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Are Evangelicals Broadening the Path to Salvation?

One of the major points in the debate between some in the Emerging Church Movement (Wittmer’s “Postmodern Innovators”) and conservative evangelicals regards salvation: is it necessary to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?  While this debate has not been resolved, I’ve been surprised to see some conservative evangelicals potentially broadening the path…

One such evangelical is Dallas Willard, a superhero in evangelical spiritual formation.  I have not read his latest book, Knowing Christ Today, but here is how Scot McKnight summarizes one chapter: “The seventh chp enters into a spirited but reasonable form of Christian inclusivism, which he calls Christian pluralism where final redemption is ultimately shaped by whether or not a person — Christian religion or not — has a heart that is properly oriented toward God.”

At the same time I’ve been reviewing Erwin Lutzer’s 10 Lies About God for some upcoming youth lessons.  Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.  In it he says: “God will not ask those who have never heard of Christ why they did not accept Him!  That would be unjust.  Judgment is always according to knowledge, according to the light given…there is much about God’s relationship with those other religions that we do not know” (pp. 91-93).

Now I realize that there are some slight differences between these two examples.  Willard emphasizes a heart orientation whereas Lutzer emphasizes knowledge.  Willard is more firm on the destiny of faithful followers of other religions whereas Lutzer is more cautious.  Finally, Willard seems to focus on all people whereas Lutzer’s primary focus is on “those who have never heard of Christ.”

Let me say that I greatly admire and appreciate both men.  Let me also say that I would love for everyone on the face of the earth to experience salvation.  Salvation for all people is, afterall, the goal, isn’t it?  Let me take it one step further and say that I wouldn’t be angry with God if He is as gracious as Willard and Lutzer describe.

The one thing holding me back is the Bible.  I simply have a hard time reading the Bible and not coming to this conclusion: salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Period.  I just don’t see how anyone enters the kingdom of God without Christ.

  1. June 15, 2009 at 9:24 am

    It seems to me that the wider the path to salvation, the narrower the need for proclaiming Christ and the Gospel of the Kingdom. It would be an interesting study to see if Willard and those like him have a lighter view on evangelism and missions. I would guess that this would be a logical conclusion of that view: If a Buddhist or a Muslim has a has a heart that is properly oriented towards God then there is no need to share Christ with her. Didn’t Jesus say something about the wide path and the narrow path?

  2. June 16, 2009 at 7:57 am

    When we remove the requirement of a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and rely on a heart condition, we throw a lot of other elements of salvation out as well. No longer is true repentence necessary, how about acknowledging God the Father as God? What hope do I have if not for Jesus Christ. How one can be saved with out a knowledge of God at work in their heart I don’t understand. I do know God says in Romans
    20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse .

    How his invisible attributes can be clearly seen is a mystery and one of my favorite verses. But yet I still think this verse testifies to a saving knowledge of some sort, it just came from God’s creation and the Holy Spirit at work in a person’s life. Probably more questions than answers after this one.

  3. mikewittmer
    June 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I agree with you, Brian, that we should all wish for God to surprise us and save everyone, but we just don’t have sufficient biblical support to say that we have a Christian hope for it. Lutzer’s statement about God’s relationship with other religions is particularly troubling. I need to read the entire context before I say more, but if a type of inclusivism can be tolerated at Moody then it won’t be long before all exclusivists are viewed a woefully fundamentalistic.

  4. June 16, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Let’s be clear here – Lutzer has nothing to do with Moody Bible Institute but only the pastor of Moody Church. Moody Church may rise and fall with it’s pastors, but MBI is like the Packers – a lot of people have a piece of the turf. I’ve got my Moody radar on.

  5. Brian McLaughlin
    June 16, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Ryan, are you suggesting that Romans 1:20 suggests salvation through nature? I always read it in terms of judgment because of nature’s testimony…”without excuse.”

    Andrew, comparing MBI to the Packers may not be the best move in the big picture, but I think I get your point!

    Mike, what else do you know about Willard’s thoughts?

  6. June 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Brian, I don’t think you can find complete salvation from the trees. However if we’re with out excuse by reverse logic doesn’t that mean we’ve been given a chance. Maybe I’m extrapolating too much from the passage. I think that salvation could only happen with the addition of the work of the Holy Spirit in ones life to provide a frame work. Regardless the original argument was salvation w/o Christ. I don’t believe that, I do think you can get Christ through nature and the Holy Spirit.

  7. June 16, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Two questions,

    How can you have a heart properly oriented to God w/o a knowledge of Christ?

    If God is perfect in His wisdom and plans, why would He use other religions that have doctrines that do not adhere to the Christian world view to communicate what we think is perfectly summed up in the Christian world view?

  8. June 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Ryan – through the Spirit, yes! But through nature alone (w/o the Spirit), I don’t think so. The context of Rom. 1:18-3ish seems to argue that we are “without excuse.” Therefore, God us just in his judgment.

    As for your questions, I’m not sure how to have a heart toward God without Christ. That is why I’m concerned with Willard and Lutzer. I think you can have a heart oriented to any particular religion, but I don’t think that is salvific.

    On the final question, I think you are referring to Rom 1 again. I don’t think God uses other religions in that way, I think other religions are the result of denying God and God allowing people to follow their sinful heart!

  9. June 17, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I was referring to Lutzer when he says;
    “there is much about God’s relationship with those other religions that we do not know”

    While I believe God can and does use all things to His glory, this statement leads me to believe that God isn’t just using a fallen religion to illustrate the truth of Christianity, God is in other religions and one could come to a saving knowledge of Him with out knowing Christ through those religions. This is dangerous, inclusive, and universalist.

    My question then is why would God choose to be in another religion that has false doctrines, as Lutzer seems to be claiming. The argument is weak in my mind.

  10. Alan F.
    June 18, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    I’m very disturbed to read that from Dr. Lutzer.

  11. mikewittmer
    June 23, 2009 at 2:37 pm


    Point well taken. But it’s still has the Moody name and it’s still Lutzer, so this would still be a big deal. Like finding out that Brett Favre is now a Viking.

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