Inclusivists believe that everyone who is saved is saved through the person and work of Christ. They do not, however, insist that conscious faith (on the part of sentient adults) is necessary to appropriate this saving work. Some Buddhists or Hindus or good people in our neighborhoods drawn to the true and the beautiful might be saved through Christ without knowing it. But what about John 14:6? Inclusivists understand “no one can come to the Father except through me” to mean through my saving work. Faith may not be necessary.
No doubt, it’s true that no one can be saved apart from the work of Christ. But the “through” in John 14:6 means “through faith in me.”
Look at the immediate context. Jesus begins the chapter by telling the disciples “believe in me” (14:1). Then verse 7 talks about knowing the Father by knowing the Son. Verse 9 makes clear that whoever sees Jesus has seen the Father. Verses 12 and 13 repeat the exhortation to believe in Jesus. The point of the whole section is that if you know/see/believe in Jesus you know the Father. And conversely, you cannot go to the Father or follow Jesus to his heavenly glory unless you know and believe in Son.
This reading of John 14 is confirmed by the broader purpose of the gospel, which is that John’s readers might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). John’s gospel is full of promises for those who believe.
- Whoever believes in me shall never thirst (6:35).
- Whoever believes in me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (7:38).
- Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live (11:25).
- I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness (12:46).
Likewise, there are dire warnings for those who do not believe in Christ.
- Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (3:18).
- He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him (5:23).
- You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also (8:19).
- If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here (8:42).
John 14:6 is not one verse taken out of context. It captures the message of the entire book of John. The whole gospel is an apologetic for conscious faith in Christ, faith that affirms certain propositions about Jesus, faith that believes he is the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), the gate for the sheep (10:7, 9), the good shepherd (10:11, 14), the resurrection and the life (11:25), and the true vine (15:1, 5).
Unless we believe that Christ is “he,” the long awaited Messiah and heaven sent Son of God, we will die in our sins (8:24). Jesus could not make the point any clearer. “Through” means “through faith.” Inclusivism and John 14:6 cannot be friends.
What I Am Not Saying
In saying this, in arguing for exclusivism as opposed to inclusivism, I should be clear what I am not saying.
1. I am not saying there is nothing decent or honorable in other religions or in people from other religions. Ultimately, there is no good deed apart from faith, but Christians should recognize that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus (and secular atheists for that matter) can be charitable, honest, and kind. Exclusivism does not demand that we reject everything about every other belief or every other religious person. What we do believe is that the most important doctrines of the Christian faith are not shared by other faiths and that even the most moral neighbor cannot be saved by good works.
2. I am not saying that Christianity is nothing more than saying the right prayer. Often in deriding exclusivism the contrast is made between the best, noblest adherent of some other religion versus the most crass, hypocritical, superficial adherent of Christianity. Raising your hand or praying the sinner’s prayer at camp does not automatically make you a Christian. If you are not changed and bear no fruit you have not been born again from above.
3. I am not saying that children who die at a young age, or those mentally incapable of expressing faith, cannot be saved. We know from Scripture that the Spirit can touch children in the womb (e.g., David, John the Baptist) and that the kingdom can belong to children (Mark 10:14). We see in Scripture that children from a believing household are in a different “position” than those outside the fold. They have Jesus as their covenant Lord (Eph. 6:1). When David’s son dies he says “I will go to him” (2 Sam. 12:23), this could mean “I too will die.” But in the next verse we read, “Then, David comforted his wife” (2 Sam. 12:24). I think it more likely that v. 23 was a comfort to David and Bathsheba because David knew he would see his child again in the next life. The juxtaposition of comfort makes less sense if David is simply assured he will join his son in the ground some day.
So I gladly affirm Canons of Dort, Article 1.17: “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” Beyond this, as a confessional Christian, I would not speak too dogmatically. Almost everything concerning salvation in the Bible assumes the presence of sentient human beings. Some of our other questions may not be answered directly.
4. I am not saying that unbelievers are punished because they did not put faith in a Jesus they never heard of. This may sound like the opposite of exclusivism, but it’s not. This is actually a crucial point that exclusivists and their opponents often miss. Those who never hear the gospel are not punished for not knowing Jesus. Not knowing Jesus results in punishment, but sin is the grounds for punishment. Those who do not put faith in Christ are punished for being sinners. They are punished in the next life for turning the truth of general revelation into a lie (Rom. 1:18-25). They have broken God’s law, and anyone guilty of even one violation is accountable for the whole law (James 2:10). Those with no knowledge of Christ will be judged less severely because they had less light, though that judgment will still be far from painless (Matt. 11:20-24). Our only hope in life and in death is that we are not our own but belong body and soul to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.