Once we understand that Jesus Christ alone mediates salvation (1 Tim. 2:5), we are immediately confronted with the issue of the extent of His mediatorial office. Simply put, does the Savior mediate salvation for all people who will ever live or is His work of mediation limited to certain individuals? The question is a pressing one because we know that Adam plunged the entire human race into sin and misery (Rom. 5:12–21). If Adam’s fall had an effect on all people, does the work of the last Adam, Jesus Christ, save everyone?
The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this issue in question and answer 20, using today’s passage and others to remind us that the salvific benefits of Jesus’ atonement are limited to a particular people. As Jesus tells us in John 3:36, only those who believe in Him receive eternal life; those who do not obey Him remain under God’s wrath. There is a close connection between belief and obedience in this verse, which indicates that although we must distinguish between belief and obedience when it comes to our justification (Gal. 2:15–16), we may never separate them when we speak of the Christian life. Our works do not in any sense earn us a right standing with the Father, but only the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which we receive by faith alone (2 Cor. 5:21). Still, faith immediately proves itself by obedience to our Savior, and if we have no obedience, we lack saving faith (James 2:14–26).
Since Jesus Himself commands us to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14–15), even placing our faith in the Lord is an act of obedience, although not in the sense that it earns our salvation. We do not work faith in ourselves — it is the gift of God, and all who have been given this gift inevitably exercise it unto salvation. Thus, the Lord alone gets the glory for our redemption (Eph. 2:8–10).
John Calvin comments, “If it be the office of Christ to save what was lost, they who reject the salvation offered in him are justly suffered to remain in death.” Scripture teaches universalism when it comes to humanity’s fallenness, but it does not teach universalism regarding salvation. Redemption is limited to those who are in Christ — those who rest on Him alone for salvation and prove this faith by putting His words into practice (1 Cor. 15:22).
Paul, the great Apostle of justification by faith alone, commends the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) not because faith is a meritorious work that earns salvation but because to trust in Jesus alone is to follow His command. In obeying this command for faith, we actually reject any attempt to make a claim upon God for salvation, for true faith recognizes that we do not deserve His favor and must rely on the righteousness of Jesus for eternal life.