This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hello Dr. Craig,
My question concerns the necessity of faith for salvation. Specifically, if God is perfectly loving and Christ's atonement for the sins of the world is sufficient for the justification of all human beings, how can it be that God requires faith on the part of the individual in order that they might be saved? If God truly does have a universal salvific will, and the blood of Christ has the potential to cover all the sins of humanity, what is stopping God from forgiving all the sins of all people? It would seem that both God's love and justice could still be satisfied under this scenario; love, because God's universal salvific will is fully realized; justice, because the blood of Christ atones for all the sins of mankind, regardless of whether each individual repents of their sin and accepts that such an atonement exists.
I ask because in your debate about the nature of God with Shabir Ally, you pointed out that the Muslim conception of God sees His omnipotence trumping His justice, such that His justice can be subverted if He so chooses. You point out that it then becomes inexplicable why God only forgives the sins of certain people, unless He only loves certain people. It seems to me that for the Christian, this dilemma is also applicable, since Christ's atonement satisfies God's justice. Without His justice preventing Him from forgiving sins, it becomes inexplicable why God doesn't forgive the sins of all people, unless He only loves certain people.
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
As I explain in my forthcoming longer book on the atonement, I think that God has forgiven everyone’s sins on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary payment of our penalty and that therefore the demands of both His essential love and justice are satisfied. But like a presidential pardon, divine forgiveness must be freely accepted in order to be efficacious. U.S. courts have ruled that a pardon cannot be forced on a criminal; he must accept it in order for it to have its effect. The President “cannot under existing law make a full pardon effective without the consent of the prisoner. The latter must be willing to receive and accept a full pardon before it can be put into effect.” That’s why, prior to his pardon of Richard Nixon, President Ford sent a secret emissary to Nixon to ensure that he was willing to accept both the pardon and the guilt implied by it. Nixon said that he was so willing. Had Ford issued the pardon and Nixon rejected it because he wanted his day in court, the pardon would have been null and void.
The theological analogue to this situation concerns whether a divine pardon must be accepted in order to be efficacious. Given my commitment to human freedom of the will, I think that it must. Obviously, God is not constrained by some higher law, but He is constrained by human freedom. Theologians have differed on whether God’s grace is intrinsically efficacious and so irresistible by him upon whom it is bestowed or whether grace is extrinsically efficacious and so requires the free consent of the creaturely will in order to produce its effect. I take the latter view. God treats us as significant moral agents who make free moral choices. He would violate His own essential justice if He forced a pardon upon us.
Because it is Christ and not we who has discharged the sentence for our sins, our redemption is not accomplished unless and until we freely receive God’s pardon. In contrast to the criminal who has been pardoned after fully serving his sentence, we remain in our state of judicial condemnation until we accept the pardon offered us by God. If anyone refuses the pardon offered by God, then Christ’s sacrifice avails him nothing, for he has rejected the satisfaction of God’s justice wrought by Christ. Thus, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5.17).
By contrast, on the Muslim view God’s omnipotence trumps God’s justice. He can treat human beings, not as significant moral agents whose choices He respects, but as mere puppets to be manipulated by Him. Here again we see the theological superiority of the Christian conception of God to the Muslim understanding.
 W. H. Humbert, The Pardoning Power of the President, with a foreword by W. W. Willoughby (Washington, D. C. : American Council on Public Affairs, 1941), p. 135.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.