Baptism/Amazing Grace: A Conversation Over Lunch, Part 29 (In Reply to Roger E. Olson)

Roger E. Olson wrote an article called “My Litmus Test” in support of his inclusivist views. “Inclusivist” is a term he uses for the notion that people who’ve never heard of Jesus might be saved.

The article has been circulated about the Internet as representing a strong defense of the inclusivist (“available light”) position.

Olson is evangelical and Arminian in his views, coming from a Baptist heritage. Let’s consider what he says carefully.

Usually, somewhere in the conversation [with a “restrictivist” — his term for those who find salvation only in Jesus] the person (as happened recently) claims that IF there is any hope of salvation for the unevangelized, that would undermine missions and evangelism.

Notice that Olson skips the first part of his conversation with the “restrictivist,” you know, the part about what the Bible says on the subject.

Then I pull out my litmus test question:

“Litmus test question”? “My litmus test question”?! Seriously? Should we not be asking what is God’s litmus test? By what right does Olson impose his own?

“If God revealed to you in a way you could not deny that, indeed, many will be forgiven who never hear the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, what would be your response with regard to missions and evangelism?”

It’s amazing how many people who claim to be born again immediately (as recently) say something like “I wouldn’t bother with it anymore.”

As I’ve previously pointed out, regardless of whether people should feel this way, the fact is that in denominations where the “inclusivist” sentiment reigns supreme, evangelistic zeal has declined.

Moreover, this is what I’d call a buttressing argument. The real argument for or against “inclusivism” is based on Scripture. There it stands or falls. The impact on evangelism is what makes the issue matter as much as it does. There are, after all, many scriptural issues on which we might disagree that really don’t matter much at all. This one, according to the evidence of history, does. But the merits of the argument aren’t built on its impact on personal evangelism.

My response is always to press further before making a decision (which I usually keep to myself) about the authenticity of the person’s Christianity.

Notice that Olson has taken his favorite debating point in the inclusivism debate and turned it into a test about “the authenticity of the person’s Christianity.” Isn’t it easy to take our pet theories and divide over them? Haven’t we seen this attitude elsewhere?

For example: “Really? So you don’t think there’s any reason to tell people about Jesus Christ other than to save them from going to hell?”

At that point most will pull back a little and says something like, “Well, maybe, but not enough to risk my life.” (This is what my most reason interlocutor said by way of response.)

My sad conclusion then is that such a person knows Jesus only in their head and not really in their heart. They may be forgiven, but I cannot believe they have experienced God inwardly. (Do I sound like a Pietist? Thank you. I am one. :)

Notice the smug condescension. Even though the individual whom Olson is cross-examining is thinking along very conventional Baptist (and Reformation) lines, Olson challenges the authenticity of his conversion.

You see, as a Pietist, Olson sees the inward experience of conversion as immensely important. I would agree, but I’d disagree that this is the litmus test of authentic Christianity. Indeed, there are many millions of Christians, including many in the Churches of Christ, who aren’t familiar with this thinking. I don’t for a minute doubt the authenticity of their Christianity, and I’m not about to treat them as second-class Christians just to win a debate. I mean, this is ad hominem taken ad absurdem.

Presumably, a person can be “just forgiven” so that if they die they “go to heaven.” But that is not “true Christianity” or the full gospel. A person might repent and believe and ask God for forgiveness and never, for whatever reason, experience the fullness of what God has to give them in love, joy and peace–a transformed personal existence.

Olson points out that salvation involves more than going to heaven when you die. There is also an immediate “transformed personal existence.” Amen. But are these separable? Can you have one and not the other?

What’s my biblical basis for  this? For one, the entire book of The Acts of the Apostles! It contains many examples of people who had a right relationship with God (e.g., Cornelius) who had not yet received the fullness of God’s transforming love and power in their lives. The apostles were concerned that such people receive the fullness of salvation and not settle for forgiveness.

(emphasis mine).

So, let me get this right: Cornelius “had a right relationship with God” and was already forgiven, but Peter preached to him so he could receive “the fullness o God’s transforming love and power.” So the Spirit was given to Cornelius, not to save him, but to make his salvation more full? Is that what Acts says?

(Act 11:13-15 ESV)  13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter;  14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’  15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.

According to the apostle Peter, an angel from God said that Peter’s preaching would result in Cornelius being “saved.”

(Act 11:18 ESV) 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Peter’s hearer’s concluded that Cornelius had repented, which “leads to life.”

Now, how do we interpret “life”? Plainly, it includes life in eternity, but surely Olson would agree that it also includes the abundant life (John 10:10). But the text promises both, not just abundant life in this age. After all, the angel promised salvation.

Peter preached to Cornelius a promise of forgiveness —

(Act 10:43 ESV)  43 “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Just so, throughout Acts, we see repentance associated with forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 3:19, etc.) It’s frivolous to argue — based on the text of the Bible — that Cornelius was already in right relationship, did not need to repent, was already forgiven, already saved, and only received the gift of the Spirit to produce the inward experience of salvation, having already gained the external promise of eternal life.

It also contradicts Paul, who insists that only those with the Spirit are saved —

(Rom 8:9-11 ESV)  9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

In other words, it’s an absurd argument, which assumes the reader won’t bother to read the text. This is not “inclusivist.” It’s arrogant presumption.

Finally, notice how the “inclusivist” camp wishes to prevail in the debate by choice of terminology. Those who insist on the Biblical worldview are “restrictivists,” whereas those who wish to imagine salvation outside of Jesus are “inclusivists.” It sounds so much more noble to be an “inclusivist.”

The tactics are all too familiar from other contexts. Adopt language coded to bias the reader toward the preferred view. Assume a judgmental stance, making it clear that those who disagree will be looked down on as inauthentic Christians. Adopt a standard of authenticity that happens to support your views in this particular debate. Condemn those who disagree as not being real Christians. Toss in a scriptural argument or two without bothering to make sure the Bible actually supports you. Pound hard any mistake made by your opponents, even though involving a mere incidental comment, and press your advantage by (almost) damning all who disagree.

I’ve seen this before. I left it.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Baptism/Amazing Grace: A Conversation Over Lunch, Part 29 (In Reply to Roger E. Olson)

  1. Jerry says:

    Yet, this “inclusivist” philosophy clings to some in the “progressive” movement in the churches of Christ. You can never, ever “progress” to the point that you do not need Christ, our King and Savior.

  2. Barry Billings says:

    Is there any difference between inclusivism and contemporary universalism? If not, this kind of thinking has been around for a long time.

  3. Charles McLean says:

    Here we have a fellow who starts his teaching by declaring his opponents’ position and his own, without even referencing anything actually said by anyone but himself, then invents his own litmus test to decide which of the positions is valid. If self-sufficiency is a virtue, Olsen’s argument has it.

    However, if I walk into a court and find that the legislator, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and the only witness are the same person, you’ll forgive me if I don’t put much stock in the verdict.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    Inclusivism argues that one can be saved by the sacrifice of Jesus without having heard of Jesus. Theories vary, but most common in my experience is that it’s only the conscious rejection of Jesus that damns. Hence, if you’ve never heard of Jesus, you’ve never rejected him or the gospel and therefore are saved.

    However, you are generally argued to be saved only in the sense of going to heaven when you die. You do not immediately receive the Spirit and therefore do not enjoy regeneration and transformation.

    Theories vary as to whether all ignorant of Jesus are saved (universalism except for those who reject Jesus), only those who are good are saved (works salvation for those who’ve never heard of Jesus), or only those with faith are saved (“faith” being defined as faith in love, or goodness, a higher power, or some such).

    Those who hold to this position rarely offer a very specific theory, but rather a vague hope of salvation. The vagueness is an essential element of the faith system, because it falls apart as soon as you try to fill in the details. After all, all three options quickly run into very serious problems.

    If everyone who has never heard of Jesus is saved, then (a) why do missions? and (b) does that mean Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tsung are in heaven?

    If good people are saved if they’ve never heard of Jesus, then what is “good”? Why does the NT go to such lengths to argue the impossibility of a works salvation if the righteous pagan can be saved by works?

    If faith saves those who’ve never heard of Jesus, then faith in what? And just where in the Bible is this theory to be found? The idea that faith saves regardless of its object is very Satre and very un-Jesus. Do we seriously think we can read 20th Century existentialism into the Scriptures as honest readers of God’s word? And why did the apostles go to such lengths to preach the gospel to the Jews, who had faith in God but not in Jesus? If faith in God wasn’t good enough then, what makes it good enough now? Why wasn’t Cornelius already saved by his faith in YHWH? And if Cornelius’ faith was insufficient, why on earth would we imagine that faith in Buddha or Allah would suffice?

    In short, the theory isn’t quite the same as universalism, but as articulated by some, is very nearly the same thing. As articulated by others, perhaps only a few who’ve never heard of Jesus will be saved.

  5. Bob Brandon says:

    This is what I get for detours and frolics on the internet, but this may be of interest indirectly. The original starting point was a London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) article by Anthony Billington:

    (I’m on a couple of LICC mailing lists; I find them helpful and edifying. British evangelicalism is unburdened with much of the nonsense characteristic of the American version.)

    Quote of interest: “Late January saw the publication of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion(Hamish Hamilton, 2012). Far from being an attack on religion of the sort we have come to associate with the New Atheism, de Botton suggests that religion offers valuable resources which – when appropriately cherry-picked – address our need for community and compassion, our yearning for a sense of transcendence and connection….

    Writing in The Spectator last week, Matthew Parris, a self-confessed unbeliever, seems to recognise something of this in his comment that Jesus ‘did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays’.

    Whilst acknowledging that the church is embedded in the social fabric of the country, Parris wonders whether this sufficiently captures what Jesus requires of his followers. So, he counsels: ‘Beware (I would say to believers) the patronage of unbelievers. They want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith… To those who truly believe, the implicit message beneath “never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people” is insulting. To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good… If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind.’

    There lies the path of discipleship.”

    Here’s the link to Mr. Parris’ article:

  6. Charles McLean says:

    “If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind.”
    Leave it to the Holy Spirit to speak to us in any way necessary, even from the lips of an unbeliever. Here’s a corollary: “If a thing be true, it is equally true whether it comes from the thoughtful sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon or from the braying mouth of Baalam’s ass.”

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