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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.

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18 thoughts on “Clarifying Inclusivism and Exclusivism”

  1. Philip Miller says:

    Thank you for this. I will this as a resource in the future.

  2. Megan says:

    Yeah, but what’s the distinction between “belief” and “faith” and does it make a difference in exclusivity?

    After all, I can claim to believe in my husband, but if in my heart I believe he’s a loser who won’t succeed without a government handout, I can still claim to be his wife, but can’t very well claim to have faith in him, can I?

    Likewise, if I believe Jesus is the son of God and died to save me from my sins, but believe his power is limited by the lack of “tolerance” he receives from that same government, I can still claim to be a Christian, but can’t very well claim to have faith in Jesus.

    Jesus didn’t say, “when the Son of Man comes will he find ‘belief’ on the earth?” He said, “when the Son of Man comes will he find ‘faith’ on the earth?” It seems possible you can have an entire religion slip into apostasy without knowing it because it still professes all the right beliefs, although it no longer confesses any faith in God. Such a religion might claim exclusivity without enjoying any particular advantage over all the other religions.

  3. jim says:

    Thanks for the post! What of children born into a covenant family who later go on to reject Christ? Is household salvation in a covenant family typical but not universal (in other words, does the regeneration of the mother and father guarantee salvation for the children or simply make it more likely?) Also, what of adopted children? I’m honestly wondering about that. I get that “how can they believe without hearing? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” but household salvation is still a mystery to me, particularly knowing so many wayward children who grew up in godly households…

  4. Joel says:

    How do you get “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.” from Eph. 6:1, which says “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (ESV)? I don’t mean to be rude but it seems that you are making that verse say a lot of things that it is just not saying.

    BTW, I am not here trying to say that I disagree with you; I am just questioning how you can get that out of that verse. Thank you! I do appreciate your posts.

  5. Jimmy Meeks says:

    Obviously the most contentious point for TGC readers/writers will be point #3. Regardless of whether the Scriptures teach that special blessings are given to infants/children who are baptized into the covenant community, it is unfortunately a big contradiction in this article. Here is how I think the article can be boiled down:

    Part 1: It is impossible for one to be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ.
    Part 2, Point 3: It is possible for one to be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ.

    The argument unravels for me.

  6. Matthew says:

    Its good to see an evangelical reflecting some on this critically important question, but the post barely scratches the surface. It doesn’t directly or convincingly deal with the enormous question of all those in history or currently who have not heard a complete or accurate presentation of the Christian message. Part 4 would appear to indicate that all of these are doomed, but can’t seem to muster up the nerve to directly state this. To be taken seriously, evangelicals are going to need to show more existential awareness of the questions involved.

  7. Curt Day says:

    One of the sources for dissonance to both Christians and nonChristians when exclusiveness is taught is that there are many, perhaps too many, times when nonChristians show more concern for others and act more righteously than Christians, who are the only ones saved, do. That is there are many nonChristians who are better stewards of their time and resources to do good than many of us. So since exclusiveness be seemingly contradicted with actions, we need to be better stewards and be more righteous and caring in order to help teach exclusiveness.

  8. Ken says:

    It’s a little past 5 in the morning and I wonder, since I haven’t been awake that long, whether I should say anything. But, here it goes. I truly appreciate the hard thoughtful work that it is needed to reasonably explain biblical doctrines and view points. It must be very difficult to compose a few paragraphs of cogent, succinct, and possibly critical prose and lay it out for public consumption. I say that because I note at times from some respondents (not necessarily here and now) a critical, unpleasant, argumentativeness. What I mean is this, those folks who delight, or least seem to delight, in challenging every nuance of a blog like this. It is true that there are bloggers out there that have no idea what they are talking about and should be challenged. However, I have noticed the tendency of some to consistently pick nits and demand an explanation as to why a point was added or detracted and why it wasn’t explained to their satisfaction etc. These folks would be good attorneys. Yet, when I read, hopefully in a careful manner, I try to get at what an author is trying to convey without putting a stick in their spokes and see if I can launch them over their handlebars. The subject matter above has been ruminated for centuries and would take volumes to thoroughly treat. I find that Mr. DeYoung does a very nice job of unpacking and explaining issues in an extremely limited space. I think I would struggle to explain the process of can opening in such a venue without muddling it. Clearly, the folks who read these blogs are clever, articulate, and wildly intelligent. I would love to rub elbows with nearly all of them, I might learn something. I find listening and looking for the intent of the author to be much more beneficial than brandishing the pen, keyboard, or some electronic thingy, to articulate my views. Likely, there are those who could strip the underpinnings of my arguments more neatly than a day after Thanksgiving sale at Walmart. I applaud the effort that Mr. DeYoung expends for my benefit and I am truly thankful.

  9. Benjamin says:

    Hopefully not speaking as one of those over-critical who Ken noted…

    If inclusivism relies on a separation of faith from faith in Jesus Christ, then DeYoung’s argument follows.

    Question: does inclusivism rely on that or not?
    I do not claim to know the territory well enough to really answer that. However, might the inclusivist position be made as the possibility of people to have faith in Jesus Christ without realizing that they are having faith in Jesus Christ?

    That was unclear, let’s see if I can make it clearer. Might inclusivism be the belief that faith in the Christ does not require faith that Jesus is the Christ?

    Suppose someone came to the realization that they were sinners, and that they needed salvation from their sins. Suppose they then reached the point where they came to believe that unless someone either had come or was to come to take their guilt away–and unless someone gave them the ability to live rightly–they could have no hope for life. This person would then go on either to lose all hope of life, or to live in a faith that one would come, or had already come, to save them–perhaps even drawing conclusions regarding the divinity of this person (for the sake of argument). The inclusivist position would say that that suffices, despite the lack of a name for this person. The exclusivist, it seems to me, either says that the name (or some other beliefs, e.g., that this person died on a cross, perhaps) is a necessary part of the belief, or that no one comes to have this faith apart from hearing the word of God.

    A better argument, given this analysis of inclusivism (which may not be what most inclusivists mean, it’s just a way of being inclusivist which seems to be stronger to me) might be one building of off “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” in Romans 10:14, as jim pointed to in a slightly different context.

    If I am not just being over-critical, I hope that made sense.

  10. Richie Cronin says:

    care to comment on this critique of your post kevin? I feel it pretty much hands you your butt on a plate.

  11. I agree that those who are mentally capable of sinning must believe in Christ to partake of heaven. However, I believe this could occur after death. It is not necessarily the case that “Well, if God just reveals himself to the person, the person can’t help believing in him then so that ruins the point.” Not so. A person might believe in God, and hate him, as in The Last Battle. But those who look on Christ and fall at his feet in worship, knowing they are undone, may yet receive God’s grace.

  12. To clarify further, I think Kevin’s characterization of inclusivism doesn’t allow for as many shades and nuances of opinion. He is describing something looser than what I would agree with, yet seems to think the only alternative is hard exclusivism.

  13. nate says:

    I am Jewish, Orthodox, and I am an inclusivist.

    I think that exclusivists, are cruel, don’t understand God’s fairness, and put their own salvation in jeopardy. God judges people according to their circumstance. If a person’s circumstance warrants special consideration, God will find a way to be fair and make things right.
    God is beyond our understanding of scripture. To think otherwise is arrogant. I don’t believe in Jesus for many reasons, and it is not because I want to be evil. Jesus to you is not Jesus to me. Regarding what you think Jesus is, we both love the same thing. I love God and hope for the salvation of humanity, and I await God’s kingdom just like you and likely more so.
    My theology is very similar to yours. I believe in salvation through grace. I believe we are all created with an intrinsic physical flaw, and the grace of eternal spirituality is way beyond the merits of our actions.
    The two differences between me and you is that I believe the same you do, just without Jesus. This is what I was taught, and this is what I also believe after much investigation. The second difference regards which laws of Moses still apply today.
    I ask you to dig deep inside yourself and understand that God will not condemn the sincere person, even if they make an honest mistake. There is much in the NT to teach you to do so. If you don’t then you will judged the same way on your errors and God will not be kind to you the same way you were not kind and open to others who erred.

  14. Justin says:

    One question that arises in my mind is: what is the natural revelation of God? When asked what commands were the most important, Jesus said to love the Lord your God wih all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. The person then asked who his neighbor was. Jesus replied by telling him a parable about a man who was robbed and left for dead. The one who helps him and is, ultimately, seen as the picture of one who is justified before God, is a Samaritan. Samaritans were basically heretics who mixed Judaism and paganism together. Earlier on in his ministry He came across a Samaritan woman and when she wanted to debate over the various Samaritan heresies Jesus says “days are coming and now are when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? Jesus says there will be many who cry to Him ” Lord, Lord” on that day, but will be cast out because they didn’t do the will of the Father. What is the will of the Father? Jesus tells us what the will of the Father is in a number of parables; in one the king allows people into the kingdom because they fed him when he was hungry and clothed him when he was naked and visited him when he was in prison. The desire of the Father is that we love people. With that in mind, let us go back to what you said in the article. If someone has been loving and charitable and they have not heard the gospel, how have they rejected God’s natural revelation of Himself? God is love! All who have love have God. With that arises another question, why do we preach the gospel? It’s simple, Jesus told us to. Furthermore, through the gospel, God is fully revealed and where some would come without it, many many more will come with it.

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  16. Daniel Keene says:

    Is there any reliable information on the percentage of evangelicals that identify with Inclusivism in America?

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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