A television talk show host was interviewing two well-known Christian leaders. Are you saying that if someone doesn’t believe in Jesus they are going to hell?” he asked, his expression clearly indicating that surely no one would be that ridiculous.
“I believe what Jesus said,” replied the first Christian leader. “He said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.'” The host pushed further. “So then according to you, Jews, Buddhists, anyone from a different religion is condemned. Is that what you are saying?” “What I am saying,” replied the Christian leader, “is exactly what Christianity has taught for 2000 years.” Turning to the other panelist for support he continued, “You are a minister of the gospel. Wouldn’t you agree with me that Jesus is the only way to salvation?”
The second Christian leader shifted uncomfortably in his chair, cleared his throat and said, “I believe that God is reaching out to all people and searching for them regardless of their background.” “Yes,” the first leader pressed, “I agree, but won’t you agree with me that Jesus said He is the only way for salvation?” Try as he might, that first Christian leader was never able to pin the second man down on the issue.
Unfortunately, the television show concluded on that note of uncertainty. Any unbeliever watching the show would surmise that Christians cannot agree on whether people need to trust Jesus for salvation. What a sad indication of a current condition in the body of Christ. I believe the condition is not so much doctrinal as it is cultural. We live in a society that venerates tolerance as one of the highest ideals—and scorns truth as little more than an opinion with delusions of grandeur. Unless the church insists on a counterculture mentality, we will fall prey to the influence of the culture around us. And members of that culture are duty-bound to make sacrifices on the altar of tolerance. So we find ourselves sacrificing our willingness to be unequivocal about certain matters of urgent truth.
I don’t think that second clergyman on the TV talk show actually believed wrong doctrine; I think he was afraid to be seen in the “wrong” light. He didn’t want to be put in a box, to be labeled as a narrow-minded, intolerant, fundamentalist. And how many of us do? We reason that there must be a better way of sharing the gospel, a way that allows people to hear us without dismissing us out of hand. How will they accept the truth if they reject the messengers? And so the need for acceptance subtly shifts from our message to ourselves.
I can identify with this problem. I have spent some time of late in debates on secular radio talk shows. Invariably the issue of whether Jesus is the only way for salvation arises, and when it does, it dominates the discussion. I have been asked, “Are you telling me that all the Jews who died in the Holocaust who didn’t believe in Jesus are going to hell?” When you hear a question like that, it is easy to see why even the strongest Christian might want to fudge on the answer. Perhaps you are aware of different ways of responding to challenges like that:
- God isn’t in the business of sending people to hell. We can get there just fine on our own. God is interested in saving people from hell and that is why He sent Jesus, to rescue us from our own bad choices.
- Look, I am just one beggar telling another beggar where he has found bread.
- If you are absolutely confident God will forgive you of your sins apart from Jesus, why worry about those of us who believe He is the only way?
- Or my favorite: “The real question here is whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. If He is true, then we had better listen to what He says and believe in Him. If He isn’t the Messiah, then no one should believe in Him.”
Yet these and many other answers shift the question around to allow us to avoid stating the matter with the same blunt intensity Jesus Himself used.
He said, “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). He said, “Except you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). He said, “Unless you believe I am you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Jesus never tried to persuade people to like Him; He wanted people to follow Him. He required a radical change from all who wanted to follow Him, and He wasn’t afraid to say hard things to people. He wanted their devotion—not their admiration. And when people left Him because it was uncomfortable to stay, He turned to his most faithful followers and asked, “Will you leave me also?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67,68).
When you get right down to it, the simple answer to the question: “Is Jesus the only way to salvation?” is “Yes.” Jesus is the only way to be saved. Those who refuse to believe and receive Him will be judged and condemned.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that our strategy should be telling people to “turn or burn.” The gospel is good news, and it should address the deepest needs of the human heart. We do need to make every effort to present the gospel so that it can be heard and understood by those we are trying to reach.
Many Christians have difficulty stating this because their ears have been sensitized by the world to hear it as harsh and uncaring. Sometimes the truth deals with matters of harsh consequences, but it is never uncaring to make people aware of those consequences—how else are they to avoid them? Those who refuse to accept the truth of those consequences will reject us and label us to keep us at a distance. Therefore, some reason, how can we witness to those who keep us at a distance? Shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to stay close to those we want to win?
We should not seek rejection, and we should do what we can to make sure that if we are rejected, it is for the right reasons and not because we are personally obnoxious. But we make a big mistake if we confuse our witness as being an exercise in gaining the favor of a hearing instead of declaring the truth. It is wrong to presume that people need to like and accept us in order to believe what we say. And that is the trap.
When we see personal acceptance as a prerequisite for evangelism we are already on the slippery slope to a watered-down gospel. When we feel uneasy about answering hard questions we need to ask ourselves a different hard question, “Whom are we protecting, the person asking the question or ourselves?” If we are truly concerned about the other person, we have to keep the big picture in mind. In every encounter we are dealing with an immortal soul who will either spend eternity rejoicing in God’s presence, or else suffer utter and unending separation from all that is good.
Sometimes the best way to answer a direct question is with a very direct answer. The harsh reality of judgment is often a tool in the hand of the Holy Spirit. Moishe Rosen tells the story of a Jewish actress in Hollywood he met during his ministry in Southern California. This actress had a housekeeper who had known her for many years. One day the housekeeper got saved and went to witness to her employer. She couldn’t read and no one had offered to teach her how to witness politely. She had obtained a gospel tract, however, which she shoved into her employer’s hand, saying, “You are a sinner and an adulteress and you are going to hell unless you repent and believe in Jesus.” No one would advocate that approach, but the Holy Spirit used it—and that actress came to Christ.
The Bible says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). F.F. Bruce, in commenting on this verse wrote, “If Christians practice grace of speech, it will not desert them when they find themselves suddenly confronted by the necessity of defending their belief. Nor will their speech be acceptable if it is insipid.”* We must find the proper balance of grace and salt. We must speak the truth (that’s salt) in love (that’s grace). May God grant us the courage to speak the truth, and the grace to do so in love.
* The New International Commentary on the New Testament Epistles to Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, page 175