Chapter 21 TIESSEN’S ‘ACCESSIBILISM’ p207p
“We do know that no man can be saved except throughChrist; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (C. S. Lewis, Book II, 5, p.65).
Who Can be Saved? by Prof. Terrance L. Tiessen (InterVarsity Press, March 2004) is “A book that will become a reference point for all further work in the field” (John G. Stackhouse Jr., Regent College).
In his book, Prof. Terrance L. Tiessen heads in the direction suggested by the great mind and heart of C. S. Lewis. It is eminently worthwhile to carefully consider what Tiessen finds on his theological journey. Because John G. Stackhouse Jr. may well be correct in his assessment of Tiessen’s book, in this chapter we will consider how Evangelical Inclusivism compares to Tiessen’s work.
Tiessen traces the history of Inclusivism back to the second century. He provides convincing biblical evidence for the following truths among others that are also held by Evangelical Inclusivism: p208p
● all persons, except Jesus Christ, are sinners;
● no one can be saved except through Christ;
● there is an urgent need for missionary endeavor;
● no one is condemned apart from personal, willful, and final indifference to or rejection of whatever revelation God has given of himself to that particular individual;
● salvation is possible without a New Testament knowledge of Jesus Christ;
● at the moment of physical death each person’s eternal destiny is already determined.
Tiessen also furnishes an amazingly detailed biblical basis for dialogue with other religions while fully maintaining the exclusivism of Christianity. Serious students of the plan of salvation owe it to themselves to examine this well-written, scholarly, five hundred-page work.
Tiessen comes very close to what I have been attempting to say for many years when he says, “God will hold all people accountable for their response to the revelation that was made available to them, and only for that revelation” (p. 478). By examining the teaching of the early church fathers in the light of the Scriptures we both reach the conclusions mentioned earlier. On one section of this trail we take divergent paths. He calls the path he takes “Accessibilism.” I call the route I take “Evangelical Inclusivism.”
The unique characteristic of “Accessibilism” is that “God’s saving grace is universally sufficient so that, on at least one occasion in each person’s life, one is enabled to respond to God’s self-revelation with a faith response that is acceptable to God as a means of justification” (Who Can Be Saved?, p. 25). This “faith response” is the work of the Holy Spirit given only to the elect. p209p
The essence of “Evangelical Inclusivism” is that we must accept the so-called “universalistic” texts as written (Posting 1, above).. We may allow only those exceptions that are necessarily imposed upon these passages from the broader context of the Scriptures as a whole.
In this chapter we will look only at the divergent section of the paths taken. There is a basic difference in our understanding of how God’s grace becomes effective in the life of sinners. I will point to the most important impediments I see on the pathway of “Accessibilism.” Undoubtedly, Tiessen sees stumbling blocks on the route taken by “Evangelical Inclusivism.”
ACCESSIBILISM’S ESSENTIAL REQUIREMENT
Faith has an essential role to play in the existential experience or application of salvation according to Accessibilism. It is so indispensable that there is no application of salvation apart from a deliberate, positive, personal response of faith exercised by the person who is brought to salvation.
Accessibilism draws this conclusion: Saving grace must be universally sufficient so that every person, on at least one occasion during their lifetime on earth, is enabled to respond affirmatively to the self-revelation God has given to that particular person. This “enablement” makes those who do not believe personally and individually responsible for not believing.
This function of faith in the application of salvation is so essential, according to Accessibilism, that God must and in fact does reveal himself to every person (including infants who die in infancy, the mentally challenged, and those living in areas of the world where the gospel has never gone) in a way that is compatible with the varied circumstances found in the totality of that person’s life experience. God uniquely determines the amount and kind of self-revelation given to each person, to which they must respond positively in order to be saved. The effective power of the Holy Spirit that gives some sinners a willingness to respond in a way that is pleasing to God is given only to the elect. p210p
By reason of physical and other constraints we cannot meaningfully communicate with infants in the womb, other very young infants, some mentally challenged people, and people living in areas of the world where the gospel has never gone. From this fact we may not conclude that God is also so limited. To illustrate this point, Tiessen appeals to the way the babe in Elizabeth’s womb responded to the greeting of Mary (Luke 1:41). Tiessen, a former missionary, speaks of the experience of missionaries. They report that many respond to the good news by saying that this is the kind of hope and God (or religion) they have been in search of for many years.
Tiessen notes that the church has always taught that salvation comes by grace “through faith.” “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Tiessen correctly stresses that in proclaiming the gospel the urgency and necessity of faith cannot be overemphasized.
One benefit that flows from Accessibilism, according to Tiessen, is that this universally sufficient enabling grace reveals God’s justice in imposing judgment upon those who reject or remain indifferent to this enabling grace (Who Can Be Saved?, p. 478). By contrast, according to Tiessen, traditional Calvinism carries the burden of teaching that the non-elect are never given a grace that enables them to believe. This inability to believe makes God’s distress about unbelief
incomprehensible; it places a weight upon original guilt in Adam that the biblical account of final judgment does not warrant; and it appears to make God morally responsible for the sinner’s sin because it requires something the sinner is not able to do. p211p
ACCESSIBILISM ACKNOWLEDGES GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY
Arminianism teaches that all persons are provided with a potential salvation that can be existentially realized by all who choose to believe. Accessibilism acknowledges that this universal, sufficient, enabling grace is sovereignly made effective only by the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of God’s elect. Therefore for the redeemed all boasting is excluded.
IMPEDIMENTS TO TIESSEN’S BASIC CLAIM
I see the following impediments to Tiessen’s claim that God “gives each of us, at least once in our lives, a gracious enablement to respond in faith, such that we are justly held accountable if we fail to do so” (Who Can Be Saved?, p. 478).
1. Acessibilism places a greater responsibility on those who fail to respond affirmatively to God’s self-revelation because they have been given an “enablement to respond in faith.” This accounts for God’s great displeasure and grief over those who fail to believe.
Sinners “are justly held accountable” whether or not God provides “a gracious enablement to respond in faith.” Tiessen acknowledges that whatever the circumstances no one has a right to disregard or reject God’s self-revelation for his or her life no matter how God’s will was made known to them. Tiessen’s claim is that God is so sorely grieved by those who fail to believe because they were enabled “to respond in faith.”
However, he neither provides biblical witness that this “enablement” is given to all persons nor that this “enablement” accounts for God being sorely grieved at the failure of some to believe.
He gets these concepts from his belief about "what must be."
2. Tiessen goes on to say that those who do respond to God in faith [only the elect] do so because of an effectual calling by God—a work that goes beyond enablement—and it alone secures a favorable response from sinners. Therefore the elect have no reason to boast. p212p
According to Accessibilism, God provides “salvific revelation to all human beings” and “also gives each of us, at least once in our lives, a gracious enablement to respond in faith, such that we are justly held accountable if we fail to do so” (p. 478). This “at least” one time “gracious enablement to respond in faith” is something other than the “effectual calling by God” that only the elect receive.
The difficulty with the distinction that Tiessen makes between these two gifts is that if these two gifts are identical in effectiveness then all persons will be saved. If, however, they are not identical in effectiveness, then Accessibilism has the identical burden that traditional Calvinism has. That is, the non-elect do not receive the sovereign gift of “an effectual calling by God” without which they can not believe and be saved.
3. Nineveh had “more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who [could not] tell their right hand from their left” (Jonah. 4:11). This undoubtedly means that they did not have the elementary capability of knowing the simplest things in order to make a judgment (right or left hand) based upon their intellectual capacity. According to Accessibilism, there is no existential application of salvation apart from a deliberate, positive, personal response of faith exercised even by infants who are brought to salvation.
It seems most unlikely that the Scriptures intend to teach that the millions of individuals who die while still in their immature ignorance [infants] and all mentally challenged persons are miraculously enabled to meaningfully decide whether or not to make the required favorable response. It is precarious to structure such a plan of salvation without more explicit evidence from the Scriptures than what Tiessen presents. p213p
4. Tiessen, as a Reformed theologian, recognizes that faith is the fruit of salvation. It is not a prerequisite or condition essential for salvation. Martin Luther observed that we have no more to do with our rebirth than we had to do with our physical birth.
Lutheran theologians have noted that by the time a person is inwardly or subjectively changed to such a degree as to be able and willing to believe he or she is no longer the natural person who regards the Gospel as foolishness, but a new creation, completely transformed within, who has learned to regard the Gospel as wisdom of God. If everyone is enabled at least at one time during their lifetime to “accept grace” (that is, to believe) they are completely transformed within, they are new creations in Christ.
Sinners are not in a neutral position from which they can choose good or evil. No one conceived and born in sin has the capacity within himself or herself to choose the good. They are “dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:5). Where in the Scriptures do we find the teaching that before God’s saving grace can be effective in the life of a sinner, that sinner must be brought to a state of moral equilibrium in which he or she is “enabled to respond to God’s self-revelation with a faith response that is acceptable to God as a means of justification”? (Who Can Be Saved?, p. 25).
In Posting 5 (above), we established that there is no positive role that repentance, faith, or obedience can play in order to establish the sinner in the state of grace. It is true, however, that if a sinner refuses to repent, believe, and walk in newness of life, as God has made these requirements known to them, they bring upon themselves the final judgment of God. If what we argued in Chapter 5 is valid, then it cannot be said that a deliberate, positive, personal decision is essential for the salvation of infants who die in infancy, for all those who are mentally challenged, for those who live their entire life beyond the reach of the gospel as well as for all who have the gospel proclaimed to them. p214p
ACCESSIBILISM IS BASED ON PREMISE "A"
The problem that Accessibilism attempts to solve is rooted in the fact that ever since the time of Pelagius, mainstream theologians have understood the gospel’s message to be that “All persons will be finally lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved,” that is, Premise A (see Introduction, above). With this perspective we expect the Scriptures to tell us how sinners are “enabled” to be saved.
The Bible is totally silent on the question of how sinners become new creations in Christ other than to tell us that “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). The Bible does not tell us how those who are “dead” in sin come to new life in Christ other than to say that this new life is a miracle of grace given to all of God’s elect. To fill in this silence of the Scriptures, innumerable theories have been advocated to explain
how those who are totally corrupted by sin can come to an actual, existential experience of salvation.
These proposals include: Pelagianism; Semi-Pelagianism; salvation only within the established church; traces of original goodness that remain in every sinner; a seed of faith implanted in every sinner’s heart; an enabling grace that attends the Word preached; Religious Instrumentalism; God’s foreseeing those who would of their own accord believe; Relativism; and Hypothetical Universalism etc.
Evangelical Christians have not been able to agree on which of these schemes, or combination of them, is the correct biblical picture because all these proposals arise out of the silence of the Scriptures. Tiessen adds “Accessibilism” to this long and still growing list. p215p
EVANGELICAL INCLUSIVISM IS BASED ON
On the basis of the so-called “universalistic” texts, Evangelical Inclusivism recognizes that the message of Scripture is that “All person will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost.” With this perspective we do not expect the Scriptures to tell us how sinners are “enabled” to believe and to be saved. It respects the silence of the Bible on this question.
It is indisputable that the so-called “universalistic” texts speak of a “certain-to-be-realized” salvation, as Calvinism correctly maintains, and they do so in terms of “all persons” as Arminianism rightly affirms (Posting 1, above) It is only the Bible itself that has the authority to make exceptions to the affirmations that are made in the so-called “universalistic” texts that all persons will be saved (Posting 3, above).
Evangelical Inclusivism holds that all persons are sovereignly and graciously encompassed in God’s election and are given the gift of faith except those who willfully, persistently, and finally remain indifferent to or reject God’s will for them, no matter how this was made known to them. How anyone can or would want to remain indifferent to or reject God’s will for them remains lost in the irrationality of sin. The Bible does not explain how this can happen; it only records that God is deeply grieved when it does happen. Evangelical Inclusivism acknowledges the paradox of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility as taught in the Scriptures.
Evangelical Inclusivism recognizes that all attempts to explain the discriminations between the elect and the non-elect are bound to fail. These discriminations do not make sense to us. They are not “logical.” Those who will be finally saved would have followed the same path as those who are finally lost, if it were not for the sovereign, electing grace of God that gives them the gifts of repentance, faith, and a willingness to walk in God’s ways. p216p
How can that be? The answer to this question is not given to us in God’s Word and we cannot put God on trial. Believers must gratefully recognize that they have no obligation whatsoever to resolve this perceived problem. One merely traces the lines laid out in God’s inspired Word and humbly accepts them.
In this chapter, we focused on the one major element of Accessibilism that differs from Evangelical Inclusivism. This should not create the impression that the two views are in total opposition to each other. Those who have serious questions about Evangelical Inclusivism will have many of those questions answered by reading Tiessen’s book. Those who are inclined to accept Evangelical Inclusivism will be pleased that Tiessen provides a great deal of biblical evidence that is supportive of both Accessibilism and Evangelical Inclusivism.
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