Salvation: Truth, Not Just Sincerity

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2013

If you do not put your faith in Jesus but are sincere in what you believe, is it that enough for salvation? Read more for Greg's answer to religious inclusivism.

There are some issues of Christianity that are intra-Nicene, intramural discussions between believers, in which I think a charitable person can easily see how another Christian can hold a different view because there are things that are difficult to understand in Scripture. For instance, though I’m Reformed in my soteriology, my understanding of salvation--I’m a Calvinist--I am sympathetic to an Arminian perspective because I can see how they, in lines of reasoning from the New Testament and verses themselves from the New Testament, can come to their view. So, though I would disagree, and I think they’re mistaken, I understand how they can see it.But there are other positions that I cannot understand because there is no New Testament evidence in favor of it, and, to the contrary, almost to a word, as the New Testament touches the issue, it says quite the opposite.

Earlier this week, I was honored, flattered, and, frankly, humbled to have a very unique opportunity on Monday to address an audience of about 150 Jewish people that were in the midst of Jewish High Holy Day services--morning services, evening services--at kind of a pause time in the afternoon, in which my host and I and another guest had a discussion about Jews and Christians. The three of us were on the panel:  my host, Dennis Prager, a man I have a tremendous admiration and affection for, and Greg Coiro, a Roman Catholic priest and a professional friend. I’ve known both of these men over 20 years and have been in many discussions, both in private and public on the air with Dennis and Greg Coiro.

It was in this opportunity that, in a sense, the ancient quarrel of sorts, theologically, was revisited, that I’ve had in the past many years ago when we were talking about this in interfaith dialogues. This difference of opinion is a historically new development in Roman Catholicism that stunned me when I first encountered it in the early days of being on Religion on the Line in the late eighties, a radio panel Dennis Prager hosted for many years. The priests on the panel uniformly held the conviction, informed by Vatican II, that Jews don’t have to believe in Jesus in order to receive the benefits of Jesus’ salvation. This is a view called “inclusivism.” It’s not the same as pluralism, but in my view, it seems to have the same impact: “Yes, Jesus is necessary for salvation, but you don’t have to believe in Jesus to benefit from Jesus.”

Now, at this afternoon panel recently, the very first question that came up was whether trust in Jesus is necessary for salvation. “Greg, do you believe that? Do Protestants believe that?” I answered, “Yes, I believe that. And no, not all Protestants believe that. But let me try to explain it to you in a way that doesn’t sound so stark. Let me try to give it some perspective.” I explained that it wasn’t as if God was up there looking down at a bunch of religious clubs and prefers some over others. He used to prefer the Jewish club and now He prefers the Christian club. It may sound that way to many when this doctrine of Christianity is put forward: Jesus is the only way of salvation; you must believe in Jesus in order to benefit from what Jesus did.

I told them, The fact is, God looks at a human race that is in desperate need of forgiveness, so He instituted a rescue plan. That rescue plan was through the nation of Israel, actually through a man named Abraham whom God sovereignly chose to raise up a nation through his loins, and that nation would then communicate God’s purposes to the world that desperately needed Him. And through that nation He would also provide a blessing that ultimately would bless all nations. In this rescue plan that God initiated, though, the world was the ultimate end; God wanted to bless all the nations through the nation of Israel. He wants the nation of Israel to benefit from that same blessing, too, so the blessing and mercy available to the world would go to them first. The bulk of the Hebrew scriptures was a playing-out of this rescue plan over time, with the initiation of a sacrificial system in which blood flowed profusely from the veins of animals that were sacrificed, indeed slaughtered in great number, as a means of grace to cover the sins of Israel. Yet, this was merely a foreshadowing of a perfect sacrifice to come, where God would become a man in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, who would be the perfect sacrifice. This perfect sacrifice, that could do what the blood of bulls and goats could not do, would bring a complete and final forgiveness. The book of Hebrews is meant to signal that the old system was no longer effective because now the perfect had come. Jesus was the blessing to the nations that God prophesied and promised to Abraham. He is the blessing to the nations and also first the blessing to the Jews. He is God’s source of mercy. And since He is God’s only source of mercy, and we are all in desperate need, regardless of what our religious convictions happen to be, we must receive the mercy that God offers, the clemency that comes through His Messiah. If we don’t, then we simply stand alone before Him with our sins unatoned for, and must pay for them ourselves.

So it’s not a matter of which religious club you belong to, or being exclusive, or being arrogant enough to think we’re right. It’s a matter of whether or not you’re a lawbreaker, and we all are, and the offer of God’s mercy, which we can accept or reject.

I spent a little time that afternoon trying to make sense of this message so that I wasn’t just foisting upon this listening audience a religious slogan that they’ve heard many times before, but probably never had an explanation adequate enough so that they could understand the point. So here I was, laboring to do that, and I think I was reasonably successful.

I said that this message of pardon through Jesus was not only what Jesus taught, but was the exact same message that was taught by everyone that Jesus taught to teach others. Those people Jesus trained to follow after Him had the same message that Jesus did, and this is it.

Members of the STR staff who were sitting in the audience told me afterward that everyone was listening carefully. There was, I think, an opportunity to consider this claim of Christianity for all people.

Then I passed the microphone to my colleague and super-nice guy, Father Greg Coiro, who then gave the Roman Catholic view. And the Roman Catholic view, certainly since Vatican II, is that Jesus is the only way of salvation and the only way of salvation is mediated through the Roman Catholic Church. But, the position is that there are more people who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, in fact, than at first glance, because you could be an unconscious Christian, of sorts. That wasn’t the phrase he used, but it was like, “You can be a Catholic without realizing it.” God wants everyone to be saved. Salvation is only through Christ and through the Roman Church, but if you are a member of another religion, as these people were, if you are doing the best you can, as might be argued for these very people who were there in observance of the Jewish High Holy Days, then that act of sincerity is adequate to qualify them for the salvation that comes only through Christ and the Church. If you are sincere, then that’s enough for salvation.

To put it simply, the core point that I had offered in my explanation, that they needed to believe in Jesus, which I gravely and carefully articulated, was completely obviated by Father Coiro’s statement of the Roman Catholic position.

And I’ll tell you what the STR staff who were there told me: The whole room visibly relaxed at his comment. Indeed, one of my staff heard the comment from a man behind her speaking to his family, “Well, then it’s a freebie.” In other words, after hearing the Roman Catholic view, he said, Well, there’s nothing to worry about if we’re wrong. There’s nothing to lose. We’re off the hook.

Next, I had an opportunity to ask Father Greg Coiro a question, “Greg, can you give us some New Testament references that could confirm that this is the New Testament teaching?”

Now, I know the New Testament well enough to know that it doesn’t teach this. I was surprised when Greg came up with a verse, and the verse was from Mark 9, which he repeated from memory as saying, “For he who is not against me is for me.” The implication was those people in the room are not against Jesus, they just don’t believe in Him. They are following their own revelation as best they know how, and therefore they are included in the family.

I didn’t pursue it any more because an aggressive approach was not appropriate in that setting, but I want to respond now to this proof text, because it struck me as an odd application of that verse in light of the multitude of clear verses that teach the contrary. Mark 9 could mean a couple of things. Indeed, on another occasion in a different context Jesus said the exact opposite in Matthew 12:30, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.”

At first blush, this may seem like a contradiction. Of course, you know our rule, right? Never read a Bible verse. If you want to know what a Bible verse means, you’ve got to read more than the verse. You’ve got to read the paragraph, at least. And when you read the passage, it’s clear that Jesus was not being contradictory. He was speaking in entirely different sets of circumstances, and so consequently we have to understand His meaning in that restricted context.

The verse that Father Coiro cited in support of the view came out of Mark 9:38-41, and there you have John saying to Jesus that he saw some people casting out demons in Jesus’ name. “We tried to prevent him, because he wasn’t following us.” John was making the point, “They were doing the same thing we’re doing, but they’re not part of our group. And Jesus said to him, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in my name--”--note the words--“there is no one who will perform a miracle in my name and be able soon afterward to speak evil of me, for he who is not against us is for us.” So the citation was actually misquoted, understandably because he did it from memory. But it’s a difference that matters. Jesus was saying, Just because he’s not with our group specifically, that doesn’t mean he’s not with our cause. And, in fact, if he’s working miracles in my name, then that’s a pretty good indicator he’s on our side. Jesus continued, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name, as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.”

Does this verse teach what Father Coiro indicated it taught? Does it fit the topic of salvation we’re discussing? No, it’s a very different kind of lesson Jesus is giving.

The other verse where Jesus says the opposite is Matthew 12:22-30. A demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought before Jesus, and He healed him so that the mute man spoke and saw. The crowds were amazed, and they were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” And the point there is, “This is the Messiah, isn’t it?” But the Pharisees, the religious leadership, said, “No, this man casts out demons only by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons.” This is when Jesus answered them, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” Notice that now Jesus is dealing with those who deny His Messianic authority. And He said in response to that group, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then you will plunder his house?” He’s saying to these people who deny His Messiahship that, “I’m giving you evidence of it,” and then says this: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.”

The question I have to ask is, “Which of these two groups was more like the audience we were speaking to that day?” Sweet people. Genuine people. But theologically, which group in these two passages do they match? Those who were denying Jesus’ Messiahship. So the single proof text that my friend Father Coiro offered in defense of his inclusivism coming from the Roman Catholic Church that gave this group hope turned out not to even be a verse that would apply to them, but its opposite would.

When you reflect for a moment on the times in the New Testament where it’s the same kind of situation that we were in speaking to non-believers, this is the kind of thing they were told. Jesus, before a group of Jewish leaders in John 8: “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”

Peter, before the Jewish Sanhedrin who had executed Jesus for saying what He said about being the Messiah and the Son of God, Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in none other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. And you, Jewish leadership, have to decide whether it’s right for us to obey men like you, telling us not to preach the Gospel, or God, who says to preach this Gospel, but we cannot stop speaking that which we’ve seen and heard.”

And Paul in Romans 10: “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God, for Christ is the end of the law for all who believe.” What is he saying there? That the Jewish people are safe because they’re doing the best they know how? No, that regardless of their zeal, they’re missing God’s provision in the Messiah. And this broke Paul’s heart, just like it broke Jesus’ heart.

Remember when He looked upon Jerusalem just before His death? He came in on that Palm Sunday, and He said, How often I have reached out to you to gather you to me, but you were not willing. He wept because they rejected Him.

I realize that this doctrine raises other questions. Theological questions. What about the people in the Old Testament that didn’t know Jesus but the Bible says were saved? It’s irrelevant because whatever happened in the Old Testament isn’t relevant anymore; we’re all under the New Testament standard, and it’s clear: faith in Jesus. And the New Testament speaks of no one who rejected Jesus who was still saved by Jesus.

There are no verses that suggest any old god will do, in God’s mind. But this is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. I have it in the catechism if you want to check it out. Under Baptism, in Part 2, paragraph 1260, “He who seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with His understanding of it can be saved.” Paragraph 839-845: The Jews who “await the coming of a Messiah.” Await? The Messiah already came, and rejection of that Messiah is the same thing as rejection of the future Messiah because they’re one and the same. But the catechism says that if the Jews are awaiting the coming of a Messiah to the end of time, they’re still saved by Jesus. Muslims, too, by the way. The following paragraph is in the catechism: “These profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” So the plan of salvation also includes them.

I’ve written three-part Solid Ground about this that I want to commend to you called "No Other Name."  (You can find them by putting the title in the search box.) Check especially the second part. The first one deals with pluralism proper. The second part deals with this issue of inclusivism.

There are so many verses that make it clear that this is a false doctrine that it just cannot be mistaken. It’s not vague; it’s utterly clear in the New Testament. Matthew 7:13: “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” That’s Jesus.

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church gives false hope and that’s what’s tragic because people who need God’s forgiveness are left with the false idea that they’re safe from God’s judgment of sin. This is not what Jesus taught. It is not what He trained His disciples, who followed after Him, to teach. It isn’t what they said. I have a booklet where I list 100 verses that speak contrary to the inclusivism taught by Roman Catholicism. If the message I heard on Monday to Jews was the same message that Jesus, and Peter, and John, and Paul, and James, and the rest of them taught to Jews, then why did Jews beat them, punish them, imprison them, and execute them?

This new view--rather than being a narrow gate that few find, as Jesus said, that leads to salvation, and a broad gate that many find, as Jesus said, that leads to condemnation, destruction--it is just the opposite. I’d have to read Jesus this way: Enter by the broad gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to life, and many are those who find it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to destruction. Very few find that, so don’t worry about it. And as far as that great commission thing is concerned, not a big deal. All those other folks, well, they’re pretty much following the light that’s been shown them. No pressure. It’s a freebie.