Who Can Be Saved?

Who Can Be Saved

I am half-way through Terrance Tiessen’s 500-page tome, Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004). I was waiting to write a short review about it, until after completing it, but Kevin DeYoung published a post this morning defending exclusivism. This is the belief that a conscious, explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Those who were unfortunate enough to live before the reach of missionary expansion, the millions who have never heard the gospel, are out of luck. For a strict, old-school Calvinist, this is sometimes defended as evidence of their reprobation. Not kidding. Unless the unevangelized person receives a miraculous vision or communication of some sort, they are damned for eternity.

Given that this is such a momentous claim, I want more than just an inference from some proof texts, which are invariably directed at those who are confronted with the gospel (as in Jn 14.6, DeYoung’s proof text, or in Rom 10.14-21, the locus classicus). We need some rather explicit scriptural instruction. And if Tiessen’s work has demonstrated anything, this explicit scriptural teaching is far from forthcoming. A closer look at the biblical attestations about salvation are actually rather varied, and even exclusivists admit as much when they consider the Old Testament saints, both before the Abrahamic covenant and thereafter, and the righteous among the other nations.

Tiessen argues for a new taxonomy, beyond the standard categories of (1) exclusivist, (2) inclusivist, and (3) pluralist. Depending upon the theologian, inclusivism can be articulated as affirming other religions, viewed as God-ordained instruments in awakening the unevangelized to faith, even if Christianity is privileged (contra pluralism) as the only complete manifestation of God’s revelation. Other inclusivists would reject this approach, including Tiessen himself. So he argues instead for “accessibilism” — all persons in all times and all places have access to sufficient revelation, through which the Holy Spirit can utilize to quicken the hearts of man. I won’t give Tiessen’s manifold approach to defending this thesis — you will have to read the book.

Tiessen is himself a Calvinist, and he dedicates a whole chapter to defending monergism, which is a straightforward account of particular election and efficient grace that would make Sproul or Packer proud. (I really don’t have a problem with this, despite my Barthian leanings.) This has some strategic advantage, because the most zealous defenders of exclusivism today are among the “new Calvinists” such as Mohler, Piper, DeYoung, et al., though it is certainly widely held among other evangelicals. The revision of the Southern Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000, added the line, “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This was directed, of course, at inclusivism of any sort.

My only quibble with Tiessen’s book is how it is organized. It follows a question-based format for each chapter: Who needs to be saved? Whom is God trying to save? To whom does God reveal himself? By what standard are people judged? Why should we send missionaries? and so forth. This gives the book the feel of an apologetics handbook, whereas I would much prefer a more linear progression through the appropriate dogmatic loci. As a result of Tiessen’s approach, you will find yourself needing to jump forward and backward for further elucidation of, say, certain biblical passages. However, this is a minor complaint on my part, and I am sure that many others will appreciate the question-based format.

This is an easy-to-read book, directed at a fairly broad audience of evangelicals. Technical terms are kept to a minimum or thoroughly defined (e.g., monergism), so it is a good book to recommend to your Christian friends who are struggling (as we should) with this question.



    • Yes, Tiessen has a good response to this very common use of Romans 1: “I suggest that many Christians have been inclined to push Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18 further than it goes in Paul’s own argument. Paul teaches that ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth’ (emphasis mine), and many have assumed that Paul is indicating that everyone ultimately and finally does this. That is, for instance, the reading given by John Piper. But Paul does not say this is so.” (p. 141)

      Moreover, this use of Romans 1 is yet another example of posing questions to a text that the text itself is not posing, and then inferring the answer you want. Paul’s point — ultimately (inclusive of cc. 2-3) — is that Gentile and Jew are alike in need of grace. The exclusivism question is neither posed nor answered (ditto for chapter 10, where the hardening of the Jews is on Paul’s mind, not the salvation of the unevangelized that we bring to the text).

    • Also, we could approach the issue with Barth’s complaint that (in some strands of Protestant orthodoxy) the law is more basic than the gospel.

      • Exactly. But, of course, this would require thinking that the law is more than an impossibly high standard which serves to condemn, or, as deYoung puts it, to be the ground of punisment – or even, (gasp) thinking of God/salvation in different terms than being saved from punishment. Oi.

      • Re-reading his post, i’m reminded of why I’m not his brand of Calvinist. His definition of faith/what faith is about is pretty much oldschool propositionalism.

      • Yes, salvation is not a reward for the clarity of our faith-content. I assume that DeYoung affirms as much, but he doesn’t seem to see how restrictive is his understanding of biblical faith and what God reckons as righteousness.

        I would, personally, refrain from attacking propositions — not because I disagree with you in this context — but because others will assume that I am a relativist, postmodernist, subjectivist, all of which I am rather the opposite.

  1. Thanks for this Kevin. This is again, like many areas you blog on, an area in need of revision and good theological thinking for evangelicals. I appreciate your follow up comment about theologians who proof text to bolster their argument. This is common practice of evangelical writers and is maddening. As you suggest, this argument in question is often a fair argument, a subject worthy of debate, but prejorative viewpoints that are primarily backed by “because the bible says so” are tiring and trite.
    I wonder what your take would be on methodists, like Willimon, who insist that the Biblical text is more about what God does for us, than how we supposedly “appropriate” salvation. I tend to agree with this assessment. It seems we are much more concerned with “clarity about faith-content” than what God is doing in Christ on our behalf.
    Is this an American or North American distortion with our do it yourself mentality?
    In another direction, Dallas Willard, makes some interesting comments about John 14:6 in his wonderful book, “Knowing Christ Today.” Perhaps he is approaching the same anxiety that the old school fundamentalists are trying to address in his own Willardian way. His emphasis on John 14:6, similar to Willimon, is on what Christ has done, and not our exacting understanding of it.
    He also leaves the door open to a more pluralistic interpretation while stating that the “explicit” or traditional evangelical understanding would be best.

    • Thanks, James. I’ve read a little from Willimon (and associated friends, like Hauerwas), but I would probably need to read more to give a fuller answer. My guess is that I would resist making this into an either/or dichotomy. Biblical faith is about the objective referent (what God has done for us) and the subjective referent (appropriating salvation). But there is a definite ordering here.

      Willimon and friends rightly complain about the common evangelical starting point of personal salvation, thus framing the gospel message in terms of its benefits for us. Thus, theology serves anthropology, instead of the other way around. That is how distortions creep-in to our understanding of salvation, and that is why it is so natural for DeYoung to read his soteriological concerns into the text. He is scarcely aware that he is doing so.

      So, yes the definite ordering is important, and this is basically Barth’s point — and Willimon likes to channel Barth! However, the personal salvation questions are important, even if they are not precisely being asked or answered by certain texts. It is an undeniable strength of the evangelical movement that it cares deeply about the salvation of individuals, whereas mainline Protestants have pushed soteriology entirely into the objective referent. Thus, these sort of questions (about who is saved and how) are almost completely absent in mainline discourse. This is why I actually appreciate the fervor of the Calvinism-vs-Arminianism debate in evangelical churches. It is a sign of health, even if jerks occasionally appear in debates. May we never stop caring about these questions! This is one reason why I think N. T. Wright’s rhetoric is overblown, in his zeal for the objective work of Christ. I think he takes for granted what makes evangelicalism special, even if we could use a strong dose of Wright’s objective orientation (like Barth’s).

      In other words, we need to be careful not to overreact, which requires that we balance some tensions.

      • What is a good succinct definition of “The Gospel” that keeps both the objective and subjective parts in balance?

  2. “The gospel itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.”

    “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”

    – N.T. Wright

    In terms of actual proclomation, the Gospel is pretty much purely objective.

    • The second definition from Wright does a good job of keeping both the objective and subjective in view.

      The Holy Spirit is lost if we make it purely objective, which has been a longstanding criticism of Barth (and I read somewhere Barth expressing some agreement with this criticism of his dogmatics). The second part of Wright’s definition is the work of the Holy Spirit.

      The gospel is, as Thomas Torrance would say, that we were saved 2,000 years ago on the cross of Christ, but this work is extended to us now by the quickening of the Holy Spirit. Colin Gunton has some good things to say about the Son and the Spirit being the “two hands” of the Father (from Irenaeus, if I remember correctly).

    • By the way, Barth’s concern about pneumatology is that it becomes a cover for anthropology, especially among Barth’s frequent targets: liberalism, pietism, mysticism, etc. In general, Barth is hesitant to deal with the “subjective” aspects to faith. He recognizes this hesitation of his in CD IV.2, “The Act of Love,” pp. 783-824, a wonderful section, providing some balance to Barth’s earlier material in the CD.

      • The actual announcement, the actual proclaimed gospel, the thing we actually say with our mouths, is objective, in the purest sense. The announcement that Christ is the risen Lord, etc, is objective. It is through this objective gospel that the subjective work of the Spirit happens (the gospel is God’s power to save, I forget the reference). The objective Gospel is the power of God for salvation, which is the subjective end of things. Or maybe the objective/subjective divide is even wrong, now that I think of it. Perhaps there’s better categories to think this through with.

        I know he was pretty criticial of they heyschasts, but that’s one of the few places Barth was just wrong on. Mysticism in general seems to not be very well receieved amongst Protestants, for the most part.

      • That’s true enough — I am thinking more in terms of theological definition, how we would define “the gospel,” as both announcement and application.

        I suppose there may be better categories than objective/subjective, but these are so ingrained in our discourse, both theological and philosophical. Old habits die hard. I find them useful. Of course, pneumatology is itself a problem for this dichotomy: the HS is “wholly other” and “outside us” yet working “within us,” freeing us.

        Yes, mysticism is viewed with suspicion among the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, which is why pietist-revivalist movements arise within these traditions as a reaction, longing for mystical-type experiences. And the entire Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition has a significant mystical component, which is one reason why traditional Protestants are not fond of them.

      • You’re certainly right about old habits. For better or for worse, they’re ingrained pretty deep. But yeah, pneumatology is tough, at least from the standpoint of theology. In everyday experience, it seems as though we pretty much live pneumatology, in prayer and life, since without the Spirit, we’re pretty much nothing.

      • Yes, Barth says something about the HS as being the “predicate of creation’s existence” or something like that. I forget which section of the CD, but it is one of those moments where Barth actually has a high pneumatology!

  3. My hesitance to embrace inclusivism is less about the mechanics of salvation for those who have never heard about christ but more about what it implies for those who *have* heard something about him.
    As i see it, inclusivists make reference to three groups- mentally incapacitated, those who have never met christians and those who die in-utero but my interest lies in this: if Christ can save any of those people then what to say he can’t he save anyone at all? clearly if the 13th century foot-soldier in Tamerlane’s horde can be saved, there are soteriological mechanics underway that are beyond us. But if that’s the case why cant Johnny next door who has no interest in church also be saved by the means of some hidden mechanics?

  4. man!! really sorry.. I think that idiom that might not be familiar to you

    what i’m trying to say is : what’s to say that he could, if he wished, save anyone anywhere, no matter if they know alot or a little about christ.

    • Yes, I think the discussion could be expanded to include the complexities of those who are “evangelized” and what that means. Tiessen acknowledges this at one point, when he discusses culpability. We cannot presume that even someone who has formally heard the gospel is capable of “receiving” the gospel at that moment or other moments. There could be psychological barriers or traumas that could hinder the reception of the gospel (e.g., molested by a minister while a child; raised in an abusive but “Christian” family; etc.). Or, more simply, there could be communication barriers so that the gospel is not properly understood, or, often enough, the person presenting the gospel is inept! There are innumerable scenarios where someone who is evangelized, or living in a Christian context, may still be saved without formally becoming a Christian. Their hearts can still be converted in repentance, by the Holy Spirit and in accordance with what genuine revelation they do understand. As you indicated, the average medieval foot soldier probably did not have a clear christology, much less a clear soteriology!

  5. “There are innumerable scenarios where someone who is evangelized, or living in a Christian context, may still be saved without formally becoming a Christian” This i guess is what i was getting at. If the mechanics of becoming a Christian besides conscious explicit faith in Christ are hidden to us, then two things come to mind. Firstly where does the locus of what proves genuine faith go to if not to “fruit” i.e. being a good person, which I’m sure you can see has problems and secondly then why evangelize people in situations where being a christian is problematic if in fact they are saved anyway. I wonder if excluisivism as DeYoung lays out is actually an motivation for evangelism in evangelicals circles. Undermining that might undermine something good if the consequences aren’t thought through.

    • Yes, I would be hesitate to formulate any criteria for adjudicating the salvation of a non-Christian (or a Christian for that matter). We can expect fruits of the Holy Spirit, as both Jesus and Paul taught, but that doesn’t mean we are always able to discern the fruit, whether it derives from pride/hypocrisy. At best, we have a negative test — the utter lack of fruit would indicate reprobation. More positively, we could articulate the salvation of non-Christians in terms of having a repentant heart, turned from stone to flesh by the Holy Spirit. This is, once again, beyond our ability to scrutinize within another person.

      As for the motivation to evangelize in problematic situations, I can do no better than say, “for the glory of God.” That is a stock Calvinist answer, but I am basically a Calvinist after all. But we can also say that the fullness of revelation is more liberating and joyful, just as the Holy Spirit was not given in fullness until Pentecost and within the church. If we truly love others, even those who may be persecuted for their witness to Christ, we should want them to have this fullness. Having said that, I admit the great difficulty of the question.

      I know that exclusivism appears to have some motivational advantages, for obvious reasons, but I think for many others it can be de-motivational, under the strain or anxiety of worrying about the eternal state of another and our own incapacities.

      These are good thoughts and questions, Richie.

  6. And this is a good post!! I think i am basically convinced of the argument your putting down here but i’ll be frank – i don’t like it. and i also will have to keep an eye out for this when im reading the bible in future because i can’t help but feel that the tremendous connection between faith and salvation is overwhelming and leaves no room for any otherway…but lets say your right for the mean time.
    To piggy back on your last comment then I suppose we could say its beyond our ability to say of a christian that they were not (or are not) actually saved and its beyond our ability to say of a non-christian that they were (or are) saved.

    Happy new year!

  7. Does anyone know if the WCF 10:3 is usually interpreted to mean inclusivism in the sense this thread has been talking of, or is it usually only applied to a discussion about infants and mentally incapacitated?

    • It is usually taken to apply to infants and mentally incapacitated. Those who are conscious/sentient persons, with the capacity to repent and believe in Christ, are liable to damnation if they do not receive Christ in this life.

      That is the most common reading that I have read. However, there are also many Calvinists, like Tiessen, who use the “principle” within 10.3 to apply toward other cases where the person cannot be “externally called.” Remember, the salvation of the unevangelized, albeit a known question, was not nearly as pressing in the early 17th century as it would become in the following centuries. Jonathan Edwards is a good example. He began hypothesizing about the salvation of the unevangelized — only once he actually came into contact with native Americans and worked among them.

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