Accessibilism and missionary motivation

Gospel exclusivists frequently express grave concern that, if Christians were to believe that God saves some people who do not hear the gospel from a human messenger, they would become unwilling to make the costly sacrifice that the missionary mandate requires of Jesus’ followers. Since reaching accessibilist convictions myself, I have taken that concern seriously because I would be extremely sorry if I contributed to any diminishment of the church’s commitment to global evangelism. Growing up in a missionary home in India, I wanted to be a missionary myself from as early as I can remember. That goal was reached during 16 years of missionary service with my wife and it now continues into the next generation through one of our sons.

At its core, I believe that the gospel exclusivist concern on this matter is evidence of a badly truncated view of the church’s mission. In particular, it ignores the importance of the church as God’s normal instrument for the maturation of the disciples of Jesus and for the advancement of God’s redemptive program in the world. Given my perspective, I was happy to read a blog post from Roger Olson today in which he addressed this issue with his characteristic passion. He considers it a litmus test for true Christianity.

Roger writes:

The typical scenario falls out something like this (and it actually happened again recently):

A person who claims to be a mature, knowledgeable Christian attacks ANY idea that God might forgive ANYONE without their explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ (by name) and confession of him as Lord (by name).  And the person suggests that anyone who thinks otherwise might not be a Christian or at least is not an evangelical Christian.

Because people know or suspect I’m an inclusivist (who reserves the right to interpret that my own way which is not necessarily the same as some other people’s way) they come up to me after I talk or they contact me via e-mail or whatever to assert restrictivism as the only biblical view.

Usually, somewhere in the conversation the person (as happened recently) claims that IF there is any hope of salvation for the unevangelized, that would undermine missions and evangelism. Then I pull out my litmus test question:

“If God revealed to you in a way you could not deny that, indeed, many will be forgiven who never hear the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, what would be your response with regard to missions and evangelism?”

It’s amazing how many people who claim to be born again immediately (as recently) say something like “I wouldn’t bother with it anymore.”

My response is always to press further before making a decision (which I usually keep to myself) about the authenticity of the person’s Christianity. For example: “Really? So you don’t think there’s any reason to tell people about Jesus Christ other than to save them from going to hell?”

At that point most will pull back a little and says something like, “Well, maybe, but not enough to risk my life.” (This is what my most reason interlocutor said by way of response.)

My sad conclusion then is that such a person knows Jesus only in their head and not really in their heart. They may be forgiven, but I cannot believe they have experienced God inwardly. (Do I sound like a Pietist? Thank you. I am one.

If at this point you’re hesitating and thinking “Boy, Roger sounds very judgmental here,” let me be clear: I don’t think I’d question someone’s salvation based on that alone, but stop and ask yourself what it means to be “saved.” Is “salvation” just enjoying God’s forgiveness and that’s all? Is salvation just being forgiven so that you have “fire insurance?” Or is there more to salvation than that?

. . .

IF a person really believes that there would be no reason to risk his or her life to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who MIGHT be forgiven without hearing the message of the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, then I question whether that person has experienced salvation in its fullness.

In other words, I am arguing that full salvation, and therefore true Christianity, involves MORE than merely being forgiven; it involves being transformed (not perfected). This is so “everywhere” in the New Testament (and in the Psalms!) that it doesn’t even need proof texting.

You can read the whole of Roger’s post here.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

3 replies on “Accessibilism and missionary motivation”

Hi Professor,

I’m not sure how clearly I can articulate my response to Dr. Olson, but here goes.

“Dr. Olson, if you believe people can be “saved from hell” without ever hearing the gospel preached, why stop there? Why not also believe that they can be brought to maturity without the aid of missionaries? I believe the message of salvation from hell is part and parcel of the gospel that also brings me to maturity. It seems you have separated what belongs together – the narrow message of salvation from hell from the broader message of transformation by the Holy Spirit. If missions are not necessary for the one, why are missions required for the other?

“The NT (and Psalms!) express the continuity between first trusting in God through Christ and then growing in this trust. You seem to say that the initial trusting in God without explicit knowledge of Christ is possible, but that the inseparable transformation is not possible without the explicit teaching of the Scriptures through mission work. I don’t understand why you think these can be separated.”

I’m not too conversant regarding accessibalism and am very sympathetic to the idea. I just don’t see how Dr Olson’s response is helpful.

You raise a good question Bill. I can’t speak for Roger Olson but, since I agree with him in regard to the revelation necessary for justifying faith, I’ll give my own response which, I suspect, would approximate the one he would give.

Put simply, the revelation needed for justification is less extensive than that which is needed for sanctification and service. Were this not the case, much of the church’s work in teaching God’s Word for the building up of the body of Christ would be unnecessary.

Personally, I would emphasize particularly the issue of service. One of the great privileges God gives to his covenant people is to be his fellow-workers with him in the world. God does some work even through the unregenerate, to whom he gives “common grace” for that purpose. But the church is God’s primary agency for the extension of his rule, in this age. The gifts that God’s Spirit gives to members of the church, and the knowledge that he communicates through Scripture, are the primary means through which God matures members of Christ’s visible body, and through which God works against the Adversary, and against sin and its effects in the world. Where people are united in a church body, growing in their knowledge of God through Scripture and the work of the Spirit, amazing things happen both inside the church and through the church.

Just because God may justify some people through giving repentance and faith in response to very elementary forms of revelation is no reason for deciding not to be obedient to Christ’s commission to disciple the nations and baptize them in the name of Jesus, teaching them all the truth that God has revealed to us.

I wonder, Terry, if exclusivism (or restrictivism) deos not undermine missions more than icnlusivism does. If God is so determined to send people to Hell, why are we trhying to stop him? But if indeed God seeks to bring all people to himself, why would we not want to join him in his great reconciling mission? I don’t remember if you are the one who pointed this out to me, but I note that in missions history missionaries did not regularly use “saving people from Hell” as a missionary motivation before Hudson Taylor. Taylor did use this argument regularly. I suspect that he did so because he saw accurately that the English Church was starting to lose its missionary fervour. So this motivation is primarily tactical in order to galvanize a church that is growing cold. Paul, on the other hand, gives “Christ’s love compels me” as his basic motivation. That love does not ask these questions about who can be saved, but overflows to everyone in every place — unable to stop anywhere! To put it another way, the necessary step to recapture a vital missionary outreach in the North American Church is the revival of the North American Church: Missions and revival are two sides of the same coin.

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