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The debate between exclusivism and inclusivism hinges on what kind of light or knowledge will constitute saving knowledge, and how much light should be present for a just and equitable situation.

Inclusivism suggests that salvation can be found through obedience to truth in non-Christian religions, or that it can be found through faith and obedience to general revelation. In this way, salvation can come through an implicit, tacit faith that is not consciously in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Inclusivists point to apparently righteous people in Scripture who were outside of Israel (Melchizedek, Job, Jethro), or to the “holy pagans” of history: Socrates, Plato, Seneca. 

Inclusivists also invoke the incident with Cornelius. By their reading, Cornelius was already a God-fearing, righteous man, who simply needed the advanced, completed form of Christian revelation. Ignorance of Christ does not disqualify one from salvation; God requires a right disposition and a willingness to do His will. 

They also point out that Old Testament saints were saved without knowledge of Christ. Therefore the redemptive work of Jesus is soteriologically necessary, but it is not epistemically necessary. The person is saved by Christ, but not by conscious faith in Christ. Infant salvation is another example of this: people that die in infancy are saved without conscious faith in Christ. 

Inclusivists differ as to whether God works through the other religions, outside of them, or both through and in spite of them. The common thread through all inclusivists is that people may have been saved by the Christian gospel without actually believing in it. Some inclusivists have been Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II. 

Exclusivism believes that salvation is only through personal faith in Christ, usually delivered through hearing the gospel through a human agent. They point to the Scriptures that make conscious belief in Christ necessary for salvation, or that emphasise the exclusivity of Christ as the way of salvation (Acts 4:12, John 14:6, 1 John 5:11-12). For strict exclusivists, this includes hearing the gospel preached through a human agent (Rom 10:14-17). Strict exclusivists conclude that if the gospel has not reached a people group or tribe, then it was not God’s intention to save them, and they will certainly be lost. Loraine Boettner, writing in 1954, said “Those who are providentially placed in the pagan darkness of western China can no more accept Christ as Savior than they can accept the radio, the airplane, or the Copernican system of astronomy, things concerning which they are totally ignorant. When God places people in such conditions we may be sure that He has no more intention that they shall be saved than He has that the soil of northern Siberia, which is frozen all the year round, shall produce crops of wheat. Had he intended otherwise He would have supplied the means leading to the designed end.”

Further, most exclusivists believe that repentance and faith in Christ is only possible in this life, and that no second chance exists after death (Heb. 9:27). 

The idea of salvation being restricted to faith in Christ is one of the strongest arguments for evangelism and foreign missions. If natural revelation and non-Christian religions contain enough truth to save, then the urgency and importance of missions is greatly lessened.

However, there is a spectrum of beliefs among exclusivists regarding the amount and kind of light available to all. 

All mankind is given light and truth. This comes through the witness of creation (Ps 19, Ro 1:19-20), conscience (Ro 2:15), and providence (Acts 14:17). Included in this natural revelation is the nature of humanity (personal, moral, aesthetic, ethical, rational), and the meaning-making in human culture (Acts 17:23, 28). God, in His common grace, allow cultures to incarnate many truths about reality, and particularly the imago dei.

General revelation is general in its extent (all men), and in its content (broad truth about God and human life). God communicates His existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are left without excuse. As one said, “General revelation is pervasive, unavoidable, continuous, universal, obvious, meaningful, scrutable, and necessary for any further revelation.” It makes up by far the bulk of our knowledge, and the majority of moral, transcendent, religious knowledge and sense. 

General revelation also occurs mediately and immediately. Mediate forms include creation, culture, and the human conscience. Immediate forms include an embedded God-consciousness in all (Ro. 1:19). John Calvin described immediate general revelation in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity [divinitatis sensum]. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty(I.3.1).

Human culture is a humanly created system of meaning that interprets and explain reality. It is the primary shaping force of a man’s interpretive grid, and therefore composes, as Machen said, “those conditions favourable for the reception of the Gospel.” God is at work in human culture, with his common grace allowing for explications of the imago dei, correct moral visions, and even correct truths about special revelation, passed through tradition. Judgement is present too, for man’s rebellion and hardness. Man’s noetic sin warps and changes the grid towards idolatry, pre-disposing him towards idolatry. The knowledge from the natural revelation of culture is the prime shaper of our knowledge. One could say that though this knowledge is not the most crucial rejection, it is by far the bulkiest and most consistent of rejections of light. 

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