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Tuesday, March 15, 2011 

The Holy Spirit and the Exclusivity of the Gospel

Unless you have been away from the Christian blogosphere for the last month, you are probably aware of the rampant controversy surrounding Rob Bell's most recent book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which was released today. In response to the book, which seems to advocate for inclusivism or even universalism in regards to the salvation of those who do not actively place their faith in Jesus Christ, it seems appropriate to consider the historic, orthodox position of the Church - exclusivism.

According to Theopedia, exclusivism "refers to the fact that orthodox Christian doctrine maintains only faith in the Jesus Christ of the Bible leads to salvation or heaven. Christianity is exclusive in that its teachings indicate that the faith of other sects or religions will not lead to eternal life; or in other words, that Jesus Christ is the only true way to God."

Exclusivism is a doctrine that has no shortage of credible defenses. It is not my goal to rehash the numerous arguments that have been made which seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bible teaches an exclusive position on salvation. Instead, I want to point out one specific argument that is rarely considered, but is significant because of its Trinitarian focus.

Very often the contemporary Evangelical Church speaks of salvation only in terms of the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is said to have propitiated the wrath of God through His substitutionary work on the Cross. Every once in a while, you might actually hear talk of Christ's active obedience in securing the perfect righteousness which is imputed to us (credited to our account). But much less often do we speak of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

So what exactly is the Spirit's role in redemption? Well, first we must recognize that the Spirit has placed Himself in subjection to both the Father and the Son. John tells us that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and by the Son in the name of the Son and that He does whatever He is told to do and says whatever He is told to say. In this way, the Holy Spirit acts as a sort of ambassador for the King and His Son. He is co-equal with these Regents, but His role is to work in the world. And as an ambassador, it is His job to point back to Those from whom He is sent, namely the Father and Son. Regarding the Spirit's work, Jesus says:
And when [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:8-15, ESV).

Here Jesus says several things about the work of the Spirit in salvation. First, He convicts of sin. This is the first action wrought in the believer. Salvation does not come without conviction of sin. Those who are poor in spirit understand that conviction. And notice that the sin directly relates to their unbelief in Christ. So not only does the believer get convicted of sin, but of unbelief in Christ. Then the Holy Spirit guides the believer into truth and glorifies Christ. Finally, He discloses the Father's will and Christ's words and deeds to the believer so that He might be sanctified, another act of the Holy Spirit.

Now, those who believe in a salvation for people who do not confess Christ as Lord, they have no outs here. There is nothing in this text or any other that suggest that the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and glorifies God without glorifying Christ. Both Father and Son are uplifted by the Spirit. Further, the Spirit brings life. He is the one who applies the work of salvation to the believer. Thus He only applies it by means of the formula given by Peter in Acts 2:38, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (ESV). The Holy Spirit can only apply the work of salvation to those who by faith acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. Otherwise, He would be working outside of His jurisdiction and thus be making Christ a liar and usurping His subordinate role. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit would be denying Christ His due glory -- the glory due His name, the name at which all men will bow.

So, what we have here is a thoroughly Biblical argument which once again ends in the exclusivity of the Gospel call. No one can be saved apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. No one can inherit eternal life without the righteousness of Christ. And the Holy Spirit cannot give anyone that righteousness anonymously. He must do it as every good ambassador does, by means of His King, the One who sent Him. In this case, it is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

As Rob Bell's book appears, let's pray that the Holy Spirit continues to glorify Christ by reminding us of the truth that He has communicated for 2000 years - the truth that He inspired Peter to communicate in Acts 4:12:

...there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Well Said D.R. Thank you for your insights and defense of Biblical theology.

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Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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