Those Who Do Not Obey the Good News of Our Lord Yeshua

Does the New Testament limit inclusion in the life to come to those who profess faith in the person and work of Yeshua? Those who would answer yes to this question might be termed restrictivists. Those who would answer no might be termed inclusivists.[1]

The way I see the New Testament doctrine of salvation is simple. There is something separating us from God, something Yeshua did made it possible to reverse the separation, and something we do makes Yeshua’s sacrifice effective for us. I think we must believe in the person and work of Yeshua for his sacrifice to be effective for us. Inclusivists think that the content of faith might be much smaller-infinitesimal perhaps.

John Sanders: Proponent of Inclusivism

John Sanders is a leading evangelical proponent of inclusivism. He defines his position as follows: “According to the inclusivist view, the Father reaches out to the unevangelized through both the Son and the Spirit via general revelation, the conscience and human culture.”[2]  Specific knowledge of Yeshua’s person and work are not necessary. It is not even clear if a knowledge of the God of Israel or even of a personal God is necessary in Sanders’ view. To better understand why Sanders believes this, I will summarize his arguments in favor of inclusivism.

First, Sanders finds no teaching of Yeshua that restricts salvation to those who believe the good news. Even teachings of Yeshua that appear to restrict salvation to the few are actually teaching the opposite. For example, the parable of the King’s son in Matthew 22 seems to express a doctrine of fewness but is really about reversal.[3]

In examining the parable, Sanders first notes that all were invited before some were excluded. Invitation before exclusion becomes a soteriological principle for Sanders: “[H]e includes all in his grace and excludes in judgment only those who spurn that grace.”[4] For Sanders, all are included and only face exclusion if there is a particular act of rejecting God’s grace.

Further, Sanders uses the parable of the King’s son as a paradigm for understanding the “narrow” sayings of Yeshua. The doctrine of the narrow way is not a comparative statement about how many will be saved versus lost. Rather, such statements tend to come in contexts where Yeshua was opposing the religious establishment. Yeshua was speaking hyperbolically to his Israel to challenge the self-assured and give hope to the hopeless. “Many are called but few are chosen” is Yeshua’s way of saying, “Don’t be so sure you are in and that the people you look down on are out.”

A key to Sander’s position is his definition of faith: “faith involves three elements: truth, trust, and effective action.”[5] Sanders denies that the truth must come from special revelation. The trust need not be specifically in the doctrine of atonement. He cites the early twentieth century theologian, J. Gresham Machen as saying, “No one knows how little a person can believe and still be saved.”[6] Faith is not some form of gnosticism, where a specific content of knowledge is required. Knowledge of the person and work of Yeshua is not a requirement for biblical faith.

Sanders uses the example of pre-Messianic believers to illustrate that faith need not be explicitly in Yeshua’s person and work. He quite reasonably asserts that the pre-Messianic believers, such as Abraham, had no knowledge of the person or work of Yeshua. Today’s unevangelized can be in the same position as Abraham, people of faith without specific knowledge of Yeshua.[7]

Sanders asserts that the Spirit can use general revelation to save.[8] He rejects the idea that general revelation has enough information to condemn, but not enough to save. It is God who saves and condemns, not revelation. Therefore, we cannot say categorically that God will not use general revelation. He gives examples from the work of Don Richardson’s Eternity in Their Hearts of people-groups prepared for the gospel by general revelation. It is faith that saves, but the content of that faith is not defined. For Sanders it can include any trust in God. He is not clear if pantheistic and animistic versions of deity would count.

When it comes to Romans 1-3, a section of the New Testament which many would use to support a restrictivist view of salvation, Sanders argues it means just the opposite.[9] At issue in Romans 1-3 is not some fictional Jewish legalism (we are saved by keeping Torah) but a covenantal nomism (we were chosen to be saved from among the peoples and Torah is how we identify with our people and covenant). That is, Jews in Paul’s day saw all Israel as saved and viewed Torah as the set of boundary markers that an individual used to include himself in Israel. Yet Paul rejects these boundary markers as requirements for salvation. In this way, Paul’s argument is inclusivist, since only faith is an appropriate boundary marker.[10]

Sanders reads Romans 1-3 as an extended treatise against Jewish exclusivism, concluding that Jew and Gentile are in the same situation with regard to God and salvation.[11] Paul’s references to the instinctive knowledge of the law by Gentiles are taken as indications that general revelation can save. For instance, Sanders says, “The faith principle allows Paul to say that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith regardless of what revelation they have.”[12]

In all of this, Sanders is guided by several principles. He acknowledges that Yeshua is the only savior. He also acknowledges that God desires to save all and cites many verses on the universal nature of God’s love (Jn. 12:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) and the universal atonement of Yeshua’s sacrifice (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Jn. 2:2). God is best seen as the father in the parable of the Lost Son, who runs to his sinful son to receive him.[13]

Problems with Sanders’ Presentation

First, Sanders is too quick to dismiss the idea that Yeshua taught a restricted salvation. Sanders neglects the sayings in John, where soteriology is much more explicit. In John 5:24, Yeshua taught his disciples the importance of believing in him, that he is sent from God. Yeshua said this faith gives life and saves from judgment. A few verses later he bases inclusion in the coming resurrection on the same faith.

Second, Sanders cannot really maintain that the New Testament teaches that all are included in God’s grace until they reject it. The scriptural order is just the opposite. We are all lost until we receive God’s unmerited favor. John 3:18 says if we do not believe we are condemned already and 3:36 says we have no life and face God’s wrath.

Third, Sanders’ definition of faith is deficient. Faith does have content and this is not a gnostic way of viewing faith. For example, Yeshua puts content into the faith he urges on his disciples. They must believe that Yeshua is sent from God. In other texts, people are enjoined to believe the good news, which Paul defines as the message of Yeshua’s death and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. John’s favored expression is that we must believe in the name of the Son, which certainly is not vague faith in a deity revealed by general revelation.

Fourth, Sanders’ argument from the example of pre-Messianic believers is based on a chain of assumptions. Most problematically, Sanders assumes that if pre-Messianic believers needed only a general faith in God or his promises, it would be unjust of God to require more specific faith now. Would it not be equally reasonable, and more compatible with other texts, to assume that anyone who has the kind of faith Abraham had will be given knowledge of the good news by the limitless God? That is, the existence of a person who has the faith of Abraham yet does not know of Yeshua may be a myth. In his justice, it is reasonable that God will bring the good news to such a person. This is at least equally reasonable to the idea God will save such a person without Yeshua-faith and it has the advantage of being compatible with other texts.[14]

Finally, Romans 1-3 may not clearly state the eternal demise of those who lack faith, but neither does it promote inclusivism as Sanders suggests. Sanders’ model for understanding Paul is based on the work of another Sanders, namely E.P. Sanders who famously helped Christian scholarship move beyond Lutheran readings of Paul. Yet covenantal nomism may not be the most accurate understanding of Israel’s view of salvation in Paul’s time. Be that as it may, Paul’s argument that Gentiles are equally damnable and savable to Jews is no argument for inclusivism.

On the contrary, Paul argues that it takes something significant to be saved. It is those who persevere in doing good who are saved (2:7) while those who do not obey God will face wrath (2:8). While it is possible to read Paul here as upholding human goodness as a basis for salvation, it is better to understand contextually that doing good means a response to God’s revealed will. In any case, when Paul speaks of salvation in Romans 3, he promises it only to those who believe (3:22).

The inclusivist position sounds wonderful. It may be that we do not understand God’s justice. We may wish to widen hope with our own easier standards. But we do not have the option of choosing. God is God and we must believe what he tells us. Who are we to argue with him?

A Closer Look at Some Restrictivist Texts

Are there some texts in the Bible which indicate a coming judgment for those who do not believe the good news about Yeshua? In fact, there are. Two passages in Paul’s writings are particularly clear about two things: people will face judgment in the coming age and faith in the good news is the way to avoid that judgment.

First, consider Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in whose congregations lasciviousness was too easily tolerated:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11, ESV).

It might be argued that “inherit the kingdom” means something other than inclusion in the life to come, but 1 Corinthians 15:50 adds weight to reading the phrase in that way. Also, Paul does not explicitly mention faith in this passage. Yet, it is clear that: (a) the Corinthians were once to be excluded from the kingdom but are now to be included and (b) that the reason the Corinthians are now included is that they have been justified in or by the name of Yeshua. It is unlikely that the justification the Corinthians received was part of some universal justification in light of the rest of New Testament teaching. Further, it may be more than a hint when Paul says their justification came in or by the name of Yeshua. That is, one strong possible reading is that the Corinthians named Yeshua and that is the basis for their justification.

A clearer text about exclusion for those who do not believe the good news is in 2 Thessalonians:

…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess. 2:6-9, ESV).

The Thessalonian believers are struggling with persecution. Paul comforts them with a declaration of divine justice. Yeshua will return and dole out punishment to those who do not know God. The group to be judged is further qualified as those who do not obey the good news of Yeshua. These terms do not seem to merely describe persecutors. Rather, Paul’s language would seem to include people simply ignorant of God and who do not follow the message of Yeshua’s sacrifice and resurrection. Further, the punishment they will face is not merely temporal, but is in the life to come.

More Restrictivist Texts

There are other texts which suggest a restricted salvation in the New Testament. In the first place, there are numerous texts which list belief in the good news as the basis for salvation, texts such as Romans 3:22. An inclusivist might be able to say that these texts do not intend to limit salvation to those who believe, but merely affirm it for those who do believe. That is well and good, but neither do these texts offer any other hope.

Then there are the Johannine texts which make belief a requirement for life, such as John 3:18 and 1 John 5:12 which declare that those without faith are presently condemned or spiritually dead. Others like John 3:36 say that those who do not obey the Son have wrath instead of life. John 5:20-29 declares that participation in the resurrection depends on believing Yeshua’s teaching. 1 John 2:23 says that to deny the Son is to deny the Father. And finally, John 20:30-31 promises life only for those who believe.

I would be remiss to omit a classic text, Romans 10:9-10, where confession of Yeshua as Lord is the condition of salvation. Paul says it is with the heart that we believe and by our verbal confession that we are saved. I doubt these words could be construed in any way compatible with the idea that our faith needs no content.


Is it hard to love a God who condemns? If so, we are in trouble before we even get to the New Testament. The God of Abraham destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and even turned Lot’s wife to salt. He destroyed the world with a flood and condemned the Amalekites and Canaanites to total destruction. God is wrathful as well as merciful. I accept this without question.

{josquote}I think it is simpler to trust in his justice. {/josquote}

Is it necessary to interpret the Bible’s teaching about salvation in an extreme manner to salvage God’s justice? I think it is simpler to trust in his justice. Even with my limited mind I can think of ways that God will show us his justice in retribution. I can imagine that we will find all the imaginary problems dissolve when we hear the judgments pronounced. I surmise that no one will have a valid excuse and that all will have had access to the good news in some way. The facts that the message of Yeshua has been limited to certain places and times seems a problem to us, but I trust that God has not condemned anyone arbitrarily.

Can I say for certain that persuading people to believe in Yeshua now is their only chance? I have to admit a little uncertainty here. I know of no other hope. The New Testament does not present one. Yet there are possible scenarios. Might God reveal himself to people at the moment of death, or at least to people who responded to general revelation? Might God have other ways? Who am I to say?

But I can say that wholesale inclusivism is an unbalanced reading of the New Testament. I trust God to handle the cases not explained in its sacred pages. I trust God to be merciful and I know he will not disappoint.


Derek Leman has an M.T.S. in Hebrew Bible from Emory University, and is the Congregational Leader at Tikvat David Messianic Synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia. Derek is a blogger, author, and speaker.  


[1] I am not considering other views such as Post-Mortem Evangelism (also called Divine Perseverance) or the view that God reveals himself to each person at the moment of death.

[2] John Sanders, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995),  36.

[3] Ibid., pp. 30-35.

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] Ibid., p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 37.

[7] Ibid., p. 40.

[8] Ibid., p. 42.

[9] Ibid., pp. 46-51.

[10] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[11] Ibid., p. 50.

[12] Ibid., p. 50.

[13] Ibid., p. 29.

[14] What of a Jew faithful to God who died two hours after Yeshua’s resurrection and did not hear of it? Sanders says this person is obviously included in salvation and by analogy, specific knowledge of the resurrection could not be a requirement for salvation. Yet there are other possibilities. The faithful Jew in this example was already saved by  trust in God and did not become lost when the resurrection happened. Someone might object that this proves Sander’s point. Any faithful Jew today without specific knowledge of the resurrection should be equally saved. Yet there is another possibility, which is that anyone who is saved will acknowledge the resurrection. That is, God will bring to completion any acceptance of revelation by giving more revelation. It is not difficult to imagine this when one believes in a God of unlimited possibility.