Wideness of God’s Mercy: Pluralism #4

I like playing soccer. But playing pick-up soccer is pretty difficult when you do not have any goals. Sometimes you have to improvise with a pair of shoes, a few backpacks, or if you are really lucky, a set of orange highway department cones.

Mmmm…. those look like some mighty fine cones ….. perfect soccer goals!

If you want to mess with the opposing soccer team, just move those improvised goals when they are not looking. When on the opponent’s side of the field, sneak that one cone farther apart from the other one to make that goal wider. Then just wait a few minutes. Pretty soon, you’ll be hearing, “Morledge! What are you doing messing around with the goals?! You can not make the goals wider for you!”

There is always a temptation to try to widen the goals. But it does not just happen in soccer. It also happens when we think about God and salvation. How wide is God’s mercy when we consider who will be saved and who will not be saved? What a troublesome question! In an age drawn more to the love of God as opposed to His justice, does human sentimentality confuse us in our understanding of the parameters God has set for salvation?

This is the final blog posting in this series that examines religious pluralism.  We are addressing the primary question: do not all religions teach basically the same thing? In considering this question, other “questions behind the question” arise. In the first posting in this series, we considered this: Is there a way to account for much of the goodness and piety in the Great World Religions if one holds to an exclusive understanding of Christian truth? Biblically speaking, a theology of common grace helps us to make sense of that. In the second posting, we considered this: how do we deal with the differences among world views, and are those differences really that significant? As it turns out, the differences in various approaches to religion are greater than the things that are shared in common. In the third posting, we looked at what is it that makes Christianity so unique? Simply speaking, the Christian faith is unique because of the person and work of Jesus Christ and his saving grace. Note: as with the other posts in the series, this last one is somewhat lengthy, as I found it difficult to break up such a significant topic without losing too much continuity…. so have your beverage ready 🙂

Salvation for Non-Christians?

However, if we are willing to accept that Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), and there are no shortcuts, how is God’s saving grace applied to humanity?

Here is one of those “questions behind the question” for those troubled by a pluralistic society. If there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ, what about that nice Hindu lady who lives down the street? Is there no salvation for her?

I don't think this gal is from Southern Virginia.

I don’t think this gal is from Southern Virginia. Does she say “How are yall?” or “How are you all?”…. or is she more likely to say “Namaste” a customary Asian Indian greeting?

There are roughly four basic positions taken by people who have some affinity for Christian belief. The first position is substantially different than the other three positions. Non-Particularism sets itself off by rejecting the doctrine of Christian “exclusivism”. In this approach, Jesus Christ is not the only way of salvation. In addition to Christianity, all of the Great World Religions are valid paths for salvation. As we have surveyed in previous blog posts, this is not a biblical view of salvation. It is logically contradictory, and it misrepresents and redefines core Christian doctrine. Without repeating what was said previously, we can dismiss this as a legitimate option for the Christian.

However, if one embraces “particularism”, which affirms the uniqueness of Christ and the uncompromising message of saving grace, there are three differing positions to consider along a spectrum. Aside from John 14:6, the key prooftext to support all three of these positions is Acts 4:12:

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (NIV 1984)

If Jesus carries the only authority for extending saving grace to people, how far does that saving grace extend? Is it just for Christian believers only?

Strict Particularism

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Non-Particularism is strict particularism. In strict particularism, Jesus Christ is affirmed to be the Only Way for salvation. The saving grace that Jesus offers can only be secured by making a conscious profession of faith. The supporting prooftext is typically Romans 10:9:

“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. “(NIV 1984)

The strength of this position is that it is unyielding in supporting the uniqueness and authority of Jesus Christ. It is firm in making an appeal to the Scriptures.

However, the weakness of this position is that I do not know of anyone who actually holds this position to the extreme when challenged. Inevitably, when such a position is put forward, any number of objections are raised and qualifications are usually given.

“Whoops. Looks like someone needed to move the cone to make the road wider…. or maybe the car was too big?”

Within the context of considering religious pluralism, the typical challenge is with respect to those who live in far away lands who have do not have a Christian witness available to them. They could be living in a country closed to Christian missionaries or they could simply be a part of cultural group that does not have the Bible available in their native tongue. The hardness of strict particularism implies that such people are without redemption and lost forever. Tough words.

However, the problem is larger than the religious pluralism context. It is not just about “Buddhists in Bangladesh.” It is also about “Babies in Boston.” Human infants at an early age lack the cognitive ability to understand or comprehend biblical theology. Making a conscious profession of faith for a newborn infant is just as problematic as it is for someone in a far away land who has no exposure to the Gospel message proclaimed by missionaries. The same problem exists for other categories of peoples, including persons who suffer from some physical or mental impairment, where cognitive thinking and theological understanding is a serious challenge. In each special case, the commonality is that there are people, who through no fault of their own, who do not have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel by making a conscious profession of faith that can be observed by others.

The anxiety introduced by such a stark situation is a plague for many, even within the Christian community. However, though the context of religious pluralism is perhaps a recent challenge in the history of the Christian movement, the larger issue being considered has actually a very long history. For example, Saint Augustine in the early medieval period argued that since all humans are sinners, without the grace of baptism such people are eternally lost. This would include any unbaptized infants. Augustine argued positively that the saving grace of God is extended to an infant through baptism. Many in the church during and since Augustine’s time in the 5th. century have raced to the baptismal font with their newborns to secure this grace. Yet in an age with high infant mortality rates, parents might not make it with their dying newborns to receive the sacrament within time. As a result, some have questioned Augustine on theological grounds in a debate that has embattled believer and non-believer alike for centuries.

Saint Augustine.  Champion of the biblical doctrine of Grace..... but troublesome to many regarding the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Saint Augustine. Champion of the biblical doctrine of Grace….. but a thorn to many regarding the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Without going further into Augustine presently, defenders of Augustine have argued that there are exceptional cases or other qualifications. As an example, the concept of the “age of accountability” has been a useful theological idea to distinguish between children who are spared eternal lostness due to their prematurity and others who have grown to the age where they are responsible to God. Presumably, God saves the infant if they have not reached that “age of accountability”, but once reaching that age, they are fully responsible to respond to God’s gracious act of redemption in Christ (look here for more on this issue).

Does thinking about “Babies in Boston” help us to better consider the question of “Buddhists in Bangladesh?” This is where we get several other variations of particularism that attempt to moderate the extreme position taken by strict particularism.


Standing farthest away from strict particularism is the view that affirms the uniqueness of Christ and His saving message on one hand while seeking to give a firmer hope to those who, through no fault of their own, do not have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel message proclaimed by a Christian missionary. This semi-particularism argues that while Christ is the only means of salvation, there is a way to find salvation for those who do not know of Christ. In other words, there is a “Plan A” and a “Plan B”. Plan A is that the Gospel message be proclaimed and that those who truly respond in faith will know Christ’s saving grace.

However, what about others who do not have such an opportunity? This is where “Plan B” comes in. If someone under Plan B is a follower of a different religious tradition, and if that person follows the teachings of that tradition in the best way they know how, then that person too may inherit eternal life in Christ. In other words, it is possible that under certain conditions, one can be a “good Muslim”, a “good Buddhist”, etc. and receive saving grace just like any other Christian.

Advocates of positions that lean towards semi-particularism claim support from such sources as the classic 19th century hymn by Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, that has verses including:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

Like the wideness of the sea;

There’s a kindness in His justice,

Which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,

and more graces for the good;

there is mercy with the Savior;

there is healing in his blood.

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.

Was there ever kinder shepherd

Half so gentle, half so sweet,

As the Savior who would have us

Come and gather at His feet?

There is much to appreciate with this view, in that it seeks to find a concrete way to give hope to as many as possible. However, the basis for why the hope is given is deeply problematic. While “Plan A” rightly argues for the primacy of God’s grace as opposed to human efforts to someone earn God’s favor, “Plan B” does just the opposite. By affirming that religious devotion, even in ignorance, can somehow demonstrate to God one’s sincerity and worthiness for saving grace, such a position completely undermines the whole concept of grace. As we explored in the last blog post, if it is possible for even one person to earn salvation through human efforts, or “works”, then grace becomes totally unnecessary. It makes the work of Christ to secure our salvation meaningless. Why would we even need Christ if all we need is pious religious devotion driven by our own efforts?

We simply can not perform any action that can somehow trigger God, or dare I say it, manipulate God, to extend saving grace. Such a “grace” is no grace at all.

This is what makes semi-particularism rather “semi”. There is a tendency in this school of thought to try to have particularism in a non-particularistic way, and it does not really work. Furthermore, by suggesting the existence of a “plan B”, the tendency is to make a serious overstep in our knowledge of the mind of God.

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34 NIV 1984)

In the interest of extending hope, it is possible to say a lot more than can really be said. What it comes down to is that the individual Christian or any church body simply does not have the divine authority to make any statement that can extend salvation to someone else. To argue that any particular non-Christian is somehow saved is something beyond our knowledge from what Scripture teaches. According to the Bible, only God can make such a determination. Anything other than that is only speculation at best and presumption at worst.

I play pick-up soccer at the College of William and Mary (I’m on the right). Soccer attracts folks from all over the world. On the left is my friend “Mustafa”. His family left Afghanistan to get away from the Taliban regime several years ago, and he has grown up in Williamsburg ever since. “Mustafa” is Arabic for “the Chosen One”, a traditional Muslim name. When I consider these issues concerning salvation, I think of people like my friend, Mustafa.

Open Particularism

Open particularism is a mediating perspective between semi-particularism and a strict particularism. In open particularism, Jesus Christ is uniquely the only way to salvation, but we must be open to the possibility that God will reach people with the Gospel in ways that we can never know. So while there are those who lack the opportunity to respond to the Gospel with a conscious profession of faith, it is not impossible for God to reach them. Unfortunately, we from our limited human perspective have no ability to discern the working of God’s grace in those cases.

The Bible presents a number of passages that challenge a strict particularism. For example, in Romans 4:3, the Apostle Paul argues that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. But wait a second. How can he be a recipient of the Gospel of Jesus Christ hundreds of years before Jesus came on the scene? How could he have made a conscious profession of faith before anyone knew about Jesus of Nazareth? Nevertheless, the Scriptures clearly affirm that Abraham and his spiritual descendants have a share in saving grace.

Also, what about this obscure priest, Melchizedek, who appears briefly in Genesis 14:18-20. He pretty much comes out of nowhere into Abraham’s life and vanishes right away. Was he a pagan perhaps? Was he a Jew? All we know is that he was a priest of the “God Most High”. And yet, the New Testament Book of Hebrews champions Jesus Christ as being in the order of the Melchizedek priesthood!

One other example comes straight from Jesus in Luke 13:22-30. When He was asked if only few people are going to be saved, Jesus responded by saying that there are those who think they will be with Jesus but will be disappointed when they are not allowed into God’s presence. Nevertheless, God will draw in many from the “east and west and north and south” to take their places at the Great Feast. We will be surprised to find out who actually is in God’s Kingdom and who is not.

I do these types of bicycle kicks…. but only when I dream in the middle of the night…. otherwise, I think I’d hurt myself.

These texts demonstrate that merely making a conscious profession of faith does not limit how God extends His grace. How then do we answer the question of the possibility of salvation for the non-Christian? On one hand, we simply have to say that the workings of grace remain a mystery to us, but perhaps this is part of God’s purpose. There will always be an anxiety regarding the state of those who are lost as far as we can know, and this is by God’ design. This anxiety should spur us on to pray for our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, our family members, and those in far away lands who may or may not know the Gospel. Without such tension, it is altogether too easy to become apathetic about the spiritual condition of people who live in our world today. If there is a possibility for salvation, there is another possibility that our neighbor could be spiritually lost and separated from God forever. If we truly have the purposes of God on our hearts, then we need to respond in obedience to God’s calling and pray for our neighbor’s salvation and work earnestly for extending the proclamation of the Gospel. Pray for that friend and ask God for the opportunity to share your faith with them, for we simply can not be sure 100% about our friend’s spiritual state. Pray that God might have you be apart of His plan to make disciples of all of the nations, either by supporting missionary efforts to reach others or even going yourself!

Vigilant Pursuit of the Lost

A few months ago, our little Italian greyhound ran away from our home at night. Our old, little dog had very little hair and the night was very cold. I searched for over an hour calling his name across the woods in our neighborhood. I called off the search in the wee hours of the morning, resigned to the fact that our beloved canine was lost and could not survive the night. I could not sleep that night. So I got up at daylight, and searched another hour for him. All was quiet. He was indeed lost. Most probably dead.  I talked to some of my neighbors, but I questioned whether or not I should refer to our greyhound in the present tense or the past tense. Early that afternoon after he had disappeared, another neighbor of mine appeared in our driveway chasing our spunky and shivering little greyhound. I was completely shocked that he had survived, but I was thankful that he had been found.

What a lesson for me about God’s intention to save the lost. I was so discouraged that I could not find our dog, but unknown to me he had been rescued by our neighbor. God has called His people to be His witnesses, pursuing them with the message of hope, but we should never underestimate what God can do to rescue those who are perishing.

What then is the purpose of making a conscious profession of faith? Here it might be helpful to draw a distinction between saving grace itself and our assurance of having that salvation. There are several schools of thought with respect to the assurance of salvation, but this open particularism makes it clear that the grace of salvation and our assurance of it are different. Making a conscious profession of faith that is truly rooted in saving grace is what leads us towards the assurance of salvation. The gift of having a conscious faith experience is that it can help to give us assurance of saving grace in a way that those who do not have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel simply do not have. In other words, while it is possible for us to have an assurance of salvation for ourselves, assurance remains elusive to those who have not yet heard the Gospel. Without Christ, they are indeed lost, but God might still reach them with the mystery of His saving grace, but such knowledge is known only to God Himself and the deepest regions of the human heart. So while it is possible for someone with a conscious profession of Christian faith to have the assurance of salvation, it is not possible for others to have the assurance of salvation, though it remains possible for the Lord in some unknown way to still reach them. Part of what should motivate us to share the Gospel with others is a desire that our neighbor might experience that assurance of salvation consciously themselves.

Ultimately, we must put our trust in God that He will do that which is right. Following Genesis 18:25, our prayer can be that God will extend his saving grace to others in a way consistent with God’s righteous character and universal love for humanity. God has given us promising signs that He can reach people even when there is no tangible Christian witness available. For example, there have been a number of documented stories where Muslims living in countries closed to Christian missionaries are seeing visions of Jesus in their dreams and coming to faith after these types of experiences.

The challenges to open particularism are based on several criticisms. First, open particularism is claimed to substitute a firm understanding of the eternal lostness of a spiritually dead humanity with a vague agnosticism regarding the spiritual state of non-believers. Critics charge that this vague agnosticism takes the urgent edge off of Gospel proclamation.

However, a defense of open particularism argues that there should be no practical difference in how we view the critical task of the missionary enterprise. For example, if you definitively know for sure that you will die tomorrow, would it really make any difference compared to being perhaps unsure if you are going to die tomorrow? Either way, you must accept at least the possibility of death tomorrow. That possibility alone should be sufficient enough for you to take action. As the New Testament tells us, Christ will return like a “thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).  We simply do not know when Jesus will return, but we should be living our life as though He might be coming back at any moment.    Just the mere possibility that He could return at any moment should be motivation for us to be prepared for His coming.  Likewise, the mere possibility of eternal separation from God should spur us on to declare the Truth of God’s unending love to all most urgently!

Another criticism is that open particularism drives a wedge between the experience of saving grace and our assurance of salvation in a non-biblical way.   Some insist that only those who have an assurance of salvation are truly among the saved.

However, a defense of open particularism objects that this criticism simply confuses having the assurance of salvation with making an intellectual assent to Gospel doctrine. In other words, if we mistakenly think that just by giving intellectual assent to the Gospel that this alone gives us an assurance of salvation, then we are missing the point that Jesus is making in answering the question, “Will only a few be saved?” in Luke 13:22-30, the story of the Narrow Door, mentioned earlier. Jesus is quite clear that there are some who think that they have seats at the Great Banquet just by making some intellectual assent to God, and yet the Lord responds they He does not know them. Intellectual assent is indeed important, but it does not serve as an absolute guarantee of salvation assurance by itself.  Intellectual assent is part of having a conscious faith in Christ, but conscious faith also requires a deep abiding relationship with the Saviour that goes beyond merely reciting the “sinner’s prayer.”

Moving Soccer Goals and Having Confidence in God

OK. So I was caught moving the orange cones a little wider on the other side of the field to make it a little easier for me to score. There is something else challenging about playing soccer with orange cones as opposed to playing with real soccer nets. If the ball shoots just above the orange cone, how do you tell if you have made a goal or not? This is where it is it important to have some impartial referee who can make the call.

“Hey, what are you guys doing? Those are not hats. Those are soccer goals!”

As you might guess, I lean towards an open particularism.  When it comes to the question of the potential salvation of non-Christians, we ultimately must leave things in God’s Hands while we earnestly seek to be obedient to the Great Commission and proclaim the glorious news of God’s gracious act in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is that impartial referee. We need to trust that God will move in the hearts of the hearers of the Gospel and trust that God will use us to be agents of reconciliation to as many as possible. We need to follow every  lead God has for us to tell the story of Jesus Christ and trust God will do the rest. We do not need to try to move the “orange cones” regarding salvation. He is perfectly capable and trustworthy to do what it takes to reach a spiritually lost world.

I can pray for that nice Hindu lady down the street. I can follow the Spirit’s direction to find the right opportunity to share the Gospel with her, and then place my confidence in that the God of Mercy will work the wonder of His saving grace to rescue those who would otherwise perish.

Additional Resources:

For A Deeper Look at These Issues:

A detailed look at the question of salvation in a pluralistic world is found in one of the Zondervan Counterpoint series of books, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. It covers much of the same arguments presented in these blog postings regarding how God applies saving grace within the context of religious pluralism. Different authors present different perspectives on these issues following a similar taxonomy that I have presented. A nice book review summarizes the main arguments.

Saint Augustine, Infant Baptism and Grace

Theologians going back to Saint Augustine in the 5th century have wrestled with the question of infants (and others) who die early before making a conscious profession of faith.   This topic is probably worth a separate blog posting, as it touches on a whole wide range of related issues: including baptism, the nature of the sacraments in general, and the concept of original sin.    The debate in church history that Saint Augustine carried with the arch-heretic Pelagius, and Pelagius’ successor, Julian of Eclanum, over the nature of sin and grace  provides a valuable context for understanding all of the issues involved.    A classic extended essay that expounds on these rather complicated topics comes from the scholarly pen of Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, the great Princeton theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grab yourself a large beverage and a good chunk of time before you read it, but Warfield is very rewarding for the diligent.

Assurance of Salvation

Much of what is put forth in the open particularism argument is based on a particular view of the assurance of salvation.   This is another complex topic that seeks to understand the relationship between faith, works, and grace (another blog entry??).  The issue has received attention in recent years in the controversy regarding “Lordship salvation”.   Numerous books and articles by such authors as  J. I. Packer and John MacArthur on the one side and Charles Ryrie and the late Zane Hodges on the other have laid out the different positions within the controversy.

Apologetics Extra: Roman Catholicism and Religious Pluralism

It is worth looking at how Roman Catholicism in particular addresses the issue of religious pluralism and the potential salvation of non-Christians.

An intriguing proposal was offered by the great Roman Catholic 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner. Rahner, a major influence at the Second Vatican Council, following some of the thought expressed in the principal document, Lumen Gentium, makes a case for anonymous Christianity. For Rahner, there is a possibility that one can attain the grace of salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity without necessarily knowing it. In other words, someone from another religious tradition may indeed be a Christian somehow in an anonymous way.

Karl Rahner.  20th century Roman Catholic theologian famous for his concept of "anonymous Christianity"

Karl Rahner. 20th century Roman Catholic theologian famous for his concept of “anonymous Christianity”

Critics from the non-particularist school argue that Rahner’s anonymous Christianity is paternalistic. It is essentially the rough equivalent of extending an “honorary degree” on someone who has absolutely no expressed desire to receive such a degree. Would a rabid North Carolina basketball fan be excited about receiving an honorary degree from Duke University? Perhaps not.

To the credit of the Roman Catholic tradition in recent years, the Catholic Magisterium has sought to resist efforts that undermine a robust particularism. In the more recent papal document, Dominus Iesus, the Roman Church has expressly denied any doctrinal changes that would take away from the particularist claims of orthodox Christian faith. The Catholic Church remains committed to the formula articulated by Saint Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century. From the Latin extra Ecclesiam nulla salus we get “outside the church there is no salvation”. The real question then is how you unpack that formula.

Unfortunately, there are many lay people within the Roman Catholic Church who do not understand or follow this clarified teaching of the Magisterium. For example, many have read the following in the Catholic Catechism (Part One, Section Two, Chapter 3, Article 9, Paragraph 3) under line 841:

The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (quoted from Lumen Gentium 16)

Some have understood this to say that the Magisterium believes Christians and Muslims worship the same God without any qualifications. However, as Robert Spencer points out, this naive and simplistic reading is not the intention of the Church of Rome. Robert Spencer, the founder of JihadWatch.org, is admittedly very controversial regarding many things about Islam, but his analysis here is in accordance with the definitive doctrinal statement expounded by Dominus Iesus.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

2 responses to “Wideness of God’s Mercy: Pluralism #4

  • John Paine


    It helps me when thinking about pluralism and salvation to–as Dick Woodward says–“Run the Law of God through the Love of God.” As you so skillfully articulated, there is a way to do that without giving up Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice. There are issues where logic demands that we confess that we don’t know (e.g. how were Abraham and the Patriarchs saved if Acts 4:12 is the only yardstick?). John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are absolutely true–and just as surely is Romans 11:34.

    We are free to choose how we respond to people who don’t believe as we do. In a sense we can learn to hate the people we don’t know but see on the newscasts, or we can love the friends like Mustafa that we should all have. When I was in graduate school I had Lebanese Christian friends and Palestinian friends at a time when atrocities were being commited between the two back in their homelands. It’s a lot easier to hate people who are different when you don’t know them. When we consider particularism issues, 1 Thessalonians 5:15 comes to mind, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” The final clause is not just Paul’s wordiness, it is authoritative instruction for how we are to treat everyone–not just ‘us’ but ‘them’ as well.

    Thank you for all the work you put into this series on religious pluralism. It has certainly taken a thought-provoking topic that needs so much attention these days and delivered it in a very kind fashion.

    Legal Disclaimer: Veracity in no way condones the theft of traffic cones.


  • fred nice

    thanks john for clarifying the cone issue…..
    clarke, what an enormous amount of work! thanks for such insight into these complex issues. i didn’t even realize their was names for all those different “schools of thought” about “particularism”. fascinating stuff! this is so thought provoking……you can never go wrong “loving your neighbor”.
    alot of these issues will be some very fun q&a times in heaven.


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