The New Paganism (Part 6) Are the Old Testament Faithful Damned Because They Lived Before Christ?

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The Old Testament Saints

Are the people faithful to God in the Old Testament still damned because they lived before the saving work and death of Christ? This is a question often asked by both Christians and skeptics. The quick answer is: No, they are not damned. The Old Testament faithful are saved by the work of Christ.

To conclude this series on pluralism and inclusivism, we’ll look at one more inclusivist claim of scholar Clark Pinnock. His inclusivist view proposes that one does not have to believe in Christ specifically to be saved, and one way he supports his argument is by pointing to the faithful who are saved in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ.

Surely, Pinnock claims, many loyal people of God written about in the Old Testament had saving faith long before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I believe he is correct here, as well see by the biblical evidence below.

Pinnock and other inclusivists name Abraham as a prime example. They are right in that Abraham had saving faith before Christ, but they are overlooking important details. Abraham was not a faithful “pagan saint” who came to salvation through his paganism.

First, Abraham came into a covenantal relationship with God by the self-disclosure of God himself, which is an example of special, not general, revelation. Abraham was likely a pagan before God revealed himself to him in Genesis 12, and all evidence indicates that not only did God initiate this relationship but also Abraham was not chosen for any particularly reason, including any sort of righteous behavior.

Secondly, this means Abraham clearly had correct information about God, which—as we have seen—is a requirement for salvation.

Thirdly, Abraham had faith in God’s promises, which would include looking forward to Christ, a promise going all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3:15. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), and Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Immediately following this in 15:7–21, God and Abraham partake in a clear covenantal-sealing ceremony, and we see another covenantal milestone, symbolized by circumcision, between God and Abraham in 17:1–4.

Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

We also see this idea in the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Take a moment to read Hebrews 10:1-18, where this fleshed out.

Interestingly, Pinnock cites Romans 4:1–25 to support his view, but Romans 4:20–25 actually counters his view. Paul writes, Abraham had “[n]o unbelief… concerning the promise of God” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21).

Abraham is not an example of an adherent of another faith moved to saving faith by the Holy Spirit; quite the contrary, he is a man in covenantal relationship with the true God through the self-disclosure of that one true God, and a man with complete faith in the promises of God (Heb. 11:17–19), which include the promise of the coming Christ.

If there is any question about this, Jesus himself says to his fellow Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

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“The Faith Hall of Fame”

Hebrews 11, sometimes nicknamed “The Faith Hall of Fame,” mentions many Old Testament saints who lived in faith. As with Abraham, inclusivists cannot use this to support their case; all those Old Testament saints mentioned knew the God of the Bible, not some generic god or false faith, and believed in God’s promises.

Wellum writes, “[T]he entire context of Hebrews 11 describes a ‘faith’ which is rooted in God’s covenant promises, now brought to fulfillment in Christ.” Hebrews 11 starts by making this clear enough: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (11:1–2). “Commendation” is defined as an award involving praise and can be also translated as “approval.” Likewise, Hebrews 11:13 tells us, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.”

Their faith was not in some false religion with some partial truth about God; as in all of the Old Testament, their faith was specifically rooted in the one true God and his promises of salvation.

Thus, Abraham was justified by faith alone, which is confirmed by Paul (Rom. 4:1–25), and Paul confirms believers before Christ are destined to become “sons” (Gal. 3:23; 4:1). Hebrews 11:39–40 confirms that other Jews and pagans were saved by their faith before the coming of Jesus.

Conclusion

In closing, a careful reading of the Bible shows that Pinnock’s inclusivist interpretations of Scripture are not biblical. One must have knowledge of Jesus Christ to benefit from his salvific work, and the Holy Spirit only works in giving saving faith in connection to Christ. The idea of “pagan saints” in the New Testament era is unfounded, and Old Testament saints were saved by God’s self-disclosure and their faith in God’s future promise of salvation through Christ.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

Read Part 5: The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The question Are there non-Christians saved by their pagan faith in the New Testament? many seem like an oddly specific and out-of-the-blue question, but let me explain:

In previous articles in this series, we have been looking at the inclusivistic beliefs of scholar Clark Pinnock. Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

To support his view, Pinnock cites Cornelius in the New Testament (Acts 10:1–48) and other “pagan saints” in the Old Testament like Abraham, Melchizedek, Abimelech, Job, and Abel. God shows no partiality in his love for the world, Pinnock argues, and Cornelius represents that “God never leaves himself without a witness among all people (Acts 14:17).”

On the other hand, Pinnock freely admits that he does not know “exactly what role, if any, a given religion plays,” but he is confident the Spirit is at work “when and where it is possible and appropriate” to use non-Christian religions. Pinnock states, “Everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father, but there is more than one path for arriving at this place… All the paths that lead to God end up at Jesus, but they do not all start with him.”

We already explored whether the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and concluded that he does not. We will look at the Old Testament in the next (and final) article in this series. For now, let’s quickly look at Cornelius, the supposed “pagan saint” of the New Testament.

“Pagan Saints”

Inclusivists like Pinnock often cite Cornelius in Acts 10 as an example of a saved nonbeliever, a “pagan saint” in the New Testament era, but this is not the case. (Take a moment to read the New Testament account here.)

First, the Roman Cornelius and his household are not pagans who have saving faith, but “God-fearers” — non-Jews who follow the Jewish faith. Cornelius is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). Despite this, Cornelius is not saved; Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith (Matt. 5:17), so to follow Judaism without knowing Christ does not grant salvation.

Secondly, Cornelius and his household are clearly not saved until after learning of Christ. Peter clearly proclaims to them the gospel in 10:34–43, concluding with “everyone who believes in him [Christ Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

Immediately, as Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44) and they began speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46). Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work in them, Peter calls for them to be immediately baptized. It’s odd that so many inclusivists appeal to Cornelius when it is so plain that salvation did not come until after learning of Christ and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Some inclusivists may say this episode illustrates how general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can work in non-Christian religions to bring one to saving faith. Perhaps general revelation brought Cornelius from being a pagan to a God-fearer, but his salvation only came about through special revelation (the unique supernatural works of God throughout history) in visions to both him (10:3–6) and Peter (10:10–16), as well as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to Peter (10:19–20), through hearing a gospel proclamation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting Cornelius and his household of the truth of Peter’s proclamation.

The only part of this episode that may support inclusivism would be 10:34–35, where Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It is doubtful Peter is speaking here of saving faith. The main point of Acts 10 is to show that God’s salvation extends to everyone, not just to the Jews, as illustrated in Peter’s vision of the animals (Acts 10), symbolizing the ending of Old Testament dietary laws due to Christ fulfilling the law.

Furthermore, the word translated “acceptable” (dektos) is not the word used in the New Testament for justification (dikaioo) — to be made right with God — and Peter goes on to explain specifically in 10:34 that salvation comes from believing in Christ.

Where the episode with Cornelius does not support the inclusivist view that general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can bring saving faith apart from Christ, it does give hope that God seeks out his people and saves them through special revelation, the unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including Christ himself, the Bible, the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

NEXT: Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

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The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

SERIES INTRO: 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 path.

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Here’s a quick recap for your convenience:

Exclusivism – The traditional Christian view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ’s free gift of salvation; thus, biblical Christianity is the only true path to God. 

Inclusivism – The belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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Does the Holy Spirit Save Apart from Christ?

Respected scholar and inclusivist Clark Pinnock explains that the work of the Holy Spirit is “central” to his view of salvation. The Holy Spirit proceeds before Christ preparing the way. In other words, the Spirit is at work in non-Christians even when they do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Citing John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), Pinnock states the Spirit is “under nobody’s control” and not confined to inside the church and free to grace anyone regardless of their place in life since Christians “do not have a monopoly on the Spirit.”

Interestingly, he makes clear that neither general revelation nor the religions themselves play a central role in his understanding of inclusivism, but only the Holy Spirit, through whom God shows “every person the mystery of his grace, because in their hearts… he works in unseen ways.” [1]

Pinnock’s idea that the Holy Spirit may “work” on someone before they come to saving faith in Christ, to prepare them to be convicted by the truth of the gospel and to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior is not a controversial idea. Yet, his idea that the Holy Spirt may grant someone salvation apart from Christ is controversial, and this idea is what we must examine with Scripture.

 

The Work of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s work is certainly essential in bringing one to saving faith – to salvation – in Christ, but the biblical evidence shows that saving faith only comes after the unbeliever first hears a gospel proclamation and, second, the Holy Spirit convicts him of the truth of that proclamation and converts him.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we see the Spirit ever working independently of Christ or in a saving way apart from the gospel of Christ. The Spirit is the companion of Christ “[f]rom womb to tomb to throne,” and the Spirit’s work is as “chief witness” to Christ, leading to saving faith specifically in him. [2] The biblical evidence is clear that no one comes to saving faith prior to hearing the gospel of Christ and being convicted by it by the Holy Spirit. (More on this below.)

In his letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14), we see the work of the Holy Spirit closely connected to the work of the Father and, especially, the Son. Paul begins his letter by writing of the work of the Trinitarian God in bringing one to salvation in sequence: first writing of the work of the Father, then the work of the Son, and then the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Father:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

The Son:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 

The Holy Spirit:

13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here, we see the work of the Spirit is not separate from the work of the rest of the Trinitarian Godhead.

Returning again to 1 John 4:2–3, (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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already), Theologian John Stott sums up the message of this section of John’s letter: “Those who deny the Son have neither the Father nor the Spirit.” [3]

The Spirit cannot come before Christ. Contra Pinnock, Scripture says you cannot have the Spirit without having the Son.

First Corinthians 12:3 states,

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

Moreover, “Jesus taught that it is the Holy Spirit’s particular ministry both to testify to, and to glorify, him” [4]:

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

Clearly, the work of the Spirit flows from Christ Jesus, and thus, after Christ Jesus.

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Regeneration: Being Born Again

Jesus taught that one must experience regeneration – being born again – to have salvation.

Jesus says in John 3:3,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Theologian Wayne Grudem points out that in John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), when Jesus speaks of “being born of the Spirit,” Jesus “indicates that it is especially God the Holy Spirit who produces regeneration” (though God the Father is also involved). [5]

The Holy Spirit convinces an unbeliever of the truth of Christ, and may even prepare the person to hear that truth; thus, the work of the Holy Spirit is conversion. But an adherent to a religion that denies Christ Jesus, the second person of the Trinitarian God, as Lord and Savior cannot have the Holy Spirit, and without the indwelling Holy Spirit there is no regeneration and no salvation.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.'” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6)

 

NEXT: But isn’t there evidence of saved pagans in the Bible?

[1] Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

[2] Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle. Loc 2067.

[3] & [4] Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Pages 155-156.

[5] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Page 700.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Inclusivism VS. Exclusivism

In article #2 of this series, we started exploring the idea of inclusivism – the idea that salvation can be attained apart from the knowledge of Jesus (though Jesus’ work was necessary for salvation to be available, even if through a faith other than Christianity). So, we asked, “Is this idea biblical?”

We concluded inclusivism does NOT hold up under biblical scrutiny and concluded that the clear stance of the Bible is exclusivism: salvation is only found in faith in Christ alone.

Before we move on in this series, I wanted to quickly give one more explanation why Christianity is an exclusivist religion.

It comes down to this: Christianity isn’t exclusivist because certain verses say so; Christianity is exclusivist because the whole biblical explanation of reality leads to exclusivism. Those verses we looked at in the last article are simply confirming the exclusivist storyline of the Bible.

And it comes down to three things:

the nature of God,

the nature of humankind, and

the nature of Christ.

If what the Bible says about the nature of God and the nature humankind are true, then the ONLY hope for salvation is Jesus Christ.

 

THE NATURE OF GOD

First, God is perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just.

 

THE NATURE OF HUMANKIND

Secondly, all of humankind has sin. Thus, all of humanity – every individual human being – is separated from our perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just God. To deny this is to not have a high enough view of God or a low enough view of sin.

Separation from God due to sin is the current state of every human (apart from Jesus Christ), and once they die, they will continue to be separated from God. Thus, we need a savior.

This answers a common misunderstanding I hear often from those who are offended by the exclusivism of Christianity. The mistaken idea is that God condemns those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ because they don’t believe in Jesus, as if God chose belief in Jesus as some random reason for condemning people to hell. But humankind is ALREADY condemned because of sin. Jesus Christ is NOT the CAUSE of damnation but the CURE.

So, then the question is: WHY? Why must one believe in Jesus Christ to have salvation? Why can’t someone follow another spiritual teacher? Or, why can’t someone even follow, say, Moses instead – after all, both Moses and Jesus serve the same God?

 

THE NATURE OF CHRIST

Jesus Christ is exclusively the God-man. The second person of the Triune God took on flesh and became a man. He is completely God and completely man.

This God-man lived a perfect life that none of us can and died a death he didn’t deserve. As fully man, he can represent humankind. As fully eternal God, his sacrifice can cover us all and all our sins.

The separation between God and humankind could only be bridged by Jesus Christ, the only God-man. The exclusive gift of salvation could only be won by the exclusive God-man.

This is why Christianity is exclusivist.

The gift of salvation can be attained alone by faith in the only one who could attain it.

Thus, if all that the Bible says is true – about the nature of God, man, and the God-man – then Christianity must be exclusivist.

NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Learn more about Who Jesus Ain’t here.

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The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

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 articlepluralism 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.” 

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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.

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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!** 

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Sources:

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 Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009

Read Who Jesus Ain’t…

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The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

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Pluralism = The New Paganism

In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the first culture that the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. Christianity was born and spread within the Roman Empire, a place of many gods and many ways of worshiping, where most* religions were seen as equally valid. Today, we call this pluralism.

(*I say “most” because Christianity went through periods of persecution by the Roman government for its first 300 years until it was officially legalized by Emperor Constantine. Christians – like the Jews – wouldn’t worship any Roman gods or the emperor, who was considered a god. Christians were even called “atheists” by Romans because they believed in only one God, and an invisible one at that. Appropriately, Christians’ convictions have made them unpopular again in many parts of the West today.)  

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, religious pluralism has grown into the popular spirituality of our day. Both established, 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, these pluralists live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality, which has little – if any – impact on their lives. Basically, it’s OK to believe spiritual things as long as you don’t take them too seriously.

Sadly, this pluralistic mindset has even made its way into Christian circles, and not just in liberal mainline denominations but also in Bible-believing, evangelical churches.

As our world grows “smaller,” more people today have been introduced to worldviews and religions foreign to their own by neighbors, coworkers, and friends (and the Internet and modern media) than perhaps at any other time in history. This is a positive thing in many ways, but those raised to believe that salvation comes only through Christ Jesus may begin to question whether their neighbors —perhaps loving parents and spouses and contributors to the community — will be eternally separated from God because they’re not followers of Christ. Christians have always understood the Bible to teach that the only way to have salvation from sin is through belief in the work and person of Jesus Christ. This is often called exclusivism.

Furthermore, biblical illiteracy has led to unfamiliarity with what the Bible teaches. Not only has Western culture grown more secular and fewer people grow up in churches, but even those in Christian families and churches spend little time closely reading and studying Scripture. 

Because of these reasons, new understandings of God’s salvation have developed that are much different than the traditional Christian understanding of Scripture. Some of these new understandings simply disregard Scripture. Others claim they’re actually more loyal to Scripture than the traditional stance. Because of these reasons, we need an accurate understanding of what the whole of the Bible teaches about salvation.

The Alternatives

Alternatives to exclusivism include pluralism and inclusivism. Where pluralism validates that all (or most) religions lead to God, inclusivism is more nuanced. Inclusivism believes that Jesus Christ is the only savior, but one does not have to believe in him to be saved. In short, Jesus Christ was absolutely essential in saving humanity from damnation, but one doesn’t have to believe in Christ specifically to benefit from that salvation. In inclusivism, one may be saved through another religion or through general revelation even if they never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

General revelation is the idea that one can know certain things about God through their innate senses (since we are all made in the image of God) and/or through nature (since God created all things). The Bible confirms general revelation, but also that one cannot be saved from sin by general revelation alone.

For salvation, one needs special revelation. Special revelation includes all the unique, supernatural works of God throughout history, which are recorded in the Bible, including God the Son becoming human as Jesus of Nazareth (and his death and resurrection), the work of the Holy Spirit, and even the Bible itself – as the Bible is the written, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) revelation of God.

The Bible confirms all humans know of God through general revelation, yet do not seek him out. Instead they invent their own religions and worship their own idols. These may be literal idols or the “idols” of secular society (such as money, sex, self-centered independence). In essence, all know there’s a true God, yet they want to remain god of their own lives, so they exchange the truth for a lie.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature,have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:18-23) 

In the book Faith Comes By Hearing, Christopher Morgan explains that there is a spectrum of diversity within this new paganism [1]. For example, some versions of universalism teaches that the whole world (even Satan! [2]) will ultimately be saved through Christ.

QUICK REVIEW:

Pluralism – All (or many) religions lead to God and salvation.

Exclusivism – The traditional Christian view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ’s free gift of salvation; thus, biblical Christianity is the only true path to God. 

Inclusivism – Jesus Christ’s life and work achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or general revelation.

Universalism – One way or another, everyone (or almost everyone) will ultimately be saved through the work of Jesus Christ.

General Revelation – One can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses.

Special Revelation – The unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including miracles, Christ himself, and the Bible.

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The Incomprehensibility of Pluralism Within a Biblical Worldview

As one moves from exclusivism towards views like pluralism and universalism, one moves away from traditional Christianity, and the more one moves away from traditional Christianity, the more the divine authority and reliability of the Bible is questioned or even completely abandoned.

Abandoning the Bible is the only option open to the pluralist as Scripture is so clearly exclusivistic. Verses like John 14:6, Acts 4:10–12, and 1 John 5:11–12 (see below) so clearly teach that salvation comes through Christ alone that pluralists and universalists must have a low view of Scripture in order to continue to hold their views, as does John Hick, who represents the pluralist view in the book Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.[3]

The pluralist must deny that the Bible is the preserved Word of God since Jesus’ first followers were certainly exclusivists:

Peter said,

“…let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this [formerly crippled] man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10-12)

John wrote,

And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)

And Jesus himself was absolutely clear that he was not a pluralist or universalist:

 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Even if we didn’t have these extremely clear verses from the New Testament, the exclusivist nature of the Bible is seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. There are constant warnings against following false religions and gods and regular statements about salvation coming only through the one true God. Plainly contrary to the universalist idea that all (even Satan) will eventually be saved through Christ, Revelation 19 and 20 clearly shows the horrible fate of those hostile to God, including Satan.

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Further, some other obvious issues are raised concerning pluralism:

    1. Religious Contradictions

All religions can’t be correct simply because they have contradictory teachings. And where there are contradictions, someone has to be wrong. The only way a pluralist can affirm all religions are correct is to discard key aspects of those religions – just like how they have to discard key parts of the Bible. Furthermore, anyone who claims all religions are basically the same has little understanding of what different religions teach.

The pluralist may try to get around this by saying that all (or many) religions have some truth within them. This isn’t a problem for the Christian; a Christian can confirm that there is some truth in other religions, yet none but biblical Christianity are wholly true or lead to salvation.

Also, pluralists still have a problem: How do they know what is religious truth or error? By what standard do they judge?

    2. Only Jesus Could Win Us Salvation

The Bible teaches that God is perfectly good and holy, all people have sinned, and all people are alienated from God by that sin. Only Jesus, who is uniquely fully human and fully God, could repair this chasm-sized rift between God and man. No amount of “good works” or rituals can bridge that chasm. Only Jesus could live a sinless life, and only Jesus could die an unjust death. Only someone fully human could represent humankind, and only someone fully God could cover the sins of all humankind. Christians are exclusivists because only Jesus – the only person to ever be complete man and completely God – could achieve for us salvation, plain and simple.

     3. Jesus Died For Nothing

Jesus died a horribly brutal death on a Roman cross for the sake of all those who would believe in him to be saved from their sins. Jesus did this willingly, yet also prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). God the Son went willingly to the cross, but he also was well aware of the high price he would pay to complete the task he became flesh to accomplish. In Gethsemane, he essentially asks God the Father if there’s any other way to accomplish this, then spare him from the cross. But there was no other way, so he goes willingly.

Here’s the thing: If salvation could be won by any other way, then Jesus didn’t have to die. If there were any other way – even one – for God to accomplish salvation from sin, Jesus died for nothing. In other words, if there were a Plan B for saving the world from sin other than Jesus dying on the cross, Jesus wouldn’t have died on the cross. He would’ve said, “See Plan B.” And if Jesus’ death on the cross were Plan B, he would’ve said, “Plan A works just fine.”

We also have this issue: if there were any other way for God the Father to reconnect with his created people and overlook their sins and God the Father still put Jesus to death on the cross, then Jesus’ death was needless brutality. In other words, if God the Father knew forgiveness of sins could be achieved through humans simply following some rules or completing some rituals or being “nice” or doing X, Y, and Z, why would God the Son need to become a man and die? If pluralism and universalism are true, then God the Father and God the Son both made extremely illogical decisions to allow an act of absolute brutality for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Dismissing the validity of pluralism and universalism is easy from a biblical standpoint, so what about the more nuanced view: inclusivism?

NEXT: Is knowledge of Christ required for salvation? The Nuanced View: Inclusivism.

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WORKS CITED

[1] Faith Comes By Hearing, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, see Chapter 2.

[2] Faith Comes By Hearing, KindleLoc 334.

[3] Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, edited by Stanley N. Gundry, Kindle, Loc 3601.

Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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