The New Paganism
As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, both traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”
For all practical purposes, they live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality. In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the culture the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. The only thing forbidden in this new paganism is believing your faith is the only true faith.
In the first article, we examined pluralism and its close cousin universalism to see if they were compatible with the Christian worldview. In the following articles, we’ll be looking at the claims of inclusivism, another cousin of the new paganism.
The Nuanced View: Inclusivism
As we saw in the last article, pluralism and universalism are clearly not Christian beliefs; the only way a Christian can subscribe to either view is to disregard much of the Bible. But what about the less extreme view of inclusivism?
Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work achieved salvation, but one does not have to believe in Christ to be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or through general revelation. General revelation is the idea that we can know certain things about God through nature and/or our innate senses.
Inclusivism is a much more conservative view than pluralism and universalism, and an inclusivist often holds to a higher view of Scripture. The inclusivist believes Jesus when he said “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and Peter when he says “there is salvation in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12). Yet, the inclusivist diverges subtly from the traditional exclusivist view and says, Yes, salvation is only possible because of Jesus, but one does not have to specifically believe in Jesus to benefit from his salvation.
One of the most respected scholars for presenting an argument for inclusivism is Clark Pinnock; therefore, his arguments will be considered for the rest of this series.
We will address Pinnock’s inclusivism by addressing 4 questions throughout the articles in this series:
(1) Is knowledge of Jesus needed for salvation?
(2) Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation?
(3) Are there pagans in the New Testament who gained salvation through other faiths?
(4) Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?
Saved Apart From Christ
“The saving grace of God can be effective through a person’s relationship to God as creature in advance of conversion to Christ,” Pinnock states in his chapter on inclusivism in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.
He is careful to point out that inclusivism does not blindly cast a blanket over all religions as equally valid or even good. He admits there are certainly negative aspects, untruths, errors, and dangers in other religions. Contra pluralism, Pinnock confirms that all paths to God are not equally valid and a criterion is needed to discern truth and error (1 John 4:1). Political correctness and blind tolerance, he writes, are not always virtues. He confirms that Jesus is Lord of all and the standard of truth in all religions.
Yet, according to Pinnock, God may use other religions to bring a person to salvation. Christianity is not just the fulfillment of Judaism, but “in some way” the fulfillment of “all religious aspiration and the human quest.” At one point, he refers to religious non-Christians as “’not yet’ Christians.”
The Need to Know
The validity of Pinnock’s inclusivism can be determined by answering one question: Is knowledge of Christ required for salvation?
Interestingly, in his chapter in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Pinnock cites 1 John 4:1 (“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.“) when stating that we must test all religious claims. Yet, if we continue reading, 1 John 4:2–3 stands in clear opposition of his inclusivist views:
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist…”
John goes on to explain in 4:6 that this is the ultimate test of whether one knows God or does not:
“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (4:6)
Immediately, we find Pinnock’s case at a biblical disadvantage!
Pinnock clearly believes that the Holy Spirit can give saving faith to someone who has never heard of Christ. Pinnock differentiates between the work of Christ for salvation and the knowledge of Christ for salvation; Christ’s work made salvation possible, but one does not have to know of Christ’s work to benefit from it, according to Pinnock.
Conversely, as we saw above, 1 John 4 states one must confess belief in Jesus Christ to truly know God. Clearly, in order to confess Christ, one must know of Christ.
An inclusivist may dismiss verses like Romans 10:9 (“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved“) by saying that the verse doesn’t state one must confess and believe to be saved or Romans 10:9 doesn’t say only those who confess and believe are saved, yet 1 John 4:2-3 makes a clear contrast.
Likewise, 1 John 5:12 states, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Both 1 John 4:2–3 and 5:12 are clearly “either/or” statements, not “both/and” statements.
Commenting on the exclusivity of 1 John 5:12, John Stott explains, “We cannot escape its logic. Eternal life is in God’s Son and may be found nowhere else. It is impossible to have life without having Christ as it is to have Christ without thereby having life also.”
Furthermore, one does not have to read far after Romans 10:9 to find 10:13–14, which lays out that the gospel must be preached, heard, and believed in order for someone to be saved:
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:13-14)
Paul concludes in 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Additionally, shortly after one of the most famous proclamations of salvation through belief in Christ, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), we find John 3:18. Again, an inclusivist may say John 3:16 never explicitly says that belief in Christ is the only way to salvation, but John 3:18 states, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The key phrase here is “condemned already.” Christ is the only solution to the state of condemnation. Since all people are sinful and separated from God by that sin without exception (Romans 3:23), without specific belief in the Son of God that condemnation remains.
Furthermore, in John 3:33–34, 36, we read, “Whoever receives his [Christ’s] testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure… Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
The Gospel Call
When ordering the teachings of the Bible into a systematic theology, what is often referred to as the gospel call is placed immediately before regeneration (i.e. being born again). The gospel call is – of course – communicated, which means it’s a clear exchange of giving and receiving information about Christ so the non-Christian hearer may be saved.
Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology states, “Anyone who comes to Christ for salvation must have at least a basic understanding of who Christ is and how he meets our needs for salvation.” Grudem cites the following three pieces of knowledge as essential for salvation:
(1) All people have sinned (Rom. 3:23);
(2) The penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23); and
(3) Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Rom. 5:8).
Along with this information comes a personal invitation to receive the free gift of salvation through Christ, and thus a personal response, based on the knowledge received, is needed (John 1:11–12; Rev. 3:20, 22:17).
Grudem, citing Romans 10:14 (“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”), emphasizes the absolute importance of the gospel call because if a person never hears, how can he be saved? In other words, without the knowledge of Christ, there is no salvation. In the same way, John Frame in his Systematic Theology places the gospel call before regeneration.
The Big Picture of the Bible
Along with the explicit verses we looked at above, which are enough to discount inclusivism, exclusivism — the belief that there is only one true faith — is taught throughout the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament there are many warnings against following false gods, false prophets, and false faiths.
In Exodus 20:3, the first of the Ten Commandments says there are to be no other gods worshipped other than the one true God (Isa. 43:10, 44:6), and the second commandment forbids worshipping idols (Exod. 20:4-5). The Shema, arguably the most important group of verses to Jews, states God alone is to be worshipped (Deut. 6:4), which is echoed by Paul about the Father and the Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6. In John 4:22, Jesus bluntly tells the Samarian woman “salvation is from the Jews,” instead of saying something, like “salvation is found in many faiths.”
Yes, general revelation appears to have instilled some truths in non-Christian faiths (and even secular thought) as we see in Paul’s interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17, but the overall view in Scripture of other faiths is overwhelmingly negative.
For instance, Romans 1:18–2:5 explains that faiths apart from the gospel of Christ are the result of sinful rebellion against God’s clear revelation in nature. We are told that because of the sinful suppression of God’s truth, adherents to false faiths have become “fools” (1:22), and they are “storing up wrath” against themselves (2:5).
Nowhere in Scripture do we find confirmation that the partial truths found in other faiths can lead to saving faith.
Why Evangelize? Why Missions?
Furthermore, if the inclusivists are correct, one has to ask why Jesus commands the spreading of his gospel and why his commands for evangelism hold such prominent places in Scripture.
The Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations is the culminating climax of Matthew’s gospel (28:18–20), and Luke records Jesus’ words about the Spirit empowering his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth as his final words before his ascension (Acts 1:8).
Moreover, if inclusivism is true, much of the book of Acts, which tells of the first Christians’ work to spread the gospel, can be discarded as a waste of time – as well as all evangelism and missions. If knowledge of Christ is not needed for salvation, evangelism and missions are pointless, but this is clearly not the stand Jesus and his first followers take.
Finally, throughout Scripture, correct doctrine is emphasized (1 Tim. 1:3–4; Eph. 4:11–14; Gal. 1:6-8, 11–23; Deut. 6:7), confirming again that knowledge is important to faith. Stephen Wellum writes in Faith Comes By Hearing, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Scripture is concerned that one’s theology is correct.”
Proper knowledge of Christ cannot be separated from saving faith.
So, faith comes from hearing, and salvation comes from knowing and believing.
NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation? **The 1st two articles in this blog series were long! The last 3 will be short and sweet!**
Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. Kindle.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle.
Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, edited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.
Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009