Is Jesus the Only Way?
By Dr. Mickey Anders
Pastor David Benke has been disciplined by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod because he participated in an interfaith “Prayer for America” service held at Yankee Stadium in September 2001. Because the event included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, Pastor Benke was accused of encouraging syncretism. (The Christian Century, September 25-October 8, 2002)
His denomination would ask, “How can you participate in a worship service with people who are absolutely wrong about their faith? None of those people are going to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus. God doesn’t even hear their prayers. Instead of praying with them, you should be telling them they are bound for hell fires.”
This is just one of the many incidences where modern Christians run into problems with the exclusive aspects of our faith. Our text for today is one of those passages that stress the exclusive nature of the Gospel. The last line says, “There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!”
In a similar way, Jesus proclaimed in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”
So my question for you today is simply this, “Is Jesus the only way?”
For some people this is an easy question. The answer is an unhesitating “Yes.” They would respond based on their understanding of the Scripture and their theology that Jesus is the only way.
I recently heard of a preacher who noted that another Christian minister had introduced a Muslim cleric as a fellow man of God. The preacher protested that such a claim was clearly false. The Muslim cleric was certainly not a man of God because he didn’t know Jesus as Savior.
I have heard others argue that Muslim’s worship a different god from ours. For those with such theology, anyone of no religion or of any other religion is simply going to hell.
On the other hand, we find people who will clearly say the answer to our question is “No, Jesus is not the only way. He may be my way, but he is not the only way.” Some of these are simply reacting against the bluntness of the exclusive claims. They would prefer to provide some wiggle room.
Which camp do you find yourself in? Or do you have a different position altogether? I want you to think about this difficult question with me for awhile this morning. Is Jesus the only way?
First, we have to deal with the Scriptures. In the final analysis, this question is really one of how we handle the Bible. We claim that the Bible is the source of all that we believe about God.
The simple fact is there are many exclusive verses in Scripture. In order to get around the exclusivism of our Gospel, we will have to dismiss a lot of our Scriptures. I have already read a couple of the classic statements. But there is also that theme that runs from the Old Testament into the New Testament that a sacrifice must be made for our sins, and, especially in Hebrews, Jesus is presented as the one, true and final sacrificial lamb who died for the sins of all humankind.
Some will dismiss the passages from John and Acts as statements of the early church and will say they are not really statements from Jesus. They are comfortable saying that the early Christians put those exclusive words in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus really didn’t say those things himself.
Personally, I can’t take this approach. I have a higher view of Scripture than that. I will not casually dismiss what the Bible clearly says. Jesus is central to our faith, and we cannot easily dismiss him. I believe we can never get around the centrality of Jesus.
The over-arching theme of the Old Testament is that there is one God; the primary theme of the New Testament is that there is one Messiah, and he is Jesus. I personally think this whole idea, exclusive though it is, is at the heart of our faith. I believe that ours IS an exclusive faith. I believe we are right about God, and other faiths just don’t measure up.
So make no mistake about it, my answer to the question “Is Jesus the only way?” is “Yes.” However, I must say it is a “Yes, but…”
F. Dale Bruner is professor of religion emeritus at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington. In a recent lecture he said, “Religious pluralism is the reigning orthodoxy on most [college] campuses, and you will be felt to be an arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded, chauvinist if you say Jesus Christ is the only way.” But I don’t think we have to be arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded, and chauvinistic, as many are, just because we believe in Jesus.
And I have to admit that there are Scriptures that challenge me to have a little humility about this issue. Matthew 25:31-32, 34, 41 is one such passage. It begins by saying, “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats… Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world … Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels”
Then in verse 42, Jesus explains why these are thrown into eternal fire:
“For I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.” Jesus concludes with his famous words, “Inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.”
I think this is the clearest statement Jesus ever made about who would go to heaven and who would go to hell. And regretfully, he didn’t mention faith in himself as the test of entry to heaven. According to this passage, Jesus would never have passed the exam for most modern evangelism classes where the deciding factor for heaven or hell is not doing unto others but a professed faith in Jesus Christ. According to Jesus’ criteria, anyone who acts lovingly toward the least of these gets a ticket into eternal bliss.
Another passage that causes me hesitation is Acts 10:34-35. Here is Peter, the same one who said in our text for today, “There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!” but now only a few chapters later he says:
“Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism; but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” It should be noted that Peter then goes on to give an effective witness to the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
And yet another passage that should give us concern is Matthew 7:21 where Jesus points out that not all those who call him Lord will go to heaven.
Matthew 7:20-23 says:
“Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.'”
While I think those Scriptures should give us pause, I still believe we can never get around the centrality of Jesus. There is one Messiah, and he is Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a well-known Episcopal preacher, says that it helps her to realize that texts such as the one we study today are confessional language. She says Jesus was not addressing an interfaith tribunal when he said “No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). He was addressing his loving disciples. His language is like our saying to our mother, “You are the best mother who has ever lived.” Such a statement is love language, and is not intended to judge other mothers. She suggests that Jesus is saying, “No one can lead you to God better than I can.” And that his statement was not intended as proof of our superiority over all other religions.
Perhaps such a view will be helpful to you. But still I can’t get around Jesus! And I find myself even more uncomfortable with positions taken on the other side of the issue.
If we don’t cling to the exclusiveness of Jesus, I fear we wind up saying, “Well, there is really nothing special about Jesus? Any old way to God will do.” If so, why did Jesus die on the cross for our sins?
Or do we say, “There are many ways of salvation. Jesus is my way, my truth and my life, but not necessarily yours. He is A way – one of many. He is A truth, he is A life – one of many. Christianity is true for Christians, but it is not true for everyone.”
I believe such relativism cuts the heart out of the Gospel. It waters down our faith in Christ to the place that Jesus is unimportant. But Jesus can never be that unimportant to me!
And Ghandi once said, “All religions are true.” Many today agree with him. They would insist that you can’t really judge between the religions. They all are trying to get to God, and one way is as good as another.
I don’t think we have to be trapped into this position either. I don’t think one way is as good as another. To borrow a metaphor from 1 Corinthians 13, other religions are seeing through a glass darkly. They may have some truth. There may well be things that we can learn from other religions. We should certainly have a respect for them and for the people who follow them. But ultimately, I think their window to God is a clouded and out of focus lens.
I believe the Bible shows us the truth about God’s self-communication to humankind and shows that God’s greatest self-revelation came in the person of Jesus Christ who is God’s only son! Only in Jesus Christ to we see God clearly.
I would point to other texts like Colossians 1:15:
He “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
Or Hebrews 1:3:
“His Son is the radiance of (God’s) glory, the very image of his substance.”
“Jesus said to him…, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.'”
So what about our Muslim friend? I don’t think we have to give up our convictions to have healthy, graceful, positive communications with those of other faiths. We are clearly called to witness to our non-Christian friends. We should always tell them how important Jesus is.
1 Peter 3:15 says:
“Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear.”
I believe that means that we can hold to our convictions without being rude. We are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Presbyterians adopted a statement on this issue, and it is one that I like. They begin this way:
“Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8). No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.”
But then the Presbyterians added this wonderful concession:
“Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4). Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
I agree that God is quite competent. I believe that it is possible for God right now to break the heart of a man on a Tibetan hill, have that man cry out, “Dear God, have mercy on me a sinner,” and for God to apply the blood of Christ to that Tibetan gentleman.
God can do whatever God wants to do. I am not the judge, God is. Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “We believe Jesus is the only way, and that his way teaches us to live in peace with other ways…. Ask me about God’s opinion of other ways, and I will refer you to God.”
In the end, I have to conclude that we are not the judge and the jury; we are simply witnesses—witnesses to the saving power of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.