My “litmus test” for “true Christianity”

Of course, I don’t have an infallible litmus test; only God does. Only God knows a person’s heart. So I gladly reserve to God the final say about whether someone has genuinely experienced his love and received the Holy Spirit in regeneration.

However, occasionally I have to pull out this admittedly fallible litmus test and use it to evaluate the authenticity of someone’s Christian faith.

But it only works in certain situations. I’m amazed, however, how often that situation arises. I’ve used this for over thirty years now whenever someone confronts me about the issue of hell.

The typical scenario falls out something like this (and it actually happened again recently):

A person who claims to be a mature, knowledgeable Christian attacks ANY idea that God might forgive ANYONE without their explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ (by name) and confession of him as Lord (by name).  And the person suggests that anyone who thinks otherwise might not be a Christian or at least is not an evangelical Christian.

Because people know or suspect I’m an inclusivist (who reserves the right to interpret that my own way which is not necessarily the same as some other people’s way) they come up to me after I talk or they contact me via e-mail or whatever to assert restrictivism as the only biblical view.

Usually, somewhere in the conversation the person (as happened recently) claims that IF there is any hope of salvation for the unevangelized, that would undermine missions and evangelism. Then I pull out my litmus test question:

“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.”

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. 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. 🙂

If at this point you’re hesitating and thinking “Boy, Roger sounds very judgmental here,” let me be clear: I don’t think I’d question someone’s salvation based on that alone, but stop and ask yourself what it means to be “saved.” Is “salvation” just enjoying God’s forgiveness and that’s all? Is salvation just being forgiven so that you have “fire insurance?” Or is there more to salvation than that?

This, I think, is directly relevant to my most recent post here about “Renewalism.” To me, Renewalism is the belief that salvation involves more than just fire insurance; it involves receiving the new life, abundant life, accompanied by joy, peace and love that God imparts when someone is truly converted to Jesus Christ.

IF a person really believes that there would be no reason to risk his or her life to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who MIGHT be forgiven without hearing the message of the gospel from a human missionary or evangelist, then I question whether that person has experienced salvation in its fullness.

In other words, I am arguing that full salvation, and therefore true Christianity, involves MORE than merely being forgiven; it involves being transformed (not perfected). This is so “everywhere” in the New Testament (and in the Psalms!) that it doesn’t even need proof texting.

Every first year Christian college student knows that “eternal life” is not just an eschatological category; it is a gift received now in regeneration, in the experience of being “born again.” It is not just “living forever;” it is receiving the life of God inwardly through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

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.

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.

It is one thing to be forgiven (as Wesley surely was before his Aldersgate Street experience) and something else entirely to “know the joy of sins forgiven.”

So back to my “litmus test.” It isn’t so much a test to decide whether a person is forgiven and “on their way to heaven.” It is much more a test to decide whether the person even understands the fullness of salvation. A person who says there is no particular reason to take the name of Jesus and the whole gospel to people who MIGHT already be forgiven proves he or she does not understand experiential salvation.

God does not want to merely forgiven people; he wants to change them by imparting abundant, eternal life which always manifests in a “holy personality” (Donald G. Bloesch). Whether one can experience perfection in this before bodily death is debatable. But I don’t consider it debatable whether it is what real Christianity is about.

So what if God revealed to you in a way you could not deny that EVERYONE is forgiven? On the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for all sin so that God’s “Yes” is to everyone even if they don’t know it? (Barth) Would that change your view about missions and evangelism? If it would make you less passionate about them, then I am suggesting you have not experienced the fullness of what God has provided for you. You may be forgiven, you may have your “fire insurance policy,” but you probably haven’t experienced abundant life.

I fear that American evangelicals have focused too exclusively on salvation as forgiveness (resulting in a life of striving to learn and serve) and too little on holistic salvation as experiencing God inwardly in a transforming way that results in the fruit of the Spirit if not the gifts of the Spirit.

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  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,

    Welcome to Classical Methodism, in the true Wesleyan sense, of course. We evangelical United Methodists (and we are many) would tip our hat to your post. This is the emphasis of Wesley and the early Methodists. God’s intent in salvation is the transformation of the human heart. We have settled for information over transformation. I witness this sad fact weekly in the pastorate where I serve. Most people get the ‘forgiven’ aspect of salvation, but it’s the ‘transformation’ aspect that gives them fits. (“You mean I have to forgive that guy?”). You know the drill.

    Good post!

    • rogereolson

      Of course, Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Whenever Baptists have been true to their own revivalist tradition and roots in the radical Reformation we have known it as well.

  • Bob Brown

    I recall reading that John Gerstner, the Calvinist, asked his students why they should do missionary work if everyone was already predestined to being lost or saved. One student said because we’re commanded to do it in the Great Commission and Gerstner agreed. For Gerstner, ours is not to reason why, ours is just to preach and die, I guess.

    But as an Arminian I believe that God will save those who live up to the light and truth they have and have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think of all the people who lived before Christ was born. Are they all consigned to die eternally? What about all those who died after Christ came and missionaries didn’t get to them in their lifetime like in N.A., C.A. and S.A. etc.? What about all those children who are aborted and those who don’t make it to the age of accountability, are they ALL lost?

    Forgiveness is only the entrance into a personal relationship with God. Jesus died to “present us to the Father”. We preach forgiveness of sins in order that a lost soul might enter in to knowing God as Abba Father and Jesus as Lord and Savior and the fullness of joy, peace and hope of eternity with God and His family.

    I agree Roger, we should desire to be witnesses that those lost might come to know God’s great great love. “In His Presence is fullness of joy.”

    “One thing have I desired and that will I seek, that I might gaze upon your beauty and inquire in your temple all the days of my life.”

    “I have counted the loss of all things that I might KNOW Him.”

    “Let him who glories, glory in this, that he knows Me, that I am a God who practices lovingkindness, faithfulness and justice in all the earth.” Amen!

  • Very well put Roger. The suggestion that inclusivism (which I prefer to call “accessibilism”) undermines missionary motivation indicates, as you say, a very narrow understanding of mission. It seriously underestimates the value of the importance of the church and of all that accompanies life in a community where the Word of God is heard and obeyed, the community which God has chosen as his primary and normal instrument for the furtherance of his redemptive purposes in the world.

  • It’s almost as if Kingdom theology has yet to fully impact the practical evangelism strategies in many quarters.

  • Bob Brooke

    Of course everyone CAN be forgiven thorugh saving faith in Jesus Christ. And of course we must reach out in love to ALL broken and sinful people, welcoming ALL into the grace of our church communities. My questions for you: 1) Is it true that Jesus was inclusive and, if so, in what sense? 2) What does it mean, and what desn’t it mean, for the church to be inclusive? 3) Is inclusiveness the REAL meaning of Christianity? And 4) how whould we as members of God’s church be inclusive today? At the root of this present crisis in the church is a significant theological disagreement over biblical authority and interpretation, especially with regard to fitness for church leadership. Isn’t the argument for inclusiveness in church today making one giant assumption: That people are not engaging in sinful behavior from which they must repent to enter & remain in the kingdom of God?

    • rogereolson

      I believe you are using “inclusivism” in a different sense than my post. Your questions are about a completely different subject.

  • I believe the word “persih” (should not) gives us a peek into God’s priority. There are many unbelievers who live fulfilled lives horizontally. I believe it can be unbiblical to compare earthly risiduals with deliverence from eternal justice.

    I think the pejorative “fire insurance” severely minimizes the eternal, afterlife aspect of redemption. To avoid being part of Rev.20:14,15 seems to me to be the overarching focus of the ransom that was paid. Abundant life? Sure. Spiritual blessings? Sure. Peace? Sure. Etc., etc.? Sure.

    But eternity with Christ as opposed to eternal justice? The elephant in the room.

  • Reminds me of a lecture I heard some time ago by Jim Hamilton at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. He was basically arguing that baptism in the Spirit is not synonymous with being born again, that Old Testament believers were regenerate. Jesus expected Nicodemus to understand what being born from above is all about. The distinctive gift of the New Testament age is spirit baptism, a fuller experience of God’s presence in our lives (as the John the Baptist said it was).

    It’s interesting too that the believers in Acts experienced multiple infillings of the Spirit, pointing to an ongoing process of living in the Spirit.

    My church’s catechism says it like this:

    112. Why is prayer necessary?
    Prayer is necessary because God will give his grace and his Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of him and render thanks unto him. (Evangelical Catechism, 1929).

    Walter Brueggemann wrongly attributed the addition of this question in the 1929 Evangelical Catechism to the Evangelical Synod’s (German Evangelical) pietist heritage. It’s actually lifted directly from the Heidleberg catechism but fits the pietist bent of my church.

    Anyway, I often quote that part of our catechism when speaking of the fuller life in the Spirit God has for us.

  • Bev Mitchell

    A great way to look at it, thank you. 
    I’m corresponding right now with an agnostic friend of long standing whose life is in a mess, if understatements are permitted. I sincerely hope that God will save everyone and would like to believe that he will. But that has nothing to do with the needs my friend has right now! Sadly, I can’t offer consolation (free someone from a sense of misery, OED) but I know someone who can and will. Along with this assurance, more words and prayers, and with kind permission, I sent my friend N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus” knowing the revelations discussed in that book emphasize the desire God has to heal and restore us in the here and now, and to send us on our way rejoicing. I want my friend to experience this joy right now! When this happens, salvation, however wonderful, will be just one part of the story.

  • I had quite a few of these conversations during the Rob Bell/”Love Wins” craze. I came to similar (personally challenging) conclusions. It seems many of us need hell to remain Christian. Jesus isn’t enough.

  • Roger, another excellent post.

    The conversation goes like this: “Are you saved?” “Yes” “Saved from what?’
    There are many answers to this last question such as saved from the penalty of sin, saved from eternal punishment, etc. Even more: saved from the power of sin, saved from self, saved from the world, saved from the present evil age, saved from being individualistic, saved in life, save to reign in life and many more. It gets very subjective: saved from my temper, my anger, my (fill in the blank). You are so right that our salvation is so much more than fire insurance. Our Lord is able to save us to the uttermost! Much more we shall be saved in His life!

    In your post you said “Every first year Christian college student knows that “eternal life” is not just an eschatological category; it is a gift received now in regeneration, in the experience of being “born again.” ” I surely hope this is true. Maybe all such students should be sent to your class. But, after seminary, do they still know this? I am being a bit tongue in cheek in saying this but I run into people often, some with extensive theological education, who I believe are genuine Christians but who apparently have never gone further than being forgiven and saved from damnation.

    Thanks for your post.

  • gently reformed


  • I think the greatest shift in my life as a Christian can be defined as the moved from perceiving salvation as a singular moment in time – a sort of threshold crossed by reciting a specific salvation prayer which thereby secured heaven in the next life, but had little real application for this one – to one of transformation and wholeness. Through the redemption of Jesus and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, I can learn what it actually means to be human as we were intended to be. I can discover contentment, fulfillment, and purpose as I am renewed, my relationship to God and humanity restored, and my function in the Kingdom recovered.

    I guess what I am saying is that, to me, the most beautiful thing I discovered since becoming a Christian is that salvation happens now, and carries us on its wings into eternity.

  • Ralph Byaw

    A little tangential, but hoping you might be in apposition to respond. I assume this will be moderated in case you wish to delete it.

    Dear Dr. Olson,

    I would be most grateful if you could offer some exegetical points concerning Ephesians 1 and election/predestination.  My reason for requesting help is pastoral and not for theological debate, as I am in the unenviable position of having to respond to some well meaning but rather aggressive young, reformed brothers who have joined our fellowship – including our young pastor.   You must get numerous emails requesting help, so I understand if you cannot do so.

    My request concerns the exegesis and responsible interpretation of Ephesians chapter 1, especially the very long verse which deals with believers being chosen in Christ (vv 3-14).  However, your thoughts as a historical theologian would be particularly helpful on the historical claims about unconditional individual election in the segment quoted below ( i.e. where Unconditional individual election – and irresistible grace – is presented as the unquestioned view of the majority of Bible affirming Christians for the last 2000 years.).

    Ephesians 1 has become a theological minefield and, at least in my view, an unnecessary point of friction between brothers and sisters in my fellowship.

    We are an independent eclectic bunch of evangelicals (charismatic, Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, Arminian etc) who have sort to be a fellowship centred around the Gospel and gladly affirm the central tenets of the Apostolic faith (i.e. in keeping with C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or Thomas Oden’s ‘Classical Christianity’).  However in recent times we have had an influx of passionate young Reformed brothers, along with a new Pastor, who have been strongly influenced by John Piper and Mark Driscoll’s 5 Point Calvinism.

    Unfortunately, these young Calvinist are wanting to argue their’s is the only legitimate expression of faithful Biblical teaching.  We also did not realise our newly appointed pastor was so strongly Calvinistic in outlook before his appointment.  We all love their passion for God, and commitment to the Bible but are very concerned by the divisive nature of their Calvinistic stance.

    In an attempt to encourage gracious dialogue and if need be, disagreement in an agreeable and loving manner on some of these distinctives, I have been asked by the elders to prepare a paper to look at the various theological and exegetical alternatives – especially on Romans 9 and Ephesian 1. I have to date made use of your book on Aganist Calvinism and the works of Grant Osborne, Howard Marshall, William Klein, Ben Witherington, along side works by John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, Doug Moo, Peter O’Brien and Michael Horton.  It has been a challenge to set aside my own hermeneutical assumptions and theological grid in preparing summaries which are fair minded and even handed (In all honesty I am neither self consciously Arminian or Calvinist as I see both the strengths and weaknesses in both systems … Though if forced to choose I would lean towards Arminianism as espoused by you in your book dismantling the myths about Arminianism).

    To date I have found a number of good resources on Romans 9 and the differences between 5 point Calvinism and Arminianism.  However, I have struggled to find good material on the various ways of handling Ephesian 1 exegetically.  And so we come to this rather long winded introduction and request for help.

    Rightly or wrongly I do not think my 5 Point Calvinist friends can lay claim to ‘unconditional individual election’ being the plain teaching of this passage – which unfortunately has been the recent focus of two strong impassioned sermons based on these verses in Ephesians. As a result of this and other Calvinist distinctives being equated with the plain teaching of the Bible (at least implicitly – using terms like ‘this is what the texts says!’ and all ‘Bible believing Christians have believed this to be plainly taught in the Bible”) a number of folks have become rather unsettled and the fellowship is in danger of becoming polarised. 

    Just a week ago, our young pastor, preached on Ephesian 1:4-5 using Romans 9 (election of Jacob ad Esau) as the interpretive grid, and basically made the pastoral application that ‘you’ (points to individuals in the congregation) are exactly where God wants you to be, and he chose ‘you’ to be saved from all who were destined for hell – adding other implications of unconditional individual election and 5 point Calvinism. In response, to some of our concerns, he then said the following as he prefaced his next sermon (and even printed it in the bulletin) :

    ………………………………………………… Start quote……….

    We’re getting to grips with the book of Ephesians and Paul begins with some pretty heavy stuff: Election, Predestination etc. It doesn’t come much heavier!  God chose each of you individually before the foundation of the world!

    Which begs the question, ‘Why don’t we just ignore these things? Why don’t we just avoid controversy?’ Many Churches do. They just ignore those parts of the Bible that are hard to understand. Well, I can think of two very good reasons why we won’t do that.

    1. This is what the Bible says. We can’t sit in judgement on the Holy Spirit and tell Him that we think He should tone down what He says here and there. We ought to sit humbly under the Word of God, teaching each of its different aspects and dimensions to their full extent. What we ought not to do, is try and find some other Scripture to tone down this or that teaching which we are uncomfortable with. We teach the full counsel of God, and trust that there is one Unified Truth in the whole – and if we can’t see that, then the fault lies with our logic and our thinking, not the perfect revelation of God.

    2. For our own good. The truth is that we would never have known about Predestination unless God had told us. This teaching was never invented in the Church. It has always been there because its there in the Bible. The notion of unconditional  individual election has always been believed by the vast majority of the Bible believing community for the last 2000 years. It has become particularly challenged in the Western world, and particularly America, as our culture has seen rise to the idea that the individual and his or her choices are paramount. This is a modern notion, and doesn’t square with what the Bible says about God. But God wanted us to know about these deep truths of our salvation. And He wanted us to know them, not for moribid theologicial debate, but for our joy and comfort! That’s what Paul says – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, EVEN AS He chose us… etc. etc. We are to fall down in praise and gratitude that God has revealed His never-ending, never-beginning, never-failing, never-thwarted love for us. He wants us to know how much He loves us in spite of us.

    I rejoice in the fact that so many people have come to me and spoken of how wonderfully comforting these things are. I’ve had one or two people close to tears as they consider their shortcomings, and their difficult circumstances, and yet rejoice in God’s love for them as so clearly revealed in the teaching of election and predestination. This is why God told us these things. Yes, God has not told us everything, and some questions will remain. But, as it says in Deuteronomy 29:29, ‘the secret things belong to God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children…’ We will not quibble with what God says, but rejoice in it. 
    ………………………………………………… End quote …….

    Needless to say some who voiced concern were most saddened by this.  While all affirm the Bible’s teaches  ‘election’ and ‘predestination’, not all of us are persuaded the Calvinistic interpretation of these concepts is the plain, obvious teaching of the text. His historical claims as does not ring true – but my understanding of church history is deficient. Any way, as a result of the above quote the elders met, prayed and asked me to prepare a discussion paper to help us work through this as a congregation later in March.

    My own attempt to exegete these opening verses have included the following considerations:

    1.  The doxological character and intent of this eulogy  – and so the need to avoid unduly imposing the categories of systematic theology on the passage
    2.  The  corporate nature of the passage and the letter – given Paul’s Jewish background and the theme of two groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, being unified in Christ – and so the need to be careful of an interpretation which is too individualistic.
    3.  The emphasis of the text seems to be on Christ and not the individual’s ‘election’.  Yes believers are “chosen” from before the foundation of the world. But note that believers are the ones chosen (He chose “us,” i.e., believers), and believers are “chosen” in Him, that is, in Christ Jesus. If I understand the flow of thought correctly, our “election,” so to speak, is only in the Elect One Himself, Jesus Christ (cf. Isa, 42:1). 
    4.  In Ephesians 1:4-5 Paul does say that  before the foundation of the world, God chose us who are in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him.  This seems to suggest at least two things: a) the purpose of our “election,” which is only through faith in and union with the Elect One, Jesus, is so that we can stand before God’s presence holy and blameless (justified, cleansed, forgiven, sanctified).  And b) The text does not read, “just as He chose us TO BE in Him,” but “just as He chose us in Him . . . TO BE holy and blameless before Him.” Those who by grace through faith come to and believe in Christ are the chosen ones. 
    5. It seems Paul’s emphasis is not on some pre-ordained decree about the individual’s election but on God’s plan for a new redeemed humanity, which he set into motion to be accomplished in and through Christ.  It is being in Christ and not some decree which is the basis of our assurance and confidence that God’s cosmic plan will prevail.

    I would be most grateful if you could offer any corrections or tips on how best to responsibly exegete this passage and to respond to  the historical claims being made.  Help in the grammar and syntax of the Greek would be most welcome.  My Greek is reasonable (having undertaken three years of NT Greek when studying for a BTH at Ridley College, Melbourne – some 20 odd years ago!!) and certainly sufficient to follow an argument with the help of commentaries.  I would appreciate any correction you may wish to offer.

    My sincere goal is not to win theological debates, but to help shed light and understanding on this and passages like Romans 9.  It is my prayer that brothers and sisters will come to respect legitimate and responsible exegetical differences, but even more so be encouraged by the theological and pastoral intent of the text and not the theology they wish to import into the text. Though I realise we cannot always escape our theological presuppositions, I am hopeful a hermeneutic of humility will at least avoid equating one’s reading as being necessarily what the Bible teaches.  This, especially where the distinctives are not articles of the faith once delivered to the saints.

    May the Lord grant you wisdom and grace in your call to teach and equip the saint to His Glory.

    Warm regards and blessings,
    Ralph Byaw

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me you are on the right track without any help from me. One thing I would add is that IF in Ephesians 1 Paul meant unconditional individual predestination, he would have had to go a lot further to explain that. After all, the background is Jewish and the Jews (including Hellenistic Jews and God-fearers who attended synagogue) had NO doctrine of unconditional individual predestination. For them, “election” was a corporate category–the people of God are God’s elect. Paul is simply broadening it out to include believers in Jesus Christ. I wish you all the best and can only say you are doing a fine job.

  • JP

    Mr. Olson: I’m not an arminian but I was studied in a biblical school supose to be arminian and since I star reading your blog there’s a lot of difference between the arminianism that I knew in the past. Like in all theology sistem there’s a lot of misunderstood about arminianism. I studied with Wesleyan arminians and even the book of Wiley was questioned by teachers. In Calvinism and Arminianism, one of the worst things is ignorance about the foundation of bouth.

    • rogereolson

      So true. I’m surprised they questioned Wiley! H. Orton Wiley’s three volume systematic theology is THE standard theology of Nazarenes and most other “Holiness” groups. And it is classically Arminian (with the Wesleyan addition of entire sanctification).

  • Mark rogers

    Thank you Dr. Olson for sharing your insights and providing this forum.
    In Karl Barth’s book “God Here and Now” on page 128, Barth says the following…
    God’s free grace….Who knows what sort of “last” ones might turn out to be first again? The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Pant0n? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace.
    But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has He not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty! But if the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides, something else has to be said: that whoever and whenever he may be, man is not only reached and blessed by grace, but in one way or another he is taken by grace into it’s service……pg.131… Even in the midst of hell, grace would still be grace, and even in the midst of hell it would have to be honored and praised and therefore announced to the other inhabitants of hell. It is not free for nothing, but it is also not grace for nothing. We should certainly not know it if we were of the opinion that we could stop short of announcing it.


    • rogereolson

      I think Barth did believe in universal salvation, but he rejected the doctrine of apokatastasis because to him it implied that God “had to” save everyone (a la Origen).

  • Quite Amazing, today I held a sermon on the joy of salvation and talked about that very thing, that there is more than simply being saved and on your way to heaven. Through salvation we have recieved what we did not deserve, and we did not recieve what we deserved.

  • steve rogers

    I think Paul’s words apply here: 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (ESV) “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    If I understand my mission as an ambassador for Christ is to take the wonderful news of our having been reconciled to God in Christ, why would I have any reluctance to share it? Those who think inclusion in Christ is a disincentive to evangelize haven’t yet grasped what good news is the gospel.

  • Are you saying that being “saved” is not a matter of “pie in the sky by and by”, but about what my life looks like TODAY? That the “gospel”/good news is not “fire insurance” but power to overcome, to “walk in the light”, and to live a tranformed life which resembles Christ TODAY?

    I’m commenting because my husband and I had this same discussion yesterday. Coincidentally? Not.
    “let them who have ears to hear, hear…”

    We had the discussion after reading Romans 10, ( Rom 10:9-11 with the understanding that “confess” and “believe” is much more than mere verbal and mental assent).

    But especially Romans 10:5-8 which boldly states the same litmus test you have 🙂 Faith is not focused upon”‘Who will ascend into heaven?’… or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'”

  • Percival

    It seems that we have gotten used to equating salvation and forgiveness. They are NOT the same thing. Let’s try not to use them as synonyms and thus confuse the issues and confuse each other. There, I’m off the soap box now.

    I wonder about something, though. If Jesus always prayed according to His Father’s will, and If God always answered those prayers in the affirmative, what do we make of this prayer of Jesus? “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

    • rogereolson

      Oh, I didn’t say salvation doesn’t INCLUDE forgiveness; I said that forgiveness is not all there is to salvation.

      • Percival

        Sorry, Dr. Olson. I wasn’t referring to your post but to some of the comments that seemed to conflate the two terms.

  • Bev Mitchell

    While we are on the topic of who’s who, can we consider the following people? The ones described represent a montage, but similar folk can be found out there beyond the church walls. I’m not talking about do-gooders or people trying to get enough points to go to heaven. The persons I have in mind do not believe in any religion, they are not sure that God exists and are not worried about going any particular place when they die. These people  live in the here and now, may or may not be highly educated, and are full of compassion. They see suffering all around them and they are always helping. Some of them continually put themselves out or even in harm’s way to serve others – in fact, service seems to come naturally to them. People seek them out for advice and, especially, when they are in trouble. Their door is always open, they are never judgemental but always acceping, caring and, if anything can be done to help, it will be done. They are not perfect, of course. Some church folk would have great difficulty with some of their behaviours and certainly with their lack of belief. 

    These people exist. We will all know some if we have spent serious time outside the church walls getting to know a wide range of human beings. Of course, they are trying to do all the serving and loving that they do in their own strength, and, often they crash. But some reach a ripe old age still loving, serving and enjoying life. These are not always gentle people, especially when confronting those who do violence to others. They also have, and sometimes use, the most accurate hipocrite detectors known to mankind.

    Do you know such people? Who are they in our current who’s who dialogue? We seldom talk about them in church discussions, because we are happy with our well polished caricatures of unbelivers trying to get to heaven on their own steam. We may not even believe people like this exist and we strengthen this position by psychoanalysing any imaginary person who might seem to fall into this category. Sometimes, our theology does not even allow them to exist, but they do.
    Who are they?

    • rogereolson

      Karl Rahner called them “Anonymous Christians.”

  • Thank you, Prof. Olson, this needs to be said.

  • ScottGay

    You have blogged on roots, renewal, and being transformed this past week. Spener’s six proposals in Pia desideria for life and growth of individuals and church are still relevant advice in these realms.
    I deeply appreciate the inclusivism of this blog.

  • Yeah, it’s an interesting test. But given the fact of human fallenness and evil, men suppress the knowledge of the truth and need the Word of God through the Gospel to soften their hearts that they may turn and be forgiven. But it is most likely the case that all men apart from the Gospel are–as they stand–“without God and without hope in the world” (Eph. 2:12), and therefore they must be preached to. What did Paul say regarding the unbelieving Jews in Rom. 10:12-15 (which has implications for others also)? It is this:

    12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

    Therefore what it seems to me is that by extension, it is only those who Call On His Name who are saved. Surely if tribal people in some corner of the globe do not harden their hearts to the inner law and the outer revelation in the world, God is able to send them a preacher. Consider India, the most religious country in the world, which seeks after the divine so much that Satan has corrupted it with such false religion. Yet in the first/second century, God sent to them the Apostle Thomas. His church–The Mar Thoma Church (Church of St Thomas), still exists to this day. And Christians are known to have gone to ancient China.

    So I think that, at the end of the day, we must believe in Jesus. I believe that, providentially, God is able to send a preacher to any community in the world, if that community does seek him. God is not unjust, “May the judge of all the earth do right.”

  • Indeed, one of the scourges of the evangelical mindset today. The idea of living for, with, and by Christ, knowing Christ, exploring and displaying Christ *in this life* as an intrinsic good is almost lost sight of. I’m happy to say “almost.” For that tide is turning in a large and exciting way right now . . .

  • David F

    Thank you for an insightful article. My point may be a little off topic but still, I hope, relevant.

    I believe there is also one other aspect of the Gospel largely missing today. It is what I like to think of as the ‘Godward’ aspect, namely that the church is the reward given by the Father to the Son as a reward for His obedience in providing the way of salvation for mankind. It is there in Isaiah 53:12 “Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” and it seen in the vision of believers before the Lamb on the throne in heaven in Rev. 5. Salvation isn’t all about me getting my get-out-of-hell-free card and collecting blessings every time I pass GO. God’s love and grace, demonstrated in the cross of Christ, should produce in me (and IN the church as a whole) glory to Him and an ever deepening love for Him.

    To me this is the true motivation for missions, typified, I think by the Moravians. If God in Christ has done this for me (as part his body), who deserved hell, then nothing should stop me from advancing His cause, in His way, for His glory. And He told me to go and preach the Gospel.

  • Bob

    Seems to me that once one starts diverting form the eternal aspects of salvation to the temporal. Christ and his work is trivialized

    • rogereolson

      What do you mean by the “temporal” aspects of salvation? Your comment is less than helpful because there is no universal agreement about these categories.

  • “God does not want to merely forgive people; he wants to change them by imparting abundant, eternal life which always manifests in a holy personality.”

    I couldn’t agree more! I’ve heard it said before that if heaven merely consists in a large, eternal gathering of outwardly cleansed, but not inwardly changed, sinners it could hardly be called heaven. God’s full salvation is not just from something, but more importantly into something. Salvation is not from a place to a place, but from a person to a Person. Witness Lee’s distinction between God’s judicial redemption and organic salvation has helped me tremendously to see the difference between the procedure and the purpose in God’s full salvation.

    • rogereolson

      Is it necessary to learn that from Witness Lee? I thought that distinction was traditional for most Christians.

      • Of course not. I didn’t say it was necessary to learn it from him, just that I learned it from him. Am I penalized for that? Others may learn it elsewhere. I’m happy as long as Christians realize that there is “much more” to salvation than heaven and then go on to experience it, no matter who they have received the help from. The distinction is traditional in theology but with many Christians I know (I work in college ministry) it is absent in their experience. They have the concept of growth, but where is the growth? It’s possible to talk about growth but still have a one-dimensional view of it. It is not a criticism, it is an observation. That is why I am glad to see you speaking of it here at length. You yourself end this post with this quote, “I fear that American evangelicals have focused too exclusively on salvation as forgiveness (resulting in a life of striving to learn and serve) and too little on holistic salvation as experiencing God inwardly in a transforming way that results in the fruit of the Spirit if not the gifts of the Spirit.”

  • I don’t know how to express my strenuous agreement with Dr. Olson except to confess that I am indeed an inclusivist and just moved my family to Africa (a country with a history of brutal violence). We moved in hopes of bearing witness to a risen Christ. To be willing to die seems the only way to bear faithful witness to the Crucified One who called us to take up a cross daily.