Inclusivism is the position that Jesus' atoning work on the cross provided salvation for some people who do not overtly believe in Jesus, whereas exclusivism is the position that personal faith in Jesus is the only means by which to appropriate salvation.
Inclusivism is becoming more popular in western Christian circles. The teaching is that salvation is on the basis of Jesus' work on the cross but that a person does not have to explicitly believe the gospel in order to be saved. For example, inclusivists teach that some people may be saved by responding to God's revelation in creation or through parallel truths in non-Christian religions.
Inclusivists still believe that everyone who will be saved will be saved by Jesus Christ, but there may be some who do not put their faith in Jesus as Savior yet are saved by Him. These are sometimes known as "anonymous Christians." The inclusivist view is usually based on philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Inclusivists usually raise the issue of those who have never heard the gospel, infants, the mentally handicapped, and others who cannot make a rational choice to accept or reject Christ.
Exclusivism holds that personal faith in Jesus is the only way to heaven and eternal life with God.
Exclusivists say that positive responses to God's creation, adhering to truths shared by other religions that equate to biblical living or truth, or any other good choice or moral living is not enough for salvation according to the Bible. They point to many passages of Scripture to support their view, including John 3:16–18, Romans 10:13–15, and John 14:6 which states: "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"
In a straightforward reading, the Bible appears to teach exclusivism. However, there may be some exceptions to the general principle. For example, the death of an infant or young child. Second Samuel 12:23 tells us that King David's infant went to heaven. Isaiah 7:15–16 seems to establish that there is a time in a young person's life when they are able to determine right from wrong. So, do these indicate that inclusivism is correct?
These exceptions are proofs of God's mercy, not an open door to multiple routes to salvation. A clear reading of all Scripture tells us that a personal, professed faith in Jesus Christ is required for salvation for all people who are able to trust the gospel and believe. Now, though it appears to most historical Christians and orthodox Christians that the Bible is clear in teaching only one way to God, that doesn't mean that everyone who does not hear the gospel is condemned to spend eternity separated from God. People who do not have any opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel will be judged, but on the basis of their response to the general revelation of God's goodness and His moral law written on every heart (Romans 1), not for rejection of Jesus of whom they have never heard.
Christians of each persuasion, though, agree that God will judge everyone with fairness and no one will have grounds to complain they did not have a chance to respond to Him properly.
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