Acts 2 and 10: gospel exclusivist or accessibilist?

Matthew Barrett examined an “inclusivist” reading of Acts 2 and 10 and found it wanting, in his 2011 ETS paper. He has done good work and his critique deserves consideration and response.

Matthew Barrett’s critique of inclusivist readings

Barrett studies Acts 2 because he has met inclusivist proposals that “the Spirit poured out on all flesh demonstrates that there is a saving, universal work of the Spirit even apart from the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1). What Barrett sets out to demonstrate in his ETS paper, however, is that Acts 2 and 10 not only fail to support the inclusivist position, “when read in the context of redemptive history, they actually prove to support the exclusivist view” (2).

The Inclusivist appeal to Acts 2 and 10

Amos Yong cautions “against reading the ‘all’ of Acts 2:17 in an exclusively ecclesiological sense” (Beyond the Impasse, 40), and he believes that the Day of Pentecost is central to correctly understanding “the divine plan to extend the boundaries of those who could be the people of God” (Beyond the Impasse, 38). Yong acknowledges an obvious ecclesiological meaning, but he does not stop there: “The Spirit’s activity across the dimensions of both space – the Spirit’s being poured out upon all people – and time – ‘in the last days,’ stretching from the Day of Pentecost to the coming of the kingdom of God – begs to be understood in a universal sense that transcends (at least the institutional boundaries of) the church” (Beyond, 40). Barrett quotes me as another who cites Acts 2:17 as indication that salvation in the new covenant is not restricted to the church (Who Can Be Saved?, 151), particularly because the Spirit uses general revelation as an instrument of salvation (155-57).

This broad reading of Acts 2 is often considered by inclusivists to be exemplified in the case of Cornelius, in Acts 10, for he was a man who feared God and did what is right (Acts 10:34b-35), and who was “acceptable” to God. John Sanders, for instance, states that “Cornelius was already a saved believer before Peter arrived but he was not a Christian believer” (No Other Name, 254). Clark Pinnock views Cornelius as “the pagan saint par excellence of the New Testament, a believer in God before he became a Christian” (A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 96). Elsewhere, Pinnock writes:

 Cornelius is depicted as a devout man in whose religious life God was already at work and to whose prayers God attended before he heard the gospel (Acts 10:1-8). Such people are in effect believers of other dispensations who await Messianic salvation. They are servants destined to become sons and daughters, as Wesley put it (Flame of Love, 203).

In the same vein, John Sanders posits that “Cornelius was a saved believer before Peter arrived, and he received the blessings that come with a relationship with Jesus” (“Inclusivism,” in What About Those Who Have Never Heard?¸40). In Acts 10:34-35, “Peter now sees that God opens his arms to embrace all those who trust God and seek to follow him as best they know” (“Inclusivism,” 39), a perspective that Sanders finds previously expressed by G. Campbell Morgan who argued that people are not saved because they understand the atonement of Christ, but because they fear God and “work righteousness” (“Inclusivism,” 49; cited by Barrett, 4).

Barrett’s redemptive historical reading of these texts

Acts 2: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”

 Barrett argues that “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is always meant to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Christ” (Acts 1:8; Lk 24:46-49; p.4). “Peter (and Joel for that matter) are not providing fodder for a work of the Spirit in the nations apart from the gospel, but rather are doing the exact opposite, arguing that now that the Spirit has been poured out, salvation has come to everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord, repenting of their sin, that they may find forgiveness in Christ” (5). Peter’s message is “Christologically driven, pointing his hearers to the person of work of Christ who, having been exalted to God’s right hand, has received from the Father “the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33). Consequently, to argue from Acts 2

that the Spirit is being poured out in such a way that even those who never hear the gospel will be saved, is to completely misunderstand why the Spirit is being poured out in the first place, namely, so that many become witnesses, proclaiming not only the death and resurrection of Christ, but that forgiveness is ready for those who repent of their sin and trust in this resurrected Christ. . . . . The gift of the Spirit here [Acts 2:38] is directly and inseparably connected to repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ. . . . The hope of the nations is not, therefore, the gift of the Spirit apart from the saving message of Christ. Rather, the gift of the Spirit only comes when the message of Christ has been received with repentance and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins (6).

The “all flesh” in Acts 2:17 “must be interpreted in new covenant categories,” as a reference to “all without distinction,” rather than “all without exception” (6). The pouring out of the Spirit is a new covenant blessing for those who trust in Christ. Peter had in mind Jews scattered everywhere, rather than Gentiles, though Barrett grants that Gentiles will also share the benefits of the new covenant (Acts 22:21; Eph 2:13, 17, using Isa 57:19), and this is made evident in the difficulty Peter had later accepting Gentiles directly into the new covenant people (7).

Barrett observes that “the response to Peter’s gospel proclamation is repentance,” which he finds different “from the inclusivist position where listeners are already believers but simply need to become Christians. For the inclusivist, it is not biblical repentance but a mere enlightenment that one needs to transition their status from a believer in God in general to a Christian who has faith in Christ specifically” (8).

Acts 10:35, Cornelius and the Gentiles

Barrett spells out his reasons for rejecting an inclusivist understanding of Cornelius as one who was accepted by God (or “saved”) prior to his hearing the gospel. Peter’s later statement (Acts 11:13-14) is deemed critical, particularly the angel’s statement to Cornelius that Peter would “declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and your household” (11:14). From this, Barrett gathers that “fearing God and doing what was right did not mean Cornelius was saved yet” (9).

In Acts 10:43, we read that Peter told Cornelius and his household that “everyone believes in him [i.e., Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Barrett hears Peter to be saying that salvation “only happens upon believing in Christ” (9). Similarly, Barrett concludes that “a person only receives eternal life (which is always associated with salvation) when he repents and believes in Jesus,” from the fact that the Jews who heard what happened to Cornelius and his household said: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18; p. 10).

The same Spirit given to the Jews at Pentecost had now been given to the Gentiles, and Barrett concludes that Cornelius’ household had therefore not experienced “a fuller enlightenment that moves them from the status of a saved believer to a saved Christian, but rather is the initial, conversion experience that a person has when he or she is saved. . . . The reception of the Spirit is the sign that one is now a believer, united to Christ” (10). Of further significance is the baptism of Cornelius and others in his household, which was a sign of internal baptism with the Spirit, and of forgiveness of sins, of passing from death to life.

Although Cornelius was a God-fearer, he was not a proselyte since he had not submitted to circumcision (Acts 11:3) and, in Palestine, “such people were regarded as still pagans by the Jews in Palestine” (11, citing I. H. Marshall, Acts, 183-84, though Barrett does continue Marshall’s quotation which notes that “there appears have been a more liberal attitude in the Dispersion.” What Barrett never mentions, however, is that Marshall believed Cornelius to be saved before Peter arrived). Since Cornelius was “most likely . . . not a proselyte,” Barrett concludes that he was not “a converted believer” (11). Both in Acts 2 and in Acts 10, Peter instructed “devout” Jews “that they must believe in Christ and repent of their sins if they are to be forgiven” (11). Cornelius was “like many other Jews, though he himself was a Gentile,” but “even the most devout Jews were not necessarily saved” (12). Acts 10:28 “does not mean that Cornelius was already saved before he met Peter, but that non-Jews are ‘acceptable’ or welcome to come to Christ on the same basis as Jews” (12, citing David Peterson, Acts, 335-36). God approves of those who seek after him, but they are, nonetheless, “not saved until they find Christ” (13).

In sum:

The purpose of Acts 10 and 11, therefore, is not to convey that unreached people are already saved since they fear God and do what is right. To the contrary, the purpose is to demonstrate that unreached persons are saved by hearing the gospel message, believing in Jesus, and repenting of their sins. Only then do they receive forgiveness and eternal life. (14-15) 

Conclusion

On the basis of the arguments I have summed up above, Barrett is convinced that “in light of both their immediate context and in the context of redemptive history [Acts 2 and 10] actually provide further support to the exclusivist position,” rather than supporting the inclusivist perspective (15).

My analysis of Barrett’s argument

Before responding to Barrett’s work, I need to explain that I will be using the term “accessibilism” in place of his “inclusivism.” These terms refer to essentially the same perspective, but I think that accessibilism identifies more explicitly the main point of that perspective, and its use may help readers to put aside the confusion that often arises because “inclusivism” covers a range of positions. The same can be said of accessibilism, but its relative novelty may help readers to leave behind their assumptions about what this perspective entails and to focus specifically on the particular position from which my response to Barrett arises. Among the documents available at this site is “my typology of positions concerning the salvation of the unevangelized,” and I would be happy to have you refer to that if you are unfamiliar with my general stance. In principle, I fit in type 9 (universal revelation accessibilism), but at least one reader of my book thought I belonged in type 8 (particular revelation accessibilism), and this is understandable because I argue that few if any people in the world are without some form of particular revelation. The bottom line for all forms of accessibilism is the belief that God gives every human being access to revelation which would save them if they responded to it with the sort of faith that God requires from those to whom he reveals himself in that way.

Regarding Acts 2

At this stage in my thinking, I regret that Barrett was able to cite me as agreed with Yong regarding the meaning of Acts 2:17. I do not now read Acts 2 as intending to say anything about the work of God’s Spirit in the hearts of the unevangelized. We are best to leave Acts 2 and Joel’s prophecy out of that discussion. In Joel, we have a new covenant promise that is ecclesiological rather than soteriological. The Spirit worked savingly outside of the old covenant community, and neither Joel nor Peter intended to speak to the issue of whether or not the Spirit continues to work savingly outside of the new covenant community. The promise in Joel, and its fulfillment at Pentecost, certainly have relevance for our understanding of what happened in the house of Cornelius, but not in terms of the question of when Cornelius was saved. So I am distancing myself from the position that some accessibilists have taken regarding Acts 2 and its implications for the unevangelized.

On the other hand, I suggest that Barrett overstates the situation in the opposite direction when he says that “Peter (and Joel for that matter) are not providing fodder for a work of the Spirit in the nations apart from the gospel but rather are doing the exact opposite” (5, emphasis mine). In this statement early in Barrett’s paper, we meet a common logical error to which gospel exclusivists are very prone, and one which reoccurs numerous times in Barrett’s paper. Specifically, that error leads many gospel exclusivists to hear a statement that salvation is given “only to those who hear the gospel,” from statements that salvation is given to those who hear the gospel. John 3 is very clear, for instance, that everyone who believes in Jesus is saved, and that everyone who does not believe in Jesus remains in condemnation. But gospel exclusivists frequently ignore the context, that the incarnate Word had come to his own people and they did not accept him (Jn 1:11). Consistently, the New Testament teaches that faith in Jesus leads to salvation and that rejection of Jesus leaves one in condemnation. But rejection entails knowing about Jesus and not believing in him. There is no warrant for leaping from that point to the assumption that only those who know about Jesus can be saved.

Barrett is correct to say that accessibilists misconstrue Acts 2 “if they argue that the Spirit is being poured out in such a way that even those who never hear the gospel will be saved” (6), That is, as Barrett states, “to completely misunderstand why the Spirit is being poured out in the first place” (6). This is all about the inauguration of the promised new covenant and its people, the church. Barrett is correct, therefore, when he writes: “The gift of the Spirit only comes when the message of Christ has been received with repentance and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (6). Unfortunately, he misses the significance of his own identification of the redemptive historical significance of the new covenant baptism with the Spirit, and so he equates reception of the new covenant Spirit with salvation. But the 120 who were first baptized with the Spirit at Pentecost, as the beginning of the church which is Christ’s body, were all saved before that time, indicating that salvation was not identical with membership in the new covenant community, anymore than it had been identical with salvation in the old covenant community. But we will revisit this point when we talk about Cornelius.

Barrett proposes that “what is so shocking about the word ‘all’ [in Acts 2:17] is not that the Gentiles as well as the Jews have believed (that is to come later in Acts), but rather that every single person in the new covenant who believes in Christ receives the Spirit, something that was just not true of those in the old covenant” (7). I doubt that this is the correct way to understand the situation. Once again, I think that the newness in this situation is not reception of the Spirit in any sense, but distinctive blessing pertaining to the new covenant, the incorporation into the body of Christ which was brought about by Christ’s baptizing believers in/with the Spirit.

The final point made in reference to Acts 2 is that “the response to Peter’s gospel proclamation is repentance,” which is true, but Barrett seriously misconstrues the inclusivist position at this point. He writes:

How different this is from the inclusivist position where listeners are already believers but simply need to become Christians. For the inclusivist, it is not biblical repentance but a mere enlightenment that one needs to transition their status from a believer in God in general to a Christian who has faith in Christ specifically. (8)

What this description misses is that repentance is ongoing, even for believers. Each time God makes himself known to people, he requires a response including appropriate faith and whatever repentance is called for by the conviction of the person’s conscience which the new revelation entails. We see this very explicitly in the Gospel of John, where John repeatedly says of the disciples “and they believed.” People are always on a trajectory, moving toward God or away from him, and our lives continually involve moments of appropriation of God’s revelation, in repentance and faith, or of suppression and rejection, in unbelief and unrepentance. It is true that “in Acts 2:38, repentance means a radical reorientation of life with respect to Jesus, expressing sorrow for having rejected the one accredited by God as Lord and Christ (cf. 2:22-26)” (8). But that is because Peter had preached Jesus to that crowd, and these were the appropriate responses of repentance and faith in that revelatory context.

Later, Peter explained to the crowd in the temple, after the crippled beggar had been healed, that Peter knew that they had “acted in ignorance” (3:17) when they “handed [Jesus] over and rejected [him] in the presence of Pilate” (3:13). But Peter’s purpose is to make them aware of the sinfulness of what they did unintentionally, in their ignorance. As the Spirit convicted them through Peter’s words, making them aware that they had indeed sinned terribly against God’s servant Jesus, they were no longer ignorant and so they needed to repent of their previous actions and to acknowledge the identify of Jesus as the “Holy and Righteous One” (3:14), the “Author of Life” (3:15).

The critical error of gospel exclusivism is that its construct assumes that any repentance and faith short of this belief in Jesus is inadequate for salvation. This runs counter to the reality of God’s cumulative self-revelation in the process of redemptive history, and of the variance in people’s knowledge of God’s revelatory acts. Nothing in these chapters of Acts requires us to assume that everyone who had not previously believed in Jesus as Messiah and Lord lacked the faith of Abraham. Peter himself acknowledged in this text that there was a gap between the acts of God in redemptive history and God’s revelation of the meaning of those acts to individuals. Some of Peter’s hearers may well have been saved with the old covenant faith of Abraham. But, not yet being illumined by the Spirit, they had believed what their religious rulers said concerning Jesus, and they had called for his death as a blasphemer. But, both on Pentecost and later in the temple, the Spirit of God revealed the truth concerning Jesus to the hearts of people, and those who had old covenant faith were enabled to move forward into new covenant faith and repentance. Precisely this sort of development had occurred in the lives of the 11 disciples (excluding Judas), all of whom I think were probably saved when Jesus called them, but not all of whom understood the identity of Jesus immediately. That came about in their minds and hearts according to God’s schedule, and their repentance and faith had to grow accordingly, in content, though not in essential nature.

Regarding Acts 10, Cornelius and the Gentiles

When I read Reformed critiques of accessibilist perspectives about Cornelius, such as Barrett’s, I am frequently fascinated by their failure to mention that many Reformed theologians have believed that Cornelius was saved before Peter arrived in his home. Among these, were John Calvin, Jerome Zanchius, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, W. G. T. Shedd, and more recently Ronald Nash. (References can be found in my 2011 ETS paper, pp. 26-27n49.) Admittedly, most of these theologians were not accessibilists, but they did not read Acts 10 in the way Reformed gospel exclusivists tend to these days, so contemporary accessibilists should not be regarded as radical innovators in their reading of Acts 10, even within the Reformed tradition. Of course, what matters to us all is what careful exegesis of Luke’s work tells us, but at this point there is clearly no Reformed consensus.

Like many gospel exclusivists in our time, Barrett considers it crucial that Peter uses the future tense in Acts 11:14, when he recounts the message of the angel to Cornelius, telling him to send to Joppa for Peter because “he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (9). If the future tense so obviously had the gospel exclusivist intent which Barrett hears in it, however, it is surprising that exegetes as skilled as Calvin and Turretin missed it. The New Testament speaks of salvation in the past, present and future tenses, and I understand this text as a reference to that future sense. The good news which Peter took to the household of Cornelius is what Christ has commissioned us to get to the ends of the earth, throughout this age.

Accessibilism does not diminish the urgency of that task. Even though God saves people by means of less covenantally advanced revelation than the gospel, the benefits that come from the revelation God made in Christ, and the establishment of the church as the new covenant people of God, are immeasurable. Those who believe in God with the faith of Noah, Job, or Abraham, long to know God in the fullness with which he revealed himself in Jesus. We are not able to discern people’s hearts, and it would be silly of us to announce to those to whom we proclaim the gospel that they may already be saved. Our task is to declare the good news of which Christ has made us ambassadors and to pray that God will enable our hearers to believe in Jesus and to join us as his witnesses.

Once again, Barrett falls into the error of making an exclusive statement from a positive one, in his citation of Acts 10:43, where Peter says of Christ that “everyone who believes in him receives forgives of sins through his name” (9). No accessibilist denies this, but they do not leap to the conclusion that only those who know about Jesus and believe in him receive forgiveness of sins. Peter said “everyone who believes in him,” not “only those who believe in him.” Consistently, the New Testament teaches that believing in Jesus brings salvation and that rejecting Jesus leaves people in their condemnation, but such statements speak about people to whom Jesus is revealed and are, at most, silent about the condition of those who neither believe nor reject Jesus because of their ignorance. Believers in Jerusalem who rejoiced because “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) were remarking upon God’s inclusion of Gentiles (as Gentiles!) in the new covenant community, not, as Barrett suggests, that Cornelius had not been saved before Peter preached the gospel in his home (10).

Since the Old Testament did not automatically exclude from God’s saving work people who were not members of the covenant people, unless we are specifically told otherwise concerning the new covenant, we should not assume the situation to be different now. What is very different now, however, is that the new covenant community is a people among whom the old dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. First century Jewish Christians had no biblical reason to deny that God might graciously save a Gentile, what they had to be taught was that membership in the new covenant community was not genealogically defined and that believing Gentiles should be accepted into that community without having to become Jews.

Given the literature by evangelical accessibilists, both Calvinist and Arminian, I find it discouraging to hear Barrett suggest that the gospel of grace is endangered by accessibilism. He writes:

One wonders whether or not an inclusivist can consistently affirm salvation by grace alone if he also insists that devout men like Cornelius were saved before ever hearing the gospel because of their devoutness. Inclusivists are clear that it is because Cornelius is doing what is right that he is acceptable before God, acceptable hear meaning said. But does this not lead us down the road of works-righteousness? Surely this would directly contradict the gospel message whereby we are saved not because of how devout we are or because of our good works but by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. (14n50)

John Calvin explains the situation much better, in his commentary on Acts 10:4, where he concludes that Cornelius was saved before Peter’s instruction since “the fear of God and godliness do plainly prove that he was regenerate by the Spirit.” In his Institutes, Calvin also wrote: “Indeed, Cornelius must have been already illumined by the Spirit of wisdom, for he was endowed with true wisdom, that is, the fear of God; and he was sanctified by the same Spirit, for he was a keeper of righteousness, which the apostle taught to be the Spirit’s surest fruit [Gal 5:5]. All those things in him which are said to have pleased God he received from God’s grace” (Institutes of the Christian Religion. Library of Christian Classics, vols. 19-20 [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960], 3.17.4).

I believe that Francis Turretin also understood correctly the situation of Cornelius:

Although he could not believe that the Messiah had come and was that Jesus whom Peter preached, yet he could believe with the Jews from the oracles of the prophets that he would come. Thus he is not to be reckoned among the Gentiles, but among the patriarchs who looked for salvation from a Redeemer not yet manifested. Hence by the advent of Peter, he did not receive a beginning, but an increase of faith (Institutes, 1.4.19; emphasis mine).

Cornelius was definitely not saved by or on account of his devoutness, but that devoutness, his fear of God, was evidence of God’s work of grace in his heart. The same grace of God that had saved Peter as a Jew, likely before he met Jesus in person, saved Cornelius as a Gentile before he met Jesus through Peter’s preaching. Both Peter and Cornelius were given faith in Jesus by God’s Spirit, when the Spirit revealed the identity of Jesus to them. This, in itself, need not have surprised Peter, but when the Spirit of the risen Christ was poured out upon the household of Cornelius, as he had been on the company of Jews at Pentecost, the ethnic inclusiveness of the new covenant people of God was dramatically demonstrated. That warranted Christian baptism.

Conclusion

Essentially, I agree with Matthew Barrett’s reading of Acts 2:17, but that reading neither proves nor disproves either gospel exclusivism or inclusivism. The story of Cornelius, however, is a very fine example of the way in which God saves people through their faith response to the revelation he gives them, and the way in which God wants people to grow in faith and be included among his visible community in the world, through knowledge of new covenant revelation which leads to faith in Jesus as Lord, the one in whom all the hopes generated by less complete forms of covenantal revelation are fulfilled.

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One Response to Acts 2 and 10: gospel exclusivist or accessibilist?

  1. David stump says:

    It is doubtful god gives a theology exam upon meeting him. The sheep and the goats. ……

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