When Inclusivists Cry Foul: Is Faith in Jesus Christ an Evangelical Celebration?

In the June 14, 1999 edition of Christianity Today, David Neff, the executive editor, wrote a piece calling for evangelical unity in which he began by saying,

No one should be an accidental evangelical—or a merely cultural one. Unfortunately, few evangelicals can actually articulate the gospel. They can lead people to Christ and help them pray the sinner’s prayer, but when it comes to setting forth just how Jesus saves, most of us flounder (49).

Over the course of the past fifty years, there have been a number of rallying points and confessional statements (for instance, consider the 1974 Lausanne Covenant and the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). However, as Neff points out, evangelicals had yet to come together with a consensus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Neff reflects,

Curiously, those who bear the name evangelical (a term that means “of or relating to the gospel”) have never put forth a large-scale defining document about the gospel. That is because the gospel itself has not been at the center of modern disputes” (ibid.).

At this point I would have to disagree with Neff. The gospel has been the center of many modern disputes; it is just that the evangelical leadership had not up to that point owned up to the dispute and dealt with it. In any case, Neff is correct to say “it is time for us to revisit, reaffirm, and recapture the gospel” (50). The end result of this desire to define, declare, and defend the gospel was a document called The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.

This short document concerning the gospel is an excellently drafted piece, one that I would heartedly recommend to you. The Drafting Committee stated that the document was an attempt “to state what is primary and essential in the Gospel as evangelicals understood it” (54). In other places, the writers considered the document to elucidate the “key points” (54) and “necessary” truths (56) of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, as we shall see, this document was not well received by evangelicals who hold to the position of inclusivism.

In the gospel declaration, there are six particular places where the drafting committee explained that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. There are stated as follows (emphasis mine):

1. The faith in God and in Christ to which the Gospel calls us is a trustful outgoing of our hearts to lay hold of these promised and proffered benefits” (52).

2. Sinners receive through faith in Christ alone “the gift of righteousness” (Rom. 1:17, 5:17; Phil. 3:9) and thus become “the righteousness of God” in him who was “made sin” for them (2 Cor. 5:21) (53).

3. The moment we truly believe in Christ, the Father declares us righteous in him and begins conforming us to his likeness (53).

4. We affirm that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, the only mediator between God and humanity (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). We deny that anyone is saved in any other way than by Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ (54).

5. We affirm that faith in Jesus Christ as the divine Word (or Logos, John 1:1), the second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal and co-essential with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Heb. 1:3), is foundational to faith in the Gospel (54).

6. We affirm that saving faith includes mental assent to the content of the Gospel, acknowledgment of our own sin and need, and personal trust and reliance upon Christ and his work (55).

As you can see, the evangelical leaders who drafted this document were not fuzzy or flippant when it came to their understanding that only those who believe in the person of Jesus Christ will be saved. With such a unambiguous and provocative statement, the inclusivists were sure to cry foul—and so they did.

Less than four months later (October 4, 1999 issue), CT received a letter to the editor signed by the following: Gerald R. McDermott, Nancey Murphy, Alan G. Padgett, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Jonathan R. Wilson, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. It was their belief that the document calling for evangelical celebration was actually a statement that “serves needlessly to marginalize or alienate fellow evangelicals” (15). Regarding the matter of saving faith being solely in the person of Jesus Christ, they said the following (emphasis mine):

Furthermore, we are disappointed that the traditional evangelical affirmation that “Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation” (which we stoutly affirm) is linked with the controversial opinion that “the Bible offers on hope that sincere worshippers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ.” God’s treatment of those in other religious traditions who have not heard and rejected an authentic presentation of the gospel by the Holy Spirit in fact have been a subject of evangelical investigation and disputation for centuries.

In this regard, we are surprised by the affirmation that “saving faith includes mental assent to the content of the gospel.” We wonder how God saves infants and mentally retarded people; or people who lived before the time of Christ; or anyone who doesn’t hear the actual propositions of the gospel message in his or her lifetime.

Such phrasing represents only the “exclusivist” camp in these matters of evangelical dispute and leaves out “inclusivist” evangelicals. It therefore does not belong in a “uniting” document.

We join with CT, therefore, in celebrating the majority of this document with which we agree. We are sorry, however, that it does not in fact represent adequately the evangelical consensus it purports to reflect.

In their rebuttals, you see some of the classic arguments against the exclusivist position. I can understand their appeal to their position and “regretful” sentiments to this gospel declaration, for the overwhelming majority of leading evangelicals affirmed that indeed the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be altered nor can its requirements be minimized. To change the gospel in order to “make it more accessible” neither does a service to the lost heathen without Christ nor the Christian community who confesses it. As Neff asked, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful . . . if evangelicals could achieve a broad consensus on the gospel and join in a common statement?” Well, for some, this gospel statement is not broad enough. On the other hand, I believe it is as broad as the gates of heaven. As evangelicals, let us unite under the gospel of Jesus Christ and celebrate what God has accomplishes for us in the death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Note: To read a little background of some of the drafting committee go here. Also interesting to note, some of the supporters of this document I have come to find are inclusivists (such as Tony Evans whom I will mention in my next article on inclusivism). Also, given that this document was in some way a response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), I find it somewhat ironic that some of the supporters of ECT also support this document which clearly rejects the Catholic understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, to check out the book that was published after this gospel statement, go here.

Explore posts in the same categories: Excerpts, Gospel, Religious Pluralism, Research

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