Who can be saved?

Something Christians don’t pause to consider enough is what the Bible does and does not say. An obvious example is “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” This sounds biblical, but it’s found nowhere in the pages of scripture.

Most other examples are not as obvious. Terry Tiessen, professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics here at Providence Seminary, wrote an interesting post about why there are so many differing conclusions about scripture when most of those conclusions are arrived at by a similar method of interpretation.

His post deals in particular with the question of who can be saved (about which he has published a book through IVP). Tiessen is an accessibilist. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it is essentially the same as inclusivism (but Tiessen does not like that term). It has something to do with the wideness of God’s salvation (vs. exclusivism) in terms of an individual’s context and level of received revelation (he is not a universalist).

Anyway, he had this to say about what the Bible does and does not say about who can be saved:

I find no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, nor any that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. Although gospel exclusivists cite numerous texts which appear to them to affirm explicitly what they assert, four problems are common in their interpretation of these texts: first, texts asserting the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour are read as assertions that knowledge of Christ is necessary to benefit from his saving work (eg. Acts 4:12); second, texts asserting the saving efficacy of belief in Jesus are read as assertions that only such fully informed faith can save (e.g. the citation of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:13); third, Scripture is clear that all who believe in Jesus are saved and that all who reject Jesus remain condemned. But it is often not observed that texts which speak of not believing (i.e. rejecting) Jesus are in contexts where knowledge of him is assumed, and so these cannot be extended to refer to the unevangelized (e.g., Jn 3:16-18); and fourth, the context of texts is ignored, as in Romans 10, where Paul rejects, as a possible explanation for widespread unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, that Jews were ignorant of him. So, this much cited text is not speaking of the unevangelized, though it does state clearly the necessity of revelation for saving faith.

I posit that this absence of texts explicitly stating gospel exclusivism is probably the main reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among evangelicals these days.

(Read the whole post here.)

2 thoughts on “Who can be saved?

  1. Terrance Tiessen


    You discern rightly that I use the term “accessibilism” with essentially the same meaning commonly given to “inclusivism,” but I prefer the term. If you wonder about something like this re: a term in my blog, I recommend the Glossary accessible through the tab at top.

  2. Chris Wettstein

    The question “Who can be saved?” is somewhat confusing. All evangelical and Reformed people would affirm that anyone CAN be saved. “…Whosoever believes in Christ will be saved” (John 3:16). The real crux questions between “exclusivism” vs. “inclusivism” = “How DOES God save people?” and “Who does God promise to save?”

    Tiessen’s article does shed light on why “agnosticism” is a popular option for this topic. Indeed, contextual limitations regarding “gospel exclusivist proof texts” should make us cautious about putting too much weight on these particular passages alone. No one should simply assume “inclusivism” or “exclusivism” based on a small handful of texts alone, without considering the context of these passages and the overall teaching of Scripture.

    However, as Tiessen goes on to argue, “agnosticism” is not necessarily the most biblical position on this topic. Tiessen himself comes to his views based on his overall reading of Scripture, and in his article he especially asserts a particular perspective of “covenantal meta-narrative” which bolsters his position. Others may come to other views, based on their overall reading of Scripture, especially based on their systematic understanding of the biblical covenants, their view of human depravity, their view of God’s electing grace, etc.

    I totally agree that we should ask “What does Scripture directly say” and also “What does Scripture NOT directly say,” and also: “What does Scripture imply by its overall teaching?” All of these are good questions. Tiessen is very good at getting us to ask all of these questions, and spurring us on to be consistent in our thoughts.

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