One of the most frustrating conversations I ever had was with a man whose name you would recognize because he is a high-profile evangelical leader. At a missions conference we both attended he told me, There are people following their religions who are absolutely sincere because they are loyal to their own people, but they are not ready to hear the gospel.”
The discussion was whether or not “good people” are lost. I argued back that Jesus Christ was the only way of salvation. Then the evangelical leader ended our conversation with, “I cannot believe that a loving God would not plan some way of salvation for those people.”
I am writing about this because I feel the need to sound an alarm for God’s people. There is a substantial misunderstanding today regarding the nature of salvation because there is a substantial misunderstanding about human nature. Humans do not naturally love God. They do not naturally seek him. It is not normal for people to be saved. It is certainly not ordinary for individuals to love the Lord with all their hearts, all their souls and all their minds as Scripture commands.
Corpses do not dance. Bring the loudest and best orchestra to a cemetery, announce a ball and invite the dead to join in and dance. Will they respond and come to the gala affair arranged for them?
While that scenario is ridiculous, it has its parallel in reality. In the spiritual sense we all are stillborn. We have no viable lives. The natural person is dead in trespasses and sins and cannot respond to God’s invitation. By the very substance of our humanity we are ungodly and sinful, and any religion that we might author would be corrupt and corrupting.
True Christians do not have a religion in the sense of other creeds that are authorized by man. We follow a revelation from God: the recorded Word of God (the Scriptures) and the Incarnate Word of God (the Savior).
Our “religion” is a response to the Holy Spirit who moves about and touches hearts, preparing people to be raised from their dead existence to new life in Christ. Our salvation is not merely a growth process. It is a creative process whereby the power of God makes alive that which was dead. That is why Scripture uses the metaphor of the new birth and we speak of being born again.
Colin Chapman, a professor at Trinity College in Bristol, England, categorizes Christians into two groups: inclusivists and exclusivists. Those who, like himself, believe that non-Christians can be included to receive salvation by grace are “inclusivists.” Others who, like me, feel that non-Christians have no salvation—no matter how sincere they might be—are “exclusivists.”1
The problem with this kind of categorizing is that our good will or perspectives of people do not include or exclude them from salvation. Individuals are included or excluded on the basis of how God regards them; and the Bible states that there is no other name given under heaven or earth whereby we must be saved except the name of Jesus. Neither we nor our opinions dispense salvation. God provides salvation, and he includes or excludes whom he will.
To avoid the responsibility of obeying God, some use the common device, “It’s not that simple,” or to quote from one of the great American musicals, “It ain’t necessarily so.” I say that if God said it, it is necessarily so.
The Bible does contain a number of discomforting truths, such as the statement that only those who confess Christ are saved (Romans 10:9,10). Conversely, those who do not are not saved. For the sake of my parents, my ancestors, and the millions of others who have gone into eternity without Christ, I wish there were another truth. But the Scripture statements on how a person is to be saved allow for no compromise.
The biblical religion presents itself in dichotomies or statements which are diametrically opposed. There are right and wrong, purity and impurity, godliness and ungodliness, obedience and disobedience, truth and falsity, salvation and perdition. These categories are in direct opposition to one another.
In an attempt to move toward moral and ethical relativism, the world wants a big gray area between the true and the false, the good and the bad. Today’s society generally chooses this approach over the biblical morality which says that good and evil are diametrically opposed to one another. One cult even maintains that Satan will be redeemed.
The civil “religion” of America is tolerance. Yet any group which presents the gospel as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” will be rejected out of hand for its intolerance. Christians who claim, as the Bible teaches, that Christ is the only way of salvation will be labeled intolerant, because if they do not acknowledge “other ways of salvation” they are mistakenly seen as withholding equal respect and status from those who disagree with them.
Christian belief definitely has room for paradox, but there is no room to question away God’s categorical statements. Those who explain away God’s statements do violence to his Word.
There is such a thing as an unholy tolerance. Speaking to the situation of pluralism in his book No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste2 John Murray Cuddihy wrote, “Self-definitions predicated on being ‘the one true church’ or ‘the chosen people’ are experienced in America as an unseemly ostentation, as vulgar boasting, puffing, as ridiculous even. Good taste, like St. Paul’s ‘charity,’ flaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own.”
Dr. Cuddihy says that those who assert a truth disbelieved by others are considered arrogant. If so, it would be considered socially unacceptable to believe anything very strongly—particularly if one wanted to tell others about it and possibly persuade them also to believe it.
Our modern society confuses good taste with true faith. It is considered bad taste to imply that someone might be wrong while declaring oneself to be right. That, however, is not what Christians do when they maintain that Christ is the only way to salvation. When we proclaim Christ as the only Way, we do not declare ourselves to be right. We declare Jesus to be right and ourselves to be sinners in need of rescue.
Because of an overused and much abused sense of fair play and open-mindedness, some are speaking into the evangelical church with statements on salvation so clever, sincere and kindly—yet so false—that I wonder if this is not what the Scripture means when it talks about the “doctrine of demons.” The statements have been uttered in missions conferences, from pulpits and put into print. They deal with who is to be saved and how.
The doctrine is never taught; it is only implied. Clearly stated, the proposition is that a person does not necessarily need to believe in and confess Christ on this earth in order to be saved.
I heard that implication from Colin Chapman, instructor at Trinity College, Bristol, England. In a lecture on the uniqueness of Christ he emphasized how difficult it was for religious Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims to consider Christ. He concluded with, “I think we must leave it up to God to judge.”
When I heard Dr. Chapman say that, my somewhat sarcastic inner response was, “How kind of you to allow the Judge of the universe to be what he always has been.” But according to John 3:18, he has already judged: “…he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Dr. Chapman is reluctant to let us say that all religions other than what is revealed by God in Scripture are merely human opinion. He insinuates that somehow those other religions have some validity.
I say that if kindness to our fellow man means that we must assign God’s revelation to the status of just another human opinion, we must eschew that brand of kindness.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that Colin Chapman is Satan, but I believe that this doctrine is one of Satan’s deceptions. Dr. Chapman is a kind, reasonable person. He is greatly respected and well received in evangelical circles. But he has adopted an all-too-convenient device of attributing valid faith to those on whom he would bestow kindness. There is some good in other religions, but they are not salvific. To imply that they are destroys the true Christian faith.
Even to hint that there is some way of salvation other than Christ trivializes the Passion of our Savior. It renders his suffering and atoning death meaningless. Furthermore, it reduces the entire missionary movement to no more than an exercise in futility.
This Easter season is a good time to remember that no leader of any world religion, however noble, ever rose bodily from the dead—except Jesus! By his resurrection Jesus validated God’s revelation. By his resurrection he showed all other religions to be less than true. As recipients of his truth, we must warn those who are deluded into thinking they are safe when, in fact, they are perishing. How can we find the courage to say that in a loving way?
- Colin Chapman, “The Challenge of Other Religions,” World Evangelization, Jan. 1989.
- John Murray Cuddihy. No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (New York: The Seabury Press. 1978).