Inclusivism v. Exclusivism: Is Jesus the Only Way?
The “inclusivist vs. exclusivist” debate centers on two questions: (1) Is Jesus the only way of salvation? (2) Is faith in Christ required?
This essay will argue that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation before God and that faith in him is required. We will examine this from the nature of Christianity itself and the need for gospel proclamation. We will then survey the teaching of Jesus and of his apostles as they spoke directly to the question. Next, we will examine related questions, and we will conclude with a brief consideration of some common objections to this teaching.
Our pluralistic society scarcely knows a greater offense than that of Christian exclusivism. To insist that Jesus is the only way of salvation and that faith in him is required for that salvation is viewed as intolerant. From their standpoint, the exclusivity assumes the existence of absolute truth, that it may be ascertained, and that it delegitimizes all competing religious claims. The objections against the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ, then, in many ways mirror the postmodern critique of the older modernist project as arrogant and imperialistic, illegitimately seeking to force an individual’s truth universally on all others.
And yet since its beginning, the church has taken this exclusivist stance. In their own pluralistic world, the earliest Christians insisted that Jesus was the only Savior and that apart from faith in him all is lost. It was an unpopular teaching both then and now. Where did Christians get this doctrine? And why? What is the rationale that makes such exclusivism necessary? Is Jesus the only Savior? Is conscious faith in him required?
We begin in broad perspective—the rationale of Christianity itself, its purpose and meaning.
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul famously affirms that every person possesses some knowledge of God—a knowledge of God that entails both an awareness of him (sensus deitatis) and a sense of obligation to him (semen religionis) (Rom 1:18–21). Moreover, as a result of this knowledge of God, there is a corresponding recognition of guilt (1:30). This recognition of guilt is unavoidably obvious, and in response to it—given that all are sinners—it must be actively suppressed (1:18). Yet religion remains universal, and by implication, the apostle provides an explanation for it: all the various religions are attempts to recognize the obvious (God and our obligation to him) and yet reckon with it in manageable ways. Religion exists in its various forms as an attempt to worship God while at the same time “suppressing” the unpleasant entailments—specifically, our guilt and his demands on us.
By contrast, Christianity embraces it all—even the recognition of guilt—and it claims to provide the answer to that guilt—not suppressing it but acknowledging it fully. And it is here we find the rationale for the Christian faith and its reason for being. Christianity proclaims that God has made a way for sinners to be rescued from their sin and restored to fellowship with him through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sinners though we are, we may come to God in frank acknowledgement of our sin and through Jesus Christ have full answer to it. Christ the redeemer stood in the place of sinners and provided for them in his saving death and resurrection all that God requires. In his sacrificial death he rendered satisfaction to God, and God gave public approval of his accomplished work in raising him from the dead.
Closely related to this is the (majority) Christian claim that the cross of Christ was necessary—not in the sense that God was obliged to save but in the sense that the sacrifice of Christ was the only possible means of saving (e.g., John 3:14–17; Heb 2:17). The problem of human guilt and the demands of divine righteousness must be answered (Rom 3:21–31; cf. Heb 9:13–26). Justice must be satisfied, and God must be propitiated if sinners are to go free. God can justify the sinner only on just grounds, and only in Christ can these just grounds be established.
This is the reason for Christianity—its very meaning. Christianity is a redemptive religion that proclaims a salvation from God accomplished by his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matt 1:21). On the very face of it, then, Christianity insists on the uniqueness of Christ as the only savior of sinners.
Only by Christ
This teaching of the uniqueness of Christ traces back to the explicit claims of Jesus himself.
- In Matthew 11:25–27, he insists that as the divine Son he has exclusive saving prerogative: “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
- In John 14:6, he both asserts that he is the only way to God and specifically excludes any other means.
- In John 17:1–2, in his high priestly prayer, he again claims exclusive saving authority, an authority achieved in his saving work.
- In Luke 24:46–47 (in context), he explains that it is on the ground of his saving death and resurrection that salvation has been accomplished and may now be proclaimed.
- In Matthew 28:18–20, he asserts that by his death and resurrection all saving authority is now his.
It must be emphasized that to say that Jesus is the only way of salvation is just to affirm what Jesus himself said.
Jesus’s apostles followed our Lord in this same teaching.
- In Acts 4:12, the apostle Peter specifically excludes any other way of salvation but Jesus Christ.
- In Romans 3:21–26, the apostle Paul argues that God can save only on righteous grounds, and he reasons that only in Christ could this divine requirement be met. Very simply, his reasoning is, “Everyone has sinned; everyone is guilty before God; therefore, everyone needs Jesus because he is the only remedy God has provided.”
- In Romans 5:17–19, Paul argues that what was lost in the first Adam was regained in Christ, the last Adam. “Through one man . . . by one act . . . by one man’s obedience”—the exclusivism remains.
- In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul reasons that only one person is qualified to represent both God and man—“the man Christ Jesus.”
- In Revelation 5:9, the apostle John records the song of the redeemed unanimously triumphing in the ransoming blood of Christ. The entire thrust of the song is “Jesus only”—he alone, by his blood, has brought us to God.
From the beginning, Christians have insisted that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and in doing so we have but followed the lead of our Lord and his apostles. Christianity insists on the uniqueness of Christ as the only savior of sinners. He alone is qualified to save, and he is the only redeemer God has sent.
Only by Faith
Some have argued, then, that although salvation is only by Christ, some may be saved who have never heard of him and, therefore, have never believed. But once again, Christians have historically affirmed that apart from faith in Christ salvation is impossible. And once again this reflects the teaching of our Lord himself and his apostles.
- In John 3:16–18, Jesus (and/or John) affirms both that Jesus is the divine Son whom God sent to save and that any who do not believe in him are already under condemnation.
- In Acts 17:16–34, the apostle Paul on Mars Hill addresses “very religious” people and insists that apart from repentance they will not survive the final judgment. Note that although these people were religious, and although they were sincere in their religious commitments, even acknowledging the true God, Paul judges their religion to be wrong—they must repent of it and believe in Christ in order to be saved.
- In Romans 2–3, Paul observes that whatever special status the Jews may have enjoyed, they have sinned and therefore need the forgiveness of sins that is found only through faith in Christ. Just as with the pagans on Mars Hill Jews also, though sincere in their religion, will be lost apart from faith in Christ.
- In Romans 3:9–10, Paul reasons that (1) everyone is unrighteous before God, (2) the only remedy is the righteousness of Christ, and (3) this righteousness is received only by faith.
Christians have always insisted that Jesus is the only way. This conviction certainly was not one adopted from their surrounding (pluralistic) culture; it was a conviction rooted in the uniqueness of Christ as taught them by Christ and his apostles.
Several New Testament passages give sobering warning that apart from faith in Christ (and repentance, the accompaniment of faith), there is only condemnation.
- In Luke 13:3–5, Jesus insists twice that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
- In John 3:18, as we have seen, our Lord says that those who do not believe are “already condemned.”
- In Acts 17:30–31 (again, as we have seen), Paul warns that apart from repentance no one will survive the final judgment.
J. I. Packer speaks to this issue bluntly when he asks, “When Jesus and the apostles gave these warnings, were they just bluffing?”1 Quite obviously, they were not.
The Necessity of Gospel Mission
The Christian church has always insisted on the necessity of gospel mission precisely because of their conviction that apart from faith in Christ no one will be saved. And once again, this conviction was rooted in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.
- In Matthew 28:18–19, our Lord claims to have achieved all saving authority, and on this ground he commands his church to disciple the nations. The implication is clear: apart from discipleship to Christ there is no salvation.
- In Romans 10:12–14 the apostle Paul extends his argument that faith in Christ is necessary to salvation: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The reasoning is simple: if salvation is attained only by faith in Christ, then if people are to be saved, the gospel must be preached—and believed (cf. Col 1:27–29).
Biblical Characterizations of Those Who Are Saved
We should note at least in passing that when the biblical writers describe or characterize those who are saved, they speak exclusively in terms reflective of conscious faith in Christ. Those who both now and in the end are saved are:
- “those who endure to the end” (Matt 24:13)
- “believers (1Cor 14:22; 1Thes 1:7)
- “sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18)
- “faithful” (Rev 17:14)
- “overcomers” or “conquerors” (Rev 3:12, 21; 12:11; 21:7)
That is to say, the New Testament knows of no “unbelieving yet saved” category.
Is it arrogant to be exclusive?
We respond, first, by acknowledging that some have been arrogant in this teaching. This is embarrassing, but the question remains: Is it true that Jesus is the only savior? If it is true that Jesus is the only one qualified to answer for our sins, then we dare not abandon that conviction for fear of giving offense. And truth by its very nature is exclusive. Moreover, was Jesus truthful in his teaching? Is it arrogant to believe and teach what Jesus taught? Would it be humble to say Jesus was mistaken? The real question is whether Jesus is qualified to save us? The only answer is, yes.
Is it fair for God to send people to hell who have never heard the gospel?
To shape the question this way of course creates a certain emotional advantage to the inclusivist. But the question smuggles-in some mistaken assumptions. For example, it assumes that condemnation is based solely on the explicit rejection of the gospel, that people are not condemned for other sins (but see, e.g., Rom 3:19–20; 3:7, etc.). It assumes that people who have never heard the gospel are innocent or at least neutral in their standing before God until the gospel is rejected. Indeed, it assumes that some have never heard (but see Ps 19:1–3; Rom 10:18)!
Jesus made it clear that knowing refusal of the gospel increases guilt and judgment (Matt 11:20–24), but the Scriptures everywhere affirm that all sins bring condemnation. The emphatic judgment of Scripture is that all have sinned and stand guilty before God, condemned already because of that sin (Rom 1:18–3:20).
And so, a better way to ask the question would be this: “Is it just that God should condemn the guilty?” Stated like this, the question of whether they have heard the gospel is rightly relegated to secondary status. (In fact, we might respond to this question with another: If people are condemned only if they consciously reject the gospel, then wouldn’t it be better if we never told them of Jesus at all?)
Is there any hope for those who have never heard of Jesus?
Is there hope for those who have not yet heard of Jesus? Yes! The same hope we have for anyone else: the gospel! This is precisely why evangelism and world mission are so essential. This is precisely Paul’s argument in Romans 10:12–14, as we saw above. This, in fact, is precisely the divine purpose for this age (Matt 24:14).
The Big Picture
Let us see all this in largest perspective: God has purposed to reclaim the world for himself (Gen 12:3). To this end, he sent his Son to be the Savior (John 3:16; 10:16) by satisfying the demands of God against us (Rom 3:21–26). And to this end, he sent the apostles and future disciples into the world with the gospel (John 17:20; Matt 28:18–20) so that those who believed will be saved. One day, God’s mission will be complete, and we will all sing of it together (Rev 5:9).
Christianity faces the hard questions honestly and provides real answers. The uniqueness of Jesus and his saving work is the sole answer to the problem of sin. God is just. We all know it. We also know we all are accountable to him. We also know we are guilty, deserving of judgment. What we need is someone qualified to stand in for us. All this leaves us shut up to Jesus alone.
- Ardel Caneday, “Faith Comes By Hearing: Inclusivists’ Abuse of Romans 10:9-17”
- D. A. Carson, “One Way”
- Kevin DeYoung blog, “Clarifying Inclusivism and Exclusivism”
- Paul House, “Biblical Theology and the Inclusivist Challenge”
- Greg Koukl, Why Is Jesus the Only Way?
- John MacArthur, Why One Way?
- Todd Miles, “The Fate of the Unevangelized”
- Todd Miles, “He Will Glorify Me: Evaluating Pneumatology of Inclusivists & Pluralists”
- Christopher Morgan, “What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?”
- Christopher Morgan & Peterson, eds., Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism
- J. I. Packer, “Salvation sans Jesus”
- Richard Philips, Only One Way?
- John Piper, “What Happens to Those who Never Heard the Gospel? ”
- Michael Reeves, “The Cruelty of Inclusivism”
- Robert Reymond, “The Very Pernicious and Detestable Doctrine of Inclusivism”
- Rod Rosenbladt, Christ Alone
- SBJT Forum: “Responses to Inclusivism”
- Francis Schaeffer, “What about Those Who Have Never Heard about Jesus? ”
- Matt Smethurst, “What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel? ”
- R. C. Sproul, “What Happens to Those Who Never Heard about Jesus?”
- Bruce Ware, “Only One Way”
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.