Part 2 of a review of John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved?(123 pages, $5.99), by Terrance L. Tiessen.
In the first part, we considered John Piper’s argument against annihilationism, universalism and relativistic pluralism, all of which he views as threats to the church’s missionary motivation. In this post, we come to Piper’s third question and his argument against inclusivism and agnosticism. Once again, I will restate his rationale for answering “yes” to the question and then I will interact with his argument.
Again, I look forward to hearing your assessment of whether Piper is correct to answer “yes” to the question he raises, and whether you think that answering “no” would diminish the church’s motivation for mission.
Restatement of Piper’s Argument
In question 3, Piper asks: “Is conscious faith in Jesus necessary for salvation?”
This is the question about which Piper is “most concerned . . . because it is the one where more people are surrendering biblical truth” (26). Accordingly, he devotes half of the book to this question. John Sanders and Millard Erickson are his exemplars of evangelicals who say “no” to this question (i.e., “inclusivists”), and John Stott represents evangelicals who are agnostic on the question.
Piper devotes 4 chapters to the defense of his positive answer to this question,.
1. The Mystery of Christ and the Times of Ignorance
1) Ephesians 3:4-10 describes the gospel as God’s instrument for bringing the nations into equal status of salvation and so it is fitting “that the nations be gathered only through the preaching of the message of Christ” (65);
2) in consequence of Christ’s coming, his followers are instructed to command all the nations to obey God through faith in Jesus the Messiah;
3) Paul told the Athenians that the “times of ignorance,” during which God “allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” are now passed;
4) “in this ‘now’ of redemptive history, knowing the gospel is the only way to become an heir of the promise” (73);
5) with the end of the times of ignorance, the “necessary focus of saving faith” (76) has changed so that “apart from a knowledge of [Jesus], none who has the ability to know will be saved” (77).
2. The case of Cornelius
Piper states 4 reasons from Acts 10 and 11 for his conviction that Cornelius was not already saved prior to Peter’s preaching. Rather, Cornelius “represents a kind of unsaved person among an unreached people group who is seeking God in an extraordinary way” (87), and God accepted his search as genuine. He would not have been saved if no one had given him the gospel.
3. No other name under heaven
1) Acts 4:12 not only describes the uniqueness of Jesus as the world’s only Savior, in order to be saved by his work, “you must have heard of him and know who he is as a particular man who did a particular saving work and rose from the dead” (95);
2) Romans 10:14-21 teaches that preachers of the good news are necessary, so that people can believe in him because, otherwise, they can not be saved.
4. The missionary task as seen by Paul and John
Paul conceived of his missionary vocation as a commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles so that they might turn from darkness to light and receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 26:15-18). Through Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles, God does the sovereign work that he had “overlooked” for so long, during the “times of ignorance.” John reports Jesus’ desire to gather into his flock other sheep (Jn 10:16), namely, the Gentiles, and this gathering is done through the voice of Christ’s messengers. Only those who believe in Jesus can come to the Father (Jn 14:6) and it is through the word of Jesus’ disciples that this faith comes (Jn 6:35; 7:38; 11:25; 12:46; 17:20).
The third question
Only in regard to this third question do Piper and I part company. I call the position that he rejects “accessibilism,” in order to avoid the confusion created by the diverse definitions given to “inclusivism” in the literature. The issue between gospel exclusivists on the one hand and either agnostics or accessibilists on the other is logically only a dispute between monergists. For synergists, gospel exclusivism is incoherent. As Stuart Hackett put it, “a universally redemptive provision is not genuinely universal unless it is also and for that reason universally accessible” (The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation, 244). Within monergism, however, where God chooses, from among the willfully rebellious, those whom he will graciously and efficaciously bring to repentance, faith and salvation, it is possible that God might choose not to reveal himself savingly to all human beings. Such was the conviction of Calvin, and John Piper stands in that venerable tradition. But in the first generation of Swiss Reformers, Zwingli held to accessibilism and numerous other Reformed theologians have, on this point, gone with Zurich rather than Geneva. So, for “Calvinists,” and for monergists in general, this is an ongoing point of disagreement. (Except in the Roman Catholic Church, where gospel exclusivism has been officially rejected and accessibilism is the norm.)
How can we account for the difference between gospel exclusivists and agnostics or accessibilists? Here’s my current theory: there are no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, and there are none that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. I think this is the reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among Calvinists these days. The decisive factor is therefore the different understandings of the metanarrative concerning God’s saving program that people bring to their interpretation of individual texts.
We accessibilists have been impressed by the amazing graciousness of God who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4) and whose redemptive work is directed toward the restoration of his creation. God’s covenants, though made with particular people, are always in pursuit of his extensive gracious purposes. They bring about communities which are God’s primary agents in his redemptive program, though not all members of those communities are saved. Furthermore, those whom God has saved are not all members of the covenant community or even people who know about it. From this starting point, we are as hopeful for salvation as Scripture allows us to be and so the lack of specifically gospel exclusivist texts speaks loudly.
Piper reads the biblical narrative differently, concluding that, as God reveals himself more fully in successive covenants, the circle of those who have access to God’s saving work in Christ grows narrower. Before Christ came, says Piper, “saving faith reposed in the forgiving and helping mercy of God displayed in events like the exodus and in the sacrificial offerings and in the prophetic promises like Isaiah 53” (76). In other words, covenantal revelation has always been necessary for saving faith. The bar of revelation necessary for saving faith is set very high, in all periods of history. Piper hears no texts specifically stating that people who are inculpably ignorant of God’s covenantal revelation will be saved, and his narrower vision of God’s redemptive program takes him in a different direction from accessibilists.
When Piper reads Romans 1:18-20, for instance, he concludes that natural revelation leaves everyone without excuse but it does not save (11). But that is an over-reading of the text. Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed against all who suppress the truth in unrighteousness but he does not say that the Spirit of God never illumines the minds of some people whose only access to God’s self-revelation is in nature or history, so that they acknowledge God as Creator and are thankful. Indeed, we have examples of such people. Piper says that natural revelation “does not overcome this suppression. Only the gospel does” (11). But even the gospel does not, as external revelation, overcome people’s sinful tendency to suppress God’s truth. An accompanying work of the Spirit (illumination and enabling) is needed for special revelation to have saving effect. Paul does not say that such work of the Spirit is never done in connection with natural revelation so that it elicits justifying faith.
In short, Scripture clearly states that all who believe and obey God’s revelation are saved and that all who reject God’s revelation remain under condemnation. In numerous texts (such as John 3), gospel exclusivists hear a judgment of those who do not believe, where Scripture is speaking only of those who receive the particular revelation, not of those who are ignorant through no fault of their own.
In a similar textual over-reading, Piper says that Paul and John were “of one mind: people only come to saving faith through the word of the gospel of Christ” (115). But Piper cites no texts in which either apostle actually says this. On numerous occasions, they testify that saving faith comes through gospel proclamation but they never say that it is only by that means that God saves people by grace through faith. Minimally, we could say that Scripture is silent about the unevangelized, but accessibilists find biblical reasons for hope.
While not denying the great importance of the progress in redemptive history accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I. Howard Marshall asserts that Paul was telling the Athenians (in Acts 17:30) that “the proclamation of the Christian message brings this time to an end so far as those who hear the gospel are concerned; they no longer have the excuse of ignorance. God was prepared to overlook their ignorance, but now he will do so no longer” (his Tyndale commentary on Acts, 289-90, but the emphasis is mine).
Throughout human history, people have had to relate to God in terms of the revelation God has given them. This point, made so clearly in Romans 2:6-16, is not addressed by Piper. Every revelation calls for a particular faith response and God justifies those who, by his grace, respond with the appropriate faith. The minimum is clearly defined in Hebrews 11:6, the belief that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Piper rightly sees the experience of Cornelius as significant for this discussion but he shows no awareness that notable monergist theologians inclined to gospel exclusivism have asserted that Cornelius was saved before Peter arrived at his house. These include Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Francis Turretin. It is important to Piper that the angel had told Cornelius that Simon Peter would preach to him a message “by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:14), from which Piper concludes that salvation had not yet occurred. But Scripture speaks of salvation in past, present and future terms. I take this to be a reference to Cornelius’s future salvation. Similarly, Paul quotes to Timothy a saying or hymn of the early church that “if we endure, we will also reign with [Christ]” (2 Tim 2:12) but elsewhere he says that we reign with Christ now (Rom 5:17; Eph 2:5,6). It is important to keep moving forward in faith responses to every revelation with which God graces us. For these we will give account.
I believe that our soteriology should account for the salvation of all kinds of people in a coherent way. Consequently, I suggest that hope for the unevangelized can be found within Piper’s own understanding of the salvation of infants and the disabled. He writes: “The Bible does not deal with this special case in any detail, and we are left to speculate that the fitness of the connection between faith in Christ and salvation will be preserved through the coming to faith of children whenever God brings them to maturity in heaven or in the age to come” (77 n6). This is very close to what I have proposed concerning the unevangelized. Those who, by the Spirit’s gracious illumination and enabling, have believed appropriately to the nature of the revelation they had received, will meet Christ at death with joy, recognizing him instantly as the one for whom they were looking. I’ve wondered whether that should be identified as the moment of their justification but, currently, I think it better to grant that God justifies immediately people who have the faith of Noah or Job or Abraham or Melchizedek or Jethro, if they have only received the revelation available to those individuals, regardless of the progress of redemptive history of which they are then ignorant.
Motivation for Missions
Some of the comments I made in the last post regarding the effect of annihilationism and universalism upon missionary motivation also apply in regard to accessibilism. When we think about the joy we have in knowing our sins forgiven, and the privilege of growing in grace in a community of God’s people, how can we not want that for people who, though justified, lack these blessings of living with knowledge of the new covenant? Only someone who thinks that the purpose of evangelism is just saving people from hell after the resurrection, could withhold from others the blessings we experience through knowledge of the gospel. Accessibilists are well aware that gospel proclamation is God’s normal or ordinary means of bringing people to himself but, as various Reformed confessional documents have noted, some of God’s elect may be drawn through extraordinary means.
It is significant that, among the many things said in the New Testament about what motivated particular people to difficult and dangerous evangelistic work, gospel exclusivism is never mentioned. Nor is it ever used to motivate other believers to evangelistic mission. When Paul told the Romans that he planned on getting their support for his mission to Spain, he did not tell them that, since he might be delayed in getting there, they had better send someone promptly, because the unevangelized can not be saved.
Piper appeals to Romans 10, in support of gospel proclamation as the only means by which God saves people, but this takes the text out of context. In Romans 9-11, as Paul expresses his longing for the salvation of his countrymen, he pursues various possible reasons for their unbelief in Jesus. One such possibility might be that they have not heard about Jesus. But Paul says “no,” in fact the message concerning Jesus had been very widely spread but, as in the times of Moses and Isaiah, many in the nation were hard of heart and spiritually blind. Their unbelief was not because they lacked knowledge of the gospel because of a shortage of missionaries. This is not a text about the unevangelized and it should not be read as though it were.
I look forward to your comments on my alternative proposal to Piper’s gospel exclusivism. May God be glorified in our pursuit of his truth and may he stir our hearts to joyful participation in his mission and to glorifying God for the greatness of his grace.