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.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 5: What is the Gospel? The Full Orchestra Rendition

Think of your salvation testimony as a melody being played on a quiet instrument-a clarinet or oboe, perhaps. You play the tune for the Lord and to anyone and everyone who will listen. Now imagine that one day, while engrossed in the joy of playing your simple song, you are joined by an enormous, massive orchestra. And not just an orchestra of dozens or even hundreds, but thousands and tens of thousands-and a choir that is even larger.

Their sudden appearance is overwhelming. What’s more, you realize that they didn’t really join you. Rather, it becomes clear that your melody is actually part of a much larger movement of music-a piece marvelous in its intricacy and genius. At that point you realize that your salvation isn’t just about you; your redemption is part of a plan that encompasses heaven and earth.

Some verses in the Bible highlight the benefits of the Gospel for the individual believer, such as when Paul identifies himself with Jesus (“who loved me and gave his life for me.” Gal 2:20d). Other passages emphasize how the Gospel is producing a special people-the church-for God (i.e. “Christ loved the church, and gave himself for her” Eph 5:25). The Bible makes much of what the Gospel means for individual Christians and the corporate church, and we should too.

But that’s not all the Bible has to say about the subject. Not by a long shot. Time after time, in passage after passage (Rom 9-11, Eph. 1-2, Col 1, and Rev 5, just to name a few), the Scriptures unveil the Gospel’s full orchestra rendition. And what a symphony it is! The Gospel is not just about you and me, or even only about the church. The Gospel is for the nations because it is good news of cosmic proportions (Rom 8; Col 1). The Great Commission Resurgence is a call to hear the Gospel as the ballad of the one true epic of history.

So what exactly is the Gospel?

1. The Gospel is “the good news of the Kingdom” (Matt 24:14). The Gospel must be understood within the grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. God has invaded our sin-darkened world-this is really good news! So the Gospel is the “Gospel of God” (Mark 1:14; Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Thess 2:2, 8-9) because it is the bulletin that God has acted decisively in history, that he has not left us in darkness, and that in so doing is glorifying himself. Often the Gospel is called the “good news of the Kingdom” because it announces that God has arrived in the person of his Son, King Jesus (Mark 4:23; 9:35). The Gospel declares that Christ has begun to establish his Kingdom and will return to fully reign over his dominion. All Creation looks forward to that day (Rom 8:22-25).

2. The Gospel is the good news of victory-over Satan and death. Pictures of Times Square packed with thousands celebrating the end of WWII have become iconic of the giddy relief felt when dark days give way to victory. That is nothing compared to the worshipful celebration of the redeemed (Rev 5:11-14). By his death, burial, and resurrection, Christ made an open spectacle of our implacable enemies (Col 2:15). On our behalf he defeated death and the Devil (1 Cor 15:54-57; Heb 2:9-15) and established his supremacy over all things (Col 1:13-23).

3. The Gospel is the good news of forgiveness of sins. In his discussion of the Gospel in 1 Cor 15, Paul emphasizes that Christ died “for our sins.” The Gospel is the good news that at Calvary Jesus became our substitute and suffered the wrath of God on our behalf. The blood of Christ is both our propitiation and expiation. It both pleads on the behalf of and cleanses the one who trusts him as Lord and Savior.

4. The Gospel is the good news of reconciliation (Rom 5:6-11; 2 Cor 5:18-21). The Gospel announces that God has reconciled himself to us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the true “good news of peace” (Rom 5:1; Eph 6:15). In sum, the Gospel is the joyous news that God, by and through his Son, acted to redeem all things-including us-to himself. This is the Gospel of Christ (1 Cor 9:12; 2 Cor 2:12; Gal 1:7; 1 Thess 3:2; Rom 15:16).

Yes, the Gospel is about us. But it’s not just about us. It’s not even primarily about us. The Great Commission Resurgence is a call to resist the temptation to think of ourselves as soloists. We are part of the ultimate symphony. What a glorious privilege.

A Thought or Two about Resolution #6 (Part 1)

A while back I had the privilege of preaching at 1st Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, which so happens to have been the home church of Jesse James. Jesse was a member in good standing when he led the first daylight bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, a town about ten miles away. The church minutes record that deliberations to discipline Jesse were complicated by the concern that he might burn down the building. Everyone in the community knew Jesse was staying at his mother’s farm (she was a Sunday school teacher at the time), so two deacons were selected to go to confront him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. The minutes of the next business meeting report that, for one reason or another, the deacons never could find the time to visit the notorious bandit. Then the minutes report that Jesse himself arrived at the meeting, and wishing to cause no embarrassment to the congregation, requested his name be removed from the roll. The church obliged.

By passing resolution #6, this year’s SBC convention admitted that Southern Baptists have failed to obey New Testament principles concerning church accountability. The decline of accountability and discipline in SBC life is well documented. However, a foundational ecclesiastical principle is that the body of Christ is composed of individual members who are truly integrated with one another (see 1 Cor 12). When put into practice, this principle is a beautiful manifestation of the love of Christ for his Church. Each member, when he unites with a congregation, makes himself accountable to that local body, and he is to care for the welfare of every member as he would care for himself.

So what went wrong? How did such a powerful truth disappear from the collective consciousness of Baptists? How did accountability come to be viewed merely as discipline-or more often than not-degenerate into mere punishment? Some very good studies explore these questions in better detail than I can give them in this blog (see Gregory A. Wills, “Southern Baptists and Church Discipline”), but I want to focus on just one factor: the tendency to select the wrong candidates for discipline. In other words, in times past too often discipline was exercised in a vindictive and arbitrary manner. We need to recover what was good about the practice of our forbearers while at the same time try to avoid their mistakes.

The Bible focuses on two types of members that are to be reproved by the congregation, but Baptist churches unfortunately have focused too often on a third. Public discipline should be reserved for (1) the indifferent and (2) the obstinate, but many times it was directed at (3) the weak.

The indifferent member is the one who stops showing any interest in Christ and the things of God. He demonstrates his apathy by his lack of attendance or support; he is spiritually lazy (2 Thess 3:6-15). It is not unusual for a traditional Baptist Church to have a church roll four or five times larger than its actual active membership. The Bible never gives comfort to the indifferent (just take a look at the Book of Hebrews) and neither should we.

The obstinate member is the second type of professing believer who the Bible directs us to call into account. This is the person who either is involved in flagrant sin, seriously disrupts the life of the church, or advocates clearly heretical beliefs. He (or she) disregards attempts by believers to be reconciled, has no desire to repent, and in fact digs in his (or her) heels (1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 1:20; Titus 3:9-11). The New Testament requires the local church to act in such cases (Matt 18:15-17).

However, more often than not, discipline was not directed at the backslider or the hard headed, but at those who stumbled. There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and rebellious and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3). The church is instructed to give attention to both, but in very different ways. Too often the targets of discipline have been unwed teenage mothers or those struggling to overcome an old life of drug or alcohol abuse. In these instances, discipline was not exercised so much as it was wielded. Too often discipline became a weapon.

Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.” Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip.

Accountability is always in order; discipline is not. So we must be discerning about when and when not to discipline. We do not want to be like a church in northeast Arkansas with which I am familiar. The minutes from one of its business meetings of long ago tell how the congregation debated whether or not watching a square dance was grounds to be “churched.” Not dancing, mind you, but just seeing others dance. The church concluded that this indeed was sufficient cause and duly kicked out the guilty parties.

In no small measure, an important element in the successful reimplementation of the principle of accountability and the practice of church discipline will be whether we teach our people how to distinguish between those who demonstrate a lack of concern or open rebellion from those who stumble on the journey.