Doctrine of Christ (part 25)April 29, 2012 Time: 00:21:35
Is Christ the Only Way of Salvation?
Today we want to come to the topic of “Is Christ the Only Way of Salvation?” which is, I think, the burning question under the Work of Christ. Is the work of Christ alone the way of salvation or are there other avenues to salvation apart of Christ?
Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This was the message that the earliest apostles of Christ believed and that they preached. That name of which they spoke was, of course, the name of Jesus Christ. They believed and preached that salvation was exclusively available through Jesus Christ alone.
Indeed, I think, the entire New Testament teaches that salvation is obtained exclusively through the work of Christ. Let’s look first at what Paul has to say about this subject. Ephesians 2:12 is an interesting verse because Paul is here writing to former Greek pagans who have converted to Christianity, and he invites them to recall what it was like in those pre-Christian days. He says in Ephesians 2:12: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What a poignant description of those apart from Christ – having no hope and without God in the world! For Paul, these pagan religions were not an alternative avenue of salvation. Those who were involved in them were hopeless and were without God.
In fact, it is the burden of Paul’s opening chapters of his letter to the Romans to show that this desolate condition is the general situation of mankind. In Romans 1:20 Paul says that God’s power and deity are universally known throughout creation. He says, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” All men everywhere at any time can know that there is a Creator God of the universe. Moreover in Romans 2:15, Paul says that God’s moral law is written on the hearts of all men. In 2:15 he says, “They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” Even those who are apart from the Mosaic Law and the Jewish covenant have an instinctive grasp of the moral requirements of the Law because God has written them on their hearts.
In Romans 2:7, Paul says that God offers eternal life to everyone who will seek for him in doing good. He says, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” This is a bona fide offer of salvation to anyone who will appropriately respond to God’s general revelation in nature and in conscience. Unfortunately, the testimony of Paul in Romans 1:21-32 is that, rather than worship the Creator and obey his moral law, people ignore the Creator and fashion false gods to worship. They flout his moral law and plunge themselves into degeneracy and immorality.1 Romans 1:21-32:
For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.
The conclusion then comes in Romans 3:9-12 – all men, therefore, find themselves condemned before God and under the power of sin. In Romans 3:9-12 Paul says,
For I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.’
Fortunately, God has provided a means of salvation out of this desolate state of condemnation in which people naturally find themselves. Paul says in Romans 3 that no one can redeem himself from this condemnation through righteous living. Romans 3:19-20:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
No one, through doing righteous works, can redeem himself from this state of condemnation.
But Christ is God’s sacrificial offering for sin and is, therefore, the only means by which forgiveness and salvation can be obtained. Romans 3:21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
So, for Paul, the atoning death of Christ is the only means by which salvation can be obtained.
This doctrine was not peculiar by any means to the apostle Paul. Look at the writings of the apostle John as well. First, in John’s Gospel, John 14:6, where Jesus is speaking: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” So John’s Jesus is one who is exclusively the way of salvation.2 John 3:18 points out that apart from Christ all men are already under God’s condemnation. Again, Jesus speaking, says, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So the one who does not believe in Christ is already condemned; he finds himself in a state of condemnation even prior to being confronted with the decision to believe in Christ. Similarly, in John’s epistles we have the same emphasis. Turn over to 1 John 5:12 – this is a bald statement, a stark statement – “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.” Finally, in the book of Revelation, John describes the heavenly vision of the Lamb of God in heaven. In Revelation 5:1-14 he says that only the Lamb can open the scroll that is presented before the throne. He says,
And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.’ Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, ‘To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.
Here you see so dramatically portrayed the uniqueness and worthiness of the Lamb of God, who was, of course, Jesus, who was slain for the sins of the world. In Revelation 20:15, everyone who is not found written in the Lamb’s book of life is cast into hell. 20:15 says, “If any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” So John, like Paul, thinks of Christ as the unique atoning sacrifice for sin and the only way of salvation available to men.
I think it is not improbable that this was the attitude of Jesus himself – that the historical Jesus actually believed this. Look at Luke 12:8-9. This is a saying which New Testament scholars generally recognize to be an authentic word of Jesus, and he says,
“I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”
Here Jesus says that he is the hinge upon which people’s destiny depends.3 Those who confess him will be saved, those who deny him will be lost. Finally, Matthew 7:13-14 seems to suggest, at least, that in Jesus’ thinking only a minority of mankind will be saved. This is from the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
This is a doctrine which is not peculiar to certain New Testament authors. This is a doctrine throughout the New Testament and characteristic, I think, of Jesus himself. Christ alone is the way of salvation. The logic of the New Testament, I think, is very clear. Think of it. Given the universality of sin and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death, it logically follows that the only way of salvation is through Christ alone. Given the universal condemnation of mankind and the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning death, it is only through Christ that salvation is available.
This exclusivistic doctrine was just as scandalous in the polytheistic world of the 1st century as it is in 21st century western society. Early Christians were persecuted because it was thought by the populace at large that they were atheists because they denied the reality of the pagan deities of Greece and Rome and denied that they were legitimate avenues of salvation. This exclusivism was so offensive to Greco-Roman pagans that Christians became ruthlessly, horribly, murderously tortured and persecuted for their faith because they would refuse the simple act of throwing some incense on a bowl of flame and offering a sacrifice to a pagan deity. They preferred to go to the rack, to have their flesh raked with blades, to be roasted alive on fires rather than to say that there were other avenues of salvation apart from Christ alone.
As the Christian religion, however, supplanted the Greco-Roman religions – after the conversion of Constantine and Christianity became the standard religion of the Roman Empire – this scandal also receded. Indeed, for medieval thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, one of the marks of the true church was its catholicity – that is to say, its universality. To them it seemed unthinkable that this great edifice of the Christian church filling all of civilization could have been predicated upon a falsehood. So the very universality of the Christian church and the Christian religion was taken to be one of the earmarks and indications of the truth of the Christian religion.
What we will see next time is how this doctrine met its demise during the so-called Expansion of Europe.
Question: There is not any need in me to get one of those bumper stickers that says “Coexist” with all those various religious symbols because either we are right and they are all wrong or we perhaps are wrong along with the rest of them but we can’t be both right.
Answer: This is a good point to end on today. To talk about Christianity being exclusively true does not mean that Christians are against religious pluralism in terms of a political system.4 We are champions of religious pluralism politically – that is to say, we have a Constitution that has a free exercise clause that guarantees that everyone has the right to practice his own religion, so long as he doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others. So we must not allow this position to be confused with intolerance. Tolerance is something that Christians champion because we believe that everyone has the right to exercise his conscience and believe as he wants to, so long as he doesn’t infringe upon the human rights of others. So don’t confuse Christian exclusivism with intolerance or think that this is against religious pluralism societally or politically. When I talk about religious pluralism, I am talking about a theological view, namely, that there are many ways to salvation. But pluralism, politically, means a tolerant society. And that we certainly do champion.5
5 Total Running Time: 21:35 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)