Can we be saved by the Christ we do not know?
We have used D.A.Carson’s categories of pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism. To pluralists, this is an absurd question: they don’t think that Christ himself is necessary for salvation (for there are many other valid ways), let alone see knowledge of Christ being necessary. Exclusivists would answer with a resounding “No!”- arguing that only those who place the ir faith in the Christ of the Bible are saved. But for inclusivists it is a complex question.
There are many who are adamant that salvation is in Christ alone, that nobody is saved other than through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who still suggest that people may be saved by the Christ of whom they have never heard. For example, Clark Pinnock says, “A person is saved by faith, even if the content of faith is deficient (and whose is not?)”; and “Faith in God is what saves. Not possessing certain minimum information” [A wideness in God’s mercy, p.158].
So it is faith in God, according to Pinnock, that saves. But which God? And even if it is the true God, what sort of faith? We agree that information does not save. Nonetheless, faith has an object; it has content. N.T.Wright was right: “What matters is not so much the faith itself as what it is faith in.”
So, what do we need to know? Consider a couple of areas in which the inclusivist’s downplaying of the need to know has weaknesses.
Firstly, note the false contrast that is set up. “We’re not saved by doctrine” is the rhetoric, a variation of the old “We need life not doctrine” theme. So the ignorance of the “heathens” we were discussing in the previous blog is not necessarily a stumbling block to salvation. True: we are not saved by what we know. But, I suggest, we are saved by WHO we know – and in that sense at least, conscious knowledge is vital. As Jesus puts it, “And this is eternal life, that they KNOW you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Secondly, ignorance is not innocence. People’s ignorance is sometimes offered as an excuse, for surely God does not hold us accountable for what we do not know? True: we are judged on the basis of our actions rather than our knowledge (Rev 20:12,13). It’s what we do with what we know that counts. But Paul tells us that what we have done with what we know is to suppress it (Rom 1:18); we are responsible for our ignorance, for it is the fruit of what we have done with the Truth that we have known. He describes this as the universal condition of humanity. Ignorance is not our natural state; it is the state to which God gives people over as his moral judgment for their sin.
We need the light to shine in our darkness – the knowledge of the one through whom alone salvation can come! For a fuller introduction to the debate, a series of audio messages is available on our website.