Where are they coming from? Inclusivism (a repost)

15 Mar

Below is a post on this blog from many many months ago.  In light of the recent (but unsurprising) comment by the Pope regarding the redemption of even atheists on the day of Judgment, I thought I’d repost it:

A couple of years ago, I heard an edition of the White Horse Inn webcast address the subject of inclusivism and how it was being popularized in evangelical circles these days.  They pointed to a Pew Research Survey which indicated that 70% of Americans, and 57% of self-identified evangelicals, agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”  So, is faith in Christ necessary for salvation?  Inclusivists say, not necessarily.

There are at least three views regarding the possibility of salvation outside the context of self-consciously accepting the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (repentance and belief in Jesus).

Exclusivism is the traditional, most straightforwardly biblical, view (sounds so bad doesn’t it?).  It says that there is no “ordinary possibility of salvation” (to use the Westminster Confession’s language) outside of self-conscious faith in Christ.  And we must assume, though we leave salvation to God and condemn no one, that everyone, all men everywhere, are in desperate need of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved from the wrath of God justly due them for their sin.

Universalism is the most liberal, or non-traditional teaching (though Origen in the early church taught it; his views were anathamatized, however).  It simply says that all persons who ever lived will ultimately be saved, or at least avoid eternal punishment (perhaps through annihilation, as John Stott argues).

Inclusivism is often characterized as the optimistic but moderate view of judgment and salvation, and it is the theory to which many evangelicals these days are turning.  Inclusivism acknowledges that not all will be saved, though all are in need of salvation in order to avoid judgment.  It acknowledges that there is no salvation apart from the work of Christ.  Nevertheless, the basis upon which God judges the sinner is not necessarily a profession of faith in Christ, or self-conscious acceptance of the gospel (especially for those who have never heard the gospel).   Instead, God through redemption in Christ, will judge them according to the “light” that they have (this usually means He will judge them based upon what they do with the natural or general revelation that they have, as opposed to the special revelation wherein we get the gospel message).  So what is the criterion for salvation in this system?  That varies.  Roman Catholic inclusivism teaches that good works and sincerity in religion will likely substitute for faith in Christ (so sincere and decent Muslims, for instance).  Evangelical inclusivism, comes in at least two forms as well.  There is the kind promoted by Clark Pinnock (who is famous for leaving Calvinism and embracing not only inclusivism but also openness theology).  But practically, Pinnock’s inclusivism is just as “easy” as the kind of inclusivism of Rome (in both traditions, sincerity in faith, and not content of faith, is the only thing that matters).  I frankly can’t even call that evangelical.  The other version is a “hard” kind of inclusivism, such as that promoted by John Stackhouse at Regent College.  He argues that every person is saved by grace alone through faith alone, but not necessarily self-conscious faith in Christ (though, typically evangelical inclusivists assert that no one anywhere will be saved if they reject the gospel of Christ after it has been presented to them).  But so long as they recognize their guilt as a sinner before a Holy God, their need for a savior (or scapegoat of some sort), their deserving of the wrath of God, their total reliance upon God, and not their own merits, to save them, then explicit faith in Christ is not necessary (Stackhouse likes to point to the Old Testament saints and appeal to covenant theology, in that these believers were believers in the grace of God and need for God alone to save them, but they did not know of or have faith in Christ by name; they were saved because they looked elsewhere, or ahead, for an unnamed savior and others today may look beyond their own age or location as well for an unnamed savior).

I must admit, when I heard Stackhouse’s argument, I was initially a little hopeful that there could be something to this.  After all, other inclusivist arguments made a mockery of evangelism and missions, since they taught that those who never hear are safe.  If that version of inclusivism is true, then we should refrain from informing folk about the gospel whom we suspect have never heard.  But that blatently contradicts the Great Commission and the behavior of Paul (trying desperately to reach those who’ve never heard, the Greeks).  But with Stackhouse, this critique did not work as well.  He uses very evangelical, reformed, sounding arguments.  Christ is prepared to save a person, any person, who acknowledges their guilt, their utter need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness, their need for a subsitute, and so on.  They simply don’t have to know that this God is the God of the bible or that this substitute is the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  So Stackhouse strongly urges us on towards evangelism ad missions, and given his views, I think he does so logically (unlike other Catholic and evangelical inclusivists who simply believe that all who have never heard the gospel will be saved whether we evangelize them or not). As I recall, he promotes missions because he thinks that few people are likely to understand their own need in these terms; that  sin will likely darken man’s apprehension of general revelation to the point that they can’t see their own need as well as they would or could in the light of special revelation (therefore, they are not “safe” without the gospel).  But he leaves open the possibility of salvation in the same way that Old Testament believers were saved by grace alone in faith in God as their sole savior alone, but without explicit faith in Christ as their substitute.    Again, this seems appealing to many evangelicals, even reformed evangelicals.  It was appealing to me.  Moreover, it seems to make sense, especially when the Old Testament saints analogy is drawn.

The problem is, it won’t work.  It won’t work, because this view must simply skip over or ignore explicit teachings about the need for faith in Christ in the New Testament as the exclusive instrument of justification.

Robert Reymond in this brief essay provides a very sound critique of inclusivism of all kinds (including evangelical).  You can listen to the Stackhouse interview by Michael Horton (and another relevant episode) on the White Horse Inn, here.

Assessment: It is important to note that the exclusivist position is normally that there is no “ordinary” means of salvation apart from professed faith in Christ, heard and cultivated in the church of Jesus Christ.  This word, again taken from the Westminster Confession’s summary of biblical teaching, leaves open the question regarding those who can’t profess faith (for instance, infants who die in infancy and the mentally ill).  But since we are not privy to the divine counsels of the Triune God, we must work with the revelation that He has given the church and avoid futile speculations.  And that revelation tells us two things regarding “those who have never heard” the gospel; it tells us that we may leave out hope for the best, but assume the worst, for them.  We may leave out hope for them because we can be sure on scriptural grounds that God is just and will deal with them justly, so that no one on judgment day will second-guess his decisions (either to save them or damn them).  If there is hope for them, it is found in the fact that the God of the universe is good and merciful and that He has chosen to extend the benefits of Christ to them (apart from whom there is no hope).  In either case, we can be sure He will always do what is right and what is consistent with His will and character and what maximizes His own glory and we as His people must be able to live peacefully with that (Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of the earth do what is right?).  If there is hope for them, it is found in the “secret things” that belong to God alone (Deut. 29:29a).  But secondly, and most importantly for practical purposes, the “revealed things” that belong to the church (Deut. 29:29b) indicates that the fate of men without Christ is bleak and we must assume, given the ubiquity of man’s sin, guilt and condemnation, that every man is in danger of eternal judgment unless they repent of their sins and turn to Christ as their only hope for salvation.   We must assume, again on scriptural grounds (Romans 3) , that all men are in a very precarious position, that they are truly sinners in the hands of an angry but good God.  Only this understanding makes sense of the exclusivist language used in scripture and the urgent imperative that all men everywhere must repent and believe the gospel of Christ and that it is the church’s duty and privilege to deliver the gospel to them for the sake of their souls.  The church has not been commissioned to figure out the mind of God or eternal destiny of each individual man.  The church’s commission is great, to go and preach the gospel to all men, baptizing them and teaching them the words of Jesus (Matt. 28:28).

So, let us go and tell the world of the marvelously good news found in Christ alone, pleading with sinners to come to Jesus, warning them of the wrath to come, and testifying to them of the hope that is found within us.  Amen.

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