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.

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 6

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

9). Will this action honor my body which belongs to God?
Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body. – 1 Cor. 6:19-20

We touched on this principle in an earlier post, but let’s look at it again from a slightly different angle. In these verses Paul declares that we are not our own and have been bought with a price. Therefore, we should honor God in all we do with our bodies. Chuck Swindoll says our bodies are: 1) a physical extension of Christ, 2) a moral illustration of the Lord, and 3) a spiritual habitation of God. John Piper says 6 things are true because Jesus bought your body:

1) God is for the body not against it. 2) The body is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. 3) The body will be resurrected from the dead. 4) The body is not to be mastered by anything but Christ. 5) The body is not to be used for any immorality. 6) The body is to be used for the glory of God. What is the result? “Use your body in ways that will show that God is more satisfying, more precious, more to be desired, more glorious than anything the body craves” (John Piper, “You Were Bought with a Price”). I don’t know about you, but I like this. Use my body to show how satisfying God is? Now that’s a life in the body worth living!

10). Will this action glorify God?
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory. – 1 Cor. 10:31

This climatic and over-arching principle has been called “the joyful duty of man.” It is right in its God-focus for He is the most beautiful and valuable person in the entire universe. It is right in its human perspective for it makes clear why we are here: to live for God’s glory. John Piper is right: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him!” (John Piper, Desiring God, 9). No part of life is exempt from this principle. It is comprehensive and it is satisfying! So, seek His glory, and do it with passion!

Putting Our Ten Principles into Practice
When making ethical choices, world Christians will not wed their cultural and personal preferences to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They will vigorously keep them separate and distinct. They will not insist on their rights or their special interest that could cloud the beauty and purity of the gospel. How can a devoted Christ follower stand beneath the cross of their Savior and insist on their rights? To give up our rights for the spiritual and eternal blessing of others will be a joy and not a burden. It is our calling in Christ (Mark 10:35-45).

How will this influence the way we live as Christians? I believe the following theological paradigm applied to the Corinthian correspondence can give us some additional guidelines to consider. Several years ago, when I served at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my good friend Al Mohler and I often discussed how the church should worship. He developed the following model that also provides insight for how the church should live out the gospel in today’s cultural context.

A Theological Paradigm for Being the Body of Christ

Bad Church (Christian)

+ Good Way

+ Good Church (Christian)

+ Good Way

Bad Church (Christian)

Bad Way

+ Good Church (Christian)

– Bad Way

Obviously, we want to be in the top box on the right. We want to be a good Christian in a good way. It is not difficult to discern a good Christian, because we have a perfect manual called the Bible to instruct and guide us. We can go to the counsel of the Old and New Testaments and discover God’s ideas for gospel ethics. Some things are non-negotiables. Some things are transparent. However, being a good Christian in a good way is not always as easy to discover. The good way is more subjective in nature. Cultural context plays a significant role at this point. There are many gray areas in life that are not always clear. How can we discover the good way? I believe the ten principles found in the Corinthian correspondence, provide tremendous help. Complementing them with six affirmations or axioms that take into consideration our 4-fold paradigm, I believe we can gain some insight into how we can find the “good way.”

Six Guiding Axioms for Finding the “Good Way”

  1. Love will regulate liberty.
  2. Love will rein in legalism.
  3. That which detracts from the gospel will be avoided.
  4. That which distracts from the gospel will be avoided.
  5. Follow the witness principle.
  6. Follow the wisdom principle.

In my last article in this series I will present a test case in which we can apply these principles. I suspect it will get your attention: the issue of alcohol.

Guest Blog by Central Asia RL: Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 1)

Biblical Foundations and Guidelines for Contextualization (Pt 1)

Editor’s Note: This guest blog is written by the IMB’s Regional Leader for Central Asia. It is a six part series, giving the biblical foundations and guidelines for contextualization, and making application to Christian ministry in the Muslim world. This series will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book “Look What God is Doing in the Muslim World.”

Every Christian Contextualizes

Contextualization is one of the hottest topics in Missions today. Simply put, contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the Gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context. American Christians have a tendency to think of contextualization as something missionaries and overseas Christians do “over there,” and many serious Christians in the Western world worry about how far non-Western churches go in their contextualization efforts. However, in reality, every Christian alive today is actively involved in contextualization. Every American Christian worships in a contextualized church. As much as we like to think of our churches as “New Testament churches,” there actually are no New Testament churches in existence today.

Contextualization in a Western Context

Our cultural context is dramatically different from the world of the New Testament, and as a result, any modern church would look bizarre and alien to a first-century Christian. This is true at every level. The first century church met on the Temple porch in Jerusalem, or in places like the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus, or most often in private homes. There were no specific church buildings during the New Testament period.

Our buildings, with their modern construction materials, their style and appearance, and their electronic gadgetry, would look like they had come down from outer space if they were plopped into a first century setting. Our seating arrangements, with people sitting on pews or chairs rather than on the floor, and with unrelated men and women sitting side by side, would seem strange (and perhaps a bit scandalous) to a first century Palestinian believer. The programs that make up so much of modern church life – Sunday School, Youth Group, RAs and GAs, Awanas – all came into being in recent centuries, and were unknown to the early church.

The music we sing is based on a totally different tonality from that of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it uses very different instruments. (The piano was not invented until the modern era, and the organ was originally a Roman circus instrument, considered unfit for Christian worship.) Our music would have sounded strange and unpleasant to them, and vice versa. (It should be noted that all Christian music, at some point, has been “contemporary Christian music,” and that even the most traditional songs today were probably regarded as risqué by somebody when they first came out!)

The language we speak did not even exist in Biblical times. English as we know it developed during the Middle Ages, centuries after the New Testament was completed. First century Christians worshiped in Aramaic, Koine Greek, or Latin. And the social customs and cultural practices of the first century church were much closer to the modern culture of the Middle East or Central Asia than to contemporary North America. Our culture is radically different from the culture of the New Testament, and as a result, our churches are radically different from New Testament churches.

In countless ways, every believer alive today, whether in North America or South Asia, contextualizes the Gospel and the church. The question is not whether or not we are going to do it. The question facing every believer and every church is whether or not they will contextualize well. Anyone who fails to realize that they are doing it, and who fails to think it through carefully and Biblically, simply guarantees that they will probably contextualize poorly. Syncretism can happen as easily in Indiana or Iowa as it can in Indonesia!

Contextualization in a Muslim Context

Those working in the Muslim world have taken a variety of approaches to contextualization. These approaches are typically classified along a spectrum designated C1 to C5 (or sometimes C6). C1 is the label given to those who simply reproduce their own (foreign) culture on the mission field. If a foreign worker were to reproduce First Baptist Church of Anywhere, USA somewhere overseas, complete with architecture, hymnal, order of service, style of worship and teaching, and church programs, this would be an example of C1 contextualization.

At the other end of the spectrum, C5 contextualization aims at a phenomenon sometimes referred to as an “insider movement.” In this approach, new believers in Jesus are encouraged to maintain a Muslim community identity and to continue Islamic practices. Often, such movements affirm that Islam, its prophet and its book are of divine origin, but simply need to be completed in Jesus. C2, C3 and C4 represent intermediate stages between these two extremes.

This classification system is widely used, and it provides a useful common language for the conversation about contextualization. However, there is a problem inherent in this approach. This system implies that we are the standard. It measures the distance from us, as though our cultural expression of Christianity is what God actually intended, and others are to be evaluated by how much they are like us or different from us.

We have to admit that every Christian everywhere instinctively tends to think this way. What we have always done feels to us like the “right” way to do things, and we have a hard time not reading our own experience into the Bible. However, given the fact that all of us practice contextualization, we need to remind ourselves constantly that Scripture, not our experience, is the standard by which all things are to be evaluated. Scripture is inerrant, authoritative and sufficient. Where Scripture gives a command, or a prohibition, or a binding model, the issue is settled. When Scripture sets a boundary, we may not cross it.

However, within those boundaries, there is nothing particularly sacred about our cultural ways of doing things. Throughout the ages and across the globe, there have been other cultural expressions of Christianity that are just as faithful to Scripture as our own. Indeed, in the case of the Muslim world, their culture is actually closer to the culture of the New Testament than is ours, so their churches may actually look more like New Testament churches than ours do. At the same time, every culture, including our own, has its besetting sins. In every setting, there are points where cultural orthodoxy contradicts the Word of God, resulting in cultural pressure toward compromise and syncretism. The key is to let the Bible be our judge, and for all of us to allow the global Body of Christ to speak the Word of God into our particular blind spots.

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