Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What it does and doesn't mean to say that Jesus is the only way

I take at face value Jesus's claim -- in John 14:6 and elsewhere -- to be the way not a way. Quoting Kevin DeYoung this means that I believe:

1) The saving work of Jesus is the only way to be saved.

2) Putting faith in Jesus is the only way to appropriate that saving work.

There in a nutshell is the position that's often called "exclusivism." It's been the majority opinion of the Christian church down through history, though Rob Bell and others are right to point out that there have been differences of opinion. Other Christians have held to positions that usually fall under the headings "universalism" (everyone will be saved in the end) and "inclusivism" (explicit knowledge of and faith in Christ isn't necessary to be saved). Frankly, there are good arguments for some form of inclusivism, and I wouldn't want to put limits on the extent of God's saving grace. However, I can't escape the compelling and overwhelming Scriptural evidence that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus. What God may do in extraordinary cases is beyond me. I like how Michael Horton puts it:

As in all theological questions, we must restrain our curiosity and refuse to speculate beyond God's own instruction. Apart from God's self-disclosure in Scripture, we do not know what God has ordained from all of eternity. Whatever God might choose to do in any given case, he has promised to save all of those—and only those—who call on the name of his Son. (The Christian Faith, p. 983)

Going back to the exclusivist position I think it's fair to say that it's been caricatured by its opponents. I haven't read the Rob Bell book that's caused so much controversy, but I've read enough excerpts and heard enough interviews to conclude that Pastor Bell is spending a lot of time attacking straw men (and exorcising the ghosts of his cramped fundamentalist upbringing). For that reason I found this post by the aforementioned Kevin DeYoung very refreshing because it clarifies what exclusivism isn't. You can read the whole thing, but here are his four main points.

In saying that Jesus is the only way. . .

1. I am not saying there is nothing decent or honorable in other religions or in people from other religions.

2. I am not saying that Christianity is nothing more than saying the right prayer.

3. I am not saying that children who die at a young age, or those mentally incapable of expressing faith, cannot be saved.

4. I am not saying that unbelievers are punished because they did not put faith in a Jesus they never heard of.

We can debate the fate of the millions who haven't heard the gospel, but I'm certain that those of us who have heard are without excuse.

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2)


jessica said...

hi stephen! thanks for blogging about this. i am always intrigued by folks who argue that christianity is too "exclusive" for them, because every belief system claims to be absolute in some way or another. i think it's important to tie together "i am the way, the truth, and the life" with "for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." yes, it's an exclusive message, but it's lovingly offered to everyone! and that's good news! :)

Stephen Ley said...

Well stated, Jessica! All religions make truth claims about God, man and the nature of reality -- which means they can't all be right. And yes, we DO have to tie together those two threads of Jesus' gospel. He is both the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14) and the one who draws all men and women to Himself (John 12:32). Thanks for reading.