Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence (Part 9): The Exclusivity of the Gospel

I have a confession to make. I think that the title to this article stinks. I hate the label “exclusivist” when it is applied to the Gospel. Hate, hate, hate, HATE, HATE it. Missiologist Harold Netland observes, “It is probably safe to assume that the term ‘exclusivism’ was not first introduced into the discussion by adherents of that perspective, but rather it is a perjorative term first introduced by those who did not accept that view, who wished to cast it in a particularly unappetizing light. Unfortunately, by default, we evangelicals have allowed others involved in the debate over religious pluralism to define the category of ‘exclusivism,’ and to do so in unacceptable terms.” (quoted by Charles VanEngen, Christianity and the Religions, 1995).

Pluralist Alan Race coined the term in his Christians and Religious Pluralism (1982), and he is no friend of the biblical understanding of the Gospel. He invented the terms exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism to denote what he understood to be the three major positions of the relationship of Christianity with the other religions of the world.

An important principle in any debate is that whoever gets to assign the labels generally wins. By calling his position “pluralism” and its close ally “inclusivism,” Race was able to portray his views as welcoming, inviting, and enlightened. “Exclusivism,” in contrast, portrays the historic position on the Gospel as something akin to a Jim Crow country club. Exclusivists are reactionary, mean, small-minded people devoid of the milk of human kindness. The label should be ditched because it is misleading and perjorative. It was designed specifically to paint the evangelical understanding of the Gospel into a corner. Why is the label “exclusivist” misleading? Because it insinuates that the message of Christ slams other doors shut when in reality no other doors have ever existed. The Gospel “excludes” no one. On the contrary, it gives hope where there was no hope before (Eph 2:12 “without hope and without God in the world”). How can showing condemned prisoners the way of escape somehow be exclusive?

I propose that rather than using the term “exclusivity” we should be speaking of the “essentiality” of the Gospel. The hearing of the Gospel is essential for morally responsible persons to be saved. (I do not view the mentally handicapped or infants as morally responsible individuals.) In order to be saved, one must place his faith in Jesus Christ. But one cannot believe in whom he has not heard (Rom 10:14). The Gospel is not exclusive; it is essential. The Gospel keeps no one out, but it is the only possible way in.

So, what does the essentiality of the Gospel mean? Six thoughts:

1. The other religions are not preparations for the Gospel. Some inclusivists, particularly within Roman Catholic circles, argue that the major religions of the world are sincere responses to the general revelation in nature, and as such prepare the adherents for when the Gospel eventually arrives. However, this is not the way the Bible presents the other religions (1 Cor 10:20-22). Simple question: why is the 10-40 window located where it is? What is it about that region that makes presenting the Gospel such a difficult slog? Answer: it is the region of the world’s other major religions. There is no evidence that Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism prepares or inclines its followers to the Good News. Just the opposite; their followers are the most resistant.

2. The other religions are not alternative avenues of grace. Yes, there is a significant amount of ethical teaching in the religions of the world. Their founders and followers are humans who reflect the image of God, even as fallen, so a certain morality should not be surprising. However, what is missing is any true notion of grace. Clark Pinnock has claimed that a number of religions contain enough truths to teach its followers to trust in the mercy of God for salvation. In a helpful article Win Corduan examines the religions Pinnock extolled and concludes, “I cannot think of one teaching of a major non-Christian religion that, given its own formulation rather than one imposed on it, is actually competent to open a person to the grace of God within its own framework” (p. 48).

3. The scandal of particularity will always be an offense. The opposite of pluralism is not exclusivism; the opposite of pluralism is particularism. The world has been and always will be scandalized by the notion that God called a solitary man, Abraham, in order to bring about a chosen people, Israel, in order to reveal His only begotten Son, Jesus, Who alone accomplished the redemption for the world. The Cross indicts the world, not only of its sin but also its self-righteousness, especially the self-righteousness of religious pretensions. But “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Luke 11:6).

4. How one frames the question of the fate of the unevangelized greatly affects how we deal with it. All of us, at one time or another, have struggled with the fate of the unevangelized. If salvation is so crucial, then why did God chose such an ineffective delivery system as the Church to propogate it? Wouldn’t it be better if, say, each Sunday angels appeared in the sky and proclaimed the Gospel to every living human being? What about the multitudes who perish without the Gospel?

What is bothering us is that it appears only a small percentage of humanity has even had the opportunity to be saved. Or have they? Allow me to attempt to reframe the question of percentages. Like most evangelicals, I believe that life begins at conception. I also believe that those who die in infancy go to heaven. With those two thoughts in mind note that, according to Malcolm Jeeves and R. J. Berry, in the normal course of a pregnancy only about 80% of all fertilized eggs actually implant in the mother’s womb, 49% are still alive one week later, the number drops to 44% by the sixth week, and only 36% are delivered (Science, Life and Christian Belief, 1998, p. 161). As they put it, “Survival to birth is not the norm; it occurs in only a minority of conceptions…” Then, historically speaking and particularly in underdeveloped countries, only 50% of children born have lived to be old enough “to distinguish the right hand from the left” (Sanders, No Other Name? 1992, p. 288). So only half of the 36% concieved, i.e., approximately 18%, ever reach the age of accountability. Incredibly, over 80% of all humans conceived never see their fifth birthday. The bottom line: more than 4 out of 5 persons who have ever existed have gone to heaven! God has allowed only a remnant of the elect to reach the age of moral responsibility. This fact does not answer every question or remove every qualm, but it casts the mercy of God in a different light. It allows us to make a very bold statement: Even though most who achieve adulthood will not be saved (Luke 13:22-24), the vast majority of all humans who ever existed will spend eternity with God (Rev 5).

5. Our Lord is the Lord of the harvest. I am satisfied with the Molinist argument that God has ordained a world such that every one who would say “yes” to Christ will, in fact, have the opportunity to do so. This permits us to similtaneously affirm God’s universal salvific desire (2 Pet 3:9) and the essentiality of the Gospel in such a way that also affirms the sovereignty of God. The Lord of the harvest knows what He is doing.

6. We cannot let the question of the fate of the unevangelized detract us from our marching orders. Around the time our Lord was giving the Great Commission, Simon Peter wanted to know what was going to happen to John. Jesus answered him, “What is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). Similarly, we have our orders. We are to give ourselves to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. As for the unanswered questions, let us remember He is the One Who decided to leave them unanswered. What is that to us? Let us follow Him.