By Keith Thompson
Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, the Catholic Church has taught the doctrine of Inclusivism. Inclusivism states that although Christianity is the best bath to heaven or salvation, it is not the only path a person can be in and attain salvation. Rome states that even if one does not truly trust Christ or the gospel, they can be saved as long as they are ignorant of Christianity and do good deeds while they remain in false religions or atheism. As the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, [DoubleDay, 1994], par. 1260, p. 353). This is why the same catechism also says, “The plan of salvation also includes . . . the Muslims” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, [DoubleDay, 1994], par. 841, pp. 242-243). The Second Vatican Council likewise stated the following in the document Lumen Gentium, 16:
“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience. Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 16, ed. Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, [The America Press, 1966], p. 35).
It must now be asked if Rome’s modern idea that non-Christians can be saved without trusting in Christ and the gospel is true. It is very serious to make this claim since the Holy Scripture clearly teaches contrary.
Biblical response to Inclusivism
Jesus’ work is the only solution to the problem of sin. All men have sinned and thus merited the wrath and punishment of God (Romans 3:9, 23). This makes men condemned, hell-bound, enemies of God (John 3:18; Romans 5:10; 6:23). However, Christ’s death wipes away men’s sin, turns God’s wrath away and reconciles man to God. This is not applied to everyone. It is received by faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel (Mark 1:15; John 3:16; 5:24; Luke 18:12-14; Romans 1:16; 3:25, 28; 4:5; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-6). Without faith in Christ and God the Father, as well as the gospel, one does not receive the benefits of the atonement which are necessary if one is to pass from a state of condemnation to right standing with God. To say Muslims and non-believers who do not believe in the gospel can be saved by their works fails to recognize the necessity of the atonement received by faith in God and the gospel. The works of men can not pardon their sins and make them right with God, only the blood of the cross can. And this is received by saving faith. God’s justice would be thwarted if he pardoned unbelievers who were not united to Christ and His death through saving faith in God and the gospel.
Acts 4:12. Peter clearly refutes Inclusivism when in Acts 4:12 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). Here Peter is speaking to the Sanhedrin, members of the Jewish religion which was very connected to biblical theology. So if Peter is telling them they must by saved through Christ by acknowledging Him properly, how much more does this apply to people of religions or beliefs which are not connected to biblical theology but instead engaged in the worship of pagan idols? Clearly the necessity of having Christ is a natural deduction from the context.
John 14:6. John 14:6 is clear in this regard: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). As Robert A. Peterson has noted (Robert A. Peterson, Inclusivism versus Exclusivism on Key Biblical Texts, eds. Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing, [InterVarsity Press, 2008], 186), faith in God the Father and Christ are stressed in the chapter’s context (John 14:1,11-12). Moreover, as D. A. Carson observes, “On the face of it, in a book that constantly presents faith in Jesus as the only solution to the curse and wrath under which we operate (e.g., John 1:12; 3:15, 16, 36), John 14:6 is of a piece with this Johannine demand for faith in Jesus, and can be sidestepped by the inclusivists . . . only with the greatest implausibility” (D. A. Carson, Gagging of God, [Zondervan, 1996], p. 304). The text clearly then, contra Rome, underscores the necessity of faith in Christ in order to enter into right relation with God fleeing His wrath.
John 3:18, 36. Jesus’ exclusive comments in John 3:18, 36 demonstrate very clearly that apart from belief in Him and following Him, no one will enter heaven: “18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. . . . 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:18, 36). Christ makes it crystal clear that you have to be ho pisteuōn (v. 18), literally, “the one believing” in God the Father and God the Son in order to not be condemned. However, as v. 36 proves, ho apeithōn, literally, “the one not obeying” the Son’s New Covenant ordinances will not be saved but instead receive wrath. Therefore, Rome is wrong for claiming people who do not trust in and obey Jesus Christ can be saved by deeds.
Good works can not save non-Christians. Rome is in error in their claim that non-believers can enter heaven by their deeds since many texts deny the possibility of men becoming right with God through works. As Romans 3:20 makes clear: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). What informs Paul’s conclusion that no human being can become right with God through observance of ordinances God gave, is the moral failure of mankind as a whole (3:9-18), and the fact that God’s ordinances are like a mirror in that they reveal to us how sinful and incapable of following them we are (i.e., “through the law comes knowledge of sin”). Thus, men, because of their radical fallen condition, do not have it in them to obey God good enough to merit right standing before Him. This is why the chapter goes on to say God then sent Jesus to be the propitiation on the cross received by faith (3:25). This is how the problem of sin and gilt is taken of.
Answering Rome’s biblical arguments for Inclusivism
John 9:41 and 15:22-24. Catholics cite the following texts of John in order to claim ignorant non-Christians are not guilty of any sin and can be saved if they do good works. John 9:41 says, “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains’” (John 9:41). And John 15:22-24 says, “22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father” (John 15:22-24). Concerning John 9:41 when Jesus says if the Pharisees were spiritually blind or uninformed they would have no guilt, what is meant is if the Pharisees were not illumined by Christ’s coming or advent and his revelation, they would not be guilty of the sin of not believing in the Son and His revelation. However, since Jesus did come and they claim they can see, they are guilty of the sin of not believing Christ and his revelation. However, the text is not teaching the Pharisees were not guilty of all sin. What is obviously in view is guilt over the sin of unbelief in Jesus and his revelation. Concerning John 15:22-24 which is very similar, the point is if Jesus had not come, the Jews would not have been guilty of the sin of not believing Him and His revelation. However, this does not mean they would not be guilty of any sin. D. A. Carson’s comments help explain why Rome is wrong concerning ignorant pagans of today: “Whatever pretence (and it is only pretence) the world might have conjured up to justify its evil before the coming of Christ, it has entirely lost now that this sublime revelation from God himself has come” (D. A. Carson, John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991], p. 527). The early church Father John Chrysostom agrees since commenting on John 9:41 he doesn’t say if the Pharisees were ignorant and blind they would not be guilty of all sin, rather “this very thing would have rendered your punishment more tolerable” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 59). Similarly, commenting on John 15:22-24 Augustine noted, “such have an excuse, not for every one of their sins, but for this sin of not believing on Christ, inasmuch as He came not and spoke not to them” (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, Tractate 89, 2). Hence, these texts do not support the idea that ignorant pagans have no sin whatsoever. This is neither the biblical or patristic position. They will still be held accountable, for the wages of sin is death/hell (Romans 6:23).
Romans 2:14-16. Many Catholics cite Romans 2:14-16 as proof for Inclusivism: “14For 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. 15They 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. 16on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16). Many Catholics argue this text proves non-believers and pagans can be saved by their deeds if they are good enough, as long as they are ignorant. However, all the text is saying is since the pagans, though without the Mosaic Law, are given moral values in their brain by God, that is, they do “instinctively the kinds of things required by the Jewish Law (e.g. they cared for the sick and elderly, showed kindness for strangers)” (Robert H. Mounce, Romans, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary, [B & H publishing Group, 1995], p. 95), they are still accountable before God on the day of judgement (v. 12). In regards to v. 15 saying the work of the law (notice not the actual Mosaic Law) is written on their hearts, Robert Mounce notes, “He was saying in broad sense what was expected of all people was not hidden from those who did not have the revelation given to Israel” (Robert H. Mounce, Romans, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, The New American Commentary, [B & H publishing Group, 1995], p. 95). When v. 15 says their conscience bears witness since their conflicting thoughts accuse or excuse them, what is meant is they judge right and wrong in their minds based on having moral values given by God. When v. 16 mentions God judging all men including these pagans, it is to be understood in connection with vv. 14-15 in that “Their conscience and thoughts reveal to them how well they have done, but in the judgement of God even the secret thoughts will be used as evidence (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996], p. 154). Three points strongly show these pagans without the Law will not be saved on judgement day in light of being judged by their works. (1) Verse 12 says, in regards to these pagans, “for all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law” and we know according to Paul “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Thus all pagan Gentiles without the Law have sinned and fall short and will thus not make it. (2) Verse 16’s emphasis on God knowing and judging even the secrets of the hearts of pagan Gentiles, as opposed to merely their outward adherence to their conscience, as Moo noted, implies they will not be saved just because they have a conscience and moral values. (3) The argument of Romans 1-3 as a whole stands against the idea the pagans can be saved or acquitted on the basis of their works, though that’s how they will be judged. Paul noted in v. 12 that all the pagan Gentiles who sinned without the Law will nevertheless perish because they’re still accountable. Then in vv. 14-16 he mentions they will be judged based on their works and their conformity to their conscience. However Romans 3:10-18 then shows these pagans and the Jews are under the power and condemnation of sin resulting in their utter depravity and moral failure to obey God’s precepts. This fact then informs his conclusion in 3:20 that no human being, pagan or Jew, will be justified by works of the Law. So the answer to the question of if these pagans will pass the judgement by works is no. This is why, according to Paul, both need Christ’s work applied to them by faith (3:25, 28) since no on will be acquitted on judgement day based on their works as mankind is too evil. Hence, in light of these points the Catholic claim that this text shows pagans can actually be saved by their deeds, just because they will be judged on that basis, is unsupported by the text. They will fail the judgement without Christ’s work applied to them by faith.
Acts 17:23-28. The Second Vatican Council in the document Lumen Gentium, 16 cites Acts 17:25-28 as alleged evidence that God is not “distinct from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives all men life and breath and every other gift” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 16, ed. Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, [The America Press, 1966], p. 35). This, according to Rome, gives evidence pagans can be saved in false religions as long as they do good deeds and are ignorant of Christianity. Acts 17:23-28 says: “23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:23-28). In their Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, Roman writers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli argue that this text proves pagans know the true God and Christ (Peter Kreeft, Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, [Ignatius Press, 2009], p. 345). Thus, Rome claims non-believers can be saved without trusting the gospel. However, Acts 17:23-28 does not support this. Paul is not saying the pagans actually worship YHWH and that this is acceptable in v. 23. Rather, the point is, as F. F. Bruce notes, “Since they acknowledged their ignorance of the divine nature, he would tell them the truth about it” (F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts: Revised, ed. Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1988], p. 336). In v. 23 Paul uses the neuter, and not masculine, forms when he says “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Notice he does not say: “who” you worship as known, “He” I proclaim to you. Thus Bruce also observes, “. . . he did not express himself quite so personally, as if unreservedly identifying the ‘unknown god’ of the inscription with the God whom he proclaimed” (F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts: Revised, ed. Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1988], p. 336). This is further evidenced in v. 29 when Paul mentions how they worship to Theion “the divine nature” instead of the actual ton Theon “God.” Although Rome reads into v. 27 the idea pagans seek God successfully and find him without ever believing the gospel, since it says “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him,” the fact is this text does not actually support Rome’s conclusion. As New Testament scholar Eckhard Schnabel notes, “Paul acknowledges that the Gentiles seek God (Acts 17:27). However, the next clause shows that he is skeptical concerning the actual outcome of this search: Uncertainty is indicated first in the introduction by ei ara ge (‘in the hope that’), second by the optative mood of the verbs (psēlaphēseian and heuroien), and third by the choice of the verb psēlaphaō (‘to touch by feeling and handling’ or, as here, to look for something in uncertain fashion, ‘to feel around for, grope for’)” (Eckhard Schnabel, Other Religions, Saving or Secular?, eds. Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing, [InterVarsity Press, 2008], p. 114). Lastly, many Catholics argue that Paul’s statement that the pagans are offspring of God somehow means they are spiritual children of God in a salvific sense. However, Paul is indicating not that they are spiritual or adopted children of God such as only Christians are (John 1:12; Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 John 3:10), but that they were created by God and all come from Adam (v. 26). Thus, this text can not be used in support of Inclusivism once properly understood. John 1:12; Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 John 3:10 actually says lost pagans are not children of God spiritually, but instead children of wrath and children of the devil.
Conclusion on Inclusivism
Rome’s historic failure to grasp justification by faith alone and its vitality in regards to appropriating the saving benefits of the cross has led to their false conclusion that human good works are the basis for right standing with God and heaven. Because of this they have reasoned that pagans who do good works can also be saved. This is truly tragic since it tramples under foot the blood of Jesus received by faith which is the biblical teaching on how right standing before God is attained. Following this error, popular Catholic writers such as Peter Kreeft have wrote that satanic pagan gods and leaders of antichrist false religions who reject Christ and the gospel will be in heaven as opposed to men of God who embraced it and defended it such as Luther and Calvin. This is utterly backwards and twisted. And it is all a result of Rome’s error of works salvation and her rejection of Jesus’ perfect work being received by faith in Christ and the gospel. Robert Morey’s remarks on this are helpful:
“In his book, Ecumenical Jihad, he states that he had an out-of-body experience, during which he saw Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, and other pagans in heaven worshiping at the feet of Mary. She (not Jesus) is the unifying force in heaven. In another book he pictured Socrates and other pagan philosophers worshiping at the feet of Mary in heaven. What about the Reformers such as Calvin, Luther, etc? Kreeft did not see them in heaven. He leaves his readers with the distinct impression that they are roasting in hell. So much for ecumenical love fests!” (Robert Morey, The Bible, Natural Theology and Natural Law: Conflict or Compromise?, [Christian Scholars Press, 2010], p. 355).
Rome’s insistence on teaching pagans and unbelievers can be saved is a compromise on the gospel and a clear example of an attempt on Rome’s part to be loved by the world and love the world. However, Scripture warns about such compromise and yoking up with the unsaved world. John 15:19 says, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Finally 1 John 2:15 states, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).