Do you remember the poem that starts off, “In Fourteen hundred nine-two” or “In fourteen nine-two”? How does it continue?
“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Although Columbus has fallen out of favor in the modern world, there is no question he had a tremendous impact on the future of North, Central, and South America. Since I’m standing here in church, you might guess my focus are on the religious implications of his arrival on the shores of the New World.
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
Writing in World Religions in America, Jacob Neusner notes that…
When Columbus met Native Americans, all their religions were tribal traditions. One of his first observations of these new peoples was that he believed they could be easily Christianized. Missionaries soon began their work in this new land.” Looking to North America, Neusner states that “though it is often thought that American history moved across the continent from east to west and that American religious history began with the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the first meeting between Native Americans and Europeans was at Zuni in present-day New Mexico. The conquest of Mexico led to the exploration north into the American Southwest. The first Franciscan missionaries attempted to establish themselves among the pueblo peoples by 1580. (3rd edition, 2003, page 16.)
What about the Native Americans who died before missionaries arrived?
At the earliest it appears Christian missionaries made it to North America in the 15th century. What about all of the ones who died prior to that time who never heard about Jesus? Are they all damned?
And not just Native Americans…what about everyone through history who has either not had an opportunity to hear about Jesus–or, perhaps, be given a false picture of Christ?
Alan’s “poor man’s definitions” of several words (these are oversimplifications):
Exclusivism — only those who know of and accept the work of Jesus will be saved.
Inclusivism — although salvation is only because of Jesus, salvation does not require specific knowledge of Christ. Not everyone is saved.
Universalism — everyone will be saved.
Ontological — related existence.
Epistemological — related to knowledge.
Looking at the first three again…
Exclusivism — requires Jesus both ontologically and epistemologically. Jesus had to exist and a person must be aware of (and accept) that work.
Inclusivism — requires Jesus only ontologically. For salvation to be available, Jesus had to exist.
Universalism — does not require Jesus ontologically or epistemologically.
Which one is right?
First, which one is definitely wrong?
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
Which one is definitely wrong? Universalism.
What about Exclusivism?
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
1 Timothy 2:5
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus
Finally, you all probably remember the story about Paul and Silas in a jail…praying and singing hymns…when suddenly there was an earthquake causing all the jail doors to open and all the shackles to unfasten. Thinking all the prisoners had escaped, the Phillipian jailer was going to kill himself…before Paul and Silas told him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28).
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, vwhat must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
With those four references alone, exclusivism seems to have quite a bit of merit…but today I’d like to make an argument for inclusivism
There are four reasons I believe that people can be saved even if they have not had the opportunity to believe in Jesus:
1. The requirement for salvation has always been faith.
2. Scripture notes that some Gentiles have kept the law in their hearts.
3. God searches each individual person’s heart.
4. God is never dependent on others to accomplish his will.
The only requirement for salvation is faith
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Salvation has always been by faith.
It is that faith that appropriates Jesus’ work on the cross, not knowledge of that work.
This does not diminish the work of Christ on the cross–actually the reverse. It is because, as Liberty Professor Elmer Towns notes, Jesus
- was the substitute for the whole world
- redeemed the whole world
- was propitiation for the whole world
- satisfied the demands of the law for the whole world
- and reconciled the whole world that we can find salvation through faith.
Jesus’ work is enough for all, whether a missionary has reached them or not.
Otherwise, how can all the people listed in Hebrews 11, who did not have a true knowledge of Christ, have a city prepared for them (Heb. 11:16)?
If “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) means people literally have to confess Jesus’ name, how was anyone in the Old Testament saved? We know that they longed to see and hear Jesus but did not (Matt. 13:16-17).
Cannot an unreached person, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, have the same longing? Cannot they, to the level they are able, exhibit faith in the same God?
Gentiles have kept the Law in their hearts
Indications in Romans 2:12-16 are yes.
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Verse 14 describes Gentiles who do not “have the law” but, “by nature do what the law requires.”
It is almost impossible to take verses 15 and 16 as saying anything but that some of these Gentiles will be saved when “their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when . . . God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
Verse 13 even speaks of them as being “justified.” Justification is a part of salvation.
God searches everyone’s hearts
In addition to being able to see the Law written in certain individual’s hearts, we know that God searches and tests hearts (1 Chr. 28:9; Prov. 17:3; Jer. 11:20, 17:10; Rom. 8:27; 1 Thes. 2:4, Rev. 2:23).
What good would that be if it was not for the purpose of finding those who will accept God’s offer of eternal life?
We know from John 6:44 that the Father draws people to Jesus–would it not make sense that this would happen when He is searching “all hearts” (1 Chr. 28:9, Jer. 17:10)?
Additionally, what good is a “heart test” if there is no way for the answer to be in the affirmative?
God is never dependent on anyone (or anything else) to accomplish His will
The final reason to give reasonable credence to the chance unreached people can be saved is that God has never been dependent on anyone else to accomplish His will.
He says His “word . . . shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose . . .” (Isa. 55:11); that He will fulfill what He has spoken (Num. 23:19); that what He speaks He will “perform” (Eze. 12:25); and that He will accomplish all that He “purposed” (Is. 46:10).
There is never any question that God will do what He intends, and we know that He desires all people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and that it has always been His intent to provide salvation via the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8, KJV).
It is true that our Lord calls on man to help Him accomplish His purposes, but any claim that our help is required would negate the omnipotence of God.
Additionally, we have evidence that God does work through non-human methods, whether it is searching and testing hearts (please see above) or general revelation (nature and conscience). The same God who could make a “speechless donkey [speak] with human voice and [restrain] the prophet’s madness” (2 Pet. 2:16) can speak to our hearts while searching them.
God does not need man to save man; man needs God to save man.
Does all this “prove” God has saved people outside of His revelation in the Jewish and Christian churches?
However, I do think it highly “indicates” it, and gives hope for the millions (perhaps billions) who have died without being presented the Gospel.
If God does not need us, should we sit back and let Him take care of it?
What greater invitation can we get from our Lord than to join Him in His search for His lost sheep?
And…if that isn’t enough…just remember exclusivism may be right…perhaps a given individual’s salvation will depend on you…