Does a person need to put their faith in Jesus to be saved?
That was the underlying question conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro put to Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron in episode 31 of his Sunday Special.
Ben Shapiro pulls no punches when he asks,
What’s the Catholic view on who gets into Heaven and who doesn’t? I feel like I lead a pretty good life—a very religiously based life—in which I try to keep, not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments, as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?
Same Question, Different Responses
In asking this, Shapiro is asking the same question as the rich young ruler—albeit in a less elegant way. It’s the most important question a person can ask: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Like the rich young Jewish ruler from the first century, Shapiro qualifies his question with a list of good deeds. Both young Jewish men boast of their religiosity and their sincerity to keep the Law.
Although their questions are similar, the answers they each receive are different.
In Jesus’ response, He shows the rich ruler that he—like all of us—falls short of God’s perfect standard (Mark 10:21). In fact, he has not even kept the greatest commandment to love God above everything else, including his wealth. Jesus’ point is clear: You can’t enter God’s kingdom by working.
Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Romans. He says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Paul adds, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23–25a).
In His short encounter with the rich ruler, Jesus illustrates how not to inherit eternal life. But, in an encounter with another Jewish ruler, He explains how to inherit eternal life.
Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Here’s what we learn from Jesus’ interactions with these two Jewish leaders.
First, good works won’t work. Second, eternal life is received by faith—believing in Jesus.
Contrast Jesus’ response to Bishop Barron’s:
No. The Catholic view—go back to the Second Vatican Council [which] says it very clearly.
Christ is the privileged route to salvation. God so loved the world He gave His only Son that we might find eternal life, so that’s the privileged route. However, Vatican II clearly teaches that someone outside the explicit Christian faith can be saved. Now, they’re saved through the grace of Christ indirectly received, so the grace is coming from Christ. But it might be received according to your conscience.
So if you’re following your conscience sincerely—or, in your case, you’re following the commandments of the Law sincerely—yeah, you can be saved.
Now, that doesn’t conduce to a complete relativism. We still would say the privileged route—the route that God has offered to humanity—is the route of His Son. But, no, you can be saved. Even, Vatican II says, an atheist of good will can be saved.
The belief that someone can by saved today without explicit faith in Christ is called inclusivism. Barron does a good job laying out the inclusivist position—a position taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Bishop Barron doesn’t give any biblical support for the view.
Why I Am Not an Inclusivist
There are a number of reasons why I am not an inclusivist. One of the most compelling arguments against inclusivism is found in the account of Cornelius. In Acts 10 and 11, Luke records what Cornelius is like.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (Acts 10:1–2)
Cornelius seems to have a lot going for him. But he’s got a problem: He’s never heard the gospel. Knowing how Cornelius has responded to the light he’s been given, God gives him more light. He sends him a vision. In the vision, an angel tells Cornelius to send for a man named Peter.
And he [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” (Acts 11:13–14)
Notice the text says that Cornelius isn’t saved at this point. He has to hear “the message” by which he can be saved.
Devout and sincere? True.
Generous and religious? Absolutely.
Even Peter is impressed by Cornelius’s spiritual accolades. Now notice what Peter doesn’t do. He doesn’t reassure Cornelius that he has been saved “by grace indirectly received”—as Barron put it. He isn’t saved by “sincerely following his conscience.” He doesn’t speak of two routes to God: a “privileged route” received by faith in Christ and another route where faith in Christ isn’t required.
No, the text says Cornelius needed to hear a message “by which he will be saved.”
What was that message? We are not left guessing. Peter tells us,
And he [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:42–43)
Even with all of his spiritual nobility and religious sincerity, Cornelius was still lost and in need of salvation. If inclusivism were true, Peter would not have needed to make a trip to Cornelius. But Peter had to make the trip because—as Paul says—“How 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?” (Romans 10:14–15).
How can people call on Jesus if they have not believed in Jesus? The answer is, they can’t. How are people going to believe in Jesus if they have never heard of Jesus? The answer is, they can’t. How are they going to hear the good news if no one tells them the good news? The answer is, they won’t.
Paul’s line of thinking is clear and straightforward. If no one is sent to these people, then there will be no one to preach the good news. If no one preaches to these people, then they will not hear the good news. If these people do not hear the good news, then they cannot believe. And if they do not believe, then they cannot be saved.
One Way to Be Saved
In sum, Paul tells us that the people need to hear and believe the gospel in order to be saved. There is no other means of salvation. By the way, this is consistent with Peter’s testimony. He says, “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” (Acts 4:12).
Notice he doesn’t merely say that there is no other savior. He says there is no other name. His name—Jesus’ identity—seems necessary. That’s why Peter tells Cornelius, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
The story of Cornelius should be an encouragement to us because it shows the lengths to which God will go to make sure people seeking after God will hear the gospel so that they can be saved. God had given Cornelius some light—through creation and conscience—but this was not enough light to save him. Since Cornelius responded positively to the light he was given, God gave him more light—specifically, the gospel.
Inclusivism Is a Bad Idea
Ideas have consequences. And bad ideas have victims.
Inclusivism is a bad idea because it gives people—like Shapiro—false hope that they can have eternal life without coming to Jesus on His terms. Those who refuse to come to Jesus will not receive life (John 5:40). Jesus explicitly states, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Bishop Barron is wrong. Shapiro cannot be saved by “following the commandments of the Law sincerely.” Paul addresses this very thing in his letter to the Galatians. He says,
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
Shapiro’s good works will never be enough. Only those who put their trust in Christ will receive eternal life.
The answer to Shapiro’s question isn’t hard. In fact, the apostle Paul answers the question “What must I do to be saved?” in a single sentence.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).