Recovering the Exclusivity of the Gospel

Known as the silent killer, each year colon cancer claims close to 50,000 American lives.[1] Though treatable if detected early, colon cancer is known as the silent killer because, if not screened for, it will grow unnoticed, undetected. By the time it is discovered symptomatically, it is often too late to be cured.

Like colon cancer, I’m convinced there is another slow, silent, growing malignancy within the church. The malignancy is particularly catastrophic, bringing with it ruinous consequences.

It hollows out the gospel message, undercuts the Great Commission, and undermines the entire logic of collaborative missions and ministry. The malignancy to which I am referring is the slow, subtle rejection of the exclusivity of the gospel.

By the Numbers

Recent research conducted jointly by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research makes clear this challenge. For example, 45% of Americans think that “there are many ways to get to heaven” and 71% agree that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.”[2]

Defining Exclusivity

Historic Christianity, throughout its creedal formulations, has affirmed the exclusivity of the gospel. In fact, this was Jesus’ self-assessment when he unequivocally asserted, ““I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the father but through me.”[3]

By exclusivity of the gospel, we mean that only those who personally, consciously, explicitly, and singularly confess Jesus Christ as Lord can possess eternal life. Let’s consider these qualifiers more closely.

Personally: Salvation comes to us individually, when one follows Christ. No one gains eternal life because of someone else’s faith, or by his or her affiliation with a family, church, ethnic or national group. Each sinner must come to repent of his or her sins and believe the gospel personally.

Consciously: To inherit the Kingdom one must do more than reflect the ethic of Christ; one must consciously embrace him, knowingly and intentionally following Jesus. There are no anonymous Christians, regardless of Karl Rahner’s assertion otherwise. Authentic believers know whom they are following.

Explicitly: One’s faith must be placed in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, not just generically in God. As Peter declared in Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Singularly: Faith in Jesus alone saves, and saving faith must be placed in him alone. The singularity of Christ as one’s faith object is especially important on the mission field, where missionaries encounter religions, such as Hinduism, where they are happy to add Jesus to their pantheon of gods. We do not add Jesus to our portfolio of faith objects. Christianity is not a both/and proposition; it is either/or.

Of course, when converted one is not necessarily thinking through these categories, like boxes to check. Rather, the point is one cannot reject or negate these gospel distinctives.

Challenges to Exclusivity

Why is the exclusivity of the gospel losing popularity? There seem to be a number of reasons. First, globalization has brought the nations near to us. This nearness should have increased our burden for the lost, but it seems to have done the opposite.

Second, the forward march of postmodernity continues to undermine absolute truth claims, especially one so audacious as the exclusivity of the gospel—that of the 7,000,000,000 inhabitants of Earth, only those that hear and believe the message of Christ can be saved.

Third, political correctness limits our willingness to offend, and asserting the full gospel message is the most offensive of truth claims. Political correctness finds the notion of a literal hell as insufferably backwards, and has re-envisioned it as a mythological—or nearly unoccupied— place.

Alternatives to Exclusivity

While universalism is often contrasted with exclusivity, it is actually not commonly accepted. There is just something disconcerting, even to thoroughgoing secularists, about the possibility of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden spending eternity with Billy Graham. Even our most naturalistic instincts desire some sort of eternal reckoning.

More common alternatives are pluralism and inclusivism. Pluralism argues there are many ways to God, and one should earnestly follow the religious path revealed to you. Inclusivism maintains that Christ is the only Savior, but his provision can be accessed through other religions.

Ron Nash, in his Is Jesus the Only Savior?, helpfully summarizes pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivity in two questions: Is Jesus the only savior? Must people believe in Jesus Christ to saved? Pluralism answers both questions “no”; inclusivism answers the first “yes” and the second “no.” Historic Christianity answers both “yes.”[4]

Of the many who attend evangelical churches yet deny the exclusivity of the gospel, pluralism or inclusivism—though they may not know these terms—is probably their ideological home. While they may not intend to reject historic Christianity, operationally, many of our church members—and our churches—are there.


To be a preacher is to be a decision maker. Each week preachers determine what to include in a sermon and what to leave out. Time simply does not allow one to say everything that could be said about every passage. Preachers intuitively triage their text, their sermon, and their congregation, asking themselves, “What can I assume they know and affirm, and what must I assert and advocate?”

Perhaps this triage has led too many pastors to assume their church members understand and embrace the exclusivity of the gospel. We can no longer assume this. We must assert and advocate the exclusivity of the gospel.


[1] http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics

[2] Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, “The State of Theology: Theological Awareness Benchmark Study,” 4. Available online: http://gpts.edu/resources/documents/TheStateOfTheology-Whitepaper.pdf.

[3] John 14:6.

[4] See Ron Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).


*This article was originally posted on 12/09/2014*


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