Pluralism, Inclusivism, and Exclusivism: Which Is It?

April 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

Have you ever been witnessing or just discussing religion with someone who responded with these objections to your view that salvation is exclusively through Christ? (These objections are from part one on chapter one in Keller).

 “All major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing.”

“Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”

“Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be ‘truth.’”

“It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it.”

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in December that 52% of American Christians surveyed believe that people from some non-Christian faith can be saved.

A staggering one out of two does not believe that salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ.

In an interview with USA Today, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisvillesaid “that much of this confusion can be traced to the superficiality that marks far too many evangelical pulpits. The disappearance of doctrinal understanding and evangelical demonstration can be traced directly to the decline in expository preaching and doctrinal instruction. A loss of evangelistic and missionary commitment can be fully expected as a direct result of this confusion or repudiation of the Gospel.”

There are several versions of this rejection of Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation. The first version is pluralism which teaches that every person is going to heaven no matter what he believes. Pluralism says there are many paths to God who may be called either Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus. An example of pluralism is Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah grew up in a Baptist church where she developed her speaking abilities. She now holds five one hour-long services a week with an audience of 10 million. What is her message? Jesus Christ is not the only way to Heaven. One clip in The Church of Oprah video shows Oprah blatantly denying Jesus as the only way to God.

“How can there be only one way to heaven or to God?” Oprah asked her audience in a previously taped show.

One woman in the audience asked, “What about Jesus?”

Oprah defiantly answered, “What about Jesus?…There couldn’t possibly be one way.”

That may be the gospel of Oprah, but that is not the Gospel of John. Jesus said that there is only one path to heaven in John 14:6 and He is that path: “I am the (not a) way, the (not a) truth, and the (not a) life, no man comes to the Father, but by me.” This statement in the Gospel of John is significant since John wrote the Gospel to tell people who Jesus is the Son of God and believing in him you can be saved (20:31). Either Jesus is the Son of God and the only way of salvation as he said in John 14:6 or he is a liar.

The apostles followed the example of Christ in preached exclusivity: Acts 4:12 “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name [not Buddha, Mohammed, nor Moses] under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

In addition to pluralism there is inclusivism which is not as board as pluralism. Inclusivism teaches that people are saved because of the death and grace of Christ, but people from other religions will be saved who never heard of Jesus “through no fault of their own.”

One form of inclusivism (sometimes called accessibility) states that salvation is through nature or general revelation. This is the view of Terrance L. Tiessen:

“All who have ever been saved, who are now being saved, or who ever will be saved, are saved because Jesus Christ died and rose again for them…. Nevertheless, God does not require a faith that would be impossible for anyone by virtue of their ignorance. In the Day of Judgment, God will hold all people accountable for their response to the revelation that was made available to them, and only for that revelation. God may graciously save some who do not believe in Jesus as Savior if they are ignorant of him through no fault of their own.”

Does God save people who have only general revelation from nature and not the special revelation of the death, burial, and resurrection Jesus Christ? Paul answers that question in Romans 1:20: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and deity: so that they are without excuse.” If a person dies without hearing and responding to the special revelation of the gospel that person is without excuse. Instead of general revelation being sufficient to save if someone has never heard of Christ, general revelation is sufficient only to condemn.

Tiessen continues, “All people meet Jesus Christ personally at the moment of death, and they respond to him in a manner consistent with the response they had been giving to God and His revelation during their lifetime. At that moment, those who had received forms of revelation less complete than the gospel but who had responded in faith, by a work of the Holy Spirit, will joyfully find in Christ the fulfillment of all their hopes and longings” (Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religious, Downers Grove, IVP. 2004, 478).

Can people be saved after death? In Luke 16:26, Jesus told the story of the rich man in Hell. The rich man in Hell asked Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and just put one drop of water on his tongue. Abraham responded: “Between me and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from there.” There is no purgatory, postmortem like second chance.

Some are agnostic about the fate of those who die never having heard the special revelation of the gospel.

John Stott, the famous British pastor and widely read author, expressed his agnosticism: “The fact is that God, alongside the most solemn warnings about our responsibility to respond to the gospel, has not revealed how he will deal with those who have never heard it” (David Edwards and John Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Downers Grove, IVP, 1988, 327).

Both Spencer Burke and Brian McLaren also totally repudiate Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive “way, the truth, and the life.”

The Scriptures have declared with certainty the eternal future of those who are not reached with the gospel. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned” because they were born sinners (Romans 5:12). The result of those who die in this universal sin condition (including those who never heard) is eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23a); unless that sinner places faith in Christ and receives the gift of eternal salvation (Romans 6:23b). How can sinners be saved by faith in Christ? Not by nature’s outstretched hand pointing to a higher power. Someone has to give them gospel (Romans 10:13-15). If you have any doubts about this subject take the time to carefully read and study these verses.

Because Paul believed his inspired by God Words in Romans 10:13-15, he traveled on three missionary journeys in Acts. Paul did not qualify these verses in Romans 10:13-15 saying, “If you missionaries cannot make it to the field, don’t worry about it all religions are equal or at death they can receive Christ.” Pluralism and inclusivism are not the Scriptural views on salvation.

Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition makes another important point: I am not saying that unbelievers are punished because they did not put faith in a Jesus they never heard of. This may sound like the opposite of exclusivism, but it’s not. This is actually a crucial point that exclusivists and their opponents often miss. Those who never hear the gospel are not punished for not knowing Jesus. Not knowing Jesus results in punishment, but sin is the grounds for punishment. Those who do not put faith in Christ are punished for being sinners. They are punished in the next life for turning the truth of general revelation into a lie (Rom. 1:18-25). They have broken God’s law, and anyone guilty of even one violation is accountable for the whole law (James 2:10). Those with no knowledge of Christ will be judged less severely because they had less light, though that judgment will still be far from painless (Matt. 11:20-24). Our only hope in life and in death is that we are not our own but belong body and soul to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

Exclusivism is the clear teaching of Scripture. There is only one way of salvation, and that is exclusively through faith in Christ. Does this mean that the person who has never heard the gospel is without hope?

While general revelation is insufficient to save it does point to God as Psalm 19:1 says: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” If a person responds to the light in nature, because God is just, He will give more light or make sure the gospel gets to that person.

Cornelius is an example in Acts 10. Inclusivists believe that Cornelius was a believer before Peter preached the gospel to him. They say that 10:2 describes him as “devout.” Also, inclusivism is heard in 10:34-35, when Peter preached that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears him, and works righteousness, is accepted with him.” This is John Sanders’ view: “Cornelius was already a saved believer before Peter arrived but he was not a Christian believer” (John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992, 254).

This conclusion is incorrect for several reasons. First, in Acts 2:5, Luke describes the Dispersion Jews who were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost as “devout.” After Peter preached, 3000 of them got saved. “Devout” as used by Luke only means a person is religious. Also, after Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and the Gentiles were saved, Peter returned to Jerusalem and related this ground breaking event to the Jewish leaders. He recounted how the angel told Cornelius that a man named Peter would come to his house and he “shall tell you words, whereby you and all your house shall be saved” (11:14). The angel used the future tense about Cornelius’ salvation. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, Cornelius was not saved; when Peter left, Cornelius was. So Cornelius was not saved apart from or before he heard the gospel.

When Peter preached that God is no respecter of persons and that “in every nation” God accepts persons, Peter was referring to examples like Cornelius. Peter did not mean every person in every nation is accepted by God no matter his religion. In Acts 4:12, Peter said Jesus is the only way. Cornelius is an example of a person who responded to the light he had in general revelation and God in His justice and fairness gave him more light (the special revelation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ). There is hope for those who have never heard. God providently leads missionaries or believers here in America to those responding to the insufficient light of general revelation to give them the sufficient light of the special revelation of the gospel.

God is not only just and fair but God is love. God’s concern for the lost has been demonstrated when He gave His Son to die for the sins of all people, including those who have not heard. “It is not His will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The love of God and the death of Christ are inclusive of all sinners. His salvation is exclusive for only those who receive Christ as Savior.

Tim White

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  1. Back to the Basics Series: How We Got Our English Bible, Part 1 | Dr Tim White - August 21, 2013

    […] hand pointing to God.” Nature is a giant billboard declaring, “There is a God.” General revelation, however, is sufficient to condemn the sinner but not sufficient to save. Paul declared this […]

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