuts the relational bond between God and humanity and denies the importance of human will and agency.

We have enjoyed thirty six years of theological clarity from the papacy (John Paul II and Benedict XVI).  I fear that we are now facing a lot of theological muddle.   Pope Francis is a champion for the poor and has called us all to remember our service to the poor.  We all applaud this.  His work in Argentina demonstrates his faith.  However, the Pope would be horrified if anyone told him that service to the poor is a matter of divine agency alone.  He would never tell us that we don’t need to actually roll up our sleeves and do anything to serve the poor, we just need to remember that God lifts up the poor; it is His work, not ours.  I just wish the Pope realized that the importance of human agency is the hallmark of the entire gospel, not just in our service to the poor.

So how did you understand or interpret the Pope’s statement? I would love to see your thoughts in the comments below.


Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.


    • I hold dearly the aspect of Redemption that has to do with freeing a person, through purchase (Jesus Blood). We are slaves to sin, held captive, until we are redeemed by the powerful grace of our Lord. This type of redemption needs to be actualized—we need to be truly set free from the captivity of sin. I am partially redeemed by Jesus’ work on me and in me. I am becoming more redeemed. Full redemption will be an aspect of full salvation.

      • Hmm… I think the work of redemption was “finished” on the cross, but I like what you say about it being “actualized.” To me that’s where the human agency part comes in. When we do our part to actualize grace in our lives, then the kingdom becomes manifest.

  1. I see no muddle. I do see in the Pope great faith and trust in the providence of God. Some clarification, though, is to be found in Our Holy Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son. The Father originally stood back and allowed his son to leave home with all that was due him. He greatly respected his free will. However, the other side of his great love and respect for his son is that he never gave up hope that he would return one day. When he did, the Father fell upon the young man rejoicing in his choice to return to His Father’s Mansion. What caused the son to return home? Hunger and humility: Hunger for Almighty God that is sown in our souls at conception, and humility to look for Him in our deep heart for answers we do not have. The rest of the clarification to God’s omnipotent desire to save all will come when we stand before His Dread Judgment Seat.

  2. I take it Francis was not making a theological comment at all but a pastoral observation about the Church’s orientation to the world. It isn’t us vs. them, he is saying, but us and them. The fact that Jesus shed his blood for all gives our fellow humans dignity – even if they profess antagonism toward the Church. And the way we extend the gospel message must pay heed to that common dignity.

    As a Catholic, he certainly doesn’t believe there is no role for human agency. I’ve always found Protestant theology to be more muddled on that question than Catholic theology.

  3. With all due respect to Mr Tennent’s academic pedigree, if what the Pope said appears muddled it’s not necessarily the Pope’s fault.
    I tried reading Kierkegaard when I was in high school. It seemed pretty muddled to me. That wasn’t necessarily Kierkegaard’s fault.

  4. The apsotle Paul’s thoughts seem appropriate here: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15 NRSV). It is possible that a Timothy Tennant of the early Church would have thought this was equally “muddy.”

    • Craig,
      I’m not sure the parallel holds. The passage you quote was part of a letter written to a Christian church. It was an occasional document likely written by its founder. The rhetoric there would have been clear, especially since Greco-Roman religions were dualistic, not “universalist,” and the Judaism during the period was basically the same.

  5. To me, the Biblical record demonstrates God’s relentless persistence, as the Hound of heaven, in pursuit of the lost. Coupled with what I hope is a total shared belief that there are no limits to his love and grace, leads me to believe in total redemption and salvation for everyone — eventually. This stance does not preclude human agency either: it is just a matter of how long we (his creation) want to wait, or fight on with our selves acting as the center of all instead of God. Being outside of time, God will wait.

    Throughout the Biblical story God shows his willingness to change the paradigm from time to time when we persisted in not “getting it.” But if his love is total for all that he has made, and he is willing to give us the freedom to engage with him and, if we choose, resist, it is hard to see there can be those who can resist his love forever. All will not be complete until that time when Lucifer chooses to walk back into Paradise.

  6. You were on to the correct interpretation with the redemption and salvation issue, but you just couldn’t follow it because that would have meant the Pope was right!

    • No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:44

      I’ll go with option 1).

  7. I believe the Scriptures teach salvation is available to all, but there are those who will forfeit the grace that could be theirs.
    I believe the Scriptures also teach only one Gospel, and that is the Gospel of grace. I don’t believe the Pope teaches this Gospel. So I think if the Pope is going to teach anything about salvation, he first has to start with the truth about what the Scriptures teach about it.

    • I am certainly open to learning more about what you have expressed in your first sentence. Such arguments are useful as I try to work this through in my own mind.

      Yet I am puzzled by your second comment. Can you provide a citation where the Pope does not, or has not, taught the Gospel of grace in his remarks? Many non-Catholics are convinced that Catholicism does not accept, teach, or believe in justification by grace. That is not true. Catholicism does not have a works-based theology.

      Among the more than 200 paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the
      Church’s teaching document, are these three (the numbers refer to the paragraphs in the Catechism):

      1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and
      undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

      1997 Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of
      Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ,
      the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,”
      in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.

      1998 This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous
      initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of
      human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.

      • Classical Protestants don’t believe Rome teaches the gospel because they add works as a condition of justification (being declared righteous) which is condemned very strongly in Galatians and is emphasized in Romans.

        • I don’t disagree that Protestants believe this, but that view is incorrect. I believed it once myself. Can a citation be provided where Catholics have actually added this condition in the Church’s teachings? I am not familiar with the term or process of “being declared righteous” and would ask your assistance on that one, too.

          “Works” or good works, as the letter of James emphasizes, are an evident manifestation of justification/salvation and on-going sanctification. An outcome or result; not a “condition” of justification. Protestants have a well developed understanding of sanctification and their extensive, laudable service to the world (“works”?) demonstrates that understanding.

          But, again from the teachings of the Church:

          1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.

          1991 Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or “justice”) here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us.

          1992 Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life.

          1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.

          1987 The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.

          654 The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace. It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ’s brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: “Go and tell my brethren.” We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection.

          • Look it boils down to this.

            Justify is the opposite of condemn, and it means to declare righteous.That’s important because Rome, as you mentioned, tries to shove sanctification (the process of becoming more like Jesus) into justification.

            Much ink has been spilled on this, but I would make one important point. Look at Romans 1-6. If justification is faith+works, the anticipated objection in Romans 6 (“can we sin all we want?”) makes no sense.

      • Classical Protestants don’t believe Rome teaches the gospel because they add works as a condition of justification (being declared righteous) which is condemned very strongly in Galatians and is emphasized in Romans.

  8. Works of the Law of Moses (Romans; Galatians) do nothing to first save us and neither do our works of righteousness (Titus 3:4-6) because it is God’s grace alone that first saves us when we
    choose to repent and confess our sins and believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior.

    Jesus desires all mankind to be saved and so He died as a ransom for all, but not all mankind will take advantage of this great gift. (1 Timothy 2:3-7) Many will either ignore it or spurn it. Many who receive salvation will throw away this great gift later on. (Luke 8:11-13)

    This initial saving grace given to us by God through Jesus Christ makes it possible for us (gives us hope) to inherit eternal life. (Titus 3:7) This initial saving grace does not guarantee eternal life, but the Holy Spirit is given to reside/abide in the temple/heart/soul of the person who repents and confesses.

    It is only the Holy Spirit of Grace’s presence within a person’s soul/heart/temple which guarantees him eternal life. (Matthew 24:11-13) The Holy Spirit remains/abides in the temples/hearts/souls of only those persons who continue to obey God to the best of their abilities until they die. (Acts 5:32) (Hebrews 10:26-30) The Holy Spirit of Grace’s presence in the person’s soul/temple/heart at the time of his death is his only guarantee of eternal life. We are truly saved by the grace of God alone!

    In other words, the people who will be approved to inherit life are the people who do not choose to commit the sins that lead to death (mortal sins) which causes the Holy Spirit of Grace to leave their souls/hearts/temples. (1 John 5:16-17 RSV) (1 Corinthians 3:16-18) (Revelation 2:10) (1 Corinthians 6:8-10) Or if they do sin the sins leading to death, they do repent before death so that
    the Holy Spirit is again living within their souls/hearts/temples at the time of their deaths. (1 John 5:16-17 RSV) (2 Corinthians 5:5) If the Holy Spirit is not still living within our souls at the time of our deaths as our guarantee, we cannot possibly inherit eternal life. (Matthew 7:21-26) (Luke 13:23-27)

    Righteous works are indeed necessary for us to do if we want to continue to be saved until we die (if we want the Holy Spirit to continue to abide in us so that we will be approved to inherit eternal life). (James 2:23-25) (Revelation 3:15-18) (Matthew 25:31-46) A person does not believe in God unless he obeys Him. (John 15:14) ((Luke 6:46-48) (Hebrews 3:12-19)

    “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22

  9. After reading your comments on the importance of speaking with clarity and avoiding “theological muddle”, this statement is very troubling, “I just wish the Pope realized that the importance of human agency is the hallmark of the entire gospel”.

    The hallmark of the entire gospel is human agency? Very troubling indeed.

    • I think that Dr. Tennent is right on this point. God becomes human in Jesus Christ – fully human and fully God. A key to substitutionary atonement theology is that only a human being can satisfy the demands of justice and holiness in light of our unrighteousness. Jesus is God become THE human agent who effects the atonement. In this way, the hallmark of the entire gospel is human agency.

      Now, if you heard in Dr. Tennent’s statement a claim that no one can be saved unless a human agent brings them the propositional gospel, you would have an argument. Abram is the counter example to that premise. (Genesis 15, Romans 4) However, on the other side of the coin, human agency continues as God chooses to use the Church – infilled as it is by the Holy Spirit – as the “body of Christ” in the world working to expand and complete the inaugurated Kingdom.

  10. Very thought-provoking piece! I am very hesitant to respond because Dr. Tennent taught me everything I know while I was his student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I am delighted that he is now serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary! So, it is in great humility that I side with the view of Roman Catholics explained in this paragraph (and against Dr. Tennent’s feelings, I’m afraid 🙂 ):

    “Conservative Roman Catholics were scrambling to ‘help’ the Pope to more theological clarity by stating that some Roman Catholic theologians allow for the distinction between ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation.’ In other words, the Pope saying that ‘the Lord has redeemed all of us’ might not be the theological equivalent of saying, ‘The Lord has saved all.’ If this is possible, then Pope Francis could have been speaking of universal provision, while still allowing that one would not receive ‘salvation’ unless he or she responded and received the redemption. One conservative Roman Catholic even chided the press for not understanding Catholic teaching and the importance of such a distinction.”

    What most persuades me is that John and Charles Wesley apparently made this same distinction between redemption and salvation. This becomes clear in their arguments with Whitefield over Calvinism – especially their arguments against limited atonement. To argue their point that all of creation has been redeemed by the atoning work of Christ – a doctrine that Whitefield and the Wesleys call “universal redemption” – and that through acceptance of this redemption our souls are saved, John Wesley writes the important sermon “Free Grace” and Charles writes the hymn “Universal Redemption.” These were originally published together. In other words, John Wesley considered “redemption” to be a term for the atoning work of Christ. He considered “salvation” to be the effect of having that work applied to the believer. In this way, “redemption” is universal, but “salvation” is only for those who place their faith in Christ. Exactly what our Catholic brothers and sisters are saying.

    However, in this essay, Dr. Tennent uses the term “redemption” to mean not the atoning work of Christ that is sufficient for all, but the justifying/saving work of Christ applied to the believer. This is not the sense in which the Wesleys used the term “redemption” and therefore, I find it plausible that the Pope may not have been using the term in that way either.

    Are the Catholics who are “helping” the pope being genuine? I think that is highly likely. Was the Pope being clear? Yes… and no.

    For me, this issue of clarity is the really interesting part of this discussion. It seems to me that the Pope uses words and propositions that are theologically precise and orthodox but that he knows will be interpreted in “broader” ways in the cultural context in which he is operating. In this case, it is highly likely that the Pope was actually saying that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, and not that salvation is universal. However, I think it is highly likely that the Pope was also aware that most of his audience would hear a different message – one of universal salvation rather than universal redemption. This is because for the 21st century citizen of the English-speaking world, “redemption” and “salvation” – when used as Christian terms – are synonyms. Any distinction that John Wesley and the Pope feel is lost on us.

    Why would the Pope do this? I believe that the Pope may see this as an evangelism technique. He is not watering down the truth or teaching heresy or unorthodox doctrine. Rather, he is sharing orthodox theology in a way that may result in broader interpretation by those who are not believers or not Catholics. As a technique, this guards against immediate rejection of the Pope’s statements and generates debate. Upon further inspection – for those who are interested enough to “journey further” with the Pope – the true meaning of these statements becomes clear.

    Isn’t this what also happened when the Pope proclaimed: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” This statement is by no means in contradiction with the polity and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but because of the way we use the word “judge” in the 21st century, there are those who might see in this statement an openness to change that isn’t really there. In seeing what isn’t there, they may “take another look” at the Pope and the church.

    If this is a technique of the Pope, I am torn on whether I like it or not. Isn’t this a somewhat inauthentic, slippery, and untruthful way of speaking? It reminds me somewhat of the so-called “Neo-Orthodoxy” I grew up with in the UMC where the pastor used orthodox terms, but did not intend their orthodox meaning. Or, is this more like the parable technique of Jesus? His parables had an intentional and true meaning, but they can be easily misunderstood, and sometimes even the apostles had to inquire further of Jesus to truly understand them.

    • Absolutely right! Wonderful observations. I am in full agreement. I wonder if the Pope is deliberately rejecting an overly Westernized post-Enlightenment obsession with theological precision/distinctions on purpose (a method frequently used by liberationists of all stripes) to force us to think creatively and “artistically” about the nature of the gospel message. He obviously enjoys playing the role of the provocateur among the religious establishment — but then so did Jesus.

  11. The more of Pope Francis’ words I hear and read, the more I am convinced that he indeed is our “Protestant Pope”. The Church has some truly trying times ahead.

  12. It is important that everyone know that Jesus died for ALL. Perhaps, that is the message the pope wanted everyone to hear? However, I don’t believe God forces us to love Him, to want Him, nor to share eternity with Him. Sadly, rejecting God’s perfect love is possible. Jesus paid the price for ALL of our sins. But, my understanding is God does not force us to accept that sacrifice.

  13. If the table if filled with bread and I choose to pass it by without taking any for my nourishment am I filled anyway? NO! Scripture is very plain in stating that belief in Christ is the only way to salvation. I must pick up the “bread” and eat it to have nourishment from it. The Lord will not force it down my throat, I must want it enough to take & eat.

    • God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27 NIV)

      Ezekiel seems to describe the human heart as unwilling (“heart of stone”) and God as causing us to “pick up the ‘bread’ and eat” “(I will put my Spirit within you and move you to follow…”)

  14. I’m not confident that you have clearly articulated the difference between the inclusivist and the universalist. Karl Rahner was, for example, the former, but not the latter. The inclusivist holds out HOPE that all may be redeemed (i.e. C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce), but still holds out the possibility of rejecting Christ’s redeeming work through free human agency. You muddle inclusivists with pluralists — the Pope is the former (when you define it correctly), but NOT the latter. It is the pluralist and the universalist that ultimately deny human agency, free will, and the need for holiness, not inclusivists. I do not hear the Pope proclaiming the universalism you are putting into his mouth.

  15. Jesus Christ did not come to earth to die a terrible death so that people could then sin without personal consequences. He came to earth to redeem mankind and thereby make it possible for all mankind (male and female) to imitate His obedience to His Father’s commandments and thereby inherit eternal life. Most people will not inherit eternal life due to individual personal choices. Unrepentant evildoers do not inherit eternal life after they die. Luke 9:23, Matthew 10:38, Luke 13:22-27, Matthew 7:21-23

  16. Hi Timothy. I’ve just come across a rather convincing interpretation in catholicstand.com — worth checking out I think. Having a very “Methodist” sensitivity, I’m very interested in growing, or being “perfected in love” and think there is a relationship with thinking of redemption as freeing a person from the bondage of sin so that we might then grow in love and what some are saying Francis meant. It is all extremely interesting. I think a great dialogue may have been begun because of his comments.