Before we begin, it might be best to present some definitions of what we’re talking about. Inclusivism might be differentiated from universalism in the sense that whereas universalism teaches that everyone will be saved outside of faith in Christ, inclusivism teaches that at least some might be saved outside of faith in Christ. Admittedly, I have, in the past, been confused over the difference between the two, but recently have come to a better clarification between them (with a special H/T to Kevin over at Wesleyan Arminian).
All the same, I cannot say that I could ever consider myself an inclusivist because of the testimony of scripture in this regard. However, I thought, for the sake of discussion, it would be worth touching on some of the passages popularly used to support inclusivism.
This is a popular one to be cited by inclusivists. The argument is that while the slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready (the inference being unrighteous Christians) will get many lashings, the slave who did not know his master’s will and was not ready (the inference being righteous non-Christians) will receive but a few.
I personally cannot comprehend why this is used to support inclusivism. Those who argue that the second servant received fewer lashes than the first seem to forget one important thing: both servants still got lashes. They were both punished. To say that one received a few lashes doesn’t had the fact he was still lashed. Christ even says that he “committed deeds worthy of a flogging.” To say that because one servant received less lashings means there is no eternal punishment for some people is like Rob Bell’s argument regarding Capernaum and Sodom.
The belief here is that this passage is saying that the Son is not here to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him. However, those who might say this opens the door for inclusivism forget what follows:
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. [John 3:18]
When Christ says “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world,” that does not mean there isn’t any kind of judgment taking place. The Son does not have to judge – we are all already under condemnation. No one goes to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus – they go to hell for the righteous judgment of their sins. It is Christ who saves us from that hell.
The idea of using these verses is that Jesus says “If you were blind, you would have no guilt” – hence it is perceived by some that those who are spiritually blind are excused.
The problem is that this is placing the emphasis on the wrong syllable. These verses come on the tail end of the story of the man born blind, who was healed by Christ, interrogated by the Pharisees, and eventually kicked out. Christ had just stated: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (v. 39). The Pharisees, who had condemned the man born blind, hear this and ask if they are also blind. Christ states, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt” – meaning the specific guilt of rejecting him as they were – but “now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” That last part is important – the Pharisees claimed that they were the true followers of their day, and therefore they claimed that they had spiritual sight. On the contrary, they were spiritually blind, and so their claims of sight made them guilty. Their guilt was in claiming to know God and yet rejecting Christ as Messiah and Lord (as unbelieving Jews today do), hence proving that they were, in fact, blind. Note too that, in Christ’s own words, this blindness is a sign of judgment: the Pharisees claimed to be able to see, and yet were made blind by God; the man born blind was believed by the Pharisees to be blind (both literally and spiritually), and yet Christ made him see (both literally and spiritually), showing he had the mercy and favor of God.
The verses are not saying that a person is exempt simply for being spiritually blind. The apostle Paul makes it clear that everyone has some inner feeling of the truth about God, and hence are left inexcusable for idolatry, false worship, or sin (cf. Rom 1:18-23).
I’ve already touched on this passage in greater detail on my post regarding John 6:44, but will touch on it briefly here. There are, logically, three ways to interpret this passage:
1) The literal evangelical approach: Christ refers to “draw” as in drawing all men to be Christians in this lifetime. Many atheists and non-Christians interpret it this way in an attempt to show a contradiction in the New Testament. Their argument is that Christ is a failed savior since it’s obvious that not all men have been drawn to Him, and millions upon millions have died in unbelief.
2) The universalist approach: Christ means He will literally draw all men to Him in salvation, so that all men literally will be saved on the day of judgment.
3) The ethnic approach: Christ refers to “all men” in regards to both Jews and Gentiles. This was (as I mentioned in my John 6:44 post) the opinion even of many past synergistic theologians (John Wesley, Adam Clarke) as well as Eastern Fathers (John Chrysostom, Theophylact). More importantly, it comes from the original scripture reading, where Christ is approached by a group of Gentiles desiring to see Christ (v. 20-21) – in the end, Christ never sees them (v. 36). This was because the time of the Gentiles had not yet come. It would be after the resurrection that the gospel would be preached to all nations (Matt 28:19), and then would Christ truly draw all men – not just Jews, but Gentiles as well – to Himself.
This is another popular passive for inclusivists. However, saying this teaches inclusivism is problematic with what is said:
…God is not one to show partiality… – The immediate context is in regards to Jews and Gentiles, not personal faith. Peter is saying that God shows no partiality between ethnic groups. Keep in mind this is said in the context of Paul learning of the faith given to Cornelius (v. 3-5), and the vision Peter had regarding the “unclean” animals (v. 9-16). At the time of Christ, many Jews of that time held such a poor opinion of Gentiles that many refused to even pass through their towns or neighborhoods, let alone interact with them. Peter’s realization here is that God shows no partiality between a Jew or a Gentile.
…the man who fears Him… – What is the true context of “fearing God”? Is it fearing a vague concept known as “God”? On the contrary, it means – within the context scripture defines it – fearing the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The ancient Israelites were told, “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name” (Deut 10:20), and again, “You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him…” (Deut 13:4). It was Him and Him alone that they should fear; they were explicitly told “you shall not fear other gods…but the LORD your God you shall fear” (2 Ki 17:37, 39). As religious as a devout Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shintoist may be, they are not fearing the God whom Peter is referring to here.
…and does what is right… – Many will leap to those part and declare: “Aha! ‘Does what is right’! This means a good non-believer will probably be saved!” The problem, however, is that this is said alongside with “the man who fears Him.” It is not merely “doing what is right” that will win salvation – that is a drum beat many times throughout scripture. It is faith in God which saves, and the works stem from that faith and show its sincerity.
In fact, the inclusivist use of this passage is contradicted by the fact that immediately after this, Peter peaches the gospel to the Gentiles present. Speaking of Christ, Peter says: “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (v. 43). Salvation is of those who fear the one true God and believe in His Son.
Let’s look at the full context:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [Romans 1:18-21]
Paul is beginning his attack against the pagan mindset of the world, which will lead into his condemnation of the hypocrisy of devout Jews in chapter two, and eventually the condemnation of everyone in the opening of the third chapter. Paul is not saying, “People see God in everything, so they’ll be saved,” he’s saying, “It’s obvious creation has a creator, yet they choose to worship creation instead.” This is a statement of condemnation, not inclusivism.
The implication to many here is that this passage is teaching two different standards for how a person will be judged in the afterlife: those who have “sinned without the Law” will be judged without the Law (again, the ignorance clause of inclusivism), whereas those who “have sinned under the Law” will be “judged by the Law.”
We have already established that Romans 1 dealt mainly with the pagan mindset of the world. Romans 2 deals with the Jewish believers who assumed that, because they had the Law, they were superior over the Gentiles. Hence Pauls stern warning: “Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Rom 2:3; ESV) This eventually leads to the passage involving the verse in question:
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. [Rom 2:9-13]
Paul’s point is not that unbelievers will be held to a different standard – Paul’s point here (and in the verses that follow) is that those who live by the Law will be judged by the Law, and those who are outside the Law will perish (note that they are not saved – they perish) without the Law. No one will have an excuse. The Gentile unbelievers from Romans 1 will not be able to say, “Well we didn’t know the Law!”, and the Jewish hypocrites of Romans 2 will not be able to say, “But we’re the Jews! The Law belongs to us, so we should get a free pass!”
This is not about inclusivism, but making it clear that all will be held accountable for their deeds. This will lead to Paul’s famous conclusion that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Rom 3:9).
[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. [1 Timothy 2:4]
This is yet another popular passage to cite for many inclusivists. I’d already touched on this in my review of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (where it was used to support universalism), but I’ll touch on it again here.
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. [1 Tim 2:1-8]
Paul urges that Timothy lead his congregation in “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings” on behalf of all men (v. 1), specifying “kings and all who are in authority” (v. 2). This, Paul says, is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (v. 3), who “desires all men to be saved” and “come to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 4). That is, all kinds of men, even those who are kings and those in authority. Christians at that time were living under pagan and unbelieving authorities (as most still do today), and the temptation might be not to pray for them in thanksgiving or petition. Paul’s contention is that God desires even such men as these to be saved.
Paul likewise says that there is “one God, and one mediator” between God and men, “the man Christ Jesus,” (v. 5), who “gave Himself as a ransom for all,” this being “the testimony given at the proper time” (v. 6). “For this,” Paul says, he was “appointed a teacher to the Gentiles in faith and truth” (v. 7). When Paul says “ransom for all,” does this mean unbelievers as well? No – for this, Paul says, he was appointed to preach to the Gentiles. As was seen in John 12:32, “all” refers here to both Jews and Gentiles of any profession.
In summary, this passage is inclusivist in the sense that any person – prince or pauper, Jew or Gentile – can be saved by God…but it doesn’t mean that those who die in unbelief will not perish in their unbelief.
Ignoring any arguments for particular or general atonement, what is the scriptural basis for the receiving the forgiveness of sins? As we saw with John 3:17, it is saving faith in Christ. It is through this alone that a person is saved. “To the one who does not work,” the apostle Paul wrote, “but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
John Owen once gave this dilemma: if Christ died for all sins of everyone, why aren’t all men forgiven; if because of unbelief, are not those sins covered by the cross as well? Many have responded to this by saying that it is scripturally taught that saving faith in Christ is what forgives us our sins, hence our sins are only forgiven at the coming to faith. However, if we open the door for inclusivism, and say that a person is justified despite unbelief, then that is thrown out the window, and John Owen’s point still stands. If God can forgive unbelief for subjective reasons (ignorance, being a “righteous heathen”, etc.) because He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then, following this to its logical conclusion, why aren’t all people saved? This kind of argumentation makes inclusivism the camel’s nose for universalism.
Let’s review the wording in this passage as we did with the passage from Acts.
…a great multitude which no one could count… – This is merely in reference to the large number of believers. We don’t know the number or how many there will be, though God surely knows. This does not mean they believed to other faiths which denied Christ’s divinity.
…from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues… – This is inclusive language, though not towards faith. Rather, it is to ethnic heritage, racial distinction and nationality. There will be all kinds of people before the throne of God: Europeans, Africans, Asians, Indians, Arabs, etc. There is nothing here to suggest religious or spiritual inclusivism.