Recent decades have provided Christians with an increasing evaluation of and interaction with various world religions. The growth of immigration from non-Christian nations combined with a greater global awareness through travel and communication have confronted Christians with the reality of diversity in faith and practice. Protestant Christians have responded in different ways to this reality. Often, these responses are grouped in three broad categories. However, with the rise of postmodernism a fourth category has appeared. I will endeavor to explain and evaluate these four approaches below, concluding with the approach I believe best adheres with biblical Christianity.
The first approach to world religions may be classified as universalism. Universalism proposes that all religions are more or less equal, with no one religion able to claim supremacy. Two common illustrations are used when explaining this approach, but provide slightly different nuances. The first is to picture salvation or truth as a mountain top and various religions as paths up the mountain. At points along the way these paths may appear different, but when followed to the end they lead to the same place. Thus, all religions ultimately teach the same thing. If adherents merely took the time to interact with one another they would discover how much they actually agreed. This perspective would eschew proselytizing, opting instead for simple dialogue.
Another picture is of a group of blind men approaching an elephant, with each man grabbing a different part of the animal and concluding partially true statements about it. However, none of them fully understands the elephant. In this illustration, no one religion has a claim to all truth. Instead, one must recognize that all religions have part of the truth, so the best approach is to incorporate beliefs from different religions.
Though this approach is popular among more liberal Protestants, attempts to defend it biblically are scarce. This scarcity is not surprising since there is little to no biblical support for universalism. Throughout the Old Testament, the God of the Jews is set in opposition to the gods of the surrounding peoples. The first commandment in the Decalogue places Yahweh as the supreme God. The nation is called to abandon other gods for the true God. In the New Testament, Jesus points to himself as “the way,” claiming that “no one comes to the Father except by [him].” Paul refers to the worship of idols as the worship of demons and applauds the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the true and living God. Nor are believers called to look to other religions to gain a better understanding of God. Jesus claimed that those who knew him knew God and that those who rejected him rejected God.
Universalism also creates logical difficulties. A thorough study of the different religions reveals that they do not all teach the same thing but often proclaim explicitly contradictory truths. Some religions are monotheistic, while others are polytheistic or pantheistic. Some believe that life is cyclical, while others hold to a linear view of history. Clearly all religions are not teaching the same thing. Arguing that all religions only have part of the truth does not ultimately solve this dilemma, for the only way to know that each religion has part of the truth is to have access to all of the truth. Those who hold universalism may have a laudable goal of reducing conflict by emphasizing unity, but they do injustice to the Bible and to other religions.
With the rise of postmodernism a modification of universalism has emerged that could be classified as relativism. Whereas universalism claims that all religions lead to the truth or contain part of the truth, relativism says that all religions have their own truths. In essence, a relativist would say that religions are not different paths up one mountain but different mountains altogether. This approach recognizes the clear differences between religions, but states that these different truths are not ultimately contradictory because they are true in themselves. There is no universal truth by which to judge the truths of the various religions. Again, the relativist sees no need for proselytizing, since no religion could be judged as better than another.
The relativist approach runs into the same biblical problem as the universalist approach. Christ not only claimed to be “the way” but also “the truth.” He called his followers to go throughout the world making disciples, which entails conversion to the truth. God is never portrayed as one choice among many but as the only God.
Ultimately, a relativistic approach to religions crumbles under the same difficulty as relativism in general—it is a self-defeating philosophy. Relativism proceeds on the idea that ultimate or universal truth is non-existent, but the claim that there is no universal truth is itself a universal truth. Further, relativism is incapable of condemning any action or attitude, since there is no standard by which to judge. In relativism, acts of terrorism and acts of charity are equally valid ways to demonstrate one’s commitment to religion. However, most people easily recognize these acts are not equally valid because of their universal sense of right and wrong. Though some may argue for a relativistic approach to religion, they never fully embrace it because of these difficulties.
A third approach to religion is inclusivism. In inclusivism, one’s own religion is the supreme religion, but other religions have truths that will ultimately lead to the truth found in the supreme religion. From a Christian perspective, that means that one can only be saved in Christ, but the Bible is not the only revelation of Christ. On the more liberal end of this perspective, proponents argue that sincere worshippers in other religions may be saved if they follow their religion and never have a chance to hear of Christ and Christianity. They believe the Quran has truths in it inspired by the Holy Spirit, so a devout Muslim who never hears of Christ may be saved by following these inspired truths in the Quran. On the more conservative end of this approach, proponents believe that someone may become a Christian by believing the gospel of Christ but continue to worship in their original religion. Thus, a Muslim may put faith in Christ but continue to practice as a Muslim because of the inspired truths in the Quran. An inclusivist would practice proselytizing but may not consider it an urgent matter.
Inclusivism does take seriously the biblical teaching that salvation is in Christ alone. It also recognizes the biblical teaching that some revelation of God has gone out to all people, i.e., general revelation. However, it fails to incorporate the Bible’s teaching on how an individual is saved through Christ. There are no biblical examples of a person being saved without knowledge of Christ. Rather, Paul states that people cannot believe in someone of whom they have never heard. Jesus’ command to go and make disciples would be less significant if salvation were possible apart from the proclamation of the Gospel. Inclusivism actually makes general revelation salvific in nature when the Bible never indicates that general revelation is able to lead to salvation. Romans 1 and Romans 2 both point to general revelation as important for the condemnation of all people, since people universally suppress the truth God has revealed about himself and his moral law, leaving unbelievers with no excuse.
On the more conservative end, proponents fail to incorporate the biblical teaching of conversion. Though they rightly recognize that salvation comes through faith in Christ, they minimize the transformative effects of that salvation. Salvation includes regeneration, which enables believers to turn from their sinful ways and turn to serve Christ alone. One of the evidences of regeneration is a rejection of false religion to embrace biblical Christianity. The proponents also distort the teaching of inspiration. The Bible claims inspiration for itself but does not extend that inspiration outside of itself. Any truth in other religions can be traced to general revelation and common grace rather than inspiration.
The final approach to world religions is exclusivism. This approach teaches that there is only one true religion and only one way of salvation. For a Christian, Christ is the only way of salvation and the Bible is the only source of saving revelation today. Other religions are sourced in man’s rebellion against God and/or demonic influence. Though other religions may have some truths in them, they are not saving truths. Exclusivism encourages proselytizing since it is the only hope for adherents of other religions to be saved.
This approach best lines up with the teachings of Scripture and of the beliefs held by the majority of Christians in church history. A potential danger in this approach is that one may develop an arrogant attitude that assumes possession of the truth entails superiority. However, a true understanding of salvation in Christianity minimizes this danger. Since the Bible teaches that salvation is a work of God graciously given to unworthy sinners, those who have been saved have no grounds for boasting. They do not have the truth because they have greater intelligence, morality, or wealth. Rather, they have the truth because they received grace and mercy and should desire to see others experience that same grace and mercy.
It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.
In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.
The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, the Gospel includes sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that Gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.
The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; etc.).
I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.
by Pearson Johnson
I read a very interesting article over at the Harvard Business Review blog called “The Dark Side of Charisma,” which provides some helpful insights from the secular world on the dangers of focusing on choosing or promoting people to leadership because of their charisma, or charm. These insights should be taken into consideration when choosing leaders in ministry as well.
In the article, the author notes:
There are only three ways to influence others: force, reason, or charm [charisma]. Whereas force and reason are rational (even when we are “forced” to do something, we obey for a good reason) charm is not. Charm is based on emotional manipulation and, as such, it has the ability to trump any rational assessment and bias our views. Charismatic leaders influence by charm rather than reason and when they run out of charm they tend to revert to force.
The author goes on to point out that charisma (1) dilutes judgment, in that the basis for leadership becomes emotional, rather than rational; (2) is addictive, as both to the leader and the followers crave more charisma and its effects, leading to delusion and imbalance; (3) disguises psychopaths, in that charm disguises very dangerous personal characteristics; and (4) fosters collective narcissism, promoting a cult-like following rather than a well studied group of followers (my summary).
God has given churches sufficient and vital resources to evaluate the leaders they choose. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, we are given a list of necessary qualities for church leaders which outline their character, competency, and conduct (as my pastor has outlined them in his recent Sunday night series, which I commend to you). So many churches focus on finding and promoting charismatic leaders while ignoring or assuming these significant lists of character-based and Spirit-based qualities. They do this to their peril, and even the world recognizes this. In all too many situations in local churches, lives have been manipulated, misguided, and ruined by personalities rather than shepherded toward the Person of Christ. Let’s be careful to avoid “The Dark Side of Charisma” and, instead, follow the light of God’s Word in identifying and promoting Godly and gifted leaders.
I have become [the church’s] servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people”—Colossians 1:25-26
Here I’ll make three observations on this text before turning to a broader reflection on biblical theology.
First, “mystery” at the beginning of v. 26 is in apposition to “the word of God” in v. 25. It is, in other words, further describing what that word is. Specifically, it’s something that had been hidden and was now revealed. Second, “the word of God” here probably refers to the gospel, which Paul has earlier described as “the word of truth” (Colossians 1:5, NASB) and will later call “the word of Christ” (Colossians 3:16, NASB). It’s also possible that the phrase refers to the OT, considering its use, e.g., in Romans 9:6 (“It’s not as though God’s word [cf. Romans 9:4-5] had failed”). A decision, in fact, isn’t all that necessary in light of the way Paul describes the gospel, e.g., in 1 Corinthians 15:3-58.: the gospel comprises events that transpired according to the Scriptures. It’s the sort of continuity we’d expect, since both were “spoken” by the same God (see, esp., Hebrews 1:1-2). Third, the phrase “to present to you the word of God in its fullness” in v. 25 gives the content of Paul’s commission. Moreover, the specific task Paul had been given is more formally rendered “to fulfill [πληρῶσαι] the word of God,” even while most English versions prefer something more like what the NIV has here (see, e.g., NASB’s “so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God,” emphasis original) based on the assumed equivalence of “word of God” with the gospel and the near-parallel in Romans 15:19 (“So from Jerusalem . . . to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed [πεπληρωκέναι] the gospel of Christ”). Considering the close relationship between this “word” and the OT—whether directly (“word of God” = OT) or indirectly (“word of God” = gospel, which is in accord with the OT), it’s just possible, it seems to me, that Paul meant “fulfill” in a more overtly eschatological sense: Paul’s commission was to bring about or to completion God’s word/promise.
The implications of this text for biblical theology should be fairly clear already. Let me offer the more plausible version first. Paul says that his commission was to proclaim a message (i.e., the gospel), which was a mystery, one that had been hidden but was now revealed. Elsewhere (1 Corinthians 15:3-58.), Paul says this same message was in accord with the OT. Thus, Paul’s gospel was simultaneously hidden before Christ’s advent (i.e., before the “disclos[ure] to the Lord’s people”) and in accordance with the OT. Or, Paul says that his commission was to fulfill the OT, specifically a mystery, one that had been hidden—ostensibly in the OT—and only now revealed. Again, I suspect the former reading is the more likely, even while both lead to the same conclusion: what God did in Christ was anticipated in the OT, even though it was hidden until Christ’s advent. This, of course, corresponds with what Paul says, e.g., in Romans 16:25-26, where he notes that not only was his gospel previously hidden and only now revealed but also that it was revealed through the prophetic Scriptures (γραφῶν προφητικῶν). It had been, in other words, “hidden in plain view” until the Christian era. Both texts underscore, therefore, just how difficult it is summarize Paul’s hermeneutic and, more broadly, the relationship between the testaments with only one label, whether continuity (i.e., “according to the Scriptures”) or discontinuity (hidden/revealed), which probably explains why Paul often concludes these sorts of reflections marveling at God’s manifold wisdom (see, e.g., Romans 16:26; Romans 11:33-36; cf. also Ephesians 3:10).
Theologically Driven features insight on Scripture, the church, and contemporary culture from faculty and staff at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. DBTS has faithfully prepared men for gospel ministry since its founding in 1976. As a ministry of the Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan, it provides graduate level training with a balance between strong academics and a heart for local church ministry.
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Pearson Johnson, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Bob McCabe, Professor of Old Testament
Mark Snoeberger, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
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