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.
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.