I finished preaching a sermon and a person met me in the aisle. I was told that the sermon that I preached was judgemental because I mentioned that some people are lost in sin and that conversion and repentance are what God calls people to. At another venue I preached and a person took offence because I used the Biblical category of "being in darkness" to describe a person outside of the saving knowledge of Christ. A third at yet another venue mentioned that "all people are in Christ."
"Jesus loves everyone and so there are no lost people" remarked the first person. The second said, "I work with members of ________ [name of religion] and they are among some of the nicest people that I know. How dare you say they are in darkness?" The third used the text: "In Him we live and move and have our being" to give Biblical backing to the assertion that all people everywhere, regardless of religion are more or less "in Christ."
So what do we do with such statements? Together they variously had echoes of the author Terrence Tiessen's category of "universally sufficient enabling grace," emotional appeals of sincerity of the religious person, God's love and mercy, and an appeal to the Bible. Is there any problem? To answer that question let us look at 3 samples of thinking that attempt to make the traditionally held "narrow road" of salvation somewhat wider and willing to include more people as they were.
A. The Roman Catholic catechism
The current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church has a section called Article 9 "I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH" which contains Paragraph 3. THE CHURCH IS ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, AND APOSTOLIC."
Standing on the documents which followed Vatican II in the 1960's we read article 847 concerning those outside of the church:
"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation."
In a word, sincerity and following conscience are enough for salvation. This article was preceded by a statement on how other religions are to be viewed as a preparation for the Gospel. Article 843 reads:
"The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."
In a word, by virtue of breathing, all people are candidates for salvation, even if they are in non-Christian religions as these are simply salvation in seed form, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and flower into the full bloom of Christianity.
B. Clark Pinnock and the Wideness of God's mercy
Clark Pinnock (d. 2010), the author of A Wideness in God's Mercy argued that he could not stomach the fact that some people in this world would be lost and doomed to an eternity of suffering as he declared that this was patently unfair and that God was simply not like that. In that vein of thought he asserted that "the issue God cares about is the direction of the heart, not the content of the theology" (p.158). Similarly, and with an emphasis on what humans are doing and what God cares about he declares: “What God really cares about is faith and not theology, trust and not orthodoxy” (p.112) and “The fact that different kinds of believers are accepted by God proves that the issue for God is not the content of theology but the reality of faith" (p. 105).
Concerning other religions, he stated, “There is enough truth in most religions for people to take hold of and put their trust in God’s mercy. The religion may help or hinder—but ultimately it is what the person decides that counts” (p. 111).
In a word, Pinnock seems to have the inside track on the things God cares about, or how he makes decisions. Interestingly Pinnock was a former Calvinist who progressively took steps towards a much more human-centered theology, and the book above reflects this stance throughout. He said that he wanted to be remembered as "not as one who has the courage of his convictions, but one who has the courage to question them and to change old opinions which need changing."
Source: [Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992.)]
C. Terrence Tiessen
The author Terrence Tiessen uses the idea of "“universally sufficient enabling grace” in his book "Who Can be Saved?". Because he thinks that God's graciousness will make it widely possible for everyone to come to him, he prefers not to use the term inclusivism and uses the terms Accessibilism and Religious Instrumentalism. In the first he says “that there is biblical reason to be hopeful about the possibility of salvation for those who do not hear the gospel" because somehow God makes salvation "accessible to people who do not receive the gospel” (p. 33). His second category of Religious Instrumentalism affirms that “God’s salvation is available through non-Christian religions.” He also proposes that even after death some people will have the chance to acknowledge Jesus as Lord under the rubric of "“universal at death encounters with Christ” (pp. 216-218). He concludes his book by saying "We dare not assume to know what a particular individual believes because he or she is a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Buddhist" (p. 354)
Source: [Terrance L. Tiessen, Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004)]
A few observations:
If we compare the quotes from those people who interacted with me, and the material from the Catholic Catechism, Clark Pinnock and Terrance Tiessen we see a number of common threads. I would submit that they could be put into 5 categories.
1. An emotional appeal to the idea that the somehow the speaker or the author knows the mind and attitude of God.
2. An appeal to partial truths. Yes God gives all people breath, and Christ is "ruler over all" but not all are "in Christ" in a saving way. Yes, there are truthlets in other religions, but likely they are part and parcel of a larger systematized rebellion against God, or as the scholar J.H. Bavinck said concerning Romans 1, they are truth holders and truth twisters all at the same time.
3. An appeal to non-Biblical insights such the "no fault of their own" idea, or the idea of "universal sufficient enabling grace."
4. An appeal to dumb down doctrine and to pit emotions against theological ideas.
5. An appeal to defend the persons of other religions under the categories of the love and grace of God, while appearing to ignore His holiness, righteousness, justice and wrath concerning sin.
Since the three venues mentioned were in the context of CRCNA venues, what does this indicate? Growing trends? Select anomalies? How would we know?
For further reading:
1. Todd L. Miles, A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and a Theology of Religions (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2010)
2. Daniel Strange in his The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised: An Analysis of Inclusivism in Recent Evangelical Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006)