This started out as a reply to a comment posted on an earlier post of mine, and morphed into this as I was encouraged to think a little more about the concepts of salvation, the gospel message, and about God. My decision to put this up as a blog post rather than a comment relates to how important I feel this conversation is to me, and I believe many other people as well.
I am very much aware that the topic of this post can heighten emotions, positively or negatively. Whatever your convictions may be, I pray that the differences between mine and yours will be treated in the bond of love as we work towards "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God".
I also pray that you will not be too quick to presuppose my entire spectrum of principles and beliefs based on a single statement about my aversion to "exclusivism". My discomfort with exclusivity has nothing to do with the exclusivity of Christ's work in the salvation of man. A careful reading of my post will clarify my position on the uniqueness of Christ as "the way, the truth and the life".
My problem with exclusivity lies in the conventional understanding of salvation, hell, and the gospel, and how this understanding can sometimes be used to create exclusive clubs where some are simply "predestined" or "elected" to be lifetime members and some on the other hand will simply never be able to make it through the pearly gates.
While proponents of this position often cite God's absolute sovereignty over creation as the basis of their arguments, I believe not enough justice is being done to passages such Luke 15, which gives us such a vivid image of God, first seeking out the sinner with seemingly reckless abandon as he leaves 99 sheep to go after the single lost one, to eventually welcoming the sinner back home with great rejoicing.
How then does "turn or burn" or other hellfire rhetoric fit in this image of God? Have we reduced God to a deity that rejoices in exacting "deserving" punishment on sinners?
Of course not! God doesn't derive any joy from meting out judgment on sinners. However, God's holiness is as inherent a part of him as his love, and a holy God cannot tolerate sin. God after does tell us to be holy, just as he is holy.
But doesn't this holiness thing seem cold and harsh then? After all, doesn't God love us?
Of course he loves us! And more than that! John 3:16 tells us that he loves the world! And this great love for us was demonstrated when God himself, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, assumed the punishment due unto us by dying on the cross, therefore meeting the requirements of God's justice and holiness and thus reconciling man and God.
The completeness of Christ's redemptive work in the salvation of man is undisputed. Nevertheless, questions still abound.
To say that God is sovereign and is in absolute control over all creation, in light of the conventional understanding of salvation, is to ask then whether God actually planned "heaven" and "hell" from the very beginning. Did he predestine before the creation of the world, some to be eternally blessed in "heaven", and some to be eternally tormented by the "fires of hell"? How consistent then is this God with the God of Luke 15?
The alternative to this is to assume that God created the world to be perfect from the very beginning. Man was created to have an interactive relationship with God but man simply messed up. Sin enters the story and hell pops up along the away. God is then faced with the problem of fixing the situation. But this scenario calls into question God's sovereignty and his omniscience. How could God not have anticipated this from the very beginning?
There is a third alternative, which sees God as having a single purpose for man from the very beginning; that singular purpose being ultimate reconciliation with God. In Genesis, Abram was chosen to be blessed by God. But God does not stop there. God also uses him as an agent to bless the rest of the world. Effectively, God chooses to bless Abram so that he can in turn be a blessing to the nations.
Jesus also builds on this when he tells his disciples to be salt and light to the world; flavouring communities with the taste of God's Kingdom and bringing light where there is spiritual darkness. Jesus too calls us to be agents of God's Kingdom in this world.
Could it be possible then, that we have misunderstood what it means to be predestined or elected by God? Is it not too impossible to see that we may have mistaken this calling to be one of privilege or blessing, when in actual fact, it is a commission (Matt 28:19-20) for us go into the world to be a blessing to others?
And while I have not mentioned "repentance" so far, I hope that one can see repentance as a necessary part for people to become beacons of God's light, to be able to flavour or influence their surroundings positively, and to be channels of God's blessings. None of that can be accomplished without a genuine turn of our hearts to seek after God's Kingdom and his righteousness.