A Matter of Life or Death: Theological Precision

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At what might be one of the most ornate churches in London, England, with the tombs of many famous people including Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth the first, and William Wilberforce, there is a special memorial for the “Unknown Soldier.” It is surrounded by poppies and unlike any of the other memorials which form the floor, this one cannot be walked on. The four inscriptions on the top, sides, and bottom of the memorial read:

The Lord knoweth them that are his (top)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (side)
Greater love hath no man than this (side)
In Christ shall all be made alive (base)

What message did the 1,664,850 visitors who visited Westminster in 2015 receive in these words? Let's explore this a bit further, especially as the way this is read could have eternal consequences for readers who might just think they are a bit more in God's favor than they actually are. Theological precision matters: eternally. Here are the texts:

The Lord knoweth them that are his

This text is found in 2 Timothy 2:19, where the Apostle Paul is giving his under-study, Timothy, instructions on how to be a workman approved by God, especially in light of those who have swerved from the truth. Timothy is to focus on teaching and preaching truth, even in the face of false teaching, and Paul encourages Timothy to do so in the light that God knows his own elect. What this passage does not teach is that all people, even unknown soldiers who fought valiantly, are necessarily known by God in a saving manner. Yet the inscription could be read this way.

Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live

In this passage from 2 Corinthians 6:9, the Apostle Paul is defending his apostolic ministry in the face of fierce opposition, bodily weakness, and discouragement. Yet he is encouraged in Christ, from whom he derives his life-source. What this passage does not teach is that unknown soldiers necessarily are alive in Christ. Yet the inscription could be read that way.

Greater love hath no man than this

In John 15:13, Jesus sets the standard for the greatest of sacrifices, in which he the God-Man will willingly surrender to the humiliation of death on a cross, and he will do so to purchase with His own blood the people that the Father his given to Him. What this passage does not teach is that unknown soldiers match, even as sacrificial as their lives might have been, the sacrifice of Jesus. Yet the inscription could be read this way.

In Christ shall all be made alive

The complete verse from which this inscription is derived reads, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive…” (1 Corinthians 15:22). That is to say, it compares two “alls.” It compares the “all” who by virtue of being sons and daughters of Adam and the fall of the human race, will die eternally. Secondly, it says that “all” will be made alive who are in Christ. But is this a promise of universal salvation as the inscription could be interpreted, and is likely being interpreted by many? The wider context of the Bible will simply not allow it. Consider Daniel 12:2 and John 5:28-29

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

According to these two texts, all people will be resurrected. Some to live forever in eternal bliss with the Triune God, and others will live in a perpetual death away from God in judgment.

A synopsis of the inscriptions

All of the inscriptions take parts of Scriptural texts and when assembled together could well read this message:           

If you are a soldier who has laid down your life for your country, regardless of how known or unknown you are, you will get a reward of everlasting life.

This sounds great on first flush but it is nothing more than sentimental humanism, distant from the Biblical text. Could the same be said for parts, or the entirely, of my or your sermons, or presentations of the Gospel?

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