Four Years and Counting, Dr. Sanders...

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In July of 2001 I wrote John Sanders, professor of philosophy at Huntington College and Seminary (the denominational school of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, the denomination within which I was then serving), an open letter criticizing his teaching on "Inclusivism."

In 2002 we left the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, closing Springfield United Brethren Church, giving our building to the denomination, and forming a PCA church. Early this year Sanders also moved on from Huntington College.

Neither of us is where we were four years ago. I know that we rejoice in God's work in our lives since then. I'm not sure where Dr. Sanders is or what his current circumstances are.

I do know, however, that to this day Dr. Sanders has not deigned to address one word of response to my open letter.

So, I present it again here. I do so, in part, because it's my conviction that the most wicked teaching of those within the Open Theism camp is the diminution of the work and person of Jesus Christ implicit in the Inclusivism of John Sanders and several other prominent Open Theists.

Not all advocates of Open Theism promote inclusivism. But I am convinced that the logic of Open Theism, with its emphasis on human choice, leads directly to a faulty view of the atonement, from penal substitutionary atonement to governmental (at best) and more often a moral influence view of the atonement. And once the atonement is lost, all orthodoxy quickly follows.

So, again, if you're out there Dr. Sanders, four years and counting on the questions I put to you when you were a professor at Huntington College....

Dr. John Sanders
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Huntington College
2303 College Avenue
Huntington, IN 46750

Dear Dr. Sanders:

Though others have addressed your writings on the atonement in greater depth and with greater scholarly knowledge than I possess, I would like to address you openly as a pastor of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ on the implications for pastors and churches of the position on the atonement of Christ you promote through your writing and teaching.

The "inclusivist" position on the atonement of Christ that you advance in your books What About Those Who Have Never Heard and No Other Name is essentially a position which says that all are included in the saving grace of God. You are careful to distinguish your position from universalism, but in practice it is hard to see how your view of the atonement actually permits men and women to end up excluded from heaven. Theoretically you affirm the necessity of Christ to salvation. Theoretically you admit that some men, at least, will go to hell. Practically, your position seems to lead to the opposite conclusion.

Why do I say this? Because of the following key points that you make in your writings:

1) There is no logical or theological necessity to God's plan of salvation through the Cross of Christ.

The atonement could, I suppose, have been accomplished in a variety of ways had God so desired. But God decided to accomplish his purposes through the work of the Son in Jesus. (Never Heard, p. 24)

It is significant that you view God's plan of redemption through the cross of Christ as merely one among many ways God could have chosen to save the human race. You accept that God chose this method, you agree that this is the way we must obtain salvation, yet you maintain that He could have chosen other means of atoning for human sin. The atonement, you say, "could . . . have been accomplished in a variety of ways."

When you view the death of Jesus as just one among many ways God could have chosen to redeem mankind, it makes sense for you to suggest that people may come to heaven outside of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. God made the rules, God applies them as He sees fit, some will come to heaven through explicit faith in Christ, others will come to heaven outside Christ (as "believers," not "Christians").

This casual view of the necessity of the cross is far from the teaching of Scripture. What loving Father would doom His Son to die as the ransom and propitiation for human sin had there been any other means of atoning for that sin? When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night of His betrayal, "Take this cup from me," what loving Father would leave His Son in such agony, sweating drops of blood, when some other means of atonement would work equally well? What Father would forsake His Son as He lay dying had there been any other means of atoning for human sin?

You seem to view the atonement as a game in which God has established the rules. There's no divine principle of necessity or logic to those rules, they're simply what God has decided upon. If you are right in this, then God can indeed alter the rules to provide other means for the salvation of mankind than the path of faith in the cross of Jesus laid out in Scripture. If, however, you are wrong, and there is no other means of salvation in the economy of God than inclusion by faith in the death of Jesus in this life, then salvation is much more narrowly defined and obtained than you propose.

This is really the essence of the argument. You suggest there is no divine imperative to Christ's incarnation and death. The Bible teaches there is. Your position assumes that there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of God that would prohibit Him from making do, for instance, with the blood of bulls and lambs for mankind's atonement. Yet God says in His Word that such sacrifices could never take away the sin of mankind (Hebrews 10:1-4).

In fact, we know from Scripture that the justice of God demands atonement for sin by the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). If animal blood will not suffice, being neither holy nor equal in value to the blood of man in the sight of God, who remains to shed his blood for man? A perfect man? What descendant of Adam is perfect? Moreover, even a perfect man would not possess the infinite righteousness necessary to take away the sins of the world. Angels? The saints will rule over angels in eternity. How can the lesser redeem the greater?

By suggesting that salvation could have come from elsewhere than the cross of Christ you have struck at the heart of the Christian doctrine of atonement. This is an amazing departure from orthodoxy and a terrible slight to the atoning work of Christ.

Why is the cross of Christ so central to the entire story of the New Testament if it was optional, if there were any other means of redemption by which God could have saved us? Every pastor encounters people who object to the bloody death of the Son of God on Calvary, men and women who do not want to worship such an austere and forbidding Father, men and women who reject as wicked a God who would arbitrarily sacrifice His own Son Who had committed no sin. Dr. Sanders, what do you suggest we say to individuals who are scandalized by the cross if it was not absolutely necessary?

2) God's saving grace is universally applied.

The God of the Bible is utterly amazing: he includes all in his grace and excludes in judgment only those who spurn that grace. God has already accepted all people prior to any response on our part, but not all accept his acceptance. The saved respond in faith to the manifold graces of God, while the damned reject them. Because of the work of Christ, God accepts all. Only those who decline to accept God's grace are rejected. (Never Heard, p. 32)

This view of the atonement simply does not do justice to scriptural teaching on mankind's sinful condition. The idea that mankind starts out in the kingdom of heaven, and only loses his place by obstinately throwing off the grace of God defies every scriptural description of the status of man outside Christ. Where is sin's curse? How has the road that Jesus described as narrow become broad?

What are we to make of the gravity of sin if this is truly the system of atonement God has established? The Bible teaches that sin separates us from God. Without Christ we are dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1). Outside Christ we are without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). Yet you say we begin life accepted by God because of the work of Christ. According to your view the broad and easy path that many are traveling is the path of life, not the path that leads to destruction. Everyone starts out inside. Only by persistence in rejecting the grace of God do we end up outside.

Why is the New Testament message of the Gospel routinely a call to repentance if mankind's default position in the grace of God is acceptance and salvation? Surely it makes no sense for Jesus and John the Baptist and Paul and Peter and so many others to routinely preach repentance--a change of heart and action--if mankind starts out in the kingdom of heaven. Repentance for most of mankind would thus mean leaving salvation, turning away from God, rejecting Divine grace if all start out included in God's kingdom.

Are we to preach repentance to our people, Dr. Sanders? Doesn't repentance assume that mankind starts off outside the grace of God? If mankind starts out in the kingdom, as you suggest, perhaps by preaching repentance we drive out those who are already inside the kingdom.

3) Faith need not be in Christ to be saving faith.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis agreed with these sentiments. He thought that those who commit themselves in trust to that which lies behind all truth and goodness will be saved even if they are ignorant of Jesus. "There are," he said, "people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it." Elsewhere he wrote: "I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think that they know him. (Never Heard, p. 45)

Your argument, stripped to its essence, is that any acknowledgment of God (or a "god") can be sufficient to bring salvation. Elsewhere you say in your own words,

Believers such as Abraham were "informationally B.C.", yet God accepted their faithful response. Today's unevangelized remain informationally B.C., and they may still come to faith in God through His witness in creation and His providential dealings with them. (Never Heard, p.44)


The unevangelized may be reconciled to God on the basis of the work of Christ even though they are ignorant of Jesus. I classify these people as 'believers' in God, while those who know about Jesus and exercise faith in God are called 'Christians.' Despite this distinction, there is continuity between believers and Christians. . . . (Never Heard, p. 38)

and finally, making very clear that you do not rule out other religions as paths to redemption,

The final theological argument in support of inclusivism draws on the previous arguments and applies them to the real-life situations in which the unevangelized find themselves--participants in religions other than Christianity. No one supposes that the unevangelized are devoid of religious practice or worship; the question is whether God is at work redemptively with such people. Inclusivists argue both theologically and anthropologically that God is at work redemptively in the lives of all people. (No Other Name, p. 241)

This sounds so logical initially. Yes! We're all pursuing the same God. We may not know Him by the same name, but He's the same God. We see His hand in creation, in the stars and moon, and we worship Him as Creator. So too do others, only they don't know His name as we do.

The logic of this proposition seems borne out in many ways upon first examination. For instance, all through history men have visited high places to worship their gods. The Jews went to Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In Tibetan highlands today, you'll find high on the mountainsides little shrines and alcoves where prayer wheels have been placed. In the Alps you run across shrines high on the sides of mountains. In Peru, excavations have recently uncovered Inca sacrificial sites high up on the Andean mountainsides. In Mexico, the Aztecs built pyramids to their gods and worshipped atop those pyramids.

Aren't those who worship God from the tops of mountains all seeking the same God? Isn't this an indication of a universal human knowledge of God, and a sign that those who are not part of the Church and do not know the specifically Christian message of Christ still have hope because of their pursuit of God?

The problem with this thinking shows up in the attitude of the "B.C." God of the Old Testament towards such high places. What were God's feelings towards worship on the other mountains, high places other than His holy Mountain in Jerusalem?

These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess--as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. (Deuteronomy 12:1-3)

The other high places of Scripture are places of shame and idolatry. Can God be glorified and honored at an Inca high place, where the bones that the archaeologists find are not bones of lambs and bulls, but bones from human sacrifices? Can God be pleased by the worship of the Aztecs who took their human victims to the top of their pyramids in order to rip their beating hearts out of their chests and eat them while the victims lay dying before them?

Is God found in the temples of Greece with their cultic prostitution and sexual profligacy, or in the temples of Dionysus or Bacchus, the gods of pleasure and drunkenness? What about the worship of Hindus today who still make it out that cows are divine? Or the worship of Buddhists who proclaim man God? Is there no such thing as idolatry? Where does worshipping the true God in ignorance stop and idolatry begin? How do you define idolatry?

You suggest that we can come to God through some other means than the Person of Christ despite His Father's ironclad insistence that the Israelites not worship Him in any high place but the one He established in Jerusalem. Where does this leave idolatry? A valid faith so anonymous and ill-defined makes it impossible to conceive of idolatry as an ongoing reality. Idolatry becomes merely nascent faith rather than the blasphemous rejection of God Scripture describes it as.

Is idolatry a modern reality, Dr. Sanders? Are there such things as false gods? Does every road lead to Rome when it comes to worship? How are we to distinguish between true worship of God and idolatry? Is it possible that a person who has never heard of Christ can come to the Father through worship that would include child sacrifice? Ritual prostitution? Intoxication? If we can't simply judge on the basis of the name of the god (or God) being worshipped, what other logical standard is there by which we may distinguish true faith from idolatry?

4) It is possible to possess saving faith in the absence of factual knowledge.

Some Christians maintain that only a full knowledge of the life and atoning work of Jesus can save. But is it really knowledge that saves us, or is it God? God is the one who saves, and he does this despite people's varying theological understandings. (Never Heard, p. 36)

You raise a straw man here only to shoot him down. Name these "Christians" who maintain that knowledge saves. Scripture is clear, "Knowledge puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1), it does not save. Indeed, according to James, demons possess complete knowledge: they believe--and shudder (James 2:19).

You're engaging in theological sleight-of-hand by speaking of knowledge leading to salvation. The Bible teaches we are saved by faith, not knowledge. No one will disagree with your statement as you've framed it, but substitute the scriptural requirement of faith where you've used the word knowledge and suddenly your point looks much weaker:

Some Christians maintain that only faith in the life and atoning work of Jesus can save. But is it really faith that saves us, or is it God? God is the one who saves, and he does this despite people's faith in Christ.

Aha! Now your game becomes more clear. Yes, God saves, but He has made faith the means by which we obtain salvation. You would have us claim the promise while disdaining the means God has ordained for obtaining that promise.

Yet despite our insistence that faith is more than knowledge, we must also say very clearly that faith begins in knowledge. Paul writes by the Spirit, "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14)

Faith begins with knowledge, and not just fuzzy and amorphous knowledge, but specific, definite knowledge. Indeed Scripture is quite willing to discriminate between true and false faith. Peter introduces his second epistle this way: "Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ." False faith is only possible in the presence of false knowledge. You cannot have false faith if faith is not tied to propositional truth: true faith requires true knowledge.

If faith does not require knowledge, Dr. Sanders, what is faith? How do you define it?

5) Man may be reconciled to God by the work of Christ--apart from a personal relationship to Christ which avails him of His mediatorial offices.

Salvation for the unevangelized is made possible only by the redemptive work of Jesus, but God applies that work even to those who are ignorant of the atonement. God does this if people respond in trusting faith to the revelation they have. In other words, unevangelized persons may be saved on the basis of Christ's work if they respond in faith to the God who created them." (Never Heard, p. 36) (emphasis added)

This view reduces the Son's mediatorial role to a fiction. How does the Son mediate for us when we have direct access to the Father (as per your view)? What does Paul mean when he writes, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus," (1 Timothy 2:5) if not that Christ is the only way to the Father?

Scripture teaches that we cannot come to the Father except through the Son: the eyes of God are too pure to look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13), therefore we must be washed by the blood of Christ if we are to appear before the Father. Yet you suggest that man may come to the Father on his own, and that if he does, the Father will take of His Son's righteousness and give it to the sinner without that sinner knowing where that righteousness came from or how he received it.

By arguing that believers are saved without knowledge of Christ, inclusivists imply that the unevangelized 'may receive a gift without knowing from whom it comes or how much it has cost. ' Children who believe they are receiving gifts from Santa Claus can enjoy them even though ignorant of the true giver. And, just as we hope they grow up to know the real giver, inclusivists express the hope that believers will come to know the source of their salvation--Jesus Christ." (No Other Name, p. 232)

This is a tragic reversal of Scriptural truth. You have taken Christ's statement, "No man cometh to the Father but by Me," (John 14:6) and have turned it on its head. Now, men come to the Son by the Father.

Dr. Sanders, how does sinful man come to the Father except through the person of His Son? Why does the Bible insist that there is only one mediator between God and man if, in fact, man needs no mediator to come to the Father as you suggest?

Perhaps a word about theological language is necessary in conclusion. As I read your writing it often seems to me that though the terms we use are identical, we are actually speaking two distinct languages. For instance, you affirm "the finality and particularity of salvation in Jesus" (Never Heard, p.13), and you define "particularity" as "the affirmation that Jesus is the only Savior," (Never Heard, p.11). Yet despite employing such words, you would permit a follower of a false religion to come to Jesus in eternity after living by faith in a false god in this life.

When I speak of the finality and particularity of salvation in Jesus and say that Jesus is mankind's only Savior, I'm speaking of finality and particularity in this life. You're not. You're speaking of eternity. Until eternity Jesus is clearly not finally or particularly necessary in your view despite your affirmation that, "Jesus is the only Savior."

This kind of semantic difficulty is rife throughout your writing. You utilize numerous classic theological terms such as depravity, mediator, substitutionary atonement, vicarious, etc., yet when you use such words--even claim to adhere to such positions--you frequently mean by them something quite foreign to the classic Evangelical Protestant understanding of these terms.

Dr. Sanders, having carefully read your writing for many months now, I am well aware that you are neither lexically challenged nor theologically inept. Thus, I am increasingly convinced that your misuse of these words is a calculated and purposeful attempt to mislead those less skilled than you rhetorically by carefully masking your true theological commitments. You have the words of orthodoxy but not the meaning, the outward appearance but not the heart.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, "To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence." I fear I must conclude that this approach seems to characterize your teaching.

Nor can we minimize the blameworthiness of such teaching by reassuring ourselves that little is ultimately at stake. No principle of theology is more precious to believers than the atonement of Christ which you seek to utterly redefine by denying Christ as mediator, by separating saving faith from explicit belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by proclaiming a salvific grace extended to all men from the outset of life by the Father, and by denying the necessity of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ in this life as a prerequisite of eternal life.

No matter how sincerely you hold to these beliefs they are wrong. May God grant you grace to understand and repent of your error.

Sincerely in Christ,

David J. Bayly
Senior Pastor