C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 2)

Last week I began to address Jordan’s questions regarding C.S. Lewis’s views on inclusivism. I concluded that C.S. Lewis was indeed an inclusivist who held that although Jesus is the only way to eternal life, explicit faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation. Lewis’s views are echoed by other theologians and pastors — most notably, Billy Graham has endorsed a form of inclusivism in recent years.

So does the Scripture support inclusivism?

I’ll be arguing my position from the Bible, but my intent is not to label those who disagree with me as heretics or heathens. I’ll talk more about that issue in my final post on this subject, but my hope is to simply lay down the biblical facts as I see them.

That having been said, I strongly believe that the Bible supports Christian exclusivism, the belief that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life. Here’s why:

The Scripture consistently states that faith in Christ is necessary to receive salvation. Although you could argue that “faith in Christ” includes unconscious belief, this isn’t the most natural way to read the passages in question. For example, John 3:16-18 repeatedly talks about faith in Christ as necessary for salvation — it’s hard for me to imagine the original readers understanding that in any way other than explicit belief in what Jesus had accomplished through His death and resurrection. Romans 3 is another example. After declaring that nobody achieves eternal life through his own righteousness — because everybody is wicked — Paul states that justification comes only through belief in Christ. In other words, I think he directly contradicts the inclusivist position here by saying that no amount of sincerity or piety is enough to receive salvation apart from exercising faith in Christ.

Most of the apostles died trying to evangelize the world. Why would they do this if they felt that a sincere person could be saved apart from knowing about Jesus? Why not leave well enough alone? Why insist upon the worship of Jesus alone (and face terrible consequences for doing so) if it wasn’t really necessary? From what I see in the Scripture (particularly the book of Acts), they strongly believed in the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ.

Romans 1, in particular, eliminates the myth of the “righteous pagan.” In Romans 1 Paul states that worship of false gods is the way that people run away from God, not a way that they seek to know Him. As I stated above, his premise is that general revelation leads to condemnation, not to salvation. What we often call “seeking for God” is in fact a way of avoiding Him and rejecting Him. So the idea of an idolater in Africa who has never heard of Jesus but worships Him nonetheless is a myth, according to Romans 1.

For those who do sincerely want to know God, He provides further revelation leading to an understanding of the Gospel. I have biblical evidence of this and anecdotal evidence. From the Scripture, we see the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), who genuinely wants to understand the Old Testament but has nobody to tell him what it means. He is the paradigm of the “righteous pagan.” How does God respond? He sends Philip to the man, and Philip clearly explains the Gospel of Christ! Cornelius is another example (Acts 10). God sent Peter to this God-fearing Gentile, just so he could know about Jesus and be saved.

Anecdotally (from people I know personally), I’ve heard of Muslims having dreams instructing them to listen to a particular missionary who would tell them about Jesus. I know of a formerly Hindu man who had a vision of Jesus that led to his salvation. I strongly believe that God is gracious, and He can get the message of the Gospel to whomever He pleases, assuming those individuals are prepared to hear it.

And this is critical to explain about exclusivism — we don’t believe that everybody in the Middle East is going to hell because they happen to be born in a particular place with particular parents. To the contrary, God is very capable of penetrating those lands with the Gospel in any way He pleases, and He does it all the time. God is deeply gracious and concerned with the salvation of the entire world. And I think we will be surprised to see many people from all over the world with us in heaven because God in His mercy revealed the Gospel to them in amazing ways.

There’s obviously not enough space to answer every question on this topic here, so I’ll leave it to your comments. My next post will address the question of how we ought to respond to the writings of Lewis, and others who hold his view. What should we think about a brilliant Christian theologian who held a view with which many of us strongly disagree?

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 1)

A few months ago, in the midst of the “Is Rob Bell a Universalist” debate, I wrote a few posts on the subject. One post in particular included some definitions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism. I defined inclusivism as the belief that salvation comes through Jesus, but that individuals do not necessarily need to exercise explicit faith in Christ’s name for salvation. In other words, a sincerely seeking Muslim or Buddhist could be saved, according to inclusivism, because they could believe in Jesus without knowing it. In response to that post, Jordan posted a question in the comments section:

Does Inclusivism directly contradict the teachings of Scripture? At first, I would think so. But your statement that C.S. Lewis was an Inclusivist begs me to investigate. It’s been a while since I read “The Last Battle”, but I loved “Mere Christianity” and hold his writings in very high regard. Is there other evidence that he was an Inclusivist in his writings? And if so, what implications would this have on what we, as Bible-believing followers of Christ, take from his writing?

Jordan is asking three related questions. First, was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist? Second, is inclusivism really inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture? And third, if it is, how should we approach C.S. Lewis and his writings? I’m going to divide my answers into at least two posts, if not three.

These are all great questions, but tough ones.

Was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist?

My assessment of C.S. Lewis’s position on this issue comes primarily from the end of The Last Battle, which is the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia.  Although a work of fiction, it is clear throughout the entire series that Lewis intends the books partly as tools for theological instruction. At any rate, one of the book’s main characters, Emeth, is a follower of the false god Tash (who bears a strong resemblance to the Muslim Allah). The Christ figure of the books, the lion Aslan, allows Emeth to enter heaven based upon the fact that Emeth had been unknowingly serving Aslan his entire life, even though he thought he had been serving Tash. (Confused yet? It really helps to actually read the book). Emeth’s integrity and character and righteousness were proof that he had really been serving Aslan, since the true followers of Tash are evil and immoral. Lewis argues that nobody could do the good things that Emeth had done unless he was truly following Aslan. Emeth, then, was what we might call an “unconscious believer” — he believed in Aslan without knowing it.

There are hints of Lewis’ inclusivism in Mere Christianity, although it’s most explicit in The Last Battle. Quite simply, it seems that he held to the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but that explicit faith in the name of Christ was not necessary for a person to be saved. In a letter written in 1952, Lewis wrote the following (from Collected Letters, Vol. III, p. 245):

I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.

There are other examples sprinkled throughout his writings, but hopefully these are sufficient to make the case that Lewis did indeed affirm the concept of inclusivism.

So how does this belief stack up to the Scripture? And if Lewis’s view is contrary to our understanding of the Bible, how should we respond to him and his writings? I’ll answer those questions in my next post or two.

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Should You Break Up?

Some of the most challenging questions posed to me as a college pastor have to do with romantic relationships. Students often wonder if the problems in their relationship are simply bumps in the road, or if they ought to break off the relationship entirely. While the answer is sometimes clear, it isn’t always. Every person is different, as is every relationship. The complexities of human interactions make it impossible to set down absolute principles (for the most part).

However, over the years I’ve noticed some patterns and I’m going to try to list a few general principles for when it might be wise to break off a dating relationship. Please note that when I suggest youconsider breaking up, it’s not because the other person is bad, or because I’m urging you to condemn them, or to treat them without grace. All I’m saying is that marriage is a major commitment, and there are some red flags that need to be taken very seriously. Here, then, are some issues that should strongly make you consider breaking up:

If there is a significant spiritual mismatch. I do think the Bible is clear that a Christian ought to marry another person who is a Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14, assuming marriage is a “yoke”; 1 Corinthians 7:39). This is non-negotiable.

However, I think there are also situations in which both are Christians, but it might be unwise for them to pursue a dating or marriage relationship. For example, if they have sharp and serious theological differences (e.g. one is Catholic and one is staunchly Presbyterian), they are likely to have a tough time agreeing on the spiritual training of their children. Or if one is very serious about his or her faith and the other is somewhat indifferent, then the spiritual atmosphere of the home can become a constant source of friction. These feel like minor concerns until two people are living under one roof and trying to agree on how to raise a houseful of kiddos.

If one person already shows a tendency to cheat or engage in deceptive behavior. I’ve had numerous students and young adults ask me how to handle it when their boyfriend or girlfriend is sneaking around, cheating on them with a third party. My answer: Break it off yesterday! It’s not that I lack compassion or think people can never change, but a pattern of cheating before marriage will generally not get better after rings are exchanged. Trust is the foundation of a marriage, and if a person handles it lightly while dating or engaged, beware!

If significant sexual immorality is present in the relationship. This one is tricky. I’ve known many people who have struggled with sexual sin while dating or engaged who have gone on to have wonderful marriages. That being said, it’s tough to be objective about a person when you are already sexually entangled. Sex clouds our objectivity. In my opinion, it’s best to at least take a hiatus from the relationship and perhaps return to it at a later time. Once the immorality is removed, people tend to make better decisions about whether to marry.

If the relationship seems like more trouble than it’s worth. This might sound harsh, and again there are exceptions to the rule. However, if you find yourself spending more time arguing with the person than enjoying them, that’s a red flag. If you talk more about the person’s flaws than what you love about them, that’s a red flag (the problem might be you or it might be the other party — either way, it’s a red flag). If you consistently find yourself wanting to get away from the person, it’s probably wiser to break it off. Everybody has doubts and fears in the dating process, but I’m talking about those situations in which the worries and concerns overwhelm your enjoyment of the relationship. To put it simply, if you don’t like the person or think your relationship is in constant trouble, why would you get married?

Needless to say, these principles are based on general wisdom (for the most part) and not on clear Scriptural commands. It’s just what I’ve observed and come to believe after a number of years working with students and young adults.

Question: Do you agree with the above principles? Are there any you would add?

[Image via http://awesomedc.com/2010/06/24/breaking-up-old-fashion-way-or-the-social-media-way/]

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College Ministry, Coolness, and the Purpose of Church

One of the pitfalls of serving as a college pastor in a large college town is the temptation to constantly stay hip and relevant (even as I typed those words, I wondered, “Do people still say ‘hip and relevant'”?). My community happens to be blessed with some of the largest and coolest college ministries in the country. It’s easy to believe that the effectiveness of my ministry hinges on whether I wear the right clothes when I speak, whether we have multi-colored flashing lights on stage, or whether our worship leader bleaches the tips of his hair.

To let you in on a little secret, I was never really that hip in high school, college, or my 20s. The situation hasn’t improved with time. During my first year as a college pastor, I innocently wore jean shorts to an event, and learned the meaning of the word “jorts” and why I should never wear those again. One day I spilled water all over the front of my pants right before speaking to a group of incoming freshmen at a very large camp meeting. Since becoming a dad, I’ve literally preached sermons with baby throw-up on my shoulder. Some people are cool without trying to be, but I’m not one of them.

So I was relieved and encouraged to read this article last week (in a magazine called “Relevant,” of all places) about how some young people aren’t looking for the latest and coolest fad in their church. Here are a few thoughts I had as I read Evans’s article:

Most people are looking for authentic community. Some of Evans’s language is over the top and probably hyperbolic. I wouldn’t encourage churches to try to do things that are “bad” or “amateur” in order to look authentic. What Evans is trying to articulate, though, is a desire for leaders and churches to be real and honest in their walk with Christ. If you were born with a pair of Ray-Bans on, don’t pretend to be nerdy just so you can seem “real”. On the other hand, don’t try so hard to be cool that you forget what church is really about — a place to worship God and encourage the people around you toward discipleship. If I’m too focused on how I look or whether the hippest people in the room like me, I can forget that the whole thing is supposed to be about Jesus.

Relevance and excellence aren’t necessarily at odds with authenticity. This is critical to understand. Jesus was relevant in the way He presented His message. He used words and concepts that were familiar to His audience. His sermons were interesting and challenging and even shocking at times. They were excellent and well-done. However, Jesus always remembered that His primary purpose was to minister to people, not to impress them. And that’s the key distinction that Evans is trying to articulate. I do want the message and music in our ministry to be done well, because in doing so, we honor the significance of the Gospel. However, content and effectiveness are always more important than presentation and packaging — that’s where some groups get lost in the weeds.

The discipleship process is messy and sometimes involves uncomfortable situations. When I really get involved in the lives of others, as a pastor or leader should, it’s sometimes awkward and painful. Every seasoned pastor knows that major distractions on Sunday morning are part of the job. They also know that strange, difficult, and sinful people tend to flock to the Church. Why? Because they are seeking love and acceptance and forgiveness, and churches ought to be the one place in the world where it’s offered. And in the context of Spirit-filled community, it’s amazing how the Lord can really transform people (even people like me). The history of Christianity is all about weak, sinful, awkward, and difficult people who were miraculously changed into effective servants of Jesus Christ. If you really want to stay in an environment of sterility and freedom from awkwardness, church probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you want to be in a place where a powerful God dramatically changes people into the likeness of Christ, well, that’s what church is about.

So the bottom line: Your church needs you, not the version you think everybody will be impressed with, but the version that God made. When weak, sinful, hip, weird, cool, nerdy people get together to worship God in Spirit and in truth — that’s something worth being a part of.