men, not professing the Christian religion, [cannot] be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested [Westminster Confession of Faith, 10.4]
There was a time in the not too distant past when evangelical leaders were in agreement regarding the eternal destiny of the unevangelized masses of mankind. Their commonly-held view was that people, absent personal faith in Jesus Christ, are lost.
This belief was one of the chief motives that drove the entire evangelical missionary enterprise. It was not at all uncommon to hear these leaders speak of a “lost and dying world” or an “unsaved world.” Today this view is called “exclusivism” in the sense that it restricts salvation exclusively to those who consciously trust Christ. But increasing numbers of spokesmen for evangelicalism today are stating either that such exclusivism simply is not Biblically defensible, or that the Bible is not clear about the eternal state of the adherents of other religions.
They are opting for what they call “inclusivism,” the teaching that God’s mercy is so wide that it can and does embrace many, if not all, non-Christian religionists on the globe—a doctrine, as we have just read, that the seventeenth-century framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith described as “very pernicious” and “to be detested,” a judgment that the Confession is not inclined often to make, particularly with the adverb “very.” Before we look at this “downgrade” trend within Evangelicalism, I want to say something about this teaching within Theological Liberalism and Roman Catholicism.
Theological Liberalism’s Doctrine of Religious Pluralism
Theological liberalism’s doctrine of religious pluralism is best represented by John Hick, who first offers a too-facile, almost glib, explanation regarding how it came about that Jesus, though only a man, came to be regarded as God:
It was natural and intelligible both that Jesus, through whom men had found a decisive encounter with God and a new and better life, should come to be hailed as son of God, and later this poetry should have hardened into prose and escalated from a metaphorical son of God to a metaphysical God the Son.
Hick then argues that the “evolved” belief of the Christian church that Jesus is both God the Son incarnate and the only Savior of mankind
did little positive harm so long as Christendom was a largely autonomous civilization with only relatively marginal interaction with the rest of mankind. But with the clash between the Christian and Muslim world, and then on an ever broadening front with European colonization throughout the earth, the literal understanding of the mythological language of Christian discipleship has had a diverse effect upon the relations between that minority of human beings who live within the borders of the Christian tradition and that majority who live outside it and within other streams of religious life….
If Jesus was literally God incarnate, and if it is by his death alone that men can be saved, and by their response to him alone that they can appropriate that salvation, then the only doorway to eternal life is Christian faith. It would follow from this that the large majority of the human race so far has not been saved…. Is not such an idea excessively parochial, presenting God in effect as the tribal deity of the predominantly Christian West?… It seems clear that we are being called today to attain a global religious vision which is aware of the unity of all mankind before God…we
must affirm God’s equal love for all men and not only for Christians….
If, selecting from our Christian language, we call God-acting-towards-man the Logos, then we must say that all salvation, within all religions is the work of the Logos…. But what we cannot say is that all who are saved are saved by Jesus of Nazareth. The life of Jesus was one point at which the Logos…has acted…. From now onwards…we have to present Jesus…in a way compatible with our new recognition of the validity of the other great world faiths as being also, at their best, ways of salvation. We must therefore not insist upon Jesus being always portrayed within the interpretative framework built around him by centuries of Western thought.
Christians, of course, should normally support legal tolerance toward other world religions, that is to say, they should actively support laws that adequately protect the rights of the individual to profess, practice, and propagate his religious views, with due allowance, of course, for the protection of the citizenry from excesses of religious fanaticism that would inflict bodily harm upon others. Christians should also cultivate in themselves and encourage in others social tolerance toward other faiths of the world, that is to say, they should respect other world faiths and seek to understand them and to encourage the same in others toward the Christian faith. But when it comes to intellectual tolerance, that is, the cultivation of a mind so broad that it can tolerate every religious view as of equal truth without ever detecting anything in any of them to reject, this “is not a virtue; it is the vice of the feeble-minded.”
It begs the entire question of truth. For if Jesus is in truth both God incarnate (Acts 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; John 1:1, 18; 20:28; 1 John 5:20) and the only Savior of mankind, as the Bible teaches us he is, and if the Church would be governed by truth, it must continue to insist that Jesus is uniquely God. Historically, his uniqueness resides in his birth, his sinless life and sacrificial death, his resurrection and ascension, his present session at the Father’s right hand, and his return as the eschatological Judge and Savior of mankind. Theologically, his uniqueness resides in his deity, the incarnation, the atonement, and the several aspects of his exaltation. Therefore, the Church must continue to proclaim Jesus as the only saving way to the Father, as he said (John 14:6), his the only saving name among men, as Peter said (Acts 4:12), and his the only saving mediation between God and man,
as Paul said (1 Timothy 2:5).
Furthermore, the Church must declare that the goal the religious pluralist so devoutly seeks—a universal religious brotherhood binding all men everywhere joyously together in one world of common humanity—is, on his grounds, unobtainable, not only because such pluralism does not transform the human heart, but also because only the truth deserves to be universally proclaimed and universally received. Without truth, which by its nature is exclusive, unique, and final, there can be no universal significance or power in the pluralist’s appeal, and his appeal is bound to fail. And any religious unity, if it is achieved, will have to be finally imposed upon men against their will (see Revelation 13:11-17).
To abandon Biblical Christological teaching in favor of a religious pluralism, if Christ is indeed uniquely God incarnate, is tantamount to the gravest breach of the First Commandment, and it will involve one in unspeakable infidelity to Jesus Christ the Lord of Glory who, according to Holy Scripture, wears a diadem out-rivaling all the diadems of all the world’s great religious and political leaders. To do so, in a word, would mean that the Church has simply ceased to be Christian at all! The Christian Church can afford to follow the modern call for intellectual religious pluralism only at the greatest cost to itself and to the world to which Christ, the King and Lord of the Church, commissioned it to go (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). Moreover, to follow this call would be to set the Church on a course that can only lead it to religious frustration and failure, and in the end to divine judgment…
The Bible is solicitous that Christians understand that the nations are lost, unsaved, and perishing without God. They are under divine condemnation, not just because they have never heard of Christ, but more primarily because they are transgressors of God’s holy law. Christians should pray that God will melt their own hearts and remove all that would blind their eyes that they may see their world as it really is—a world on a collision course with the flames of divine judgment! And they should pray that God will empower them and send them to that world with the “good news” of his redeeming love in Christ who is the only true Savior of mankind.
As I bring this essay to a close I feel compelled to ask now the following question: If you and I really believe that the world’s masses must, individually and personally, consciously trust Jesus Christ’s doing and dying if they would be saved from the wrath of God, what are we personally doing to bring that message to them? I would remind you that Christ, the Lord of the Church, declared: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37; see Luke 10:2). He also stated: “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).
Let us be clear about the spiritual condition of these “fields ripe for harvest.” We may not like it, we may instinctively recoil against it, but the Bible wants us to realize (and to act on this realization) that these “ripe fields” are the multitudes of lost, unsaved peoples of this world, perishing without a saving knowledge of Christ. They are under divine condemnation, not just because they have never heard about Christ, but more primarily because they are sinners by nature, by habit, and by practice. Some of you may already be doing what you can to reach them with the good news of the Gospel, and I thank God for that.
But if we are Christians we must all become involved in witnessing to friends and neighbors about Christ and doing what we can to spread the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, for repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in Christ’s name to all nations (Luke 24:47) since salvation is to be found in no other name under Heaven than his (Acts 4:12). We must also be more faithful in supporting with our prayers and our money—even more than we have in the past—Christ-preaching, Bible-believing missionaries on the mission fields of the world. Which is just to say, if we cannot go ourselves, we must do what we can to enable others to go. (Online source)
Robert L. Reymond