Why some see gospel exclusivism and others see accessibilism in Scripture

I am always intrigued when sincere believers, committed to the authority of Scripture, and reading it with essentially the same hermeneutic, arrive at different conclusions about what Scripture teaches. It happens re: monergism/synergism, complementarianism/egalitarianism, credo-baptism/pedo-baptism, and on many other points. In recent years, since becoming an accessibilist, I have pondered the matter in regard to the salvation of the unevangelized.

When Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan had a draft of their manuscript of Faith Comes by Hearing finished, Chris offered me a chance to read and comment on it. I was very happy for that opportunity because it is a fine book. If my memory is correct, it was in the process of reading that manuscript that I reached a thesis about the underlying reason for the difference between gospel exclusivist and accessibilist understandings of Scripture. That idea grew more sure in my mind as I read other works in following months. ETS was scheduled to focus on the theme “No Other Name,” at its meeting in November 2011, so I spent considerable time working on a paper unpacking my thesis. I have uploaded a copy of that paper to a new section of “Documents,” and you can read it here if you are interested. The paper is entitled “God’s Covenants: A Ground for Hopefulness Regarding the Unevangelized.”

 Different metanarratives inform the two readings of individual texts

In my paper, I proposed that different metanarratives inform the two readings of Scripture. I believe that it is most natural for synergists (such as Arminians or Molinists) to be accessibilists, but gospel exclusivism comes more easily to monergists. If we believe that God has unconditionally chosen those whom he will save from out of sinful humanity, it is not logically problematic if God does not make available the means of saving revelation to those whom he has not purposed to save. As a Calvinist myself, my particular interest is in the different conclusions reached by gospel exclusivists, on the one hand, and agnostics or accessibilists on the other.

I find no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, nor any that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. Although gospel exclusivists cite numerous texts which appear to them to affirm explicitly what they assert, four problems are common in their interpretation of these texts: first, texts asserting the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour are read as assertions that knowledge of Christ is necessary to benefit from his saving work (eg. Acts 4:12); second, texts asserting the saving efficacy of belief in Jesus are read as assertions that only such fully informed faith can save (e.g. the citation of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:13); third, Scripture is clear that all who believe in Jesus are saved and that all who reject Jesus remain condemned. But it is often not observed that texts which speak of not believing (i.e. rejecting) Jesus are in contexts where knowledge of him is assumed, and so these cannot be extended to refer to the unevangelized (e.g., Jn 3:16-18); and fourth, the context of texts is ignored, as in Romans 10, where Paul rejects, as a possible explanation for widespread unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, that Jews were ignorant of him. So, this much cited text is not speaking of the unevangelized, though it does state clearly the necessity of revelation for saving faith.

I posit that this absence of texts explicitly stating gospel exclusivism is probably the main reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among evangelicals these days. I further propose that the decisive factor which leads some Calvinists to gospel exclusivism, but others to agnosticism or accessibilism, is the different understandings of the metanarrative concerning God’s saving program that they bring to their interpretation of individual texts.

The gospel exclusivist metanarrative

Stephen Wellum is very explicit about the gospel exclusivist understanding of the way in which God’s covenantal work relates to his saving work: “In order for one to benefit from the saving work of Christ, Scripture teaches that one must exercise explicit faith in the covenant promises of God, now, given our place in redemptive history, centered in Jesus Christ” (Faith Comes by Hearing, 146). He states further: “Scripture presents the work of the Spirit always in relation to the Son, entailing that when the Spirit is at work in people, his unique work is to bring people to faith in Christ which must always be viewed in a covenantally defined way” (p. 165).

What Wellum means by “a covenantally defined way” is not clarified but, taking it  together with the earlier statement, it looks like an explicit affirmation that, in order to be saved, one must know the particular revelation related to God’s most recent covenantal activity. This raises the necessary revelational bar very high, for it entails a belief that, as God makes each new self-revelation in connection with his covenant making work, the knowledge derived from previous covenantal revelation ceases to be sufficient for saving faith.

The accessibilist metanarrative

A few factors stand out to me as particularly important in the accessibilist metanarrative that differentiate it from the big picture of gospel exclusivism:

1. Our orienting starting point is the amazing graciousness of the sovereign God.

2. The purpose of God’s particular covenants is not the establishment of the boundaries within which God does his saving work. Rather, the covenant people are God’s specially designated instruments in God’s mission in the world.

3. Because God has not limited his saving work to the boundaries of the covenant people, he has not made essential for saving faith the knowledge of the latest divine self-revelation which he gave to parties to his covenant. The covenant context of salvation grounds hopefulness concerning the salvation of those who are ignorant of God’s latest covenantal revelation because covenant obligations and blessings are according to the covenantal administration under which one lives, by virtue of the revelation that God has made available to an individual.

4. Salvation comes, objectively and exclusively, through the Seed, the descendant of Eve who was to crush the serpent’s head, the descendant of Abraham through whom the nations were to be blessed.

In the body of the paper, I then walk through the various covenants, demonstrating God’s saving work outside of the covenant community and emphasizing the role of the covenant community as God’s missionary people, rather than as the boundaries of his salvation.

You are welcome to red the paper at your leisure and give me your input.


By Terrance Tiessen

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

7 replies on “Why some see gospel exclusivism and others see accessibilism in Scripture”

[…] Tiessen, professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics here at Providence Seminary, wrote an interesting post about why there are so many differing conclusions about scripture when most of those conclusions […]

Hello Dr. Tiessen!

As I read your article, it seemed (to me) like you might be confusing “Abrahamic or Mosaic covenant – exclusivism” with “new covenant / covenant-of-grace / gospel exclusivism.”

I would agree that God has been at work saving people who were historically “outsiders” to the historical covenants which God made with Abraham and Israel. However, I would not affirm that God has ever saved anyone who did not believe the gospel, or who was not a member of the covenant of grace/new covenant.

The following diagram is helpful, to explain how I see the biblical covenants:

Would you disagree with anything in this diagram?


The diagram to which you linked looks helpful. I am not able to assess it carefully enough right now to say whether I would completely appropriate it or where I might modify it but thanks for putting me on to it. I have bookmarked the site which has other interesting Reformed Baptist stuff.

I am going to respond to your later comment by way of a new post because it raises good issues that I don’t want to lose in a comment thread.

Thanks. I hope your ministry is going well.

Hello again, Dr. Tiessen,

In further reflection upon your article, I think that there could be a helpful distinction to note between 2 kinds of “Gospel exclusivists”: (1) those who believe the exact details of the gospel are necessary – including understanding of the historical details of Christ’s death and resurrection, as having already occurred in history; (2) those who believe that the essence of the gospel is necessary – that people would trust in the Promised Redeemer;

I personally would place myself with the “gospel exclusivism” of Calvin & the Westminster Confession & the London Baptist Confession.

In your article you point out that many “gospel exclusivists” (including Calvin, Turretin, and others) affirm that Cornelius was “regenerated” before Peter preached the gospel to him.

I myself would agree with Calvin and those others who you mentioned, who take this understanding of Acts 10. But I disagree that this poses a problem for the historical gospel-exclusivism, noted above.

Here is why I do not see this as an “exception” or as a problem to such “gospel exclusivism”: The gospel-exclusivism of Calvin & the Westminister Confession & the London Baptist Confession would affirm that the gospel was already being proclaimed, in essence, throughout the OT era – ever since God gave that gospel promise to Adam in Gen 3:15. Cornelius had access to the gospel, even before Peter came to explain the full message to Him.

If Cornelius was a “God-fearer” – a Gentile believer in the God of Israel – he would have believed in the Messiah of Israel who was promised in the OT. He would have looked forward to the Messianic age, which is an important part of the overall OT message.

Gospel-exclusivism – by this definition – does not require that people hear “all the details of the gospel” in terms of the physical death and resurrection, as having already occurred. This kind of Gospel-exclusivism does NOT insist that “one must know the particular revelation related to God’s most recent covenantal activity.” This kind of Gospel-exclusivism does NOT “raise the necessary revelational bar [too] high,” by entailing a “belief that, as God makes each new self-revelation in connection with his covenant making work, the knowledge derived from previous covenantal revelation ceases to be sufficient for saving faith.”

I personally do not know “how much of the gospel” is needed – in terms of cognitive details – for God to regenerate people. I just focus on preaching as much of the gospel, as clearly as possible, to as many as I can. However, I do believe that Christ was active in the OT era, and that saved people had faith in Christ throughout the OT era.

As the LBC says, in ch.20, parg.1: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners.”

Hi again! One more thing – with clarification of pertaining to my 1st response:

You pointed out 4 points that supposedly “differentiate” the meta-narrative of “accessibilism” compared to “gospel-exclusivism.”

However, gospel-exclusivists surely affirm #1 and #4.
Furthermore, regarding #2 and #3, gospel exclusivists like myself would not totally deny what you say; but we would want to distinguish between the purpose of each biblical covenant & also point out the unique nature of the “new covenant” (which is the final revelation of the “covenant of grace” – the covenant of grace being a theological concept progressively revealed, which includes all who are ever saved).

God’s original covenant with Adam: Boundaries = all humanity;
Mission = be the image of God on earth (implied: love God & neighbour);
Salvation could occur among anyone in humanity; Gen 3:15 revealed after the fall;

God’s covenant with Noah: Boundaries = all humanity/creation;
Mission = be the image of God on earth;
Salvation could occur among anyone in humanity; Temporal preservation freely ensured by God in God’s covenant of Gen 9;

God’s covenant with Abraham: Boundaries = physical family of Abraham, marked by circumcision;
Mission = be the image of God & prepare for the seed of promise;
Salvation could occur inside or outside Abraham’s family, by God’s grace;

God’s covenant with Israel, through Moses: Boundaries = physical family of Israel, marked by circumcision & obedience to other OT ordinances;
Mission = be the image of God & prepare for the promised seed & be a priestly nation foreshadowing the Church;
Salvation could occur inside or outside national Israel, by God’s grace;

God’s covenant with David: Boundaries = David’s earthly line;
Mission = be the “image of God” and the “son of God” in a special way, prepare for the promised seed, rule over God’s people;
Salvation could occur inside or outside David’s family;

New Covenant: Boundaries = all who are forgiven & know the Lord, in the age of Messiah, including regenerate Jews and Gentiles;
Mission = same as original covenants, now declaring Messiah has come;
Salvation can still occur among Jews & Gentiles, but it is exclusively found among new covenant members (the “invisible church” which is in union with Christ)

– The visible church is an imperfect representation of the reality of the new covenant (some within the visible church are not truly new covenant members according to the promise of Jer 31; some who are not found within visible churches may indeed be new covenant members, knowing the Lord and obeying by faith; however, what defines new covenant members is that they are forgiven & know the Lord as their Redeemer by faith). Whereas Redeemed people were separated under OT covenants, Redeemed people are now gathered together to form the Messianic community on earth today.

This presentation of the biblical covenants does not prove that accessiblism is false, but neither does this presentation clearly lend support to the meta-narrative of accessibilism.

Hi, Dr. Tiessen. I am certainly open to accessibilism and enjoyed your essay on the subject. Nonetheless, let me ask you this. For the Calvinist who also believes in meticulous sovereignty, as I think we both do, isn’t some of the sting of gospel exclusivism removed? What I mean is, for a believer in meticulous sovereignty, it becomes quite plausible to posit that wherever and whenever God, by his Spirit, works in the heart of an otherwise pervasively depraved sinner so that he or she would exercise sufficient faith in accordance with his/her level of revelation, God also provides a messenger of the gospel for that person. That is, God in his exhaustive providence would always work these things out in concert with one another. He would not bring someone to regeneration without also giving that person the knowledge needed to call upon the name of the Lord, so that there would not be adopted and justified children of God left wandering out in the cold, as it were, apart from the sweet communion of the church family. What do you think about this?

Assuming, though, that accessibilism is true (which would be delightful), what of these saved persons who know neither the name nor the person of Jesus? Are they grafted into Christ or not? Are they part of the one new humanity or not? Are they brothers with us through the unity of the Spirit? Or are those benefits only for New Covenant members? Or do we simply not know? I’m not levying a challenge. These are sincere questions, so please take them in that spirit.

Thank you, Jordan. You raise a good question, and its one which I had not pondered in quite that form.

My initial thought is, however, that the problem you perceive is one which looks problematic only because you have described a situation which could never occur within the covenantal understanding of salvation which I have proposed.

Abraham, for instance, did not have “the sweet communion of the church family,” even though he was justified by a faith satisfactory to Christ. Unquestionably, those of us who have the blessing of living cognitively (as well as chronologically) within the new covenant are blessed by our knowledge of God’s triunity and of the life and death of Jesus. The content of our faith is much richer than the faith which Noah, Abraham, or David had, but they were saved by the eternal Son of God whom they met only in a preincarnate way. God only held them responsible for responding properly to the revelation he had given them, but the saving work of Christ was at work in their lives.

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