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The Only Way and Our Only Hope
March 10, 2011
A couple of months ago Crossway released Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day. I contributed a chapter to that book titled “Jesus Christ: The Only Way and Our Only Hope.” This chapter deals with religious pluralism, inclusivism and exlusivism, all words and terms that have become hot topics because of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (my review). Crossway has excerpted that chapter and made it available to you as a free PDF.
You can download it here: Jesus Christ: The Only Way and Our Only Hope.
Alternatively, if you would like to read it in your browser using Issuu, click here.
Here is how the chapter begins…
We live within a pluralistic culture of many faiths. Most often, the faiths coexist peacefully. This is good. Living in multicultural Toronto, a city in which over 50 percent of the population was born in another country, I have seen this religious diversity firsthand. As people immigrate to Toronto, they bring with them their religion. My son’s best friend at school is Muslim, the neighbor across the road from us is Buddhist, and just down the way is a Hindu from South Africa. Atheists, Roman Catholics, universalists, Mormons—all of them are within a stone’s throw of my front door. Look closely and you can even find the occasional evangelical. Within just our small neighborhood is a virtual pantheon.
While we regret the necessity of this pluralism, wishing that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, we are grateful for laws that allow us freedom to worship our Savior. We may not agree with the tenets of other faiths, but if every religion has freedom, we will too. This religious pluralism allows us to worship Jesus Christ in freedom and peace, without fear of interference or persecution. It is a profound blessing.
This is one use of the word pluralism. But there is another kind of pluralism that is of equal concern to Christians. This brand of pluralism asserts that all religions in some way lead to God and to salvation. In affirming this, it necessarily denies that Jesus Christ is the only Savior the world will ever know. In the end, it says, all faiths, whether Christianity or Islam or Buddhism, lead to God and have the same ultimate benefit for their adherents.
This kind of prescriptive pluralism, standing as it does in direct opposition to what Scripture makes so clear—that Christ is the only way to the Father—must be rejected unapologetically and out of hand. If any (or almost any) approach to God is as good as another, how do we make sense of the Bible’s insistence on monotheism, its consistent rejection of all forms of idolatry, and the missionary impulse—that the nations would turn to the true God—running from Genesis to Reve- lation? Most crucially, pluralism cannot do justice to the privileged place the Bible gives to Jesus Christ. Every knee must bow before him. He will judge all peoples. The God of the Bible, revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament and incarnated at Jesus Christ in the New, is nothing if not a universal God who accepts no rivals. To reject the unique person and work of Jesus Christ is to make an utter mockery of the Bible. To reject his claims is to reject God himself and to steal from him the glory that is rightly his. Ultimately it is to turn one’s back on the Bible and on the God of the Bible.
A More Tantalizing Option
While pluralism falls far outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, there are many evangelicals who believe that God’s saving grace is not limited to those who explicitly profess Christ. Some “believers” may receive salvation because of their faith in God or their sincerity or because of their response to the light they had, even though they have not turned to Christ or even heard of him. These “anonymous Christians” are still saved by grace through Christ’s work, but there is no expression of faith in the person and work of Christ.
Here we need to distinguish between two important terms that set the stage for this chapter. Exclusivism states that Jesus Christ is the only Savior the world will ever know and that in order to be saved, a person must hear and respond to the gospel message, placing his faith in Christ. Though there may be elements of truth in other religions, only those can be saved who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. All others, bearing the stain of original sin and the weight of their own sins, will be justly punished.
Inclusivism, on the other hand, says that though Christ is the world’s only Savior, a person does not need to hear and believe in the gospel in order to be saved. While inclusivism and exclusivism agree that Christ is the Savior of the world, they disagree on the necessity of responding to God’s special revelation in order to receive salvation. Inclusivists argue that, while putting one’s faith in Christ is the best way to honor God and receive the benefit of what Christ has accomplished, it is not the only way.
Prescriptive pluralism is easy to dismiss, but inclusivism merits a closer look. The appeal of inclusivism is not so much in its apparent consistency with Scripture but in its ability to deal with some of the uncomfortable realities faced by exclusivists. It offers emotionally sat- isfying answers to difficult questions. Can those who have never heard the gospel still be saved? Yes, they can, it says. Can good people in bad religions be saved? Yes! Would God condemn a person for not trusting in Christ even though he never had a chance even to hear his name? No, not necessarily. It even offers an explanation for some of the apparent exceptions in the Bible—people who, for one reason or another, did not fit the mold of a typical believer: Rahab, Cornelius, and others. In these ways it has greater immediate appeal than the supposed harshness of exclusivism. But while it may succeed on this emotional level, it does not fare as well under the light of Scripture.
(To read the rest, download the file)